Journalism’s obsession with objectivity

Objectivity is the key to good journalism. So they say. So almost everybody says.

I’m not here to deny the importance of objectivity. It’s one of the sharpest tools available for exploring the truth. But it’s not the only tool, and modern journalism is sorely limited by its strict adherence to objectivity.

I’ve been pondering objectivity for some time, and feeling a sense of disquietude about its dominance in the field of journalism. That sense came into sharp focus after I discovered “The View From Somewhere,” a podcast (and book) by Lewis Raven Wallace, a trans journalist who was fired in 2017 by public radio’s Marketplace over a post on their personal blog entitled “Objectivity Is Dead, and I’m Okay With It.” I highly recommend the podcast for those who care about journalism. Haven’t read the book yet.

Some of the facts and concepts in this post are borrowed, in whole or in part, from Wallace’s work. It’s my own interpretation, of course.

Let’s start with some history. The concept of journalistic objectivity is relatively new — almost exactly a hundred years old, in fact. It emerged, coincidentally or not, at a time when newspapers had become very profitable enterprises bought and sold by rich men and corporations. Objectivity was used by those owners as a cudgel against employees’ efforts to unionize. Reporters were often fired for a supposed lack of objectivity — solely because they were trying to organize their workplaces.

From that twisted acorn did our mighty oak of objectivity spring. That’s not the whole story, but it should be remembered that objectivity has been used, not just as a guideline, but also as a weapon.

Some of America’s greatest journalists were not at all objective. I.F. Stone*, Ida B. Wells, Nellie Bly, Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, WIlfred Burchett, Ambrose Bierce, H.L. Mencken, Jessica Mitford, Ethel Payne, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, to name just a few. Detroit’s own Charlie LeDuff.

*Story Time! At the end of this post.

Take Thompson as a for-instance. He obliterated the very idea of objectivity on every page of his writing. In the process, he revealed levels of truth that an “objective” reporter couldn’t hope to express. And I can’t resist a few lines about Bierce, a largely forgotten writer from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, commonly (and unfairly) stereotyped as a sort of poor man’s Mark Twain. Bierce spent the bulk of his career writing, voluminously, for newspapers in San Francisco. He was unrepentant in savaging the predations of the rich, powerful and corrupt. He carried on a lifelong crusade against the railroad cartels that held the American West in their thrall.

Point being, many of those greats were outsiders, by choice or circumstance. Their viewpoints were not objective, and their reporting would not have been possible under the strictures of objectivity.

Let’s set aside the accomplishments of subjective journalism, and focus on the limitations of objectivity. For one, the observer effect — that the observation of a phenomenon inevitably has an effect on the phenomenon. Extreme example: In the Statehouse, just watch the politicians clam up when a reporter passes by. Or, take incidents of police brutality. No officer in their right mind would beat up or shoot someone if a reporter was on the scene. Now that smartphones have allowed anyone to commit an act of journalism, police are more often caught in the act by a citizen who is, by no means, objective.

Objectivity has more insidious effects. In the good old days of subjective reporting, journalism was a working-class occupation. Now it’s been professionalized and, as a result, the vast majority of reporters have college degrees in the humanities. A four-year degree is a prerequisite for most journalism jobs. But humanities grads are a small subset of the population, and not at all representative.

And since the educational pipeline is fraught with its own biases, the pool of reporters is more white, cis and male than it should be. And middle to upper middle class. (This is changing, slowly.)

Objectivity is also more comfortable ground for the average cis white male. If you’re a member of an oppressed group, you have to give up any type of activism on that group’s behalf. That’s a much weightier sacrifice for someone who’s black or Latinx or Muslim or gay or trans. That’s the choice that brought Lewis Raven Wallace’s mainstream journalistic career to an end. It’s a choice that cis white males like me never have to make.

Objectivity, as enforced in modern America, severely limits the off-duty activities of its professionals. You can’t be an activist or a candidate or a protester or even a political donor. You can, however, engage in acceptably mainstream activities. You can be a Rotarian or an Elk or a Mason if you choose. You can give to the United Way. You can participate in a Red Cross blood drive. You can play bridge or darts or disc golf, fish or hunt, or cook or embroider or tat.

