In early 2017, Lewis Raven Wallace, a reporter with American Public Media’s nationally-broadcast Marketplace program, was fired over a personal blog entry he had written. In the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration as president, his blog post questioned the role of objectivity in journalism. Apparently, this exercise in deep thought on his own time was too much for his employer. He was fired for merely raising critical thoughts about one of journalism’s staunchly entrenched axioms. The senior editor who fired him gave him a clumsy lecture on the difference between activism and journalism. She offered, as a dubious example of her own journalistic virtue, that she had given up anti-apartheid activism as a youth to becoming a ‘professional’ reporter.
Wallace resisted both the demand to censor his post as well as a paltry severance offer in exchange for keeping quiet about his firing. He rightly saw the hypocrisy in a media outlet whose fear of public criticism outweighed its respect for intelligent, frank, critical reflection and analysis.
Wallace’s original blog post has now become a book, in which he seeks “to expose what I saw as a troubling double standard in which cisgender white men are treated as inherently ‘objective’ even when they’re openly biased, while the rest of us are expected to remain ‘neutral’ even when our lives or safety are under threat. I saw this playing out in real-time: Marketplace had a white male host who was notorious for opinionated tweets,” he writes.
Wallace’s book – The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity – is an exceptional study in the history and development of the concept of journalistic objectivity – and all the problems associated with it. ‘Objectivity’ (even defining it is a matter of contention, but it is usually assumed to have something to do with impartiality and detachment) has come to claim a central place in journalistic orthodoxy. It stands uneasily on a shaky throne. Never fully accepted by journalists – especially those who do not identify with the white, cis-men elites who defined that orthodoxy – objectivity come under increasing attack in recent years. Notions of ‘objectivity’ and ‘balance’ are wielded in ever more brazen and manipulative ways by an ever more aggressive right-wing in the United States and elsewhere.
Wallace’s book is important from two angles: historical and theoretical.
Light bulb by ColiNOOB (Pixabay License / Pixabay)
Much of his book is a historical survey of important challenges to the norm of ‘objectivity’ in journalism. Despite the stranglehold ‘objectivity’ seems to have over contemporary journalism – due in part to its pervasiveness in the stale, white and conservative ivory towers of journalism schools – its challengers have been many.
In the early 1800s, New York Tribune founder Horace Greeley argued the importance “of a journal removed alike from servile partisanship on the one hand and from gagged, mincing neutrality on the other. I believed there was a happy medium between these extremes – a position from which a journalist might openly and heartily advocate the principles and commend the measures of that party to which his conviction allied him, yet frankly dissent from its course on a particular question, and even denounce its candidates.” It was not neutrality or objectivity that was essential to good journalism, he argued, but rather independence.
A few decades later, pioneering African-American (and one of the first to use the term) journalist T. Thomas Fortune was also at work developing the principles and practices of independent journalism that was not afraid to dip into advocacy. In 1881 he and some colleagues founded the Globe newspaper (which subsequently went through a range of names during its nearly 80-year run), which printed passionate, fiery journalism that challenged the racism and inequality faced by African Americans.
“For Fortune, nonpartisanship was not so much a path to selling papers as a path to making just demands on behalf of his race,” writes Wallace. “If neither party served them, he wrote again and again, Black voters (and Black writers) should refuse allegiances. Fortunate cared about political equality and civil rights for Black people, full stop – so for him, non-partisanship was a natural stance, and a political one.”
African-American reporter Ida B. Wells was another important pioneering figure in early journalism. She left her position with the Memphis Free Speech to work for Fortune’s paper (then called the New York Age) in 1892, and she conducted passionate, illuminating investigative journalism on lynching. In an approach that prefigured the later Black Lives Matter movement, she investigated cases of lynching (often at the risk of her own life) and exposed the false claims and lies upon which lynchings were ‘explained’ by white politicians, police and journalists. She also exposed the rampant pervasiveness of the murderous practice.
Horace Greeley (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / Public Domain / Wikipedia)
A powerful contrast to Wells’ honest and frank reporting was that of the New York Times, which purported to use greater ‘objectivity’ in its reporting and which slandered Wells’ journalism in angry editorials. When the New York Times and other white papers reported on lynching, Wallace explains, “there was never an investigation into the allegations against the lynched person, or into the lack of consequences for mob violence. The New York Times reported on lynching from the perspective that, while lynchers ought to be stopped, the penalties for the type of crimes that Black men committed should be more swift and severe…The Times managed a semblance of ‘balance’ on lynching without bothering to gather the facts, while Wells, with a clear goal of ending lynching, worked tirelessly to expose facts that might otherwise have never been told.”
