Pursuing objectivity as a journalist

İBRAHIM ALTAY
Published
Illustration by Necmettin Asma
Illustration by Necmettin Asma

With the recent TRT World forum drawing attention to the international media and its ethics, we are once again reminded of the debate on objectivity and sensitivity when it comes to the conduct of journalists

"Inspiring change in an age of uncertainty." This was the headline of the TRT World Forum held in Istanbul earlier this month. The forum, held on Oct. 18-19, brought numerous politicians, academicians, businessmen, media administrators, leaders of their fields and journalists from all around the world to make this foray to discuss the current situation and the possible future of the world, the region and of course, the media.

Let us begin with the event's main scope as explained by the organization itself, "The continuous challenges facing the global order today raise many pertinent questions about the future of the world and the scope of change. In recent years, the world has witnessed ruptures in the arena of global politics and economic globalization; as well as unprecedented humanitarian crises, all of which have shaken the foundations of the established global order. The TRT World Forum brings together leading experts, senior decision-makers and influencers to dissect, analyze and understand these pressing issues to inspire change for a brighter and better future."

The two-day forum included several sessions covering a variety of topics such as, "Redefining the Global Agenda: Old Guard versus New Players," "Transforming Humanitarian Aid: A Refined Approach" and "Big Business, Big Solutions: Encouraging Corporate Social Responsibility."

There were also sessions on conventional and social forms of media focusing on things like, "Re-Thinking Media-Responsible Reporting on Humanitarian Crises," "Capitalizing on Fear: the Politicization of Xenophobia and Islamophobia" and "Digital Influencers and their Role in Shaping Public Discourse."

I have to say, as a participant, the sessions that focused on journalism and ethics captured my attention the most. Journalism in crisis regions and another session about taking a fresh look at media took hold of me. Another significant subject that was quite interesting was the concept of objectivity; along with debates on the term, "responsible journalism" and what it entails in today's modern age.

Staying neutral

During a session that focused on the concept of objectivity, TRT World Program Director R. Serdar Ataş emphasized a very significant problem, saying, "Sometimes the media evades the facts by hiding behind the principle of objectivity. A journalist cannot hold a victim and a murderer to the same standard; or in the same regard. Rather than being neutral, we have to be just."

To be honest, critics have been saying that objectivity or the media's attempt to be neutral causes the media to veer away from righteousness. It is a debate that has been going on for a long time now, with one side arguing for journalists to become like machines devoid of all feelings while they work, while the other side holds firm to the argument that journalists are human beings first and journalists second.

While this somewhat explains the abridged viewpoints of both sides, there are several "middle ground" perspectives defended by many others. Throughout the debate, we see arguments stemming from cold hard facts to hypothetical questions, such as, "If you come upon the scene of an accident, should you grab your camera first or should you run to help the wounded?"

Some of our colleagues approach the term of "search for fairness" with suspicion; and I am among them because sometimes we witness that this search, this quest, transforms into a passion and occasionally into an obsession in time. There are numerous negative examples where the lines between journalism and activism get blurred or entirely erased. We mentioned a couple of these instances in the past in our Reader's Corner articles, as well.

Let me nip a possible misunderstanding in the bud. I am not against activism; in fact, I respect it tremendously. However, what bothers me greatly is the blurring, disappearing line between journalism and activism. When some of our colleagues turn into something other than a journalist, they slowly start to drown in sentiment and devote themselves to a "cause." Ironically, it is precisely at that moment when their ties to rightness weaken or break away completely.

On the other hand, we usually refer to terms such as "public good" or "responsible journalism;" we recommend these principles, even. So, you might ask, doesn't that contradict the previous paragraphs?

I do not think it is a contradiction. After all, it is universally accepted that a journalist must consider the possible results of writing a news article in some exceptional situations. What are those exceptions though?

For example, news articles covering violence against women, including instances when they are also victims of a homicide. Covering terrorism is another exception. Abuse and harassment can also be considered amongst those as well. And of course, covering suicide incidents is another situation where we must choose our steps carefully.

Responsible journalism

The media can take a protective stance when it comes to disadvantaged people, minorities or the disabled. When it comes to covering stories of violence against women, homicide or harassment and abuse, a journalist must always side with the victims. They must not play a part in normalizing the malice or encourage and popularizing evil, whether willingly or unwillingly. They must use preventive language.

A journalist must always side with peace and never with war. They must defend the rights of innocent victims to live in a democracy and not terrorist organizations, perpetrators or their attacks. And finally, a journalist must be on the side of the weak and the just, not at the side of the powerful and wrong.

Therein lays the problem, unfortunately. These are largely accepted principles but their rightness is not the main focus of the article. It is their method of application wherein the arguments arise. We must not confuse purposes with tools but instead stay within the confines of journalism.

As Ataş said, with examples from international media during the forum, being watched does not always mean that you are believed. Rightness matters. Truth matters. Facts matter and as a method, objectivity is quite significant but, and I emphasize, as a method.

As a journalist, you cannot turn a blind eye to the problems and misery that is going on around the world. You cannot treat groups of people; namely immigrants, as numbers, or their fates as a statistic. You cannot treat murderers, rapists and bullies the same as their victims in the pursuit of neutrality. Journalism is not a vocation of impassivity. It calls for responsibility and sensitivity. It requires you to be human and humane. Only then can journalism fulfill its function as long as we do not compromise on the main principles of the profession, of course.

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