Kevin Marsh on impartiality

How do you teach impartiality? In fact, why bother at all?

Impartiality is a late arrival on the journalism scene. Newspapers managed without it for a century and a half – and they still do. Broadcasters signed up to it in exchange for access to government-controlled airwaves: the BBC through its charter, ITV through law.

But audience eyes and ears are no longer rationed. Almost anyone can cablecast or satcast. Anyone can broadbandcast. As Ofcom now seems ready to contemplate, impartiality may no longer be useful or relevant outside a (narrowly defined) public service core.

This babbling mass, taken in its totality, presents something like a full, diverse and somehow self-balancing account of the world. A universe that was once well-ordered, well-mannered and well-balanced in its arguments is now fragmented, diverse, complex, messy, shouting. Every possible view of the world is expressed somewhere, and new ones are being invented all the time. And why shouldn’t anyone be free to choose only those accounts of the world that confirm their prejudices?

This, however, raises the question of the value of a construct that is itself questionable. Perhaps nobody can be truly impartial – in which case, why volunteer to observe it or impose it on any type of news producer, even the public service core?

Simple. It is precisely the lack of order in the seething mass of information that gives value to the journalist as trusted guide. Any young journalist who aspires to the description of ‘trusted guide’ needs to understand the concept of impartiality.

Trouble is, impartiality is part skill, part state of mind. There are no rules and no formula. There used to be: left/right, union/management, us/them. But now, complex and diverse views and framing defeat any attempt at a rule book.

The idea that impartiality is the default condition of the human mind is plain wrong, and is an idea usually expressed by those who can’t understand why the rest of the world isn’t as reasonable and impartial as they are.

A place to start is teaching what impartiality isn’t. Most of all, it isn’t objectivity, the Holy Grail of top-end US journalism.

‘Objectivity’ is about a detachment from the world that is almost certainly unattainable; even dates and place-names frame the story. Neither is it ‘neutrality’ – that means never making a judgement. Impartiality often means making real-world judgements – such as weighing a mainstream against a minority one.

Impartiality is confused with other values, too, such as fairness and balance. Each is often part of impartiality, but either can also lead to the opposite.

The skill, the attitude, the reflex that journalists have to learn is to question any and every belief… especially their own. It means learning to doubt and ditch your own emotional reactions to stories, especially when the narrative seems obvious, the conventional wisdom well-established.

‘What if the opposite is true?’ is one of the most important questions a journalist can ask of any assertion or view in any story; alongside ‘what would the opposite look like?’

Remember that impartiality is a real-world value; it requires the journalist to understand competing world views. It doesn’t require the journalist to imagine all possible world views, all possible ways of framing a story.

But any young journalist striving to be impartial has to learn one thing above all else: that no matter how hard you strive, at least

half your audience will believe that you’re not even trying.

Kevin Marsh is editor of the

BBC College of Journalism

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