Holding on to Objectivity, Richard Sambrook's Poliak Lecture

Richard Sambrook gave the the Poliak Lecture given at Columbia University, America, last night. Consider these two statements: 1. The problem in Fallujah is with the international terrorists and those Iraqis who support the operations of these foreign fighters. 2. Ninety-nine per cent of the fighters are Fallujans. I have seen no foreign fighters in Fallujah.

Which one do you believe? And why? How much of a difference does it make who is making these statements? Or where they are speaking? Does it matter which TV channel they are on? CNN or Al Jazeera? What else would you need to be shown to have complete confidence that either statement was true?

The first, of course, came from a coalition spokesman in Washington on CNN, the second from an Iraqi journalist in Fallujah interviewed by the BBC.

The title of this lecture is Holding on to Objectivity so at the outset we had better be clear what we mean by objectivity.

It is not the same as impartiality or fairness or balance although all these words are often used as if they were interchangeable.

Impartiality means acting fairly because you are not personally involved or have put to one side your personal views or feelings. The elimination of bias.

Fairness means acting in a reasonable, just or right way.

Balance means arranging things in equal or correct proportions to one another.

But objectivity is different. Objectivity means based on facts or evidence, not feelings or opinion. Objectivity requires evidence and verification. It's more than just attempting to be neutral.

I am going to talk about the idea of objectivity in journalism, the pressures it is under now, the changing face of news organisations, the views and concerns of the audience, and finally suggest some ways that journalists and news rooms might re-claim the idea of objectivity for the 21st century.

"Just give me the facts ma'am" was the world-weary refrain of Detective Joe Friday in the Sixties TV series Dragnet.

But it could have been applied to the equally weary, equally trench-coated stereotype of the reporter in the Fifties and Sixties - up until Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein made the profession glamorous with Watergate.

Facts were what led you to the truth - that's why, like a detective, reporters were meant to go to every effort to uncover them and put them together.

These days it is fashionable to question whether there is any such thing as 'truth'. Whether facts actually prove anything; whether objectivity is worth striving for.

"There's no such thing as truth - just perspectives" we are told.

I'm not going to get into a philosophical discussion about it (you will be relieved to hear) but it seems to me unless there is a foundation of fact and evidence, then perspectives, opinion and comment are worthless.

That's why in newspapers the news pages come first and the comment pages in the middle. That's why news programmes are on at peak time, and magazine, or current affairs programmes as they are called in Britain, later.

If you wish to voice an opinion about the ways of the world, it needs to be based upon a firm foundation of fact or evidence to have any merit.

A British newspaper editor, C P Scott, famously said in the 1920s: "Comment is free, but facts are sacred."

Actually, his full quote is more interesting: "Neither in what (a newspaper) gives nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free, but facts are sacred.

"Propaganda so-called, by this means is hateful. The voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard.

"Comment is also justly subject to a self-imposed restraint. It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair."

It is well to be frank (or outspoken) it is better to be fair. I wonder what some radio talk show hosts would make of that!

Of course, it comes from a different age, when newspapers had less competition and there was no TV or radio to speak of.

Now every news outlet has to differentiate itself to stand out in a crowded market. And to do so, many are leaving behind that idea of neutrality - and with it objectivity - evidence-based journalism.

However, in some ways we've been here before. Imagine a world in which new technology is allowing hundreds of people to publish their views for the first time and to disseminate them widely, undermining official channels of communication.

Where rumour is rife, where bigger news operations are focusing on unfair allegations rather than facts, where government has to dedicate people and resources to fighting off and correcting slanders and trying to control the press…

No, I'm not talking about blogging or the election campaign. It's England in 1695 when the licensing of pamphlets and newspapers came to an end.

And for hundreds of years after that a partisan press was the norm.

I was reading that here in America, before the civil war, Americans were, per head, the greatest readers of newspapers in the world.

Newspapers and weekly magazines were available across the land and were deeply divided and partisan.

Some historians believe that the free press, so divided, hardened attitudes and helped to provoke the civil war.

The idea of objectivity - journalism based on facts and evidence, journalism of verification - only began to establish itself at the end of the nineteenth century and start of the twentieth century.

People like Walter Lippman and Joseph Pulitzer, the founder of this Journalism College, started to put forward their ideas to professionalise journalism.

They believed journalism was important, and with that came the responsibility to be objective and to be fair.

As Pulitzer said, a journalist has a particular privilege: "The privilege of moulding opinion, touching the hearts and appealing to the reason of hundreds of thousands every day.

"Here is the most fascinating of all professions… Every single day opens new doors for the journalist who holds the confidence of the community and has the capacity to address it."

