The Case for a Cult of Subjectivity
Journalist Lewis Wallace on the false promise and destructive legacy of “objective” journalism.
In 2017, Lewis Raven Wallace was fired from American Public Radio’s “Marketplace” for writing, and refusing to take down, a blog post that questioned the defining conceit of American journalism. This is the belief that “objective” reporting is both an achievable ideal and the bedrock of public trust in journalism. From this sacrilegious blog post emerged a forthcoming book, The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity (U. Chicago, 2019). In it, Lewis presents an alternative history of American journalism. Instead of kneeling at the pedestal of objectivity as symbolized by the New York Times, Lewis describes how smaller, community-based and proudly subjective institutions — often dismissed as mere “advocacy” or “niche” organs — have long served their communities, the wider public and the Truth when the mass-circulation guardians of Serious Journalism were failing all three in spectacular fashion.
Among the book’s touchstones is the African-American journalist and activist Ida B. Wells, whose brave coverage of post-bellum lynching in the South generated awareness and legal action around the crisis. Lewis believes the stories of Wells and others like her are relevant to journalism’s current woes. Transparency about subjectivity and bias not only produces more impactful work, he says, but will be integral to any successful effort to revive deflating public trust in journalism.
“I think transparency and claiming our values is a better option right now than just digging in and pretending there are two kinds of journalism, biased and unbiased,” he says. “We also urgently need to be able to identify the process and motives that create ‘fake news’ and disinformation, and to identify how they are different from values-driven journalism. Both are non-objective journalism, but they’re not the same thing. It’s subjectivity versus bullshit.”
The advocacy model is nothing new, Lewis argues, but has been practiced for a long time by so-called “community” media representing marginalized communities that never had the luxury of pretending not to have a subjective viewpoint. Lewis will further explore this history in a soon-to-be-launched podcast, The View from Somewhere, now in the final week of a Kickstarter campaign.
News-to-Table interviewed Lewis over email about his work and why a growing awareness of subjectivity is changing journalism for the better. The interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
You were fired from your public radio job in 2017 for the crime of challenging the idea that journalism can or should be “objective.” How long was this gestating before you wrote the blog post?
Before I was a journalist, I was an activist for many years around police violence and anti-racism and trans issues. Then I found myself in small town Ohio at a public radio station called WYSO, covering the death of a young black man named John Crawford III, who was shot and killed by white police inside a Walmart not far from where I lived. It turned out he was holding a BB gun sold in the store.
It was my job to report through a guise of “neutrality,” but it was clear to me that the whole process of how stories became news was anything but neutral. It took the Ferguson uprising to bring attention to John Crawford’s death. Even after Ferguson, Black Lives Matter had to push to get these stories covered around the country. When I started researching the history of “objectivity,” I quickly learned that journalists like Ida B. Wells, who covered lynching, had been written off as “advocates,” not journalists. It illuminated for me how news judgment is never neutral, and race and racism are huge determining factors in whose lives and deaths get covered, and how they get covered.
For the last two years, you’ve been advocating a sort of inversion of the traditional view of how public trust in journalism is established. You argue that the cult of “objectivity” has undermined trust for reasons you think should be obvious. Does the current conversation around “trust” present an opportunity — maybe one we can’t afford to miss — to remove these objectivity blinders?
First of all, people who have very rarely seen themselves represented fairly in mainstream media — trans people, for example — often find the idea that “objectivity” builds trust laughable. “Objective” reporting on trans people has often been deeply distorted and unfair to us. As a trans person, and a white person trying to reckon with my own racism, I don’t trust people who believe they are “neutral” on gender or race.
In terms of rebuilding trust, the journalism critic Jay Rosen talks about the idea that audiences and journalists are in this sort of downward objectivity spiral. Journalists claim “objectivity” to protect ourselves from criticism for our (inevitable) biases and mistakes. Audiences see bias — because we make careless mistakes, or we make biased mistakes, because we’re human beings — and instead of admitting or probing our biases, we defend our “objectivity.” The relationship remains severed, and people think we’re just full of shit. They have lots of choices about where to get their news, which is a good thing, so they go elsewhere.
Then there’s the related issue of who is most vulnerable to these attacks around being “biased.” Often people of color, trans people, and other members of oppressed groups are more easily judged as “biased” and written off. Especially if we have a history of advocating for our communities. That has consequences for diversity in newsrooms and also for this audience dynamic around trust. I think that we have the potential to heal relationships between journalists and the people who depend on us by being transparent instead of trying to be unassailable. If we claim a set of values, then people can align with us, or disagree with us, or hold us accountable to these values.
To play devil’s advocate, some would say that writing from a position of strong bias, even if its transparent, can result in a different set of distortions. Does advocacy journalism carry its own risks?
Right, so there’s some really tricky material in the book about the difference between subjective journalism, and misinformation or disinformation. There’s a lot of irresponsible melding of these concepts out there right now. People are told they can write off journalism as untrue if individual reporter has biases. That’s a tactic the radical right has used a lot to discount liberal journalism that they don’t like. They research a reporter’s background and try to discredit them. But every single individual reporter has biases, so this becomes an easy way to take down almost anyone. Women and trans people and people of color are easy targets for this because our subjectivity is less acceptable even to many liberals. This is something we’ll deal with in the podcast.
