The Doctor: What are you, a journalist?
The Doctor: Then make it up.
—“Partners in Crime,” Doctor Who (2008)
The debate continues over the reliability of the news media as a source of accurate, objective and impartial information.
It’s an old debate, of course, one that I’ve opined on before (or invited others to do). And I have no illusion that it will be resolved soon.
What’s disturbing, however, is the public’s presumption of guilt among today’s journalists. Sadly, some of that reputation is earned, a la Jonah Lehrer, Janet Cooke and Jayson Blair. And as I’ve said previously, the steady stream of errors and weak reporting that flow from newsrooms devastated by years of downsizings adds fuel to the fire.
But as a former journalist, it rattled me to hear this line from the aforementioned episode of Doctor Who, in which a reporter infiltrates a pharmaceutical company that, stereotypically, is involved in nefarious activities.
(For the sake of transparency: I worked in that industry for 25 years. While it has a vast number of issues, attitudes and practices that need to be addressed, the “evil” moniker constantly slapped upon it is, in my view, unfair to the thousands of workers who strive each day to deliver life-saving medicines to patients.)
The long-lived BBC television series played this moment for laughs—the reporter is tied to a chair, and the Doctor is too busy fighting an alien conspiracy to help her out. Yet it’s clear the accusation has more than a little intentional bite.
True, the British press has a somewhat vicious reputation; impartiality isn’t a given, and questionable practices—such as alleged phone hacking by the defunct News of the World, now the subject of a high-profile court trial—aren’t unknown. But stalwart defender of press freedom within me trembles a bit each time these toss-off comments occur.
Interestingly, there’s a debate going on in journalism over the measure of objectivity that was once the commitment of the news media. Some suggest that objectivity is impossible, and that accuracy, fairness and impartiality are the standards to which they should aspire.
I agree on the first two, though I’m not convinced that objectivity vs. impartiality isn’t just splitting hairs. Still, the debate is worthy of our attention. The credibility of the Fourth Estate might rest upon the outcome.