Today, there is, through cable, satellite and the internet, an extraordinary capacity to address the public.

But I am not sure we are still holding the confidence of the community.

You all I am sure know about the long term decline in audiences for the networks and the fragmentation of cable audiences.

Many of you will be familiar with the Pew Research on attitudes to journalists in the US (broadly the same is true in Europe by the way).

Just one in ten of Americans think they can completely trust what news organisations are saying.

More than half (53%) say they often don't trust what news organisations say.

Just one in three think the press usually get the facts right - down from 55% twenty years ago.

Just half (54%) think they can distinguish between a good and a bad news organisation.

Now, a degree of scepticism in life is probably a good thing. But an absence of voices that can be believed is corrosive.

This is an environment in which ignorance, misconceptions and conspiracy theories can - and do - flourish.

According to research at the University of Maryland last year, a third of the American public believed US forces found WMD in Iraq. 22% said Iraq used chemical or biological weapons during the war.

In a Knight Ridder survey before the war, half of those polled thought Iraqis were among the 19 hijackers on 9/11.

More research by the Programme on International Policy Attitudes shows a correlation between a viewer's choice of news broadcaster and their level of understanding of contemporary events.

Sixty-seven per cent of Fox viewers thought that the US had uncovered clear evidence that Iraq worked closely with al-Qaeda. T

he equivalent figure for Public Radio was 16%.

Fox may just attract more credulous viewers - but for me that underlines the importance of facts and evidence, journalism of verification, objectivity above comment and opinion.

However, those of us who believe, like Joseph Pulitzer, in the importance of communication and objectivity may in some ways be the victims of our own success.

Objective news was intended to give people information they could trust in order for them to make decisions about their lives and in some way control their futures.

Where to live, what jobs to take, where to invest, health, education and so on. To give them an accurate picture of the world which allowed them to live their lives and face the future with greater confidence.

Through the last 150 years, communications have developed at an extraordinary rate - from the invention of the telegraph by Samuel Morse in 1850 which allowed messages to be sent without someone physically taking them for the first time (and the news agencies found that neutral objective news travelled better to other countries and had a higher price than opinion) to satellites in the 1960s which meant we could have instant visual communications around the world, to the internet, mobile phones and so on.

As a result we have 24-hour markets, a globalised economy and instant communication.

In Iraq, the day Saddam Hussein was captured, that picture of him in custody was being sent around the world by mobile phone before it was available on any TV station…

There have been many benefits. Communications and the media can change history.

There are three times more democracies in the world than there were 30 years ago.

There's no question that international media played a decisive role in the end of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall - I know, I was there.

But there are hidden downsides.

There is also an impact on the individual. Instead of information making the future clearer and making decisions easier, many societies are in what Anthony Giddens - Britain's leading expert on globalisation - calls culture shock.

There is so much information, and individuals feel so powerless in the face of it, that there is a big rise in anxiety and fear.

Terrorism, global warming, nuclear proliferation, outsourcing, a wavering economy… the future is opaque or dark and the more information people are given, the more difficult their lives seem, the more anxious they become, the more powerless they feel.

Think of the impact of the Iraq hostage videos on those watching at home. Or the school siege at Beslan. Children in schools around the country were discussing what Beslan meant for them. Were they safe?

Or global warming. Do we really need to choose between SUVs and the future of the world? That's a tough one!

And people feel powerless. That's why voter turnout in elections has been so low. In recent European elections, the turn out was as low as 18 per cent.

A powerful media, that could bring down the Berlin Wall, may be subverting democracy closer to home.

As people, in the face of this culture shock, this information deluge, become more anxious, feel powerless and less clear about the future, they seek refuge in what they are comfortable with.

Their community, the online community of blogging and bulletin boards, or a TV network that chimes with their values - be it Fox or Air America Radio or Al Jazeera. Or they prefer Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

Why? Because the style and attitude match their own. They make an emotional connection - something conventional news doesn't provide - and something they want. At one time they got that emotional reassurance from Walter Cronkite.

Today's world, and their lives, are more complicated - as is the connection they feel for these kinds of programme.

For them, objective news may be part of the problem, providing more threats and questions rather than answers.

Partisan news, or comedy, is reassuring in a frightening world ("I'm not the only one who thinks that way!").

And as those Pew figures show, many of them just don't know who to believe anymore.

News broadcasters do many things which reinforce this problem. Look at the way we manage discussion and debate about the world. We look for people at the extremity of any argument, get them in the studio and let them go at each other.

