The 21st century has complicated the credo of objectivity more than ever before. In this piece reproduced from the Columbia Journalism Review, (CJR), the author, a top editor himself, chips at the complication from his own angle.
By Mathew Ingram
The killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and the protests that followed, helped spark a debate in many newsrooms and journalism schools around the country about the time-honored principle of objectivity in journalism, and whether it serves any useful purpose. Former Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery wrote in the New York Times that what we call objective journalism “is constructed atop a pyramid of subjective decision-making,” and has been defined “almost exclusively by white reporters and their mostly white bosses.” Since then, journalists at the Los Angeles Times and other newsrooms have spoken out about their longstanding experiences of racism, and the impact those have had on the journalism they and their employers do. So is objectivity a relic? And if so, what should we replace it with? We got a group of journalists and other experts together on CJR’s Galley platform this week for a virtual panel discussion on those and other related questions.
Lewis Raven Wallace is a writer, journalist, and author of the recent book The View From Somewhere, as well as the host of a podcast of the same name. He is also a co-founder of Press On, a Southern collective of journalists, storytellers, and organizers that uses journalism in the service of liberation. Wallace’s book is based in part on his personal experience as a former reporter for Marketplace, from which he was fired in 2017 after he wrote a blog post questioning the idea of objective journalism. “As a transgender journalist, it was a scary time,” he said during our interview. “I didn’t feel I could or should have to be silent about the Trump administration’s attacks on trans people, people of color, and freedom of the press.” Wallace said, in his view, it’s not an either/or debate between personal journalism versus objective journalism. “I believe objectivity itself is a myth that’s been perpetuated based on a normative white male cisgender perspective in journalism,” he said. “The journalism we call objective is generally just biased towards acceptable social and political norms.”
The media, Wallace said, needs to think about “the relationship between journalism, identity, community, and truth.” Focusing on that relationship can offer a path forward for journalism that rebuilds trust with audiences, trust that has been lost after decades of supposed objectivity.
Morgan Givens also argued that there needs to be and how it operates. Givens is a writer, performer, and audio producer based in Washington, DC. He works with NPR and WAMU, and is also a former police officer who worked in prisons to eliminate sexual violence. “Black Americans have always lived in a United States where police killed us and still do with impunity, but this was an America that white journalistic institutions and those who allow them to function ignored,” he said. “Is ignoring these communities an example of being objective or ignoring the truth because the reality makes white journalists uncomfortable?”
Heather Chaplin is the founding director of Journalism + Design at the New School. She is also co-host of the podcast Tricky and has been a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. She told CJR’s Josh Young that she tries to distinguish between objectivity and “neutrality, which is a concept that has never made any sense to me. I think what people are upset about, and incorrectly calling objectivity, is really BS neutrality. When the New York Times bends over backwards to give voice to someone espousing obviously racist views that’s not objective. That’s trying to adhere to a nonsensical notion of neutrality.” Brent Cunningham is the executive editor of the Food and Environment Reporting Network, and a former deputy editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, where he wrote a piece for the magazine in 2003 entitled “Rethinking Objectivity.” He said he agrees with Wesley Lowery that “this embrace of an impossible standard has produced coverage that fails to convey the truth of a given situation, given cover to lazy reporting, and allowed those who would spin and distort the truth the ability to do so without being called on it.”
Will Meyer is a writer, editor, and musician from western Massachusetts and editor of a local publication called The Shoestring. He told CJR that in addition to moving beyond a commitment to an old-fashioned concept like objectivity, “I would argue that [we] need to move beyond an advertising/commercially driven press system. Yes, the objectivity standard absolutely privileges the white male vantage point, and I would agree with everyone who says there needs to be more work on diversifying newsrooms.” But Meyer said he also thinks that the practice of journalism has to “think about moving beyond the commercial pressures that created this shoddy standard to begin with.”