The Dangerous Myth Of Media Objectivity

This notion of balance that media figures stubbornly cling to has had a literal effect on our brains, and has increased violence against the most vulnerable in our society.

The historically fraught debate over journalistic neutrality was thrust into the spotlight when Out magazine ran a photoshoot and 5,000-word profile devoted to Milo Yiannopoulos, Breitbart tech editor and notorious hatemonger.

In July, Yiannopoulos was permanently banned from Twitter for his part in a harassment campaign against actress and comedian Leslie Jones consisting of racist and sexist tweets. In Out’s interview, he scoffed at the idea that he is racist, saying, “I just like fucking blacks and, ergo, [am] unlikely to be a racist.” He later went on to rant about the Black Lives Matter movement, saying, “It has achieved nothing else but to divide people and to fuel racism.” He elaborated by repeating racist stereotypes, the first being the same one white police officers have used in justification of their lethal use of force against unarmed black men: “It’s just not the right response. If you have a community with a reputation of being aggressive and obnoxious and unreasonable and wallowing in victimhood, that’s the last thing you do.”

Last November, Yiannopoulos wrote a tirade against the transgender community and announced his support of a petition to “Drop the T” from the LBGT umbrella. Despite the backlash, he further ridiculed transgender women in the Out profile, saying, “You really expect me to believe that I shouldn’t laugh about trannies? It’s hilarious. Like, dude thinks he’s a woman?”

In response to this editorial decision, a coalition of LGBTQ media (including Out’s founder and former editor-in-chief, Michael Goff) signed an open letter that stated, in part, “[The piece] makes light of Yiannopoulos’s trolling while simultaneously providing him a pedestal to further extend his brand of hatred.” Speaking of the potential impact and the responsibility queer media has to its readers, the coalition also noted, “We thus have an obligation, at a minimum, to ensure that what we publish — no matter how crass or sensationalized it may be — avoids fostering harm to queer people.”

In an absurd defense of the magazine’s decision to publish the piece, editor-in-chief Aaron Hicklin said no one reading the profile “will be converted one way or the other to either a supporter [or an adversary] of Milo’s, because they’ll all come to this piece already with a firm impression of who he is, and if anything, it’ll just reinforce that impression.”

The scandal raised complicated questions about the delicate journalistic balance between ostensible objectivity and human rights — and particularly, the rights of the marginalized, who are frequently subject to abuse and even violence. Is it the media’s responsibility to cover groups or persons who purposefully use hateful and provocative speech as a means to gain attention? In what way should this coverage manifest? And, perhaps most importantly — at what point are journalists obligated to repudiate notions of objectivity for the sake of humanity and morality?

In an age where more marginalized groups are fighting for their rights — and in an election year featuring one of history’s most openly hateful presidential candidates — there’s never been a better time to explore these questions.

In response to the backlash Out received, Hicklin went into condescension mode, tweeting, “Readers don’t know how to read journalism anymore.”

So what is objectivity as it relates to journalism — or rather, what is it supposed to be? According to The American Press Institute, the original concept of objectivity in journalism requires “a transparent approach to evidence” so that “biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work;” it was never “meant to imply that journalists were free of bias.” Dr. Sandrine Boudana suggests that the concept of journalistic objectivity is evolving, and it “can no longer be considered a synonym for neutrality or detachment.”

What is essential in defining and interpreting objectivity is its relationship to people. In the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, we’re reminded to “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort; show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage, [and] consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication.”

Ryan Thomas, assistant professor of journalism studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia, wrote that the pressure to be objective when covering bombastic political figures like Donald Trump “may impede journalists’ crucial role as stewards of democracy.” Adhering to an uncritical (and arguably immoral) interpretation of objectivity causes journalists to disengage from the impact “Trump is having on the democratic process.” The concepts of neutrality and balance, argues Thomas, are disproportionality relied upon, exacerbating this disengagement. He concludes that “journalism ought to be . . . on the side of democracy, good governance, and the protection of people’s rights and civil liberties.”

The Milo profile was far from the first time that an outlet has, I’d argue, favored an obscure notion of objectivity over the protection of human rights and civil liberties. In May, USA Today printed an op-ed written by the president of the American Family Association (AFA), Tim Wildmon, urging readers to boycott the discount retailer Target due to their inclusive bathroom policy. USA Today neglected to inform its readers that AFA is an anti-LGBT hate group, while also providing a space for Wildmon to perpetuate the “bathroom predator” myth. Not only has this virulent lie been disproven, its infectious reach has had a documented impact on the psychological and physical safety of the transgender community.

In August, The Hill published a column authored by conspiracy theorist Roger Stone concerning the debunked allegation that the November election will be “rigged” for Hillary Clinton. Earlier this year, Stone was banned from appearances on the cable news networks, CNN and MSNBC, due to his racist and sexist online commentary. In defense of its editorial decision, The Hill told Media Matters for America (MMFA) they provide “a platform for contributors, encompassing politics and policy, from all points of the political compass, including those with provocative voices.” Notably, they claimed they are “always providing and seeking balance among the points of view” presented.

