by Stephen Wentzell
Over the last few years, polarization around journalism has contributed to an environment of distrust around the industry, particularly its writers. Journalists are finding themselves under a microscope never-before imagined in an industry that has traditionally called for round-the-clock neutrality.
“Is objectivity an outdated concept?” asks Manisha Krishnan, senior editor at VICE News.
Krishnan facilitated a workshop centred around this question last month at the 83rd annual NASH student journalism conference. The event, aptly named Disrupt, took place in a virtual setting this year in an effort to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
Krishnan covered subjects including toxic workplaces in Canadian media and sexual violence against women. She said she believes accuracy and fairness can transcend objectivity.
“Just because someone has an opinion, doesn’t mean they’re not capable of covering something in an objective way,” she told her audience.
What is journalistic objectivity?
The concept of journalistic objectivity, Krishnan explains, began to form in the 1920s in an effort to recognize that journalists have both conscious and unconscious biases. The concept referred to journalism itself, rather than the journalist.
Things became murky as the belief grew that reporters should remain neutral on any subject they cover.
“Being impartial is not a core value of journalism,” she said.
While the principles of journalistic objectivity remain largely the same across newsrooms, a number of differences shed light on how subjective the rules around objectivity actually are.
The CBC’s journalistic standards read, “We do not promote any point of view on a topic or debate,” their website says. On top of that, “reporters cannot comment on any controversial topic whatsoever.”
The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) ethical guidelines include the following statement: “We lose credibility when we write opinion pieces on subjects we also cover as reporters.”
But Krishnan disagrees. Reporters are stakeholders in the stories they cover, she said, about racism, police brutality, health care, the climate crisis, and more.
Objectivity and racism
Racialized reporters, said Krishnan, are asked to bring stories to the table that better reflect the world we live in, but often face skepticism from editors and audiences alike when covering stories about racism.
“Do newsrooms see acts of racism or hatred as an objective thing?” she asked. “Suggesting that being against racism is inherently subjective is dehumanizing.”
“How does speaking out against racism make my reporting less credible?” Krishnan said.
The arbitrary nature of objectivity
Krishnan then brought up the case of Ahmar Khan, who was let go by CBC in 2019 following a tweet that was critical of Don Cherry’s outburst on Hockey Night in Canada. Khan called Cherry’s xenophobic comments “deplorable.”
CBC management found the tweet violated their protocol on reporters expressing opinions and asked Khan to delete the post from his Twitter page. Khan objected to being forced to delete the tweet and accused the CBC of applying their protocols selectively, in ways that harm journalists of colour. After it was discovered that he’d leaked details of the incident to the news site Canadaland, he was fired.
The director of CBC’s journalistic standards and practices said of Khan at the time, “If he wants to be an activist, he should step down.”
In January, an arbitrator found the public broadcaster “acted improperly” in firing Khan.
Krishnan said the story of Khan’s firing speaks to a larger issue around objectivity in newsrooms, where diversity and inclusion are touted as priorities while racialized reporters continue to suffer from systemic racism in the workplace.
The questionable termination of a New York Times editor in January also speaks to how arbitrary policies like objectivity are enforced, said Krishnan. Lauren Wolfe was let go following President Biden’s inauguration after tweeting she had “chills” watching his plane land.
Krishnan believes terminations like those of Wolfe and Khan conflate the objectivity of process with individual objectivity.
Just because a reporter has an opinion, Krishan said, doesn’t mean they’re not capable of covering something in an objective way. She believes the opinions that journalists develop after working on a beat for years bring a sense of expertise to the topics they cover.
How should newsrooms evolve?
Krishnan said newsrooms need more underrepresented voices, not just in bylines, but also in positions of power. And she said white journalists need to publicly stand by their colleagues and demand change.
Part of the point of journalism, Krishnan said, is to effect change. Journalists, after all, are advocates for truth, fairness and accuracy. Our work sparks change in public policy and workplace cultures. In that way, she said, it could be considered activism.
Krishnan encourages those in power in newsrooms to ask themselves these five questions about objectivity and their organization:
- When we expect journalists to be objective, whose lens are we referring to?
- Are official sources, including police and government, objective?
- Are acts like assigning a story, choosing a headline, placing it on the front page or burying it inside a newspaper truly objective?
- What other principles could replace the traditional view of objectivity? Fairness? Accuracy?
- Does making our biases known (e.g. I’m against racism) actually reduce our credibility?
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