June 28, 2022

This column originally appeared in The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter that centers conversations about gender in media. Subscribe here to join the community.

There’s a moment from the 2016 Democratic National Convention that I don’t talk about.

I was there with The Washington Post’s social team. Even though I was thrilled at the prospect of electing the first female president, I didn’t dare let my emotions show on my face when I had my press credentials around my neck. The convention that year was tense because there was a perception, both from the right and the left, that journalists were unanimously in support of Hillary Clinton and putting their fingers on the scales in favor of her over Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. A photo of me laughing, crying, or displaying any other kind of visible emotion could circulate on Twitter and do so much damage, both to my professional credibility and my employer’s.

It was the third night of the convention, when the roll call of delegates would confirm Clinton as the Democratic nominee. She had already clinched the nomination, and I was sitting on low risers near the Alaska delegation, waiting for the famous confetti to fall.

A video rolled on the giant screens around the convention hall. It flashed George Washington’s presidential portrait, and then John Adams’, and then all of the presidents until they lined up in a mosaic of the 44 men this country has elected to lead us. Then the mosaic shattered like, well, glass, to reveal a live video of Clinton from New York, where she was surrounded by women.

The sensory shock of it — the loud shatter, the thunderous applause, the music — shook something loose in me. I slipped into the emotion of the moment. I let myself drift on the experience while Clinton thanked the delegation for helping her put the “biggest crack in that glass ceiling yet.” The camera panned away and showed a little girl at her side.

“And if there are any little girls out there who stayed up late to watch, let me just say: I may become the first woman president, but one of you is next.”

I already had tears in my eyes, but that’s when I broke. I ripped off my lanyard, stuffed it into my tote bag, sat down on the bleacher, and sobbed.

It was less about Clinton and more about what her nomination symbolized — about what the moment symbolized. When I watch the video back, I’m less moved by her presence than the images of the crowd responding to her and absorbing the enormity of what they’d accomplished. After the grueling campaign season watching Trump glide closer and closer to the Republican nomination by speaking to what felt like America’s cruelest natures, to be in a room filled with women of all ages, queer people, and people of color who were interested in working together to protect my rights and the rights of people I loved was a powerful reminder that a plural and liberal coalition could exist, and that it did exist. It was a moment of optimism after months of horror.

Removing my credentials was a risk. Security on the convention floor was tight and I would be asked to leave if anyone saw me without a lanyard.

But in that moment, I knew I had a choice to make between professionalism and humanity. Maybe it was the exhaustion, or the lack of food I’d had to eat, or the swelling music. I couldn’t pretend not to be moved. I lost access to all objectivity, if I had had any to begin with.

After the Supreme Court released its opinion overturning Roe v. Wade last week, several newsrooms sent emails reminding workers to avoid tweeting anything that may give a perception of bias.

The emails were sent in service of newsrooms’ desire to uphold the journalistic value of objectivity — or at least the appearance of it. When, according to Gallup, only 36% of the country has a “great deal” or “fair” amount of trust in the mass media, I understand why the need for legacy newsrooms to be perceived as “unbiased” seems critical.

But the pursuit of the appearance of objectivity (as opposed to focusing on truthful and contextual reporting of the news) has always been a cynical public relations tactic, one that came to prominence at a time when the industry — and who works in it — looked very different than it does today. Performing objectivity is outdated, and if we want to preserve public trust in media institutions, the best thing we can do is to tell the truth.

To be a journalist is to absorb reality and filter the most necessary, useful information for our audiences. We contextualize. We choose facts.

The American press has always been inherently political. The country’s oldest continuously published newspaper, The Hartford Courant, was founded in 1764 and “was an influential backer of the rebel cause” during the American Revolution. The New York Post was founded in 1801 by Alexander Hamilton and funded by Federalists in response to Thomas Jefferson’s election to the presidency. In the New York Daily-Times’ (now The New York Times) inaugural issue, it published: “We shall be Conservative, in all cases where we think Conservatism essential to the public good;—and we shall be Radical in everything which may seem to us to require radical treatment and radical reform.” And The Atlantic, originally the Atlantic Monthly, was founded in 1857 as an abolitionist paper.

In fact, according to Lewis Raven Wallace’s “The View from Somewhere,” it wasn’t until the 1920s, after World War I, that journalistic institutions started to pursue the appearance of objectivity as a core value. This shift corresponded with an era of increased professionalism, when journalism became a discipline one could learn in school, similar to science or law (and similarly in the worlds of STEM and the law, there is a tradition and expectation that they interpret facts in the most neutral way possible, as if they could be detached from the political reality in which they exist). Wallace cites New Republic co-founder Walter Lippmann as an outspoken proponent of professionalizing the industry and introducing the performance of objectivity as a tenet in journalism. Wallace says Lippmann’s concerns arose in the postwar years after he saw how easy it was to tilt public opinion using propaganda.

The New York Times, The Atlantic and those other publications have changed significantly in the centuries since they were founded. They have new goals and missions, but what they do at their cores is the same: They contextualize information about the world to help readers make informed decisions in a democratic society.

“No one can know all the available facts, so we need people to translate and tell the story, to distill and explain the knowable world,” Wallace writes. To pretend that such an act isn’t inherently political or shaped by the biases of a person’s background and experience is absurd.

