A Conversation On Objectivity, Sparked By Election Night Coverage

Image courtesy of Ted Eytan

Election night coverage by major news networks has started a conversation on objectivity in covering voting, elections and politics at large.

NBC, Fox News and CNN spent a majority of their through-the-night coverage on the election map. Election analysts reported incoming votes, state and county voting history and projected routes to victory for either candidate. Results were reported in a non-partisan and objective manner. 

As Joe Ferullo points out in an opinion piece for The Hill, analysts and commentators were kept to the side in election coverage. This is a break from what the 24-hour news cycle typically looks like where commentary, analysis, opinion and fact are often presented from the same news anchor.

Journalism has not always stressed objectivity. It became a foundation of journalism in the 1920s, amid a call for professionalization and the closing of large swaths of newspapers, forcing surviving papers to appeal to a broader audience.

A study by the RAND Corporation on how news presentation has changed found that since 2000, television news coverage has trended away from concrete language and reporting from authorities. Television news tends to have “more-subjective coverage … [relying] less on concrete language and more on unplanned speech, expression of opinions, interviews and arguments,” the study said.

For Ferullo, the objective reporting on election night is a welcome return to what he describes as fact-based reporting, but Ferullo represents only one side of a multi-faceted debate on the role of objectivity, impartiality and truth in journalism.

In his piece for the Washington Post, media reporter Paul Farhi points out the negatives in traditional objective election night coverage. Farhi describes the “whipsaw” effect of states turning blue, then red and then blue as votes and mail-in-votes slowly trickled in. 

Farhi does not dispute the objectivity of reporting in this fashion but questions its effectiveness in transmitting pertinent information of election results. “The illusory twists and swerves that were presented on television news created narratives that would linger and confuse.” Farhi writes.

CBS News reporter Wesley Lowery takes a different perspective in this debate over objectivity. In an opinion piece in The New York Times entitled “A Reckoning Over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists,” Lowery points out that objectivity is not as straightforward for covering police shootings or Black Lives Matter protests as it is for election coverage.

Lowery discusses the idea that journalists should not strive for objectivity, but to pursue the truth and engage with voices from all perspectives. He argues that objectivity, not favoring either side, leads to terms such as “officer-involved shooting,” which blurs the truth of a police officer shooting someone. “Neutral objectivity trips over itself to find ways to avoid telling the truth,” Lowery writes.

Recently, Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto acted in line with Lowery’s suggestion of telling the truth rather than remaining neutrally objective, opting to cut away from White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany as she was spreading false claims of illegal votes during a press conference. 

“I just think we have to be very clear; she’s charging the other side as ‘welcoming fraud’ and ‘welcoming illegal voting,’” Cavuto said. “Unless she has more details to back that up, I can’t in good countenance continue showing you this.”

Complete objectivity in this situation would require Cavuto to continue showing the press conference and then later present a much less direct narrative to counter McEnany’s statement.

In his opinion piece, Ferullo argues that television news networks should continue this separation of fact and analysis beyond election coverage; however, some see this as unlikely, given the strong economic incentive to package news with commentary that attracts one side of the political aisle.

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