The hapless researcher trying to persuade someone to appear on a panel is not likely to choose the one whose views are most reasonable or moderate. They are seeking out panellists who will oppose each other.

One hits the ball over the net, the other hits it back harder, the first smashes it back harder still…

Or the straight interview, where the interviewer puts an opposing line in their questions - the devil's advocate approach - trying to provoke a stronger reaction in his interviewee… it has the same effect.

But research shows most of the audience aren't at the extremes of most issues - they are somewhere in the middle.

This formula we all use produces, we believe, good TV. A strong contrast of views, some heat. But it may not produce much light.

It strengthens divides - but most of the public prefer unity. They know their lives aren't defined by black and white issues - there are shades of grey. And they know that argument on TV is often a sham and doesn't deal with the world as they experience it.

So when they watch TV, they don't know who to believe or who to trust any more. Where are the facts? The evidence? The proof? Where is there something solid to hold onto?

However it is wrong to think this means more traditional approaches to news are dead or unappreciated.

Comment and punditry has to be based on evidence. Jon Stewart needs the mainstream news programmes to feed off.

Bloggers both feed off the network news and also feed it, providing an extended form of newsgathering.

They don't pretend to be objective. They don't want to be and don't have the means to be. So the resources and values of the major news organisations are needed as much as ever - to test, filter and to validate - and are still the most powerful means of reaching a mass audience.

With information overload it seems to me that role is going to become more important - not less.

But they are vulnerable to the tidal wave of what one commentator has called "nearly news" - that's blogs, comedy, propaganda and punditry.

The traditional role of the news editor as gatekeeper for information has changed fundamentally - there is so much out there.

And there is a structural change going on in the market for information. Which is why news networks, as I said earlier, are trying hard to differentiate themselves against increasing competition.

They need to give themselves a stronger and clearer brand presence.

One analysis of the news channels showed that 40 per cent of their operating budget was effectively spent on marketing - promotion of the brand.

And of course the channels are adjusting in relation to each other.

We all know about the ground claimed by Fox… so CNN has found itself redefined - against its wishes - as a liberal network.

The problem for CNN - and others - is to find a brand image as strong as Fox, without being forced into the partisan divide.

Al Jazeera, which hopes to launch in the US next year - has no such problems. Its new slogan is 'The Right not to remain silent'.

They are clearly positioning themselves as the voice of the oppressed.

The BBC's brand is internationalist - we bring you the world with a global (not British) perspective in a form you can trust.

Once these positions, these brands, are decided they do of course influence everything else - including story selection and editorial position.

A brand isn't just a logo or a slogan. It represents the DNA of the organisation.

I asked the BBC monitoring team in Britain - this is a team who constantly monitor and record the world media 24 hours a day - to put together an example of how a range of broadcasters reported Iraq on the same day.

You won't have seen some of these before, because I asked them to record what the Middle East (rather than the US or Europe) was seeing.


So if you are the BBC, with internationalist values, you make one choice, an international summit on aid for Iraq.

If you're backed by Hammas, Arab casualties are the top line; if you are US-backed, evidence of Saddam's war crimes; if you are Al Jazeera, voice of the oppressed, you question the coalition's motives.

We could of course show similar differences in the US. A new media monitoring study (Media Tenor) showed that Fox emphasised positive news about the US economy (taxes) while the networks took a more critical view, focusing on jobs or the state of the economy.

Do such marked differences of emphasis mean these programmes are not objective? No, not necessarily. If the information is well sourced, with evidence, fairly presented then the conclusions that professional journalists draw may differ in emphasis - but legitimately so.

Transparency is a crucial element to which I'll return to later.

However, if there is no evidence, no attempt at verification then it descends into comment and opinion. And frankly anyone's view is worth no more or less than anyone else's. It becomes chatter in the air and no more.

Comment is free but facts are sacred.

Those brand values can lead news organisations astray. Before Iraq it seemed to me that some US news broadcasters wrapped themselves in the flag and as a consequence did not perform the role the public expects of them.

I understand the problem. The mindset of the country was that it was at war. Our natural instinct is to support our country.

But the responsibility of the news media is to ask the difficult questions, to press, to verify. And we now know that all of us failed to ask the right questions about WMD in advance of the war.

That isn't to say the war was wrong - each can make their own mind up about that. But to do so they need accurate information, evidence that has been tested.

And if a news organisation imbues itself with patriotism, it inhibits itself from asking some of those questions. It's tough.

The BBC is attacked by politicians every time British troops are at war because we insist on demonstrating our independence and asking those hard questions.

But I believe - and our surveys confirm - the public trusts us more as a result.

