The Right AnswersJournalism Is Masking Racism behind the Lie of Objectivity

A Black woman and child at the George Floyd protests in Charlotte, North Carolina, on June 2, 2020. (Photo credit: Clay Blanks/Unsplash, Wikimedia Commons, photo illustration by neonhoney)

Last week, the New York Times published an op-ed by Arkansas senator Tom Cotton, titled “Send In The Troops,” arguing that the military should be sent in to violently “restore order” at Black Lives Matter protests across the country. The piece brought immediate backlash from both outside readers and writers and editors within the New York Times. The Times often solicites and publishes op-eds from political leaders, but this one—which, among other things, claimed without evidence that “nihilist criminals are simply out for loot and the thrill of destruction, with cadres of left-wing radicals like Antifa infiltrating protest marches to exploit [George] Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes”—was not only irresponsible, but fear mongering with no factual basis and allowed to be published as such.

As writers from the Times and other outlets pointed out, the op-ed’s framing put both the Times’s Black staffers and Black citizens at large in danger. James Bennet, the news organization’s editorial-page director who has since resigned, took to Twitter to defend the piece in a lengthy thread, and followed up with a published statement the next day, insisting that “debating influential ideas openly, rather than letting them go unchallenged, is far more likely to help society reach the right answers.” (He did not note, in either venue, that he himself had not read Cotton’s piece before publishing it.) In response to the outpouring of anger, the Times issued a statement stating that the piece fell short of its editorial standards.

The Times’s decision to run Cotton’s op-ed is one of many irresponsible and dangerous choices made by corporate media outlets in their coverage of George Floyd’s May 25 murder and the uprising against police brutality that followed it. Mainstream digital, print, and television stories in the last two weeks have consistently offered up clickbait headlines, propaganda and lies about friendly or sympathetic police forces, and an overarching portrait of protestors as violent, irrational marauders rather than exhausted, grieving subjects of systemic police brutality. Such editorial choices are generally explained as efforts to display “journalistic objectivity”—the belief that journalists should show both sides of a situation in their reporting to avoid any bias in their language and framing. However, mainstream reporting in the aftermath of Floyd’s death provides an instructive lens on the failed, harmful, and often racist ideology of “objective” journalism.   

Language is the main way by which journalists are trained to remain objective: Reporters are taught to choose their words carefully and produce writing that is accurate and avoids any personal bias. Accuracy, in this case, precluded reporting that Floyd was “murdered” by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin before a formal charge was brought against the officer. What this meant was that mainstream news outlets across the country deployed bizarre syntax and every euphemism imaginable to avoid assigning culpability to Chauvin for a crime that we all saw on video. Instead of writing “the officer who murdered George Floyd,” for example, the Associated Press referred to Chauvin as the “Minneapolis cop who knelt on a man’s neck,” a statement that is factually true but devoid of any subjective notions of racism or police brutality.

Many outlets have taken the mandate of objectivity beyond a shift in language and have actively altered the frame of their reporting: A June 3 headline in the Chicago Sun-Times referred to cops as “exhausted” and “abused” by patrolling protests; a May 31 tweet from CBS News said that “leaders” were “pleading for an end to violence,” a deliberately vague phrase that let the news outlet tacitly blame protestors and ignore the role of “leaders” who make their protest necessary. The result is biased framing and a harmful lack of nuance that violently misrepresents the political and systemic factors underlying Floyd’s murder at the hands of police.

Even the notion of what’s considered objective is, in itself, subjective: While many view the events of Floyd’s murder at the hands of a violent and racist police system an unequiovcal fact, others don’t consider it to be a murder at all, buying into conspiracy theories, or consider it an isolated, non-racist incident. Because journalism is a field traditionally dominated by wealthy, white male voices, the latter perspective is the one that is typically heralded as objective and fair. As such, when Black writers report on issues of race or police brutality, any language that might qualify their writing as too personal or subjective merits their writing as “less than” or untrustworthy. Our current standard of journalistic objectivity is so entrenched in the values of white supremacy that any reporting that falls outside that lens is automatically considered biased.

What this model fails to recognize—and what mainstream outlets fail to recognize, in turn—is that to report on police brutality without an anti-police bias is completely ineffective. “I think objectivity is an ideology that is used in journalism to keep marginalized people from telling their stories and to keep the status quo alive,” Clarissa Brooks, a Black journalist and organizer, told Bitch. “It also places a focus on ethos vs. logos which I feel negates the lived experience of journalists and writers of color who have faced oppressive regimes. Journalism and cultural criticism have never been objective industries. They serve as a means for white supremacist violence to be mitigated and accepted as a cultural norm.”

If journalists aim to accurately capture our current historical moment, we must move beyond this “objectivity” framework and commit to reporting that effectively serves our most vulnerable communities. 

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While many herald journalistic objectivity as a central tenet of reporting, the concept is rather new and has shifted greatly over time. According to reporting from the American Press Institute, the term began to appear in the 1920s out of a growing recognition that journalists have unconscious bias. Too, there was a capitalist push for objectivity because it meant newspapers could appeal to a broader swath of readers (and thus advertisers). Before this, in the latter part of the 19th century, journalists preferred a practice called “realism,” which puts forth that if reporters find out the facts and order them together, truth would reveal itself rather naturally. As a concept, and as a goal, objectivity instead called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work.

