Friday, October 03, 2008

The myth of objectivity (by Suzie)

         When I was a working journalist, a few newsroom critics accused me of pushing a feminist agenda.
         They were right.
         My agenda was to improve conditions for women inside our newsroom and coverage of women inside our pages. But opponents saw a feminist agenda as more subversive – a breach in their belief that journalists must be objective.
         They were right about that, too, but didn’t realize they were not objective, either. They thought that being a feminist made me biased. It didn’t occur to them that not being a feminist was also a political stance. No one is neutral. You challenge the system, or you support it, even if it’s just with your silence and inaction.
         Feminist philosophers have challenged objectivity. If journalists stopped pursuing it, they might have a shot at diversity, and maybe even truth.
         In Just the Facts: How “Objectivity” Came to Define American Journalism, David Mindich traces its rise in the 19th century. Journalism took on the methods of science: detachment, nonpartisanship, reliance on facts, and balance.
         Journalists make some exceptions for columns and features, but for news, they are supposed to put aside feelings, biases, beliefs, experiences, cultural norms, values – everything that makes them an individual. But what if people can’t catalog everything that has influenced them? What if a residue of prejudice remains? What if they can’t tease apart mixed feelings?
         Stories are more than lists of facts; journalists describe what they perceive. They often interpret what others say. They use their judgment to decide which issues and events to cover, whom to quote, which quotes to use, what material to include, what images to shoot, how to edit it, how to play the story, etc.
         They are not scientists staring into a petri dish. News coverage influences stories. How can journalists be objective when they are part of the action?
         Those who think objectivity is an impossible ideal may still strive to be fair and balanced. But they, too, must make subjective decisions about whom to quote, which arguments have merit, etc. Outside their writing, they can express feelings and opinions as much as they like – as long as their bosses don’t mind and the public doesn’t find out. “Fair and balanced” is in the eye of the beholder. 
         More than a decade ago, Sandy Nelson lost her reporting job because she worked for gay rights on her own time. The state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Tacoma (Washington) News Tribune, saying it had a right to maintain “the appearance of objectivity.” The myth of objectivity has become the dirty little secret of the profession.
         Before the 20th century, many newspapers trumpeted biases to attract readers who shared their views or wanted another opinion. Now, when few cities have more than one daily newspaper, and a few corporations monopolize the media, it makes sense to claim objectivity. Media owners want readers, viewers and listeners to think they can get all sides, all viewpoints, from just one source. And they do not want to offend advertisers. This translates into a lowest-common-denominator journalism that supports the status quo.
         By continually cutting staff, the bosses leave little time for in-depth pieces. Those focus more on individual wrongdoing than systematic issues. The media pulls down powerful people from time to time, but does little to challenge the system that bestows that power. Thus, a journalist may vow to nail a politician, but is unlikely to say, “I’m going to expose capitalism.”  
A publisher blew up one day because I wrote on the longevity of Ms. magazine and another story on the growth of feminist bookstores, including a local one, for the features section. He complained there was too much feminism in the paper that day.
         But bosses don’t have to yell to make their point. Often when I wrote on controversial issues, I received little feedback. If I featured an alligator farm, however, I was praised for my writing and humor.
         Many journalists accept and reinforce the norms of the culture, both in and outside the newsroom. Welcome to “The Matrix.” In the past, for example, most believed domestic violence was a personal problem, with no larger implications for society. The women’s movement drew attention to domestic violence. Nevertheless, media coverage rarely links it to sexism – beliefs that men are superior and have a right to control women. Another example: Editors questioned whether a gay colleague could cover issues of sexual orientation. Heterosexuals were considered unbiased, even though many of the men ridiculed gays.
        The myth of objectivity breeds cynicism. Journalists who wanted to change the world find they can’t be advocates. They try to make stories fair to the point of quoting the usual extremist, even when they know those arguments can be picked apart. But who has time or space for that? The truth be damned.
        The myth of objectivity also counteracts diversity. If any good journalist can be objective, if they can produce fair stories, why seek employees with different backgrounds, experiences, etc.?
        Many feminists rely on differences when reporting information. Donna Haraway, writing in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, says people shouldn’t mimic 19th-century scientists who thought of themselves as apart and invisible from that which they studied. People must connect with other points of view. No one view can encompass all perspectives.
       Consider a team assembled for a disaster. It may include a person who knows business, one familiar with the neighborhood, one who’s bilingual, one who has experience with such a disaster, and one good at getting colorful details. They may file from different locations, at different times. People putting together footage or rewriting copy know the situation will change.
       That’s how journalists could envision their business in general. They can gather only pieces of the truth, in hopes of creating as complete a picture as possible. They need people who look differently, not just ones who look different. They must recognize that they aren’t looking at the picture; they’re in it.
      (The Journalism and Women Symposium newsletter published this in 2003. I'm "reprinting" it here because another blogger already posted it.)