October 20, 2014

Features | February 24, 2014
Unmasking objectivity
The creation of truth in journalism
Written by | Visual by Tamim Sujat | The McGill Daily

A man called me a few weeks ago at The Daily office, looking for a news editor to complain to. It was about a report published back in October on an anti-Charter of Values protest. After talking at length about the article at hand, the man finally took a breath, and got to the point: the article published was – in his words – biased journalism. “You only spoke with anti-Charter people and Muslim people!” he said, outraged, calling the article’s interviews “one-sided.” He continued: “tell me – why didn’t you talk to any pro-Charter people? I’m sure you could have talked to professors at McGill on pro-Charter opinions to balance the piece.” The conversation ended abruptly when the man reached his wits’ end and asked, “Tell me, do you believe in objective journalism or not?”

“No sir, I do not,” I replied. He promptly hung up. And so, to the man who holds objectivity so dear, here I am, laying my subjectivity out on the table: objectivity doesn’t exist.

Tools of objective journalism

“I would say that ‘objectivity’ is a weapon of the corporate media,” said Martin Lukacs, a writer for the Guardian who has also worked for community media outlets such as the Media Co-op. “Objectivity takes on a different meaning in its propaganda usage. Objectivity basically means repeating what is said in the corridors of power.”

Objective journalism is considered the gold standard in mainstream and corporate press. The crux of this practice is the aim to provide unbiased and balanced reporting, and present the media consumer with straightforward facts so that they can form their own conclusions. This form of journalism aims to remove the journalist from the reporting, and by doing so, to offer media consumers ‘non-partisan journalism.’

“[In journalism school] we are taught to write stories as clear, concise, to the point,” a journalism student at Concordia, Saturn de los Angeles, told me. “And with that we’re taught to write as an inverted pyramid. At the top is the five W’s, who what when where why, and then you move into the details […] We’re taught objectivity as getting both sides of the story; [...] in journalism school we’re always reminded that we can’t be biased without stories, but in reality thats another thing.”

But after pulling back the curtain of objectivity in journalism, it becomes clear that much gets lost on the way.

“I think that objective journalism [...] presents the problem of false balance,” said Gretchen King, community activist and journalist. False balance is the practice, common in mainstream media outlets, of presenting an issue as having two equally valid sides, regardless of the actual validity of those viewpoints.
Stefan Christoff, who also identifies as both a community activist and journalist, brought up the idea of false balance when we spoke about objectivity.

“I think objectivity essentially means siding with power most of the time, because of the [...] political and economic forces that dominate our society,” he said. “If you’re giving those forces equal weight to another voice which is marginalized, in that dynamic of power because our society prioritizes certain voices, those people without question have more power.”

“If you continually replicate the idea that those voices are equal then you end up with the situation where the more marginalized voice becomes more marginalized in the piece, in the report, in the story, because you’re just reinforcing the power dynamics that exist by claiming objectivity, when in fact you’re only reinforcing power,” Christoff went on to say.

Both Christoff and King’s dual identity as community activist and journalist is one that would be considered contradictory by almost all mainstream media outlets. Journalists aren’t supposed to be activists; they’re too busy being journalists.

The man called our office asking for ‘balance’ in the piece; in fact, what he sensed was an imbalance – an uncomfortable shift of weight away from the dominant and ‘legitimized’ voice on the article’s topic. His reaction could be viewed as an extension of a symptom of objective journalism: privileging the voices of power to the extent that those who are actually implicated in the lived experience are no longer considered legitimate voices of authority.

Professionalizing journalism

“I think a large majority of people in journalism these days, or who even study journalism, have learned that objectivity is something that was created over time within the practice of journalism to say ‘this is professional journalism and this is not,’” explained King.

The notion of objective journalism is actually relatively new in the media landscape. The 19th century media landscape was dominated by overtly opinionated outlets. The printing and penny press were part of this phenomenon of free and open media. “Any person who could afford to and was literate could print something,” King told me. “You had this rise in newspapers and newsletters that were very much from social movements from certain perspectives and so on.”

Lukacs also brought up the difference between earlier journalism and the way it’s practiced today. “[Objectivity] came into vogue in the early 20th century when corporations started consolidating control over media. Labour unions owned papers, ownership was much more diverse and papers were unabashedly partisan.”

One of the main forces in the shift toward the professionalization of journalism was the rise of the war reporter. The journalistic form came into its own throughout the two World Wars. “You saw this professional class of journalists who were just there to tell the objective story and get the news out [...] and journalism becoming a practice by professionals and not something that just anybody can do,” said King.

And yet, it wasn’t really until the early 20th century that corporations began consolidating control over media.