In the 20th century, socialist and labour journalists like Heywood Broun and Marvel Cooke likewise centred the pursuit of social justice in their reporting and journalism. They applied theory to practice by working to form some of the first labour unions at newspapers. Publishers and owners retaliated by seeking to retrench objectivity as an essential characteristic of journalists and argued that union members could not report objectively. The owners and bosses argued “that a union would compromise impartiality, a key part of ‘objectivity’ for journalists.” Objectivity, in other words, was more a part of corporate newspaper owners’ profit-making and union-busting toolkits, rather than an impartial virtue intrinsic to good journalism.
“News outlets, grappling with questions of trust and authority in the twentieth century, sought out a new stable ground,” writes Wallace. “They adopted ‘objectivity’ first as an aspiration, but they transformed it too quickly into a bludgeon, a weapon to regulate who gets to tell stories. And as journalism professionalized, ‘objectivity’ was defined by the bosses. The people in management were usually white men)who generally sought to maintain the status quo. It quickly became a tool for gatekeeping.”
Nowhere, perhaps, was this gatekeeping quality of ‘objectivity’ more evident than in the battles surrounding public broadcasting in the United States. ‘Objectivity’ was seized upon by right-wing and conservative activists who were determined to stop the progressive and democratizing potential of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Right-wing pundits honed ‘objectivity’ and ‘balance’ as catchphrases for their attacks on anything they didn’t like, never mind that such attacks were unfair and untrue. This highly successful right-wing practice continues today. The outcome of this was to curtail the very good journalistic work being done by public broadcasters, as they first began censoring themselves out of self-consciousness over the attacks of the right-wing. They soon found their ranks infiltrated and defunded by right-wing politicians and activists (appointed by Republican governments).
“The question was not whether the documentaries were factual, or even whether the journalism was slanted in some way; it was whether the documentaries might be fodder for conservative activists to attack. This fear of angering major sponsors or politicians set up a dangerous precedent: cautions against not checking one’s facts gave way to cautions against doing anything that might be accused of ‘bias’…right-wing activists saw bias in any programming they didn’t like, especially programming that concerned Black people and gay people,” explains Wallace, in his excellent account of how this process played out.
Ida B. Wells (Mary Garrity – Ida B. Wells-Barnett – Google Art Project – restoration crop / Public Domain / Wikipedia)
Wallace covers a lot of ground in his study, examining cases of journalists who fell afoul of conservative journalism’s norms by challenging the deeply-vested interests that hide behind the veil of ‘objectivity’. They include lesbian journalist Sandy Nelson; Black Canadian journalist Desmond Cole; New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse; and others. He looks at reporters during the Vietnam War, some of whom demonstrated incredible flexibility of mind in dodging state propaganda. They deftly stepped past the concomitant call for ‘balanced reporting’ from the right and tried to report honestly from the front lines. There is, he explains, a certain ‘purity ritual’, which journalism scholar Jay Rosen also describes as the ‘production of innocence’. In order to protect themselves from accusations of bias, journalists will frequently invent false equivalencies and fake forms of balance. One example: hunting down climate-change deniers to ‘balance out’ a report on the destructive effects of climate change. (This is but a variation on the New York Times‘ past practice of demanding stricter sentences for Black men’s purported crimes at the same time as calling for an end to lynching).
The present moment is just as fraught for journalists. They’re struggling to do more honest and insightful reporting than conservative journalistic norms of ‘balance’ permit. The stakes for society at large are high. Nowhere perhaps is this more evident than in media coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement. Wallace’s book opens with a riveting account of how Black Lives Matter activists worked assiduously to help white journalists see past their own biases, which they often mistook for ‘objectivity’.
Journalists – including Wallace himself, he admits – were used to not paying much attention to news reports of Black deaths at the hands of police. Journalists accepted, without thinking to question, police reports as to cause and circumstances of death. Mass protests of the sort that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri garnered greater media attention, but it took proactive efforts by community leaders and Black-run public relations firms like Mervyn Mercano’s Blackbird to open journalists’ eyes to the scale of the crisis. They did this by educating journalists about why and how initial police reports often contained false information designed to deter journalists, and by introducing them to community members affected by police killings. Previously, white journalists mostly only talked to police about these deaths – learning to engage with community members opened the eyes of journalists to a very different side of the situation.
This process was analogous in some ways to the struggle by queer activists and queer journalists in the 1970s and ’80s to force mainstream papers to take the AIDS crisis seriously, and to write respectfully about queer identity (another struggle which Wallace recounts in fascinating detail). In all these cases, we find that mainstream journalistic norms merely served as excuses to hide or defend the biases of journalists who were unable (or unwilling) to see past their own lenses of privilege, skin colour, or sexual and gender identity.
Examples of these biases continue to emerge every day. Mere weeks ago – too recently to make it into Wallace’s book – BBC presenter Naga Munchetty was disciplined for having referred to some of US President Donald Trump’s as being “embedded in racism”. Labelling Trump’s tweets racist was accurate, yet BBC management determined that Munchetty had violated their editorial code. Her discipline has sparked a massive backlash from reporters, policymakers, and the general public, underscoring just how out of date such attitudes are.