The podcast will be a running conversation and history lesson about subjectivity and journalism?
The podcast is based on the research I’ve been doing for the last two years for my book, The View from Somewhere. In a nutshell, it’s a romp through the history of journalists who have pushed back on, challenged, and changed “objectivity” in U.S. journalism, with a focus on marginalized voices. My goal in both the book and the podcast is to contextualize the current existential terror about the future of journalism and say, hey, actually, lots of great journalism throughout history has been open about its own subjectivity. Instead of trying to avoid being like these journalists who were written off as “biased,” maybe we can learn something from them.
Obviously, the rise of “fake news” is a bigger problem, but you’re saying that being honest and transparent can help blunt the ability of one side to discredit information it doesn’t like?
Yes. I argue that transparency about our process and motives as journalists is a way to cut through all of this. It’s not a silver bullet, because nothing is. But I think transparency and claiming our values is a better option right now than just digging in and pretending there are two kinds of journalism, biased and unbiased. That’s so twentieth-century, and it’s not a good enough analytical framework for this moment.
We also urgently need to be able to identify the process and motives that create “fake news” and disinformation, and to identify how that is different from self-consciously subjective, or community-driven, or values-driven journalism. I sum it up as subjectivity versus bullshit. Both are non-objective journalism, but they’re not the same thing.
Your book tells the stories of so-called “niche” or “advocacy” newspapers covering important issues years before the “objective” mainstream got around to them — police brutality in the black community, the AIDS crisis, just to name a couple. How does this history support your project of moving journalism towards more transparency, engagement and advocacy?
Journalism projects in marginalized communities have long been models for how to claim subjectivity while also doing hard reporting. The Black press, the LGBTQ press, Native American press and radio, community radio — they have all done this in different ways. No outlet actually speaks to some nebulous “everyone” — we can learn from history that it’s not the end of journalism to admit we have a perspective.
I don’t propose tweaking objectivity to make it more thoughtful or more inclusive. I think we have to let go of this whole idea that there’s some center, some objective position we can all attain. The history of so-called “alternative” media can teach us that that’s okay. Journalism will survive the internet and the return to a focus on niche audiences. And outlets that cater primarily to white people, or to rich people, will be exposed for what they are.
One of the fascinating things happening right now, in journalism but also in the culture generally, is the way people are coming to terms with their own subjectivity, which they thought didn’t exist, but in fact was only invisible to them.
I include myself in that. When you come from a dominant perspective, it can be hard to see or admit your own subjectivity. Like for me as a white person, I wasn’t taught to think of my racial perspective as a “white perspective.” I was taught that I was the norm and people of color were “different.” When we accept that framework, we end up in this dynamic where black journalism is “Black journalism” while white journalism is just “journalism.” LGBTQ journalism is “activist journalism” while straight and cisgender people’s view of us is the “objective” view. People with power are consistently positioned as more capable of being objective. As the radio producer Ramona Martinez says, “Objectivity is the ideology of the status quo.”
I’m usually not a fan of social media, but it does seem that a lot of people have received an education in this from direct interactions online.
Social media and social activism have definitely helped. I think “call-out culture” to a certain extent is a good thing, because it gives privileged people opportunities to see ourselves more clearly.
Can you talk a little about putting these ideas into practice through your work with the Allied Media Conference? What are some examples taking root around the country that embody the vision of a proudly subjective media?
Last summer, I organized a series of workshops at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit focused on “movement journalism.” I talked about journalism needing to claim its values, and the need to transform our economic and political systems in the direction of reparations and equity. For me, and for the folks I’m working with on movement journalism, the idea is to transform journalism itself in this direction. This means not just writing “advocacy journalism,” but actually addressing some of the problematic power dynamics around how we produce journalism. Even sympathetic journalists go into communities and cherry-pick stories of pain or oppression or hope. My friend Jade Begay with Indigenous Rising Media calls this “extractive storytelling,” and my colleagues at Scalawag Magazine talk a lot about parachute journalism, outsiders coming in to ogle at the backwards South.
Who is doing good work on this front?
There are a lot of amazing organizations already working to transform that whole dynamic. Scalawag is one. One of my favorites is City Bureau in Chicago. They’re training Chicagoans on the South Side to go out and document public meetings, do the reporting themselves. They’re also empowering journalists from marginalized communities to insist on better, more holistic coverage of our communities from mainstream outlets. In North Carolina, the Free Press’s News Voices project trains mainstream newsrooms to use community organizing tactics to better work with communities they’ve neglected. Allied Media supports a bunch of grassroots efforts to produce news and information in Detroit.
We all agree that we need new models. And often those “new models” are old models being used by people in marginalized places, where making change through stories has been a matter of survival for a long, long time.
Last edited: February 15, 2019
Author: Alexander Zaitchik
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Illustration: Photo courtesy of Lewis Wallace / Ida B. Wells illustration (artist unknown, public domain)