Should Objectivity Be the Objective?

Journalism seems to be falling apart, but has it always been like this? President Trump is calling anything he doesn’t agree with “fake news,” increasing the polarity of media and journalism. Companies are focused more on ratings and opinions than facts. This ultimately has created social media news bubbles where someone can hear and read only what they want to. Additionally, some outlets seem to be focused on seeing both sides of an issue rather than getting to the truth. Should the media aim to be impartial? That is the question asked in Lewis Raven Wallace’s The View From Somewhere, which details Wallace’s findings on the history of objectivity. According to Wallace, objectivity is not a modern phenomenon and it has shaped how we see the world; however, objectivity should not be the goal of media because it reflects the existing power structures and those structures cannot be changed without examining how the media supports them. 

In his book, Wallace investigates the history of journalistic objectivity and how the term has been used to stifle social change. In the introduction, he asks “Has objectivity in journalism ever really existed? Is detachment purely aspirational, and if so, is it the right aspiration? Is biased journalism a slippery slope into falsehood and distortion?… How do we get people to care about stories that are true? Can truth survive in this ‘post-fact’ era? What is trust? What is truth?” (Wallace 4). These questions are tackled by looking at the history of journalism with focus on Black Lives Matter, lynching, unions, Vietnam, public radio, the AIDS crisis, #MeToo, and more.

Social change being stifled by the idea of objectivity is not new. Wallace himself was fired for questioning impartiality as a goal, but so were people throughout history. One example of social change being hindered is Marvel Cooke, a Black New York City journalist from the early 1900s. While Cooke wrote for the New York Amsterdam News, she and some of her co-workers were fired for trying to start a Newspaper Guild chapter. She was arrested multiple times while protesting, but was eventually re-hired. Although she plead the Fifth, the McCarthy hearings ended her career as a journalist because she was a communist. (Wallace podcast). Although her objectivity was never questioned during her career, in an oral history project on women in journalism, Cooke stated “I think [being a communist and therefore less “objective”] made me a better reporter, because I was interested in the conditions under which people had to work and live. That would come through in the things I would write” (Wallace podcast). Being a communist did not take away from Cooke’s ability to report on the facts, it enhanced it. She focused on issues that were important to her. The strive for objectivity in journalism has led to the slowing of social progress.

Another example of historical issues with objectivity mentioned in the book is that of the AIDS crisis. In the chapter “Straight News, Gay Media, and the AIDS Crisis,” Wallace writes that “[t]raditional ‘objectivity’ has asserted that detachment leads to more accurate storytelling,” leading to the question “[b]ut what about the moments when connection, rather than detachment, led journalists to stories that were true and important?” (Wallace 102). In the era prior to and up into the bulk of the AIDS crisis, queer people were so marginalized that any queer issue didn’t matter enough for mainstream media. Today, New York Times is seen as a pinnacle of modern journalism, but in the 1980s, it was known, at least in the gay community for its blatant homophobia. At the end of 1982, there were almost 800 confirmed cases of AIDS and the New York Times had published only five articles about it (Wallace 113). In the case of the AIDS epidemic, reporters and journalists closest to the epidemic were the ones most needed to write about it. Queer people were the most qualified to write about the issue because they saw it first hand. They were the ones who knew what the community needed and how to tell people about it because they were the community.

Various media outlets have tried to be objective, but ultimately always fail. For example, “Public broadcasting had started as an idealist, mission-driven effort, intended in part to counter the commercialism of other broadcast news. But I found out that from the 1970s through the 1990s, attacks from conservatives had left public media haunted by the ghost of false ‘balance’–too often, Black and brown and queer people’s stories and perspectives had been ‘balanced’ with racist or homophobic views, or simply censored altogether” (Wallace 81). Reporters who were talking about issues that were relevant to themselves and their communities were seen as biased and therefore people who “disagreed” with their identity were brought on to counter it.