Yet outside of the corridors of the BBC and other traditionalist media institutions, things are, perhaps, changing. Wallace illustrates his study with examples from his work. He explores his dawning realization of the problems with the extractivist and colonialist model of journalism he was expected to pursue. He concludes with a look at some of the exciting new ideas that are emerging about what constitutes good reporting. A growing number of younger journalists are disillusioned with the conservative norms of corporate journalism. They have left positions with major media outlets to pursue more principled and accountable approaches to reporting and journalism. They’re forming new media organizations and civic journalism labs, trying to develop approaches to journalism that are more inclusive both for journalists and the public.
Mainstream newspapers erect paywalls that bar low-income people from reading their papers, or focus on the issues that matter to affluent advertisers and subscribers. They all too often slant their coverage to appeal to the affluent. They send an implicit message about who their intended audience is. Fortunately, independent-minded journalists like Wallace and others, with a greater allegiance to journalistic integrity than to the lure of high salaries and prestigious portfolios, are doing their best to keep the public mission and role of journalism relevant. They’re developing new and principled practices rooted in inclusivity and community accountability.
These journalistic innovators are reacting not only to the paradox of an increasingly disenfranchised public struggling to make sense of the world through an overwhelming proliferation of news and media, but also to a growing realization of the exploitative nature of traditional journalism itself. “The extractive approach to journalism treats facts like coal in a mine, using sources and places the way mining companies use land – as a resource to dig into, and then leave behind,” Wallace explains. “It is deeply grounded in capitalist ideology: people, experiences, and events are turned into commodities, things that can be sold as ‘clickbait’ or pushed as ‘shareable content.’ Such objectification bolsters journalists’ careers, but it doesn’t build trust or necessarily reflect a truer version of the world. It also limits the action and agency of the people and things we write about and claim to know, freezing them in place.”
Wallace cites, as an example of media practices that counter this approach, the work of Jade Begay of Indigenous Rising Media, who has developed “a model of journalism that’s not about storytelling for, or about, but with a community – more than just ‘service’ or ‘solutions’ journalism, she pushes for the decolonization of storytelling itself. In her context, that means returning the tools of making stories to the communities from which they came. And it means not rushing the process…”
Controlling and Contesting Narratives
Photo: Numbercfoto (Pixabay License / Pixabay)
Of course, I would say, there are limits to this. There are times when communities ought not to be in control of their own narratives, and in which it is important to provide insight and perspectives that may challenge the accepted orthodoxy of a community. After all, this is the only way that power and dogma has ever been disrupted (opening a path for everything from religious dissent to queer liberation). One of the benefits of orthodox journalism’s self-described ‘objectivity’ has long been its ability to position itself outside of vested community interests and traditions, as a means of challenging those interests and traditions.
Examples include religious dissenters who published pamphlets exposing ecclesiastical corruption; revolutionary pamphleteers challenging colonial orthodoxy; and emancipation campaigners and suffragettes. Many of these methods might not be considered journalism by the orthodox. Even in the 20th century, journalists who challenged McCarthyism in the 1950s, or the Vietnam War in the 1970s, played this role. They stepped outside the power structures of their communities to challenge community orthodoxy.
Of course, they didn’t really step outside power structures and vested interests; at least not entirely. This is perhaps the point Wallace would want us to understand. Their work was still indelibly stamped with a range of interests they chose not to interrogate, from their whiteness to gender and class positioning. Nevertheless, the point is that they used their role as journalists to challenge orthodox understandings and to offer new ways of seeing or acting. Journalism that only tells the stories a community wants to be told about itself would be a stale journalism indeed. It’s little more than propaganda. Thus, it is vital for journalists to challenge community doctrine, and sometimes to expose stories that a community might have wished remained buried.
This is why it is all the more important that journalists be open about their positioning. A story, for instance, about corruption within an Indigenous community’s leadership is very different when it is told by or with an Indigenous journalist. That journalist’s motivation lies in questioning their community leadership and prising open a space for change. This is, of course, different from when it is told by a mainstream white journalist whose interest lies in extracting a story for their portfolio. In this case, the Indigenous community is often depicted as merely an essentialized body. What’s lost is the richness of a dynamic community of differing and competing interests. Moreover, challenging tradition and orthodoxy within a community that is already marginalized (an Indigenous, immigrant or queer community, say) is a very different project from challenging tradition and orthodoxy within a predominantly affluent white community. It is still an important and necessary project but it comes with different considerations, nuances, and consequences.
