By Jacqueline Hyman
As a United States citizen who is finally eligible to vote for president, I have felt responsible and inclined to watch all of the recent presidential (and vice presidential) debates. But every time I do, I shake my head in dismay at the conduct being displayed. It is not just the candidates’ conduct that disappoints me, but the moderators’ as well.
One of the most important traits a journalist can possess and demonstrate is objectivity. The ability to remain neutral when covering an issue, and to remain fair to both sides involved in a story is extremely important. This is not to say that journalists cannot have opinions; as human beings, we inherently do. We cannot ignore this. But there is a line of professionalism that is constantly crossed in this age of journalism.
Objectivity has never been one of the “media’s” strong suits. The very first newspapers in the country were partisan publications, and the tendency to lean one way or the other has fluctuated over the centuries. However, in order to be professionals who retain their credibility, journalists really should attempt to remain as objective as possible.
The public generally does not believe this to be possible, and I have always defended the idea that news journalism can be completely objective if reporters and editors try hard enough. Lately, though, I am losing faith in the ability of today’s prominent journalists to do so.
During the first presidential debate on Sept. 26, moderator and NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt displayed his affinity for Hillary Clinton and his aversion to Donald Trump. He asserted himself when Trump interrupted Clinton and allowed her to respond more frequently to Trump’s comments — although, to be fair, Trump did interrupt enough to get in his responses.
Holt’s question about the “birther” issue was completely unnecessary and irrelevant to the more important issues of the election — he clearly asked this as a way to jab at Trump. Additionally, he subdued applause when it came from Trump supporters, but did not quiet the audience when they cheered at some of Clinton’s statements.
Even “This Week” co-anchor Martha Raddatz, who was one of two moderators at this past Sunday’s debate, expressed clear dislike for Trump as she tried to redirect questions to town hall participants. Focus groups for all of the debates are chosen by the network that films them, so a CNN focus group and FOX focus group are clearly going to yield different results to the question, “Who do you think won the debate?” But then, can these networks really call it a focus group if they’re picking and choosing people they know will represent their own biases?
I understand that this is an extremely controversial election. I understand that people have their minds made up about the candidates — and they should be making these judgments. And I understand that attempting to mediate two highly-energetic candidates with little respect for one another is difficult. But journalists have a responsibility to deliver information to the public cleanly so that the people can make their own informed decisions. Not decisions influenced by the bias of the person writing the article, shooting the video, or moderating the debate.
There are some positives in the field, though. Maybe it was in order to avoid a Holt-style “hands-off” approach to moderation, or maybe the vice presidential candidates were just much easier to handle, but CBSN anchor and CBS correspondent Elaine Quijano did appear to be much more unbiased during their debate on Oct. 4. When both candidates talked over each other, she said, “Gentlemen… The people at home cannot understand either one of you when you speak over each other. I would please ask you to wait until it is that the other is finished.”
She did not target a single candidate, but reprimanded and spoke directly to both Mike Pence and Tim Kaine, a constant theme in her moderation throughout the debate. When she needed to move on to the next topic, she would say so, no matter which candidate was speaking at the time. This is an example of how journalists can remain objective publicly, no matter what their personal beliefs are.
The importance of objectivity does not lie solely in political opinion or reporting, but is relevant no matter what the story. If a story broke out that a restaurant allowed bugs to be served in its food, the reporter should never write that ‘this is a dirty, disgusting habit and the restaurant should be shut down by the Health Department.’ The readers will come to this conclusion themselves, and the writer will retain the credibility necessary to continue reporting on similar or other issues.
In short, the readers, viewers and listeners should not be able to tell where a journalist’s true opinions lie. I am worried for the future of journalism when I hear people complain about how biased and unfair the “media” is. The public should be able to trust us as a source for impartial reporting, and it hurts to get lumped in with those who demonstrate a disregard for this standard of journalism. I just hope the other journalists of my generation feel the same way, so that together we can work toward better grounds for quality reporting.
Jacqueline is a junior journalism and English major. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.