In a field where the importance of objectivity and impartiality is forever being emphasized, the journalist is constantly being reminded of their moral and ethical responsibilities while they are on the job while importance is placed on avoiding the journalism of attachment is extensive. So to what ends do journalists give us the story without their personal views on the issue getting in the way and clouding their aims to remain objective? In this essay I will look into what the third position is and how taking it a method in journalism can effect the outcome of news, I will go further by investigating how the idea of taking the third position in journalism works with the idea of objectivity in the media. I will illustrate these ideas by giving examples of where the third position has been seen in history, and whether we can still identify its use in modern times and discuss the use of the inverted pyramid and its implications on taking the third position in journalism.
The concept of the third position origins are unknown but it was first noted in 1942; taking the third position in Journalism is the method of reporting that is ‘looking in on a situation rather than giving a detailed account of what is going on’. The third position is all dependent on the Journalist taking the role of a spectator and also the idea of reporting based on their ability to perceive the story. When Master Godwin gave an account of the English Civil War on the 18th of July 1642 ‘A Perfect Diurnal of All the Proceedings of the English and Scotch Armies in Ireland’, he composed a somewhat detailed account of the battle, he mentioned the events of the battle but he did this by acting as someone ‘looking in on’ the battle and not someone who was telling the story of a victory. In this respect Master Godwin acted as a Spectator and not a storyteller; this is Master Godwin taking the third position in this situation and reporting based on the two sides equally. It has been observed that Master Godwin used the past tense in his report on the English Civil war, which gives us the impression that he was involved during the battle and afterwards composed his report, mentioning what he spectated and perceived from the battle which he could recall from his memory. (Culcutt and Hammond, 2011: p19)
A journalist or a news reporter is nothing short of a spectator who merely goes a step further to report on what they spectate, when the first edition of ‘The Spectator’ was printed, the editor of the then new newspaper stated “I live in the World, rather as a Spectator of Mankind, than as one of the Species … I have acted in all the parts of my Life as a Looker-on, which is the Character I intend to preserve in this Paper.” In this essay, the spectator is the journalist and how the journalist perceives the story they are reporting on.
Perspective is the manner in which objects appear to the eye in respect to different attributing factors, like position or distance. In his TV documentary Ways of Seeing, Berger suggests, “perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world.” (Berger, 2009: p9) This means that the having perspective gives only more importance and value to the single eye and how it is able to see beyond what the eye views. We can understand this because he continues on to say that perspective “centres everything in the eye of the beholder”. (Berger, 2009: p9). I believe that in order for journalists to regard themselves as Spectators, they need to be able to perceive the stories they are spectating in a means, which only perceives from the eye and not from internal beliefs regarding the matter they are spectating.
Taking the third position in journalism may seem like the perfectly ideal method for a journalist to give us the story but does taking the third position in journalism mean that what information we are receiving from the journalist is objective? Going back to the example of Master Godwin’s account of the English Civil War in 1642, you would notice that Master Godwin has already established himself as part of one of the two sides he was reporting about, yet he maintained an objective state of mind while recounting the events. This could imply that a journalist is perfectly able to hold judgment on any given issue as long as they have the power to hold back that judgment when recounting a story; not doing this has many consequences for people who put their trust in journalists to inform them truthfully of what is happening on any given issue.
In a table (Above) research conducted by the University of South Carolina it was found that the rise of the inverted pyramid or more importantly the birth of the ‘lead’ was around 1860. The university found that out of 2,043 stories written in 1860 only 2 of them had a summery news lead whereas in 1910 they analysed 4,689 stories and found 517 articles with summery news leads which means they found a 10.93% increase in the use of summery news leads. (University of Carolina: online access) it was a then new method of journalistic writing created to change the traditional way of writing everything in a article even the non-important parts. The inverted pyramid is a three step method used to write an article starting with a short lead which should cover the important highlights of the story, it is then followed by the rest of the story going through from the interesting and ‘need to know’ information to the extra unnecessary information.
This was seen in the reportage of the assassination of president JF Kennedy, if one was to observe the live video coverage of the assassination the third position of the death was the one that would be the most correct. However, hours later the journalists of the world (Tom Wicker, 1963: Online) were reporting the different versions of the presidents death and reporting it differently that to what one would be able to see on the live video, inserting doubt etc. This is not taking the third position, as they are not reporting what their eye is spectating but rather what they think is more important. Therefore, I do not believe that using the inverted pyramid goes hand in hand with taking the third position in journalism.
However, using the inverted pyramid while taking the third position in journalism does not necessarily mean that what is being reported is not objective or true, but rather that they are placing more emphasis on the what we would call the ‘highlights’ of the story.
An example of the third position being taken in journalism or is the role of the sport commentator. He is reporting live the events of any sporting event and does it by taking the third position and being independent from both sides or ‘teams’ in this case. He is purely reporting on what is happening. However, you do see often-extra commentary during the games where the sports commentator decides to say things that may not be seen as being impartial to any team. “Sports commentary can so dramatically alter the viewers perception of players and play is noteworthy in its own right… sports commentary appears to be a very powerful tool in influencing viewers perception of play and their enjoyment of an athletic contest”. (Fuller 2008:p51) the implications of objectivity and taking a third position in sports journalism in regards to the 2nd of January 2002 headlines of two different newspapers in the UK the Sun and Irish edition of the sun. (Harcup 2004: p61)
The war correspondent is another role that uses the third position as spectator in journalism. Following our earlier example of Master Godwin’s piece on the English Civil war, I use the scenario of a War correspondent in Afghanistan, who does not report the happenings of the war taking British Army’s side or the Afghan Army’s side but merely ‘looking in on the situation’ rather than giving a detailed account of what is going on. So the journalist as the spectator would be taking the mid point in this situation and reporting, as his eye perceives the event. However, to take this ‘mid point’ the Spectator (Journalist) would need to have sufficient knowledge about the two sides they are reporting on. This was observed in 1858 when William Howard Russell took a side in his reporting of the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny in 1858, but posed as a natural observer in the American Civil War later on. (McLaughlin 2002: p153) the objectivity and third position taken by a war correspondent is further discussed in ‘journalism: principles and practice’ (Harcup 2004: p62-66)
In conclusion, I believe that taking the third position in journalism is a method that would be more appreciated by the audiences it would give them a window into the story through the eyes of the journalist and what they are reporting on in the closest thing they will get to an impartial and objective story, to work it needs to go hand in hand with the ideas of spectatorship and perspective.
- Berger, J. 2008. Ways of seeing. London: Penguin.
- Calcutt, A. and Hammond, P. 2011. Journalism studies. London: Routledge.
- Fuller, L. 2008. Sportscasters/sportscasting. New York: Routledge.
- Harcup, T. 2004. Journalism. London: Sage Publications.
- Mclaughlin, G. 2002. The war correspondent. London: Pluto Press.
- New York Times. 1963. Untitled. [online] Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/1122.html?scp=1&sq=Kennedy%20Shot%20to%20Death%20in%20Dallas&st=cse#article [Accessed: 19 Aug 2013].
- University of South Carolina. n.d.. Media History Monographs|Online Journal|Journalism and Mass Communication HistoryThe Evolution of the Summary News Lead. [online] Available at: http://www.scripps.ohiou.edu/mediahistory/mhmjour1-1.htm [Accessed: 19 Aug 2013].
Further reading taken from:
- Cottrell, S. 2008. The study skills handbook. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Hicks, W. 2007. English for journalists. London: Routledge.
- Muhlmann, G. 2010. Journalism for democracy. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
Oddey, A. and White, C. 2009. Modes of spectating. Bristol, UK: Intellect.