Objectivity and journalism — over the last century, these two words have become inextricably linked. But striving for objectivity has actually hindered us from adequately covering truth, giving context and achieving equity.
As educators, it is our role and responsibility to teach a journalistic approach based not on objectivity, but on seeking truth, providing context, and including voices and perspectives left behind by the adherence to objectivity.
At the dawn of the 20th century, as the scientific method emerged, journalists recognized that some sort of objective process might lead to stronger coverage of important stories, keep biases in check, help get to the truth and better inform the public.
Objectivity became the gold standard of news reporting, but the word “objective” came to be applied not to the process of newsgathering, but to journalists themselves. To convey objectivity, some journalists refrained from voting to keep from appearing biased. Many adopted the detached, safe tone originally developed by the Associated Press and other wire services to appear more neutral and thus marketable across news markets. And many began to seek sources from “both sides” of an issue, to illustrate that they were giving every side a voice (no matter how valid or how absurd).
The “facts” and “truth” that have generally been deemed objective are actually centered on a mainstream, white, male, able-bodied, cis-gendered perspective — not actually objective or neutral at all.
“The views and inclinations of whiteness are accepted as the objective neutral,” wrote Wes Lowery in a recent New York Times opinion piece. “Those selective truths have been calibrated to avoid offending the sensibilities of white readers.” The dangers of this, he wrote, are that ”instead of telling hard truths in this polarized environment, America’s newsrooms too often deprive their readers of plainly stated facts that could expose reporters to accusations of partiality or imbalance.”
When we teach our students how to do good journalism, it is incumbent upon us to challenge the idea of journalistic objectivity and point out how it manifests.
One example is climate change coverage. Instead of contextualizing that nearly 100% of climate scientists have reached consensus about the implications of climate change and humans’ role in its hastening, news outlets often give equal time to the 1-2% who disagree. Climate and other stories told in a detached tone remove urgency, which does not help contextualize or inform. Rather, it confuses, misleads and alienates audiences seeking to understand.
As Lowery wrote, a reckoning over objectivity has been a long time coming. In the wake of a deadly pandemic, an uprising over Black lives lost to police brutality and a recognition that many groups within communities are being covered as outsiders, that reckoning is now critical as we teach students to be more effective journalists. In turn, they can better contribute to preserving and strengthening our democracy.
For example, as Black Lives Matter protests filled U.S. streets after the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, a Black reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was taken off protest coverage after she pointed out that a photo of trash and vandalism was taken not at the protests, but at a Kenny Chesney concert. She was told she violated social media policy and could not be objective. A white male reporter who also violated this social media policy around the same time was given a warning and allowed to continue his work. The implication here is that his violation was an anomaly, while hers was inherent to her being.
What reporter Alexis Johnson was actually doing was pointing out an important truth and giving context to an important story. She was illustrating how the same behavior is condoned when perpetrated by white mainstream society and vilified when undertaken by people of color. Her perspective is actually needed as we navigate coverage of this important and ongoing story — her personal objectivity isn’t.
The concept of objectivity “leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of what journalism is,” said New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones on the 1A Podcast. “Journalism is not stenography. We don’t simply say, ‘Donald Trump said this. Nancy Pelosi said this.’ That should not be our role. Our role should actually be at getting at the truth and providing context and analysis so people understand what this means.”
All journalists bring their own biases to the table — no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, ability or other factor. We must teach our students that this can be an advantage and not a hindrance, that our identities and experiences can inform the journalism we do, the interviews we get, the access we have to communities and the stories we tell.
Thus, instead of objectivity, PBS public editor Ricardo Sandoval-Palos advocates for accuracy and transparency. “You can take a position, but you need to be right,” he said on 1A. This shows your audience that “you took the time to be introspective about your own work and presented it in the fairest possible fashion.”
Reporter Alexis Johnson took a position, one that her background, ethnicity and experience made her uniquely qualified to explore and contextualize. And she was right; she was accurate; and she was transparent. She was practicing solid journalism. Objectivity was represented in her process — of vetting the photo, assessing the story and providing information to help increase understanding.
In truth, we have never actually prized individual objectivity. Think of the journalists we look to as examples when we measure our own work. When legendary journalists Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow are remembered, the moments we hold up are the moments when they set objectivity aside to speak truth and give context to the American people — Cronkite when he took a stand against the Vietnam War, and Murrow when he took on Sen. Joseph McCarthy. We applaud the truths they told, the context they provided, and the transparency they offered to us in those important stories.
We need journalists not to be scared to bring a bit of activism to their work, as Johnson, Cronkite, Murrow and others have done. Experiencing sexual harassment can lead a reporter to pursue stories that bring suspected harassers and assaulters to justice. Being looked over or made to feel stupid in elementary school can lead a journalist to uncover systemic racism in a school district.
Effective journalists tap into passion, tenacity, curiosity, and of course accuracy and transparency — as they utilize an objective process to ensure their story is well documented, well-sourced and carefully told. As effective educators, it’s our job to give our student journalists the foundation to do this well.
Gina Baleria, Ed.D., is an assistant professor of digital media, media writing, and journalism at Sonoma State University and a former broadcast and digital journalist. She also produces and hosts the podcast News in Context (@NewsInContextSF). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Equity Collaborative is a transnational group of journalism educators, scholars, and practitioners with a goal to further diversity, equity and collaboration in journalism. Members met through a Poynter Institute 2020 Teachapalooza event. They share knowledge and resources on free and inexpensive tools for student journalists, conduct research, write columns, and meet for a monthly book discussion and/or talk with an equity leader. Membership is open to all. For more information, email email@example.com.