The Myth of the Objective Media

A good journalist never stops striving for objectivity. But part of what the Black Lives Matter protests expose is that holding on to objectivity as an journalistic ideal is naïve at best, misleading at worst. Let’s talk about why.

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Journalists are trained to strive for objectivity. To represent opposing sides to a story, facts and evidence. To be impartial, unbiased and independent of interests. To leave one’s own preferences and beliefs by the door of the newsroom.  

The phrase is deliberately worded “striving for objectivity” and not “practising objectivity”. Complete objectivity is not within reach, and the news industry knows this. Objectivity can never be fully achieved, they are taught; but a good journalist never stops striving and gets as close as possible to their objective goal. That is the promise journalists make to all of us news consumers, so that we can feel well and safely informed. 

“We all have mud on our feet from somewhere.

But objectivity is an insidious term, even in an non-absolute form. Loosening up on the ideal of objectivity by using the term “striving” does not make it any less of a misleading standard for journalism. It still draws on the notion of objectivity as something that a journalist is more or less able to exercise, depending on how skilled they are. We news consumers are used to thinking that the extent of objectivity obtained is probably as good as the real deal – and abandon our critical inquiry there. But a journalist will always be part of the story. As Candis Callison, a journalist and professor at the University of British Columbia who teaches in journalism and at the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies, puts it: “We all have mud on our feet from somewhere.“ 

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Photo: Keenan Constance

Nobody is an island

As research has shown, no one is immune to bias. We all grow up under certain demographic and social conditions that shape our path in life. We are all being socialised from the day we are born (some might say even before that – gender reveal party, anyone?), consciously and unconsciously collecting impressions that are tied to the privileges and opportunities we are born into (or born lacking) – all of which, combined, impact our views and choices in life. Though we often interpret our own individual experiences as universal, they never are. Our biases are formed in this misinterpretation. 

The idea of socialisation stands in direct contrast to the alluring idea of individualism. Individualism, with its promise of control and agency depending only on ourselves. It is the concept of complete freedom where freedom is perceived as a personal vacuum, one for each one of us to float around in, immune to our history, surroundings and the resources available to us. You are free to do whatever you want to do, as is everyone else – so let the games begin!

But this is not possible. Nobody is an island. We can never escape the context that shaped – and is shaping – us. Not the visible, nor the invisible context. This is true in our personal lives as well as in our professional lives, though it sure has a greater impact on some professions than others. Journalism is such a profession – and a powerful one, too. 

Handle with care

“Journalism contributes to social orders by often repeating dominant narratives or dominant points of view” Professor Callison says. This is why there lies great power in the work of journalism; overviewing what is happening in the world, selecting how to present it and who to include as part of this presentation is a platform for influence. For the sake of our all, journalists need to handle that power with care. The author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie also points to this in a speech about “The Danger Of A Single Story”. The stories we hear about each other, Adicihie says, create our impression of each other, and we need to hear many different stories in order for us not to approach each other as incomplete stereotypes, but as complex humans. 

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Photo: Vanilla Bear Films

No dismantling socialisation

This explains why journalism and the idea of objectivity is under enhanced scrutiny as the Black Lives Matter protests continue. It explains why this time around, it is an identity politics discussion of how the social and demographic profile of the journalist has disrupted the ideal of objectivity. It is the call for more diversity in newsrooms and in media in general, as it becomes more widely understood that every story is somehow a product of the socialisation of the journalist who is making it. That striving for objectivity by including opposing sides, facts or evidence does not act as an adequate counterbalance to the journalist’s own socialisation. That there is no journalistic skill that will enable you to approach a news story from an absolutely neutral standpoint, because there is no tool for dismantling socialisation. There is only reflecting upon what this means for the stories that journalists make, as well as the power that they hold. 

We will never believe an objective story

For the news industry and for journalism, acknowledging this and engaging in a dialogue about its implications for the future of journalism, is the way to handle power with care. Journalism lives on credibility. We, news consumers, long for somebody to trust. In a heartbeat, we will trust the journalists and media that reject the idea of objectivity and instead show us consciousness of their own socialisation and its influence on their work. A journalist will always be part of the story, and that might be completely fine. As long as we – journalists included – clearly see how.

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About the author:

Marie Valentin Beck is a diversity strategist and advisor with a background in sociology based in Copenhagen. From this place, she reflects on what is happening in the intersection between sociology, diversity and identity politics. 

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