Commentary | No news is good news

Breaking down the myth of objectivity

It was widely reported that, on August 22, many people marched on the streets of Montreal. Most media sources also agreed that these people were demonstrating against Quebec’s proposed tuition hikes, and part of a loosely defined “Quebec Student Movement.”

Beyond that, though, media outlets’ reports did not seem to converge on many details of the march. For example, the Link, Concordia’s student newspaper, stated in an article entitled “The Last Day of Action” that “this protest was specifically focused on what Quebec’s new government should be,” while rabble.ca, an alternative news website, implied the marchers had a broader motivation, titling their article, “Tens of thousands march for social justice in Montreal.” And while the Montreal Gazette, in “Thousands of students and supporters stage peaceful demonstration,” drew focus to the fact that “numbers were far short of those seen last spring,” rabble.ca announced that this demo was yet another “monster, monthly [march].”

Even reports of the number of people marching – a fact that would seem to be objective – varied widely. A counting firm hired by Radio-Canada reported that 12,250 people had protested; a journalist writing for rabble.ca said that it “exceeded 50,000.” La Coalition large de l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (CLASSE), a coalition that took part in organazing the march, said that 100,000 people attended.

The facts of the march, then, remain unclear, despite numerous articles. A single reality of the march remains undiscovered by journalists in anglophone Quebec media (whose coverage of the Quebec student movement, it should be noted, has been notoriously bad).

The differences between these accounts of the march illustrate a larger point about journalism. While journalists speak of attempting to attain a kind of ‘objectivity’ or ‘neutrality’ in their reporting (for example, news editors last year at The Daily refrained from wearing red squares in order to not appear biased), objective truth often isn’t attainable in reporting. Sometimes, it can be literally impossible to find. In the case of the march, for example, it wouldn’t be possible to speak to every protester in order to discover what their ‘real’ motivations are.

Further, in the case of almost every story, facts are contextualized by journalists in a subjective way. Journalists choose what background to flesh out a story with, what sources to quote, and where to put these quotes in the story. In short, they narrativize the facts they find, framing them to make sense of them and to explain them to the reader. Even the hardest of news stories contain a subjective, interpretive element.

This subjective element is crucial to the practice of journalism, and it shouldn’t be glossed over. When journalists claim to be objective, they risk offering one interpretation of reality as the only interpretation, and thus erase the voices and experiences of those who weren’t included in the account. Further, a publication’s positionality and political leanings affect its interpretation: the mainstream Gazette covered the August 22 march in a more negative light than the progressive and independent rabble.ca. 

Many alternative publications, including The Daily, recognize that journalism can’t be a neutral pursuit. This recognition needs to become more widespread. Journalists shouldn’t despair, but they should disclose their biases and understand that their social position affects how, what, and why they report. We need to give up the fallacy of objectivity and start practicing a journalism that recognizes the incompleteness of its own truths.

Joan Moses is a U3 Honours Political Science student, and a former Daily Coordinating and Design & Production Editor. She thinks most journalism is macho bullshit, but still harbours a secret love for All the President’s Men.


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