In the conclusion of The View From Somewhere, Wallace brings up a line from his friend and producer of the podcast, Ramona Martinez, that encapsulates the book as a whole: “objectivity is the ideology of the status quo” (Wallace 109). Although the book is more focused on investigation, that line summarizes the findings. Basically, this line means that it is impossible not to take a side on certain issues and not taking a side supports the systems currently in place. For example, if you do not actively condemn ICE’s detention centers, you are implicitly supporting them. In this case, not taking a side is still taking a side. Just because someone can make an argument for something, does not mean that the argument is valid or should be repeated. Impartiality favors the status quo because of the implicit acceptance of the other side as a “viable” argument.

In a recent interview on the David Pakman Show, Wallace brought up the idea of performative objectivity. An example of performative objectivity would be having both a climate scientist and someone who believes climate change is a hoax in a segment about climate change. The fact that both people are given a platform gives legitimacy to both sides of a debate that would not otherwise exist. The origin of this performative objectivity is money. Advertisers are scared to back a company with a strong stance on certain issues because of the fear of alienating audience members and therefore losing customers. Journalism should be about reporting facts, but has come to be about generating income. Stories that create attention are the only stories being told. News organizations do not want to scare off viewers (and therefore advertising revenue)  by choosing a side and so they attempt to pick both sides rather than lose viewers and money.

Having media, especially news, focused on generating revenue changes how it is created. Topics that editors know will drive more engagement are given more attention because viewers/clicks/readers equal revenue. One of the ways companies and organizations are avoiding “bias” is by avoiding applying “harsh words” such as racist, transphobe, etc. to Trump. The perfect example of a word being avoided in the context of Trump is “lie.” Wallace brings up the fact that journalists are debating whether its partisan to say that Trump has lied when he has very clearly lied. He says “what can be more toxic to the truth than that interpretation or that performance of objectivity” (Pakman). By not using the word lie, journalists are weakening the impact of the fact that Trump is actively not telling the truth. This then gives validation to his falsities.

A current example of the harms of performative objectivity is the existence of trans people and the treatment of transgender children. Scientists are brought on the news to talk about the fact that trans people/kids exist and then conservatives brought on arguing that trans kids do not actually exist and that surgeries are being forced on them. In this case the right wants to change the debate to distract from debating real issues. News organizations/journalists failure to take a stance and recognize the legitimacy of trans people is a harmful form of objectivity. An example of this harm is Trump’s ban of transgender people in the military. Rather than positive change, perhaps the media has helped facilitate a step backwards.

A few years ago, I attended the original Women’s March in New York City. The sign I held (“Support your sisters, not just your cis-ters”) garnered media attention and was featured on a website. In that moment, I realized how powerful the tie between the media and social issues is. I chose The View From Somewhere for this assignment because of my passion for social justice. As previously stated, media and journalism play an important role in covering social progress. I first heard about the book and author on the podcast Gender Reveal hosted by Tuck Woodstock. Both Woodstock and Wallace are trans journalists, and I like supporting trans people. The book is all about changing the status quo, and I am interested in dismantling the systems in place that were created to maintain the status quo. The status quo actively oppresses marginalized people, like it was designed to, and I want to do what I can to change it. Overall, the book (and attached podcast) were very interesting/informative and I learned so much about the history of journalism and how it works today.

One issue that I noticed because I read The View From Somewhere was social media’s role in journalism. The book helped me realize that media bubbles and echo chambers are not inherently bad. Media bubbles are helpful in protecting you from harm, whether from people online or in the news. Bias is not bad either. The goal of journalism should not be objectivity. It should be transparency. Transparency about sources and intent is more important than lack of bias. Wallace quotes journalist Bettina Chan who said “There’s no such thing as coming from no point of view… You’re always going to fight for the survival of yourself” (Wallace 205).

Activism has played a huge part in the history of journalism and continues to impact it today. In just 2017, Lewis Raven Wallace was fired for questioning objectivity’s role in maintaining the status quo. The status quo has only lasted so long because of the systems that are in place to oppress marginalized people and therefore social change is needed.

Works Cited

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