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Oct. 20, 2021, 12:36 p.m.
Audience & Social

Impartiality and objectivity are key ideals that the general public wants to see in media outlets, according to a new report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and based on a survey by JV Consulting.

The survey, which was based on focus groups, interviews, and diaries, was conducted with participants in four countries — the United Kingdom, United States, Brazil and Germany. The report’s authors note, “The U.K. and Germany both have a public service tradition in their media, which emphasizes impartiality and includes some independent market regulation, whereas the U.S. and Brazil rely on rules set within organizations rather than across the market, thus prioritizing free market choice.”

Participants were news audiences who belonged to one of two groups: a younger group of 20- to 34-year-olds and another group of 35- to 60-year-olds. People in both groups were recruited from across the political spectrum, according to the report, and got their news from a variety of sources, including traditional news brands and social media channels.

Overall, the survey found that participants tended to use the terms “impartiality” and “objectivity” interchangeably, and associated impartiality with being fair, honest, and reflecting reality. Some also interpreted the term to mean neutrality. Here are a few respondents’ takes:

“Impartiality is that you report the facts without passing an opinion, the reporter’s point of view.” — A participant in the older group in Brazil

“The way I see impartiality is like being fair, that is how I would define impartiality. Even when a judge is listening to a case he is not swayed, he has just come there open-minded and then he is listening to both sides and then he makes a decision.” — A younger participant in the U.K.

In addition to the emphasis on impartiality, the report also found that audiences could benefit from clearer labelling of different content types — opinion vs. news vs. analysis — in order to better evaluate the impartiality of an outlet.

From the report:

News — where balance and fairness within a story is particularly important — and analysis — which people also value but recognize carries greater risk — is distinguished from opinion, which people also want as part of the mix but which is partial by definition. Audiences have very different expectations of these layers of news.

In the analog world, differences between news, analysis and opinion were much clearer, with special labeling and clear sections, but in digital the divisions have blurred. For journalists, dilemmas around impartiality have also been tested by more informal formats such as social media, especially where news has become more emotive or controversial. Many fear that opinion and advocacy have become increasingly entwined with the news itself in a way that is often not transparent.

Differences emerged in the way that the survey respondents thought about impartiality among different types of media outlets. For instance, even if newspapers have political leanings, participants tended to view them as reliable sources of hard news. The same was not true of social media sites, for instance, which were perceived as less reliable.

“Social media … is not exclusively a news format, so it’s a freedom of speech issue, they can say whatever you want.” — A U.S. participant from the older group

“They have a bit more free rein on social media because it’s your choice to follow. It’s your choice to engage and it’s your choice to consume. And so they can be more, they have a bit more of a personality on that platform.” — A U.K. participant from the younger group

Audiences were also sensitive to impartiality (or the lack thereof) in other components of media, including the generation of headlines, the display of emotions (especially in broadcast news), and whether news outlets provided explainers for complex issues and fact-checks of refutable claims.

There were also differences in the audience’s perceptions of impartiality by age, the regulatory context in which they currently live, and political leanings. From the report:

Impartiality is prized by highly engaged news consumers, although there are some subtle differences by age and outlook. Younger people, who tend to be more digitally literate and have grown up consuming news distributed through tech platforms, are more attuned to the judgments of those platforms and their decisions to remove content, although on the whole most people prefer all views to be provided.

There are also different political outlooks. On the right, people generally favor all sides and opinions being presented, whereas on the left people take a more protectionist stance.

The regulatory environments of the U.K. and Germany, with their public service traditions, contrast with the US and Brazil, and this explains some of the differences between countries.

What does all this mean for publishers going forward? The report offers some insight:

[Many] mainstream brands, including public service broadcasters in countries such as the U.K. and Germany, will want to maintain or even strengthen their adherence to impartiality and communicate this commitment to audiences. They should consider — as many already have — updated guidelines for staff on the need to separate news from opinion, and on the risks to impartiality of operating in more informal formats such as social media. This renewed commitment to impartiality may not always win the biggest audiences but it will be important to maintaining trust.

Read the full report here.

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