The appearance of objectivity as a core value of the journalism industry is only about a hundred years old, and yet we cling to it as if it were a bedrock value. One hundred years ago, women couldn’t open bank accounts in their own names. Interracial marriage was illegal. And because of the prevalence of Jim Crow laws, according to many political measures, the U.S. did not meet the definition of a democracy until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

To illustrate how much media has changed in the last hundred years, here is a brief list of developments that have fundamentally changed how journalists do their jobs: audio recording (first on tapes, then digital), radio (the WHOLE radio), pagers, ballpoint pens, typewriters, answering machines, television, the 24-hour news cycle, the internet (the WHOLE internet), laser printing, Wi-Fi, email, personal computers, Google Docs, social media, Slack, livestreaming, and podcasting.

Rather than adapting to the rhetorical needs of an unprecedented period of democratic destabilization, legacy newsrooms are clinging to outdated values while conceding only when public opinion demands it, or when the Overton Window shifts so an issue becomes mainstream.

Women and people of color are allowed to work and even ascend to leadership roles, even when they are — gasp! — pregnant. Queer people can generally feel safe to be open about their partners and families. Interns are paid.

Of course, none of these norms is perfectly enforced, but public opinion has shifted so much on them that these are at least valid issues to criticize workplaces over when they fall short. The majority of newsrooms just observed Juneteenth, which only became a federally recognized holiday last year due, in part, to the worldwide protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by police. Newsrooms also widely condone employee participation in Pride events, as if any of these decisions are apolitical.

Wallace also cites Columbia journalism professor and sociologist Michael Schudson’s argument that “anxiety about objectivity was often a response on the part of privileged white men, realizing for the first time that theirs were not the only voices, their truths not the only truths.”

Even The Washington Post’s slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” which was put into place during the Trump presidency, is not an expression of neutral or apolitical intent. During those four years, the paper — as well as all other mainstream legacy newsrooms — took an adversarial position against the White House because the realities of the situation demanded it. A certain decorum enshrined by one hundred years of careful relations between the government and the free press fell apart when the president and his administration told lies and attacked the press for reporting them as such. Unprecedented times called for a change in tack.

Joe Biden is in the White House, but it doesn’t mean we return to normal. The actions put in motion between 2016 and 2020 are still very much realities.To pretend they are not is to be naive at best and deliberately dense and avoidant at worst.

This revisiting of objectivity is not a matter of being overly emotional on social media. This is about the thousands of media workers who kept straight faces as they reported on Trump’s attacks on the press throughout his campaign, who snuck out the back door of the newsroom while cars were lit on fire outside their offices, who watched security of their workplaces increase while they faced coordinated harassment campaigns online, who watched countless uncensored videos of Black people being killed by police, who watched travel bans go up on the basis of religion — not to mention the mass shootings, the violence toward Asian Americans and the queer community, the ICE raids, the wildfires and the blistering cold for which no one was prepared, a pandemic where more than 6 million people have died and continue to die and 35% of the U.S. population believes the government is exaggerating the dangers of the virus, an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the counting of electoral votes to confirm the results of the 2020 election, and attacks on the rights of trans people around the country.

And despite credible claims of histories of sexual assault, despite hundreds of years of precedent that would suggest otherwise, we watched as one Supreme Court justice nomination was filibustered until after a presidential election, and then watched justice after justice sail through confirmation, knowing that we would end up exactly here.

We can do the important work of witnessing the world, verifying truth, and contextualizing it for our readers while acknowledging our humanity and telling the truth about how these decisions will affect us personally.

That night that Clinton became the Democratic nominee for president was the first time I made a choice to honor my humanity in a historic moment over perceptions of journalistic objectivity.

People around me began to file out and I kept crying. I couldn’t put my credentials back on until I’d composed myself. Then I noticed someone in front of me. I looked up and saw a woman in her sixties, in all white, smiling at me through tears and nodding. She hugged me and when she pulled back, she dabbed at my cheeks with the end of her white scarf.

“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” she said. I nodded, grateful to be considered part of a “we.” I stayed for a few more minutes, sniffling while I watched giddy women in white make plans for hotel bar wine and then bed.

Once I stopped crying, I reached into my bag and slipped my lanyard back around my neck. I joined the crowd, no longer a “we,” but an impartial observer, a dispassionate eye with a job to do. I checked in with my team back at the media tent, and then went back to the hotel to file my story.

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Alex Sujong Laughlin is the writer and editor of Poynter's The Cohort, a newsletter about gender in media. She's a writer and an award-winning audio…
Alex Sujong Laughlin

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  • Your article unfairly and inaccurately suggests that Walter Lippmann was disproportionately responsible for today’s usual practice of objectivity, which I call “brain dead.” In fact, Lippmann said journalists should start working on stories with an open mind and let the facts take them where they go. That would have been journalism done like good science or good history or ideal criminal justice (from arrest through trial). Lippmann did not believe that all facts were equally important, he did not think that all sources were equally knowledgeable or honest, and he did not think that public or expert opinion was split 50-50 on everything. Instead, US journalists became obsessed with only timeliness, balance, and accuracy of individual facts while not worrying about present or historical context or how the cumulative facts might get one some distance to truth. He was right, and ignored. (Please stop saying “both sides” when every important issue or topic has ore than two sides. Please stop using sources who are wrong and/or liars. Please try to know more than a little bit about what you’re covering, not just on the sports news staff. And let the facts take you were they take you.)