As reported by MMFA, in 2005, the Associated Press “juxtaposed a quote from Troy Newman, president of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, with one from National Organization for Women (NOW) president Kim Gandy, falsely suggesting that the two groups are comparable by omitting Operation Rescue’s history of extremist tactics and incendiary rhetoric.” Newman is the same man who, in 2003, called the murder of an abortion doctor a “justifiable defensive action.” Today, he is the president of Operation Rescue and secretary on the Board of Directors of the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) — the group behind the doctored Planned Parenthood videos. As detailed by Rewire, after the CMP videos were released last summer, “numerous Planned Parenthood clinics [were] vandalized or subjected to arson.”

Harry Houck is an ex-NYPD detective and is employed as a law enforcement analyst for CNN. He regularly appears to provide “expertise” whenever law enforcement is under scrutiny for the death of unarmed black and brown Americans. As documented by MMFA, Houck often uses his air time to “blame black victims of police violence and peddle racist tropes about black criminality.” When CNN puts individuals like Houck on air, allowing him to attack deceased victims of police brutality and assert racist views — such as that black people are “prone to criminality” — they are sustaining the violence they’re covering.

Lisa Wade, a professor of sociology at Occidental College, has argued that media coverage of violent crime in part contributes to the racist, and often unconscious, belief that black people are inherently more dangerous. She wrote:

“Each time we see a black person on TV who is linked with a violent crime or portrayed as a criminal, the neurons in our brain that link blackness with criminality fire. The more often a link is triggered, the stronger it becomes. Disproportionate reporting . . . make the neural links in our brain — its actual physical structure — reflect the racism inherent in the reporting itself.”

She goes on to say that these associations are pre-conscious, and concludes that “Biased reporting, in other words, changes the minds of viewers, literally.”

Regarding this unconscious bias, University of Virginia psychologist Brian Nosek told Mother Jones, “There doesn’t need to be intent, doesn’t need to be desire; there could even be desire in the opposite direction.”

In all these cases, a platform was provided to individuals with views that aren’t just contentious, but actively dangerous. One can draw a straight line between the publication of these pieces, and violence enacted against marginalized communities.

Another example of this dynamic at play? The media’s coverage of one Donald Trump.

In August, Jennifer Pozner wrote about the role media has played in earning Donald Trump the Republican nomination for president. “Each time news outlets . . . quoted his every information-light rant without providing factual corrections, they granted his candidacy increased legitimacy,” she wrote. “His rise to political power would not have been possible without access to this institutionally-approved megaphone.”

Worse still, that media megaphone has enabled Trump to perpetuate harmful ideas and even spur abusive actions. Trump rallies over the course of this election cycle have been synonymous with physical abuse against, primarily, people of color. For example, in Kentucky, a young black woman was shoved repeatedly after being forced to leave after protesting. In North Carolina, a black protester was punched in the face by a white supporter who later said it was because he thought the protester “might be with a terrorist organization.”

According to a new report from California State University–San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, hate crimes against Muslims in the United States have risen to their highest level since the aftermath of 9/11, and political rhetoric may have played a role.

As Pozner pointed out, it’s not difficult to discern why the media has chosen to cover Trump so prolifically, and without sufficiently framing the danger of his rhetoric: Trump stories translate to views, clicks, and cold hard cash. This money-grab motive further complicates any notions of respectable objectivity. In the case of both Trump and Yiannopoulos, those in power — news producers, TV pundits, print publishers, and online editorial boards — have simply chosen profit over people, while justifying their ethical breach under the guise of objectivity.

The people who have never been, and will likely never be, personally harmed by the words or actions of these controversial figures are granted the privilege to provide them with whatever platform they see fit. And in choosing that platform, these privileged few have consistently favored commercial interests over moral ones.

It’s also worth noting that this isn’t just a matter of providing a platform in the first place, but of how the coverage itself is handled. Presidential candidates are important to cover — when they defy expectations and break from years of tradition, this only adds to their newsworthiness. But the lack of critical coverage, combined with overexposure, is a clear breach of ethics. In too many cases, the media has covered Trump’s racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and sexist comments without sufficiently calling them out as such; in presenting them “neutrally,” they have also leant them credence. Similarly, in the Yiannopoulos interview, Out published statements like, “Nobody should be playing the victim. Nobody should be doing this grievance, oppression bullshit malarkey,” without remarking on the dangers of such speech.

This kind of coverage is, quite frankly, irresponsible and dangerous.

When providing a platform for views that are provably untrue, racist or bigoted, or some combination thereof, media representatives consistently argue that appearances are not endorsements and both sides of the debate should be presented. Ryan Thomas wrote that objectivity in journalism “is a much misunderstood concept and is too often uncritically mythologized as central to American journalistic practice.” As journalist Brent Cunningham wrote, “Objectivity excuses lazy reporting.”

As we’ve seen all too often this year alone, when hateful lies are presented uncritically under the auspices of neutrality, “we fail to push the story toward a deeper understanding of what is true and what is false.” This notion of balance that media figures stubbornly cling to has had a literal effect on our brains, and has increased violence against the most vulnerable in our society.

We are never supposed to take outrageous figures like Yiannopoulos or Trump, and the offensive positions they hold, seriously. When a professional abuser is uncritically profiled in a magazine, or a president of a hate-group is presented as an opposing expert in a reported piece, it perpetuates a cycle of violence on our psyches and our bodies and maintains the status-quo of discrimination, inequity, and inequality.

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