“[Objective journalism was] almost in response to [the fact] that you see a professional class of journalism rising to say ‘We’re separate from them, we’re different than them’ but when you look at that objectivity you see it’s very much geared toward advertisers, toward the profit of the newspaper, toward the political opinion of the newspaper editor,” King told me.

The process of professionalizing journalism has, over time, worked to construct the idea that there is ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ reporting, where objectivity is pitted as the voice of absolute truth in its supposed removal of the reporter. As Lukacs points out, “What the corporate media prints is considered objective, and what it doesn’t is considered non-objective.”

In this process, non-objective journalism is deemed biased, ‘emotional,’ and sympathetic, language used as political strategy to dismiss any legitimacy for the practice of subjective journalism.

A case for honest journalism

There’s a real danger to supporting the ideal of objective journalism. It is not just a question of whether objectivity can even exist in practice, but more importantly, one of the greater implications of supporting objectivity as it currently stands in wielding dominant power in media.

Journalistic practices that embrace subjectivity open up space for a diversity of voices, perspectives, and experiences; all of which tend to become diluted through the processes of objective reporting.

“A lot of mainstream journalists – corporate journalists – say things like ‘You can’t participate in a protest, that’s crossing a line, it’s quote unquote too involved.’” Lukacs told me. “I always wonder why they don’t ask themselves [if it’s] becoming too involved if you go to, let’s say, a corporate gala or [...] become embedded in work with the Canadian army in Afghanistan.”

Lukacs believes that corporate media serves to police the boundary of acceptable debate, and furthermore, to keep this boundary quite narrow. By the standards of objectivity, he said, “When you fall outside these lines is where you become biased.”

It is this regulation that is responsible for the violence to those voices and communities that become silenced and ignored as a result. Campus and community radio station CKUT 90.3 FM offers a great example of actively breaking the silencing, in particular with the Homelessness Marathon, an annual national radio event that brings the microphone to the hands of people who are homeless so that they can speak for themselves about their lived experiences.

During the 2012 Homelessness Marathon, an anonymous speaker from Vancouver spoke on how they felt media treated them, “What would I want the news to report? You can’t really reach [people who are homeless] in the news,” they said. “What we have to say is more complicated than what the media can do for us.”
Lukacs also pointed to the role journalists assume in stepping on the toes of those they report on.

“Journalists tend to appoint themselves too much power [...] imagining that they’re more important than they actually are. [They] should never forget that real power rests with social movements not with journalists [...]. That’s one of the intoxicants of the professional class of journalists – [to] give themselves the conception that they’re removed from ‘ordinary people,’ and that’s something that results in [a conception of] a close identification with people in power.”

Another speaker at the 2012 Marathon also identified a neglect on the media’s part to acknowledge what they felt were key issues, referring specifically to media coverage of an Occupy Vancouver event. “I think that [the] media ignores the fact that mental health issues are going on. That was the biggest hurtful thing, was that people who were on the street were ignored [by] most of society, people didn’t see directly how [people with mental health issues] helped [each other],” they said.

How objective media fails

“The reader [of objective journalism] loses out on a lot,” King said, referring to the hidden nature of objective journalism’s goals.

King explained that context is often lost in process of creating objective reporting. “The reporter has to remove a lot of context because it might not be considered objective to tell a point of view that’s not the mainstream point of view,” she said. “Anything that would be perceived as going against the status quo could be considered as advocating a political end goal, so objective journalism would try to remove a lot of these things.”

Both Christoff and King gave the example of a policed protest. In this case, there is a tendency for mainstream corporate media to remain outside the protest and to interview police. “The police aren’t the ones who called the demos, the police aren’t the ones putting their bodies on the lines,” said King, speaking about the armour and weapons police wield when regulating protests. “There’s an over-reliance on official sources. Often official sources are not even named, we’re just told they’re official.”

The police’s voice, and other ‘legitimate’’ voices, are often used in mainstream media as ‘official sources’ despite the fact that they have no stake in political protests aside from their role in enforcing their regulation. In objective journalism, quoting ‘legitimate’ sources is considered unbiased reporting. Media consumers in all forms have to ask themselves: whose agenda is being put forth in objective journalism?

“I think that embracing one’s subjectivity is actually more honest than pretending to produce an objective piece of journalism,” said King. “Embracing subjectivity means that you put your politics on display […] That kind of honesty is what’s missing from the so-called professional journalists who hide behind a curtain of objectivity.”

Embracing subjective journalism is necessary in the fight to dismantle the hegemony of corporate media and the myth of objective journalism, in its relentless crusade against giving a platform to the lived experiences of those directly implicated in the stories it reports. So to the man who called looking for objectivity: you won’t find it here.

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