Objectivity is dead, and I’m okay with it
Like a lot of people, I’ve been losing sleep over the news of the last week. As a working journalist, I’ve been deeply questioning not just what our role is in this moment, but how we must change what we are doing to adapt to a government that believes in “alternative facts” and thrives on lies, including the lie of white racial superiority.
I also have the great privilege of working for a public media organization, one whose mission is to serve our listeners as opposed to corporations or the cult of clicks and shares.
One of the diciest issues as we reconsider our role as journalists in this moment is that of “objectivity.” Some argue that if we abandon our stance of journalistic neutrality, we let the “post-fact” camp win. I argue that our minds — and our listeners’ and readers minds — are stronger than that, strong enough to hold that we can both come from a particular perspective, and still tell the truth. And I have the sense that this distinction is important in this moment, because we are going to have to fight for and defend what it means to serve the public as journalists.
A few thoughts on objectivity in this political moment:
- Neutrality isn’t real: Neutrality is impossible for me, and you should admit that it is for you, too. As a member of a marginalized community (I am transgender), I’ve never had the opportunity to pretend I can be “neutral.” After years of silence/denial about our existence, the media has finally picked up trans stories, but the nature of the debate is over whether or not we should be allowed to live and participate in society, use public facilities and expect not to be harassed, fired or even killed. Obviously, I can’t be neutral or centrist in a debate over my own humanity. The idea that I don’t have a right to exist is not an opinion, it is a falsehood. On that note, can people of color be expected to give credence to “both sides” of a dispute with a white supremacist, a person who holds unscientific and morally reprehensible views on the very nature of being human? Should any of us do that? Final note here, the “center” that is viewed as neutral can and does shift; studying the history of journalism is a great help in understanding how centrism is more a marketing tactic to reach broad audiences than actual neutrality. Many of the journalists who’ve told the truth in key historical moments have been outliers and members of an opposition, here and in other countries. And right now, as norms of government shift toward a “post-fact” framework, I’d argue that any journalist invested in factual reporting can no longer remain neutral.
- It matters who is making editorial decisions: I think marginalized people, more than ever now, need to be at the table shaping the stories the fact-based news media puts out. I think people crave the honesty, the uniqueness, the depth that comes out of bringing an actual perspective to our work. My experience is that audiences want us to be truthful and fair, but they don’t want us to be robots. And they don’t want us to all be white and male, a situation which creates its own sort of bias toward the status quo, male power and white racism.
- We can (and should) still tell the truth and check our facts: The job of storytelling, of truth-telling, is not going away. But it is getting harder and more complex, in the face of unknowable datasets, lying federal leaders, Facebook algorithm dominance and a changing but also opaque market for online news that tends to bring the foamiest of fluff to the top and confuses even the most savvy consumers. All of that said, the people consuming news are savvy. They know that news is curated and complex; that the editorial choice of what to report and how to report it is always a subjective one; that facts are real, but so are priorities and perspective. I think we are past the point where they expect us to speak to a fictitious and ever-shifting center in order to appear “neutral.” In other words, we can check our facts, tell the truth, and hold the line without pretending that there is no ethical basis to the work that we do.
- Journalists should fight back: As the status quo in this country shifts, we must decide whether we are going to shift with it. It seems clear that these shifts will not benefit those of us in the industry who care about truth-telling and about holding power accountable. Will we shift toward climate denial? Will we make space for demonization of Muslims and Mexicans and “Chicago”? Will we give voice to “alternative facts”? Instead of waiting and seeing, reacting as journalists are arrested, freedoms of speech curtailed, government numbers lied about, I propose that we need to become more shameless, more raw, more honest with ourselves and our audiences about who we are, and what we are in this for. To call a politician on a lie is our job; to bring stories of the oppressed to life is our job; to represent a cross-section of our communities is our job; to tell the truth in the face of “alternative facts” and routine obscuring is our job; and we can do all that without promoting the male-centric and whitewashed falsehood of objectivity. I also believe that by claiming these stances, we strengthen our position against those who would try to overwhelm and distract us with made-up stories. But we need to admit that those who oppose free speech, diversity and kindergarten-level fairness are our enemies.
- Get our sense of purpose, for real: We need to know why we tell these stories in order to continue to tell them well. And to fully represent our communities in their diverse truths in this day and age is a political statement, whether we like it or not. Rather than back off of those goals, we must double down. We will be called politically correct, liberal and leftist. We shouldn’t care about that nor work to avoid it. We don’t have time for that. Instead, we should own the fact that to tell the stories and promote the voices of marginalized and targeted people is not a neutral stance from the sidelines, but an important front in a lively battle against the narrow-mindedness, tyranny, and institutional oppression that puts all of our freedoms at risk.
I’m genuinely curious what people think about these ideas and would love to hear your thoughts. Like all of us, I’m just trying to figure it out, day in and day out. But I’m also not willing to accept obsolescence.