I’ve been thinking a lot about journalism today, and I’ve also been thinking about a post I deleted but wished I could resurrect. It was a post about why I was giving up objective journalism.
I used to be a journalist. While I don’t do journalism anymore, you can still find my old journalism highlights here. You can see some more bylines here. Later on in my career, and before I left the journalism industry to write fiction, I was doing less objective journalism. As the years go on, I’m certain, in fact, extremely certain, that journalism would be far better if journalism didn’t try to be objective and taught subjective reporting instead.
All throughout my journalism classes in the United States, I was forced to be objective. It didn’t matter if I thought something was wrong, or inaccurate, I had to give equal weight to more powerful subjects that would use that power to then spin an angle. I couldn’t omit anything, they had to have the same article space as the underdog, or powerless subject, in the story. I also couldn’t say my opinions at all, I had to be a stenographer, even when someone was clearly using leverage to get the interview and then use the press to give them free PR.
I always asked why. I’d ask editors why I had to do this. Why did I have to give equal space to someone that clearly had the upper hand in the story? Wasn’t my job supposed to tell the public who was telling the truth and why someone was lying?
Objective journalism isn’t new. We have Walter Lippmann to thank for popularizing objective journalism, which made the industry speed downhill. It was conjured to, supposedly, provide truth to power and balance in an unjust world, but when you provide the illusion of balance, that’s when getting the nuance becomes a billion times harder or, in certain cases, impossible.
It was a response to what people called yellow journalism. Tabloid journalism, people called it, but these were the very same people that never read the news anyway, and probably couldn’t tell print journalism from TV or radio journalism. These were the very same people that can’t tell one print publication from another, because people aren’t trained to study or even recognize writing styles in school. Objective journalism was conjured so people wouldn’t have to critically examine what they were reading, and people could just call reporting styles they didn’t like yellow journalism.
Objective journalism is supposed to just be reporting the facts, but as we all know, facts don’t really exist in the minds of 21st century Americans. There’re alternative facts now, something people believe we should take seriously, and also something I never thought I’d ever need to type.
Skipping past the facts-based argument because that’s a losing battle, objective journalism works to uphold the powerful and their influences. If I’m supposed to be covering a story about workers’ rights, why on earth should I give equal space to the CEO that’s actively working to make sure their workers don’t have rights and, well, just continue to work. I can gather facts without being objective. I’d interview the CEO, get their side of the story, but then I wouldn’t just print their quotes without context, let alone give them the majority of my paper space. I’d print what they said to make sure their point of view is clear, but I’m not going to just hand them a microphone and say whatever they tell me because that would be giving power to the powerful subject in the story. I’d report on the underdogs while gathering facts.
Let’s tackle the response you’re going to tell me right now. But Robert, that’s the problem with journalism today, is people giving opinions and not telling enough news. If you notice, I said nothing about inserting my own opinion into the above scenario. The above scenario was about what my angle was and how I was going to tell the story. I said nothing about inserting my own opinions into the article. Subjective journalism isn’t just spouting opinions. Anybody can have an opinion.
Subjective journalism is all about standing up for something. Opinions are separate from objective or even subjective journalism, but the two are interlinked, certainly, but they’re not the same kind of reporting. Opinions are a different style of journalism.
The very function of journalism is to call truth to power. It isn’t built to uphold the status quo, because the status quo is unequal. If you’re being objective, you’re saying you’d rather work as a stenographer. Objective journalism also has the added benefit of keeping underdog reporters in their place, like how it makes minority reporters try to hide their own truths and their own experiences.
Also, objective journalism isn’t something we underdog reporters get to do anyway because of our status in society, so it’s a losing battle from the beginning, so why should I fight harder instead of smarter?
Objectivity doesn’t work when one side wants to actively harm you just for existing. In a You’re Wrong About podcast episode talking about the objectivity foibles of the New York Times, read the episode transcript here, the question is proposed, what does objectivity look like when your subject wants you eradicated or erased.
When editors tell reporters to be objective, they are erasing whole bits of a person that could make the story better because someone’s lived experience will always provide nuance and understanding to important issues. Not everyone is English speaking, made of money, able bodied, white, or all the other things society likes to call normal. Objectivity seeks to erase these vibrant voices because people enjoy, for some reason, a bland world, and people hate being reminded that other perspectives exist. Minority journalists can’t even tell our own stories because objectivity says we should never become the subject of the story, which honestly just doesn’t make sense to me. Story subjects tell better stories than their objective outside counterparts. For example,
If I’m looking for a story about a protest, why would I want to read the point of view of an outsider? They’d lack context, they’d lack the nuance that a journalist with lived experience has. If something impacts someone, why would I want to read about the impact from an outsider’s point of view, an outsider’s point of view that doesn’t even have all the nuance to tell me why this is so impactful.
We do have the hurtle to overcome that people will assume that because they don’t have to be objective, this means they can attack any underdog group they want. I’m afraid to say that I don’t have an answer for this, other than to increase media literacy. Sorry, that’s all I got.
If I ever get back into journalism again, I hope I never do objective reporting again. Perhaps this is why I’ve gravitated towards fiction so much because fiction doesn’t have to be objective, nor does it even try to be. Fiction is a kind of storytelling limited by imagination, or book bans, if you live in the same timeline I do. It isn’t limited by constraints, the desire to fit in or assimilate, or even to appease. It’s unapologetic and bold, something I wish journalism was instead of just a free stenographer service.