You can, in short, be active in any way that doesn’t challenge the fundamental precepts of American society. You can be a capitalist, but woe betide you if your publisher finds out you’re a socialist.

This is a manageable sacrifice for those of us who aren’t disadvantaged by the biases of American society. It’s a much larger sacrifice for those who suffer under the weight of injustice. To take an extreme example, if you were a journalist in South Africa under apartheid, would you be willing to stay out of politics — even if you believed that apartheid was a crime against humanity?

Would that be an easier choice for a white journalist than a black one?

Wallace’s break with convention came after the election of Donald Trump. Wallace suddenly felt the prospect of a government actively trying to roll back LGBTQIA rights and visibility. In the age of Trump, forswearing political activity became an unbearable choice for Wallace. And so, Marketplace lost its one and only trans reporter.

One more thing about the age of Trump. Liberals and progressives often criticize Democratic politicians for exercising restraint and collegiality, even as Republican politicians happily pull every dirty trick in the book. Well, in the age of Trump, with its “alternative facts” and dog-whistling and policies based on lies and cruelty, perhaps journalistic objectivity is a luxury we can no longer afford.

Or at the very least, perhaps we need a much broader variety of journalisms, from objective to advocacy to gonzo. Let’s open up the toolbox and see what we’ve got.

Story Time! When I was a senior in college, my then-girlfriend and I founded a lecture series under the auspices of student government. The best experience of the year, for me, was hosting I.F. Stone, who had retired from journalism a few years earlier and had immersed himself in the study of ancient Greece, of all things. (The result of that “hobby” was a book called The Trial of Socrates.) Stone was a tiny fellow but brimming with energy, curious about everything. It was a chore, but a joyful one, to try to keep up with him.

Stone spent some of his free time in the university library; I also took him to an off-campus bookstore that had a substantial selection of the classics. He spent a lot of time in there, and emerged with a huge stack of newly-purchased books.

His lecture covered his career as an openly leftist journalist whose I.F. Stone’s Weekly — entirely his own work — was widely read in Washington, D.C., even by many who thought he was a crank or perhaps a Commie. One anecdote stuck with me: Stone was trying to pin down rumors that the U.S. government was conducting secret underground nuclear bomb tests. He couldn’t get anything from the administration or Pentagon, naturally. So he went to what was then called the Coast and Geodetic Survey, which — among many other things — kept track of seismological data. He spoke with a knowledgeable CGS functionary who, overwhelmed that an actual reporter was interested in his obscure toilings, happily provided Stone with all the evidence needed to expose the testing regime. The functionary had no idea that that’s what he was doing, of course. Until or unless he read the next issue of the Weekly.

5 thoughts on “Journalism’s obsession with objectivity

  1. Robert zeliff

    This idea of yours, hopefully gain some traction. “Objective” journalist often go to extremes to provide a “balanced” narrative, often diluting the event they find newsworthy.

    Reply
    1. jobtate

      Interesting stuff, John. I have wondered before how thin the line between “journalist” and “historian” is or should be. Centuries removed, I think we can all agree that we hope Herodotus was as objective as possible. Every person on Earth has skin in the current narrative game but years and years from now, people will weigh the objectivity of those who reported on this time to gain a better understanding of it.

      Reply
  2. kjkelley1

    Back in the 80s when I worked for The Guardian, an “independent radical newsweekly” based in NYC, I was arrogant enough to believe in, and practice, advocacy (left-wing) journalism. I eventually came to understand that a journalist’s proper role is to present info gathered as clearly and fairly as possible and trust readers’ ability to decide what to think about that info. Journalism, I used to tell students at SMC, is about the reader, not the writer.

    Also, one of the “greatest journalists” you cite — Wilfred Burchett — did some fine reporting for the Guardian, especially on nuked Hiroshima, but was revealed to be a (Soviet-paid) communist hack.

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      I know Burchett was a Communist, but he still did some fine journalism. Advocacy reporting is a dangerous thing to do because you don’t have the clear guardrails offered by the objectivity standard. A lot of advocacy reporting doesn’t age well. But some of it stands the test of time.

      Reply

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