Impartiality helps define news – even if it is an impossible ideal – according to the results of a new report commissioned by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
The report found audiences want journalists to focus on facts, objectivity and fairness, and avoid opinions and bias in reporting, leaving them to decide for themselves how they feel about the news.
The Reuters Institute commissioned market research company JV Consulting to carry out qualitative research on the relevance of impartial and objective journalism to audiences today in Brazil, Germany, the UK, and the US.
The research focussed on different news markets, traditions of public broadcasting, and systems of media regulation.
It involved a series of focus groups and in-depth interviews with politically and ethnically diverse groups of older and younger people interested in and engaged with news.
Other findings included:
People recognise the risk of giving exposure to extreme views or one side in the name of balance. However, evidence from this group of engaged users is they are even more concerned about the suppression and silencing of viewpoints.
Most participants recognise there were some topics (e.g., science stories, natural disasters) where there were not always two or more sides to represent. Here, many felt there should be more latitude for journalists to present just one perspective or an established point of view.
Across countries, newer digital formats such as social media are perceived as carrying more risk of bias along with the growth of more informal and entertaining broadcast formats such as chat shows and podcasts.
Younger people, who have grown up using more informal and digital sources, tend to have different expectations of impartiality, often looking for journalism that aligns with their values. But overall, their underlying attitudes and desires are remarkably similar to older people’s.
Different countries’ news traditions shape people’s experiences and expectations. Audiences in the US cannot envisage a world without partisan news outlets, but in the UK and Germany, with their public service traditions, most audiences still laud the upholding of impartiality.
Respondents also delineate between news reporting (where impartiality is expected) and opinion/commentary (where people expect that views are argued for). Importantly, many said they often find it difficult to distinguish between the two, especially online. Interviewees like news and they like opinion, but want them clearly separated.