Trans Perspectives and Journalism
Trans perspectives offer an unexpectedly important vantage from which to consider the growing challenge to objectivity in journalism, and Wallace develops a tremendously useful theoretical discussion on the subject. Early social and medical understandings of trans identity were premised on the idea that there are two binary genders: male and female. Transgenderism or transsexualism, according to this early paradigm, was about realigning the trans person’s identity from the one they were assigned at birth to the one they truly identified with. Yet all this was premised within a gender binary, which expected the individual to ultimately identify either as male or female.
Today, this simplistic and reductionist gender binary is widely challenged, even though it is still often prevalent in medical and legal institutions. In the last couple of decades, it has become more common to acknowledge “a massive expansion of possibility – trans, genderqueer, gender nonconforming, nonbinary, agender, Two Spirit, and many other categories were birthed or rebirthed,” writes Wallace. “Many young trans activists today reject the medical terminology of ‘transsexual’ altogether.”
All of this has important consequences for the broader consideration of subjectivity and objectivity. The corollary is that gender identity is subjective, not objective; and consequently “there is no ‘objective’ criteria for reporting on trans people.” For example, newsrooms already struggle with how to report on trans people who use pronouns or self-identifiers that run contrary to rigidly enforced styleguides (styleguides, however seemingly innocuous, are ultimately about imposing consistency, order and universalisms upon journalism’s persistently rebellious, inconsistent and disorderly subjects). But more significantly, it raises questions about authority in objective reporting – who gets to decide how to report on someone else’s identity?
And of course, conservatives have taken advantage of the opening that total subjectivity in reporting appears, on the surface, to provide. If truth is the exclusively subjective realm of the individual, then doesn’t that permit people to impose their labels and beliefs on others? If a trans person gets to define their identity, what is to prevent someone else from saying “in my world, X person is a male”, contrary to that person’s subjective identity?
Wallace makes quick work of this “straw man” counterargument, drawing on the arguments of trans Filipina journalist Meredith Talusan. Wallace writes: “My objection to calling trans women men is not because there is a fundamental or objective truth about calling trans women men,” [Talusan] said. She objects because it is disrespectful and goes against the self-determination of the group. She says that we live in a society that at least nominally strives to allow minority groups to self-define. We can acknowledge that gender identity is subjective, but the matter of respecting trans people’s gender identities is a matter of social contract and respect, not ‘objectivity.’ In other words, it’s a choice.”
This is far from an arcane or purely academic argument – it speaks directly to the heart of how to fashion a journalism that presents useful, coherent, and universally accessible analyses of the world while also accepting a greater role for subjectivity within that reporting.
“I don’t propose that we try to prove the objective realness of trans experience; instead, we need to reframe the value of subjectivities,” Wallace writes. “We can’t see, can’t know, can’t verify another’s experience – creating a society that embraces trans people is inherently about accepting a multiplicity of truths. And this change requires a value system.”
Another important dimension of this discussion is that subjectivity and self-definition – in other words, choice – is an inherently political act, which in and of itself can challenge the operation of power and control. Drawing on the work of Russian journalist Masha Gessen, Wallace points out that it is no coincidence that repressive regimes like Russia and even the United States under the Trump administration have targeted queer rights.
“[G]ender changes, bodies change, language changes. It is a gift of being human to have power and agency over these changes. And Gessen, expert at living under a totalitarian government, observes that agency – a sense of choice – is precisely the thing that threatens autocrats and dictators,” Wallace writes.
“Totalitarian regimes aim to make choice impossible,” [Gessen] write[s], arguing that autocracy is always about choicelessness: the autocrat relieves people of the need to make a choice, brings comfort to the masses by limiting their options. Choice, as they depict it, requires imagination, and imagination is the fabric of resistance.”
Trans identity is about claiming desire and choice, explains Wallace — about liberating one’s self-expression, perception by others, self-identity and self-articulation. Respecting that is about society at large learning to respect people’s self-expressed desires and choices. It opens the door to a new, better and more democratically empowering form of journalism.
“Journalists in the twenty-first century could use a similarly nuanced take on subjectivity and power. The journalist whose stories show what is possible threatens and undermines the concentration of power in the hands of a few. So does the transgender person, the queer person, the border-crosser. Black Lives Matter activists…When we choose to tell these stories, or ignore them, we are shaping what is possible. The same is true when we choose to refer to transgender women as women, or use nonbinary pronouns in a story, or discuss trans people on their own terms. I hope journalists can face these choices – and make them from a place of hope and principle, rather than hiding behind ‘objectivity.’ Standing to the side of history is impossible when we are the ones writing it.”
The View from Somewhere is an outstanding and urgently needed critique of journalistic orthodoxy. It questions who is served best by claims of ‘objectivity’ and ‘balance’ and exposes the hidden biases they disguise. Offering some new directions for journalism, it also offers important food for thought for anyone who aspires to practice the trade, and ought to be required reading in journalism schools everywhere.