‘Objectivity is not good enough.’ A recap of our July 6 Exchange

On Monday, about 50 people participated in an Engaged Journalism Exchange focused on unpacking the problems posed by journalism’s pursuit of objectivity, and brainstorming alternative approaches to reporting.

“This is obviously not a new conversation,” said Engaged Journalism Exchange co-founder Andrea Wenzel as the meeting began, “but it’s something that has become more urgent.”

These exchanges are intended to bring together journalism researchers and practitioners to discuss the industry’s most pressing challenges. For this event, we heard from four guest speakers, two from industry and two from academia.

A national reckoning around race

The two who spoke from the practitioner perspective included Kat Stafford, the national race and ethnicity writer for the Associated Press, who reflected on how her lived experiences as an African American woman are essential to her work as a journalist; and Tauhid Chappell, a project manager for Free Press’ News Voices project and executive board member of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, who discussed how he is working with Free Press to “shift power and build journalism that will expose and eradicate white supremacy” — including through campaigns that offer paths forward for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times.

Stafford kicked the conversation off by explicitly connecting the conversation about objectivity with a larger one about systemic racism within the U.S. generally and journalism specifically.

“What we’re seeing across the nation right now is this national reckoning around race that, to be frank, was really 400 years in the making,” Stafford said. “So, when I think about the reckoning around objectivity in journalism… for me, personally, it is much more than that.”

Stafford pointed out that the discussion surrounding objectivity in journalism was helpful only to a point. The larger issue, she argued, was pushing news publishers to improve the ways in which they hire and retain journalists of color.

“The conversation about objectivity is important, but until newsrooms start to really not just hire journalists of color, but make plans to retain journalists of color, and help their careers flourish, the conversation is pointless.”

Chappell echoed this point during his presentation. He described the recent examples of journalists of color speaking out against the leadership within their own newsrooms, and connected those examples with the long history of racial oppression within the news industry — often under the banner of objectivity.

“The uprisings that we’re seeing with Black journalists and journalists of color within these newsrooms has long been a movement that has followed a legacy of hundreds of years of oppression, censorship, and disenfranchisement by the media industry,” Chappell said. “ These are communities that have been talking about these issues, but just have never had the platform, the agency or the ability to get these issues into the public consciousness. But now we’re starting to see that.”

An alternative to objectivity

The scholarly perspective came from Candis Callison, an associate professor at both the School of Journalism, Writing & Media and the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia; and Mary Lynn Young, an associate professor at the School of Journalism, Writing & Media at the University of British Columbia. They recently published a bookReckoning: Journalism’s Limits and Possibilities — that challenges conventional beliefs about objectivity, which they argue has been shaped by “white masculinity” in newsrooms — and call on journalists to be more reflective about their subjectivity.

Callison began her presentation by describing the book’s argument: That there is ongoing harm being done by journalists when it comes to race, gender, and indigenous peoples due in large part to the fact that newsrooms continue to comprise overwhelmingly white journalists who have, for the most part, been unwilling to engage in self-reflection when it comes to their approach to news.

“Really, where we’re coming from is that objectivity is not good enough,” Callison said. In Reckoning, she and Young argue that journalists should employ “systems journalism,” where their focus is less on describing events, and more on examining what those events reveal about social systems and structures. “We offer an alternative to objectivity,” she said. “We suggest that journalists should locate themselves and, in so doing, they might be able to situate where they know from what and how they know.”

After these brief presentations, the meeting opened up to questions from participants before shifting to small discussions in breakout groups. The full video of the event, including the Q&A and the shareback from the small group discussions, is available here.

Next Exchange focuses on news quality and sustainability

Our next Engaged Journalism Exchange will be an AEJMC preconference, and will be held on Wednesday, August 5 at 12 p.m. EST/ 9 a.m. PST. The main question of this next event: How is Covid-19 changing the way journalism researchers and practitioners approach news quality and economics? The event is free and anyone is welcome to attend. More information is available here.

Engaged Journalism Exchanges are organized by Andrea Wenzel, an assistant professor at Temple University, and Jacob Nelson, an assistant professor at Arizona State University. They are sponsored by Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon, the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. We’d also like to give special thanks to Letrell Crittenden for his help putting this past event together.



This series of digital and in-person gatherings seeks to bridge the divide between journalism scholars and journalism innovators and funders.

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Jacob L. Nelson

Assistant Professor at Arizona State University, Knight Innovation Fellow @TowCenter