By Péter Bajomi-Lázár, BBS Budapest.
What is the best business strategy for newspapers? Should they seek neutral reporting, or should they subscribe to a cause, a principle, even a political party? Should they be objective, or should they be engaged?
In the Anglo-Saxon countries, where the so-called objectivity doctrine first emerged before it was ‘exported’ to the European continent, many newspapers attempted to report as neutrally as possible in an effort to reach many readers. “Topics and programs should appeal to the largest possible number,” writes Svennik Høyer (1998) when studying the emergence of the mass newspaper in the United States, “even if that meant that no one got what they really wanted. These methods combined diminished color, style and subjectivity…” Further, he observes that “[to] harvest the full potentialities of an expanding market, editors had to aggregate the attention of readers across social and political barriers and make a product that appealed to many without offending anyone.” In other words, most outlets did not try to please as many people as possible, but to displease as few as possible. This is, most of the time, a lucrative business strategy.
However, Høyer adds that “such engineering of consensus was rarely a complete success and became an almost impossible task when conflicts were strongly polarized.” He makes an important point here: what the most lucrative business model of the time is depends on the political context. In peaceful times, consensus is easily built. Yet, as an overview of the history of US news journalism shows, the objectivity doctrine was not always the rule, and when major ideological cleavages divided society, most outlets could not but take a position (cf. Bajomi-Lázár 2003). Newspapers follow, rather than lead, public opinion, because that is in their best business interest.
It is, however, not just “diminished color, style, and subjectivity” that undermines the relevance of the objectivity doctrine. The newspaper that one buys on a regular basis is, for most readers, a lot more than just a source of information. Mass communication cannot only be seen as the transmission of information, but also as a ritual. As James W. Carey (1989/1992) has famously observed, “[a] ritual view of communication … will view reading a newspaper less as sending or gaining information and more as attending a mass, a situation in which nothing new is learned but in which a particular view of the world is portrayed and confirmed.” Many people associate themselves with their preferred newspaper. When reading it, they feel as if they belonged to a family or, rather, a tribe with a clear political stance. It is a part of their political identity which the newspaper gives a voice to and which it constantly reinforces. The more a newspaper seeks objectivity, the less it can meet this inner psychological need, and the less it meets this need, the less it can win the loyalty of its readers. Needles to say, without the loyalty of readers, no newspaper can stand market competition in the long run.
Of course, objectivity and engagement are rarely clear-cut categories. Rather, they should be conceived as the two fictive endpoints of the same spectrum. In an attempt to meet the needs of both information and confirmation, most newspapers distinguish between news and views. This effort, however, is never a complete success: news selection and framing, no matter how carefully done, are always the outcome of the editors’ subjective decisions, which, in turn, are shaped by what editors perceive to be their readers’ preferences. No newspaper can be completely objective—nor can they be completely engaged in favour of a cause, a principle or a party, and be completely disengaged from reality.
Bajomi-Lázár, Péter (2003): Az objektivitásdoktrína nyomában. A politikai újságírás normái az Egyesült Államokban [In search of objectivity. The standards of news journalism in the US]. Médiakutató, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 13–38.
Carey, James W. (1989/1992): Communication as Culture: Essays on Modernity and Society. New York & London: Routledge.
Høyer, Svennik (1998): Media on the Eve of the Third Millenium. In: Yassen N. Zassoursky & Elena Vartanova (eds.): Changing Media and Communications, pp. 46–70. Moscow: Faculty of Journalism &Publisher ICAR.