Some people feel more strongly than that. Sir Harold Evans - one of the greatest British newspaper editors and now of course a resident of New York - told the Foreign Press Association in London earlier this year: "Fifty-three journalists died last year...

"Most of them were murdered for trying to tell the truth about the world. Truth seems to me to be more and more a casualty of a partisan press…

"The men and women who lost their lives gave them for the highest aspirations of journalism. Every time a fellow journalist distorts the facts, every time a journalist intrudes on private grief, every time a journalist torments the facts to fit a preordained thesis, he betrays those who died and shames the profession."

Journalists are now at risk to a greater extent than they have ever been before. Where once their neutrality was widely recognised and respected, today they are targeted and sought out, seen as high profile representatives of their countries or cultures.

Increased partisanship in our media may have played a part in that - there may be other factors too.

But with 85 journalists or support staff killed in the last year we, as an industry, cannot carry on and do nothing.

It is now one of the biggest inhibitions on freedom of reporting. Therefore I am pleased to announce an international committee of inquiry into this issue, under the International News Safety Institute, which I have been invited to chair.

It will involve media organisations, government representatives, NGOs and human rights organisations to investigate the causes of this increase in violence towards the media and to recommend urgent action to protect journalists carrying out their work.

You will have worked out by now that my allegiances are very much placed with the journalists in the field gathering news, undertaking first hand eyewitness reporting - not just in war zones but in the councils and courts and other corners of our profession.

Much of the public discussion about objective or partisan news seems to assume that the game is up. That the success of Fox proves audiences want their news highly flavoured and that traditional objectivity and impartiality have had their day.

I am not so sure. I've argued here that even in the new information economy of 'nearly news' - blogging, propaganda, comedy formats, partisan channels, etc - that classic objective news is still needed and wanted by audiences.

I also think that objective news may have more going for it commercially than some people think.

Although Fox may be beating CNN in share of viewing, it is not making as much profit according to the figures I can find.

Look at the decision of Sinclair Broadcasting not to air the full hour-long anti-Kerry documentary, following protests from their shareholders and I believe a 17 per cent drop in their stock price.

As one advertiser said as he took all his advertising off a CBS affiliate: "I've decided I don't want to advertise on them. It's a public trust. It seems they are abusing it."

As I said, the BBC markets itself on objectivity and an international perspective. The viewing and listening to the BBC in North America (with our partners in PRI and PBS) has continued to grow since the Iraq War - where audiences for other news channels have fallen.

I'm often told Americans are not interested in the rest of the world. I don't believe it.

In 1997, there were 26 million US citizens who had been born overseas. Half from Latin America, but 6 million from Asia and 4 million from Europe. Another 29 million have at least one foreign born parent.

Apparently in 1960, the median age of foreign born US citizens was 57. It is now around 37. These people - at least - know something about the world and want to know more.

And there is one big change which is just dawning on all news organisations.

We are all global broadcasters now. Via cable, satellite and particularly the internet we can watch the output of channels and news services from anywhere in the world.

I can watch not just CNN and Fox, but ABC, CBS, NBC in London. And Al Jazeera, and news from India, China and I can read newspapers from Israel, Egypt, Russia and beyond.

Editorially that poses big challenges. Commercially, however, it's an opportunity. Rather than a market of perhaps 20 million homes, we potentially have access to ten or twenty times that many.

And as the news agencies discovered a hundred years ago - neutral objective news travels across borders better than partisan news.

That's why, as they prepare to launch in Europe and the USA, Al Jazeera have published a code of ethics declaring they will show "honesty, courage, fairness, balance, independence, credibility and diversity, giving no priority to commercial or political considerations over professional ones."

The wider your lens or perspective, the more important objectivity becomes.

Before I finally pull these thoughts together I should talk about what happened to the BBC last year - our coverage of the WMD intelligence issue which resulted in the resignation of our chairman, CEO and a reporter.

At the time it seemed very complicated. On reflection, it was quite simple. The Today programme - our main morning radio show - set out to broadcast a report about genuine and, as we now know, well-founded reservations in parts of the intelligence community about a British Government dossier which was published to support the case for going to war.

Dr David Kelly, Britain's leading expert on WMD, told two BBC reporters that the intelligence on Iraq's weapons had been unreliable but political pressure meant it had been exaggerated in the dossier to strengthen the case against Saddam.

Tony Blair had said Iraq's WMD posed a real and immediate threat to British interests.

In a live interview BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan used a form of words which suggested bad faith on the part of the Government - that they knew it was wrong before they published it.

Tony Blair's spokesman Alastair Campbell launched a sweeping attack on the BBC at a Parliamentary Committee.

