Clarifying the ‘trope of objectivity’

Last month, I was lucky enough to conduct one of my favourite interviews ever, following one of the best public lectures I have ever seen.

John Greyson, a Canadian filmmaker who spent almost two months locked up in Tora Prison in Egypt, was in Winnipeg to deliver the keynote speech for Israeli Apartheid Week.

Greyson spent most of his lecture talking about his personal experiences in prison. Our interview revolved around his criticisms of the Israeli state’s policies toward the Palestinian people.

However, one unrelated, seemingly innocuous remark he made has stood out in my mind ever since. He was comparing activist filmmaking to journalism.

“For instance, activist filmmaking practices, which of course are distinct from journalism and its tropes of so-called ‘objectivity’ and ‘balance,’ generally recognize that free speech and activist videos must sometimes include disrespect, especially of public figures, and must sometimes violate some dignities and confidentialities, and must indeed do some harm for the greater public good. We should be manufacturers of dissent,” he said.

Greyson’s comment got me thinking again about a subject that has been bothering me for a long time. I’ve been struggling with the topic of objectivity in news writing for two reasons.

The first is that my interpretation of this word has a direct and concrete bearing on how we conduct business here at the Manitoban, and how people will view our publication. It is understood that so-called objective articles belong in News, my and Katy MacKinnon’s section.

Works on current events that pointedly exhibit some kind of argument, attempting to persuade the reader one way or another, supposedly go in Comment. So being able to understand this concept and recognize its presence in an article is important.

The second reason, I’m almost ashamed to admit, is that I have no good understanding of what it means.

The standard definition of objectivity in the journalism context, as you will find it in Webster’s New World Dictionary (and probably many others), is “without bias or prejudice; detached; impersonal.” Fair enough. That is probably how I would define it too, if you were to ask me.

But my confidence that things are this simple becomes shaken when I look back at submissions myself and others have made to the paper purporting to be objective. Many of them read as if the writer had some prior agenda, even if the tone is not biased, prejudiced, attached, or personal in an obvious way.

Other days, I might go back and reread excerpts from The Great War for Civilisation by Robert Fisk and wonder how anyone could view it as non-objective. In a sense, isn’t it objective to hold the powerful, whomever they may be, to a higher standard of accountability, and react with disdain when they so severely abuse their privilege? Isn’t it objective if it is what any reasonable, fair-minded person would do? Sometimes I think so.

To me, it is uncertain which of the above articles should belong in Comment and which are properly “News.” So when I say that I have no real understanding of what objectivity means, I’m not trying to be overly cerebral. I’m considering my own contradictory standards, the different interpretations of others, the implications for the credibility of the paper, and concluding that I really do not know it when I see it.

One reason for the lack of certainty could be that perfect objectivity is unattainable; I’ve never actually seen it. There is bias in almost every decision a writer makes, from choosing what to write on and what to ignore, to how to transcribe direct quotes.

Consider this example:
“We should act to avoid future conflict.”
“We should act – to avoid future conflict.”

The meanings they convey can be subtly different. When the reporter hears those words on a tape, though, a decision has to be made. It becomes difficult to meet the “detached” criterion here because the reporter is personally making choices about what her audience will learn through her narrative.

Even worse, the reporter with a hidden agenda could employ these types of tricks, selectively quote certain people, creatively use brackets, and employ other strategies to bend a story more than the reader could ever realize. So even when we see an article that has the apparently objective “tone,” we can’t say for certain that it is in fact any more without bias or prejudice than something written for the opinion pages.

Interestingly, some writers think that objectivity in news writing shouldn’t even be a standard to strive for.

“The creed of objectivity and balance, formulated at the beginning of the 19th century by newspaper owners to generate greater profits from advertisers, disarms and cripples the press,” wrote Chris Hedges, former New York Times foreign correspondent, in his 2010 article “The Creed of Objectivity Killed the News.”

He later adds, “This creed transforms reporters into neutral observers or voyeurs. It banishes empathy, passion and a quest for justice. Reporters are permitted to watch but not to feel or to speak in their own voices.”

Hedges is right when in his article he points out that the trope of objectivity can easily be abused, or used as a cover for pro-corporate/government/whatever apologetics. But this doesn’t mean that the concept of objectivity itself is without value. He is wrong to lament the fact that reporters are asked not to speak in their own voices, or scratch the more impassioned language from their dispatches.

I think news writers should strive for objectivity. If I have to take a shot at defining it, and pinpointing its role in good journalism, I say true objectivity attempts to make up for the fact that the reader couldn’t be there to witness a story’s unfolding.

The objective journalist should attempt to act as nothing more than a conduit for transmitting information from newsmakers to newsreaders. As such, news writing should be as artless as the writer can get away with, and read like a succession of facts, starting with the most pertinent and working backwards toward background information. To quote a colleague of mine, “if we could have robots do news writing, we would.”

This approach is good because it doesn’t insult the reader by shoving an opinion down her throat, or tell her how to feel. At the same time, if research is thorough, it ensures that those making the news are seen exactly as they are. The writer’s political agenda won’t get in the way, and we’ll get as comprehensive an account as possible of what newsmakers actually did.

This operating definition of objectivity leaves a lot of problems unresolved, and I’ll still have my doubts about how it can be practically achieved. Nonetheless, I maintain that objectivity is something journalists should work towards, even if they’ll never be satisfied with their efforts. Consider it a never-ending process, or, to pervert something once said by Hippocrates, a long un-art.

This is the best way for the press to live up to its important role in democracy. After all, it is about the reader understanding the workings of her society, not the writer’s ego.

Just tell them what happened. That’s news.

1 Comment on "Clarifying the ‘trope of objectivity’"

  1. I sadly won’t ever get a chance to write a counter-editorial, but I have written a response in my capacity as a civilian.

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