In 1919, prolific journalist Walter Lippman shifted the notion of good journalism once more by declaring that reporters should aspire for “the scientific spirit” and base their reporting more on statistics and facts, which more closely resembles the model of reporting that we see today. However, many contemporary outlets such as the Columbia Journalism Review have raised serious questions about the effectiveness of objectivity, illustrating how the definition is continuing to change. The modern prioritizing of objectivity has, in fact, historically been an ineffective way of documenting the news. In his recent book Berlin: 1933, French journalist Daniel Schneidermann examines how different news outlets outside of Germany portrayed the growing Nazi movement and persecution against Jewish people. At the time, he writes, reporting from mainstream outlets such as the New York Times was fragmentary, dry, and often buried on the paper’s interior pages.

This contrasted with the reporting of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a Jewish-run newspaper that used more subjective language in reporting on the Holocaust and published well-rounded profiles on victims of antisemitism; Schneidermann notes that many mainstream outlets at the time dismissed the paper as insufficiently neutral. “We can’t accuse the New York Times of having avoided the raw facts,” Schneidermann writes. “Except that the raw facts don’t suffice. In order for a piece of news to touch consciences and hearts, there must be emotion running through it.” Though a direct comparison between the Holocaust and today’s political moment is woefully inadequate, Schneidermann’s point on the inutility of so-called objective journalism in portraying injustices rings true today. This perhaps helps to explain why the Times saw its greatest number of canceled subscriptions in the 24 hours after Cotton’s op-ed went live, and why many are turning to Twitter as a source of news about protests instead of relying on mainstream media.

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When mainstream publications are unable to maintain their standard of “objectivity” through controlling the means of reporting, they resort to even more nefarious methods. In the weeks that followed the onset of COVID-19 cases in the United States and the economic recession that came with it, major media companies across the country—among them Vice, Conde Nast, and the Atlantic laid off hundreds of journalists, a good portion of whom were Black people and people of color. Now, as the Black Lives Matter movement gains incredible traction and reporters are desperately needed to write on race and police brutality, newsrooms remain as white as ever. Notably, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette banned a Black journalist from reporting on protests after she tweeted from her personal account about looting. Elsewhere, the past week has brought revelations from other media entities about hierarchical work culture and company structures that make it virtually impossible for Black journalists or writers of color to write honestly about issues of racial injustice.

It seems that many publications have eliminated the possibility of “biased” reporting by ensuring that the voices of those with a direct stake in this political moment will seldom be heard in the mainstream. Even under the most well-meaning of circumstances, it is impossible for corporate media to remain objective in its reporting because of the way these businesses make their profit. Whereas many independent and nonprofit publications such as Salty or Wear Your Voice magazine rely mainly on reader donations to stay afloat, larger, for-profit media outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic are largely beholden to advertisers, sponsors, or individual corporate billionaires to fund their content, which can hugely drive the type of content that an outlet is allowed to produce.

Local news, which often produces the most relevant investigative reporting on social issues, similarly has a business model that is highly unsustainable. Not only must for-profit media adhere to the needs of the entities that fund it; many mainstream outlets publish certain content for their own social or political agendas as well. For example, many were quick to point out the convenient timing of the Times approaching Cotton to write an op-ed, as he is reportedly considering a presidential run in 2024. While mainstream publications hold on most tightly to the outmoded ideals of “objectivity,” it seems these same outlets are the least objective in their reporting. This perhaps explains why niche, mission-driven nonprofit journalism like Study Hall and Unicorn Riot has gained such popularity as of late.

Key to the notion of objectivity is the belief that every bit of news has multiple sides, and that “all sides” need to be presented in the form of opinion so that readers can, as Bennet put in when defending Cotton’s op-ed, “debat[e] ideas openly.” But Cotton’s op-ed points to two glaring flaws in this logic. One is that any publication, but particularly one considered the paper of record in the United States, should be able to determine when an opinion falls far outside the scope of reasonable. Allowing a violent and racist argument to be publicized on a global scale for the sake of “debate” is not only the opposite of good journalism, it is a decision that has potentially dangerous consequences. What’s more, the Times giving Cotton a platform in this way did not allow debate on both sides—it only allowed discourse on one side, if advocating for militarized violence against U.S citizens can be called “discourse.”

If mainstream publications were truly concerned with allowing “all sides” of an argument to be seen, their choice to use police officers rather than protestors as sources, for instance, or to actively muffle the voices of Black staff, become even more outrageous. If journalists aim to accurately capture our current historical moment, we must move beyond this framework and commit to reporting that effectively serves our most vulnerable communities. “Objectivity is the biggest lie that has been told, because we all carry implicit and unconscious biases,” Taylor Crumpton, a Black freelance writer who has contributed to Bitch, said. “In order for journalism to evolve, editors and journalists need to acknowledge their inherent biases and review how that impacts their work. It’s harmful for the media to operate without ongoing and sustained conversations about [the] need to undo this myth.”

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by Mary Retta
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Mary is a freelance writer covering culture, identity, sexual politics, and wellness. Her work has been featured in The Nation, Glamour, Teen Vogue, Bitch Media, Vice, Nylon, Allure, and other similar outlets. When she is not writing she can be found scheming, watching cartoons, or sending unnecessarily long emails. To see more of Mary’s work and adventures, follow her on Twitter.