radical ideas

Let’s rethink objectivity

Objectivity has never been ethical. Objectivity has never been racially equitable. Objectivity has never really been, well, objective. 

As Americans continue to reflect inward on the country’s enduring white supremacy, journalists are having to reconsider their own Golden Rule. For all of us who have been exposed to journalism pedagogy — whether it be through a prickly editor as uptight as his suspenders (probably white), an empathetic high school English teacher who nurtures our true inner potential (probably white), or our colleague stationed next to us in the newsroom (probably white) — the central “rules of the road” usually follow the same general story arc. Remain neutral. Remove yourself from your story. Stay “objective.” As someone who has existed comfortably in predominantly white newsrooms and classrooms, I’ve been on the receiving end (and occasionally on the giving) of this entry-level, boilerplate advice. 

Without fully grasping what objectivity means, or where its conception originates from, it has still somehow passed our census Sniff Test and has been drilled into our budding journalistic brains. Write objectively. Report objectively. Get lunch with your sources, objectively. This begs the question: How do we enact such an ambiguous principle in a profession that spans hundreds of countries, thousands of journalists and millions of subject matters? 

Answer: We don’t.

In an op-ed that gained traction this summer in The New York Times, “A Reckoning Over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists,” two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Wesley Lowery attempts to use the momentum of Black Lives Matter to debunk the myth of objectivity. For Lowery, the stakes of objectivity are heavy. In fact, the Golden Rule may be better labeled as Thinly Veiled Racism. Lowery writes in summary, “The views and inclinations of whiteness are accepted as the objective neutral.”

Look no further than the names spilling down any masthead (even this one), or to the TV newsrooms of The Wire, Spotlight, The Post and even Anchorman, and an essential reality becomes unavoidable: Journalism has been owned, operated, curated and defined by white people. The dogma of “quality journalism” has rested on the idea that the truth can stem only from objectivity, one that is defined by white reporters, their white editors, and their white bosses. 

The ones editing pages in red ink, assigning articles, hiring writers and framing the larger media narratives are the ones that ultimately get to decide what is and what is not objective journalism. While objectivity may be a powerful method of reporting, spurring journalists to strive toward factual accuracy, it is not an achievable goal. There is nothing objective about the subliminal and not-so-subliminal biases that seep into any given piece of journalism. How we interpret objectivity is inherently opinionated. And what’s objective about an opinion? Even your wiry professor, your wholesome English teacher and your loud gum-chewing colleague would know the clear answer to that one. 

Yet it is the sacred myth of objectivity that has long left it unquestioned, untouched and under-scrutinized in predominantly white spaces. The promises of objective reporting allow for white journalists to cover Black communities from a safe distance, supplying a baseline of journalistic credibility where none should be assumed. The consequence of white-framed objectivity has been an underserving of coverage on Black issues and a general silencing of reporters that dare to challenge the conventions of their profession. Objectivity is not an ideal — it’s a racial issue. 

Lowery chooses to look forward. While America can never truly uproot itself from the enduring appeal, familiarity and continuously consequential history of white supremacy, journalism stands in a strong position to challenge the status quo. The democratization of information through the internet has allowed for more Black voices to be heard and more Black stories to be told. The changing demographics and increasingly diverse readerships of major publications have leveraged its most powerful galvanizing agent — C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me) — toward hiring and promoting the work of non-white staff. 

These favorable trends are not nearly enough. Our collective reckoning on race calls for a reckoning on our media — the total dismantlement of objectivity. Redacted Magazine hopes to play its (albeit small) part in a new direction forward. As pre-professional writers and editors, we believe that we have the runway and the independence (from potential future employers) to build a platform that begins with a socially equitable ethos. And when we fall short, we ask to be called out.  This is how we become not objective journalists — but fair journalists. 

Let’s ditch the Golden Rule and forget objectivity. That’s the only way we can begin to tell the truth.