Screw Objectivity: Study Finds Opinionated Journalism Boosts Civic Engagement

Veteran journalists who sing the praises of objective reporting have steadily lost ground to the media’s new guard of proudly opinionated voices, from broadcasters such as MSNBC and Fox News, to the growing menu of online news blogs. There’s been endless theorizing over whether objectivity should dominate reporting in the 21st century, but what does the evidence say? A new experimental study [pdf] finds that opinionated reporting is better at motivating the politically unengaged than objective reporting.

For years, much of the media has assumed that objective education, alone, was enough to promote a healthy democracy. What traditional media failed to realize is that a good chunk of the population needs a reason to care in the first place. “News articles that are written through the eyes of a mere observer, without a perspective or slant, can foster political disaffection among citizens,” explains author Minha Kim of Sungkyunkwan University (note: for the highly politically engaged, objectivity is better, which is explained below).

The experimental study treated two groups of students to either an objective report or a “reinforcing” article with a political slant. The article was about a candlelight vigil to protest Korean imports of U.S. Beef thought to carry Mad Cow disease. The study found that students who did not talk about the issue with others, a good indication of political disengagement, were better motivated to protest after reading the opinionated article. Since the politically unengaged were not “sufficiently politically equipped to guide their judgments and actions by self-organized mature knowledge, the news article reinforcing political participation exerted profound pervasive impact on their behavioral intent,” the research concluded.

Now, the study isn’t all rainbows and ponies for opinionated journalism: objective reporting was more influential in motivating politically engaged students. Thus, traditional journalism still does have a vital role to play for readers who are knowledgeable and politically engaged, a relatively smaller portion of the electorate.

Thus, the 21st century landscape of proud, opinionated journalists could have a democratizing effect on the large swath of readers who need a good reason to become active citizens.

Hat tip to Tiago Peixoto on the study