From that point on there could be no happy ending. The Government was defending its integrity and the BBC was defending its independence.

For each side, those two principles are non-negotiable, and it could only end badly.

In the heat of the very public row, Dr Kelly killed himself and a public inquiry was launched.

It was discovered Andrew Gilligan had insufficient notes to support what he had broadcast.

The Hutton Inquiry criticised the BBC and led to those resignations.

It was followed by another official inquiry - the Butler Inquiry - which heavily criticised the British Government for its presentation of intelligence and for its working methods. Tony Blair is still under public pressure to apologise.

I recently watched Errol Morris's brilliant documentary The Fog of War where former US Defence Secretary Robert McNamara reflects on the 1960s.

At one point he talks about the Tonkin Gulf incident where an American destroyer reported being torpedoed by the North Vietnamese.

The Americans believed it was a major escalation, President Johnson went to Congress and got approval to increase bombing and the Vietnam War took off.

The only problem was, as McNamara recalls, the destroyers hadn't been under attack at all. It was just shadows on the sonar. A chimera.

"We were wrong but we had in our minds a mind set that led to that action and it carried such heavy costs," he says.

"We see incorrectly or we see only half the story at times. We see what we want to believe. Belief and seeing - they are both often wrong."

Watching the film I had a pronounced sense of déjà vu - the danger of 'groupthink' - as applicable to the media as much as to government.

And in the fog of this particular war, a good man died.

Belief and seeing are both often wrong. That's why I feel passionately about the importance of objectivity - facts and evidence, the journalism of verification.

Clearly, the stakes can be very high when journalists attempt to hold governments to account. In the wake of what happened to Andrew Gilligan, some may be deterred from trying. It's essential they are not.

I believe that asking the difficult questions and pursuing them remains a core responsibility of the media.

But it's only through an objective approach - facts, evidence, verification - that we can be sure of getting it right.

In the wake of the Hutton Inquiry the BBC has thought hard about the importance of an objective approach to journalism and how to achieve it.

For us it came down to three things:

Reporting based on evidence - preferably first-hand, eyewitness reporting.

Independence, which allows us to broadcast a diversity of views - from across the full spectrum - which means we are not allied with any political or commercial interest.

And transparency - an open and accountable relationship with your audience and other stakeholders.

Evidence, independence, transparency.

But simply declaring such principles isn't enough. You then have to organise your journalism around them.

We are developing a new programme strategy which will strengthen this approach to journalism - and make clearer to audiences that these are the principles we stand by.

That's why the BBC invests more heavily in newsgathering than any other news organisation I know. 58 bureaux, 250 correspondents - the importance of first hand reporting.

We have reinforced our editorial processes around evidence-based reporting and verification. And being scrupulous in doing so.

Words are our precision tools. We monitor and support the fullest range of opinion and interviewees and we have clear policies and processes in place to guarantee our independence from commercial or political interests.

But it is in terms of transparency we have made the biggest moves.

Managing your relationship with the audience is now an essential part of the service a news organisation must provide.

I spoke earlier about how audiences seek an emotional connection to the programmes and services they use if they are to offer their trust.

Today, taking the lid off the news machine and showing the public how we work and why is essential to building trust.

That openness is now as important as the journalism itself in the relationship with the audience.

So, for example, we have launched a weekly programme News Watch on our 24 hour news channel, on which viewers can discuss or complain about the way we have covered the news and on which our journalists and managers are expected to appear to discuss their decisions.

We are launching a new website, also called News Watch, which explains our editorial processes and policies, allows discussion of them, provides a streamlined avenue for complaints, and has an area for swift clarifications and corrections.

We have media literacy programmes which show people how the news is made.

These kinds of initiative are in my view essential for holding on to objectivity and building trust.

Deciding what your editorial values are and publishing them is one thing. Organising your programming and journalism around them and managing your relationship with the public in line with them is more difficult.

So next year we are launching a BBC College of Journalism which will train our several thousand journalists in these principles and how to apply them to their news judgements hour by hour, day by day.

I very much hope our college will have a close and productive relationship with this college, which Joseph Pulitzer founded nearly 100 years ago.

The need for accurate, trusted news and information and for open dialogue and communication is probably greater now than it was then.

Accurate, objective news and information, which all sides can trust, provides a foundation stone of rational debate in a world that is too easily dominated by intolerance and hatred.

Objectivity is crucial to providing news people can trust - and that's what the public still expects from us.

Sambrook is Director, BBC World Service and Global News Division.

If you have an opinion on this or any other issue raised on Brand Republic, join the debate in the Forum here.


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