Noynoy, Noli and the norm of objectivity

Inquirer Newsroom; 2010 national elections

President Noynoy Aquino has been criticized for criticizing Noli de Castro, a former vice president and an anchor of ABS-CBN’s news program TV Patrol. It was very rude, even childish, others said, for the President to devote parts of his speech for TV Patrol’s silver anniversary to his tirades against the former vice president.

Others praised the President, saying ABS-CBN was begging for it, as the network brought De Castro back into its flagship news program right after his stint as vice president for the unpopular Arroyo administration. A former vice president delivering and commenting on political stories that involve his political allies and their enemies represents, as others have correctly pointed out, a clear case of conflict of interest. For those using this line of argument, De Castro cannot be objective because of his political connections. Journalists are supposed to be objective.

Objectivity in journalism is an American invention. Its history traces back to economic, not journalistic, pursuits. American newspapers used to be partisan and heavily driven by ideology. But then wire services found they could sell the same stories to newspapers of different ideologies if they kept stories objective. Soon, the drive to appeal to more readers, regardless of political leanings, in order to attract more advertisers, led most news organizations to trumpet objectivity.

However, objectivity fails as a standard. Many argue that journalists cannot be objective; they have personal biases that can still spill into their outputs no matter how they try to control them. Others say objectivity is a response to newsroom constraints. With insufficient resources and time to verify facts, journalists just attribute them to sources and then get the other side just in case a claim turns out to be wrong. Finally, objectivity predisposes journalism into pursuing conflict. Journalists must always get the other side of the story, even if sometimes there is only one side to the story.

A better standard, which bloggers and citizen journalists celebrate, is the norm of transparency. Journalists have biases they cannot control, but if they are transparent about them, then readers are better equipped to evaluate what they read.

If De Castro fails a journalistic standard, it is not objectivity. It is moral ascendancy. He cannot criticize government officials for the same things he failed to do when he was given the chance. He should have realized he would never measure up to this standard when he decided to return to the same broadcasting job that had successfully brought him to politics.

But let’s look at the glass half-full: at least De Castro’s political record and leanings are a matter of public record.

We cannot expect Noli De Castro to be objective. Just like other journalists, he will never be. But for people who know better, at least they know what to believe.

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