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Staff Editorial: Journalistic objectivity is a futile endeavor — what do we do instead?

Art by Jo Moses

The world is burning beneath our feet. In the United States alone, institutionalized racism has a death toll that grows higher every day, prisons mimic modern slavery, immigrants are kept in internment camps at the border, the environment has no protection from the corporations destroying it, and we are being ravaged by a deadly pandemic with negligible government support to mitigate its effects — all as we desperately try to crawl out of the quicksand of fascism into which our country is sinking. At the Campanil, we are not simply impartial observers to this apocalypse, we are also a part of it. We too are impacted. Our staff is diverse, with many people of color, queer people, disabled people, women and trans folk. This week we met as a group, looked at the state of the world, and asked: “What do we do? As journalists, what is our responsibility?”

As journalists, it is often said objectivity is the goal; but when objectivity becomes synonymous with respecting both or all sides of every story equally, what do we do when one side of the story is wrong, either objectively or morally? Is it not our journalistic responsibility to report the truth, even if that truth runs counter to the notion that there were, as former President Trump said, “very fine people on both sides”? 

As the Campanil staff, we sat around our virtual table and pondered these questions. While we discussed many different possibilities, we all emphasized one thing: whether or not objectivity can actually be achieved by any journalist, especially while also being truthful and just, we as journalists need to be doing something different. Journalists are the stewards of our culture, and thus we must not report merely with a sense of detached, clinical objectivity. We must report the whole truth, in a detailed context, compassionately and ethically, no matter how offensive or irregular the media establishment may find it.

What is objectivity in journalism as we currently understand it? There were many definitions and suggestions. Perhaps objective journalism could be defined as work that is fact-based, considering all sides of any issue. Maybe objective journalism could just be making sure we look at the whole picture, and prioritize the presentation of factual and scientific information in an unbiased way. However, those who decide what journalism is objective, and even what scientific fact is correct, are mostly unrepresentative of the larger population, being mostly wealthy and powerful white men. All that in mind, we recognize that objective journalism, as defined by the media establishment, is defined not by what it has, but what it doesn’t have: opinion.

One particularly important conclusion that we arrived at was that the definition of journalistic objectivity isn’t even objective itself. After all, the very people who construct the definitions of objectivity and draw the boundaries of objective journalism are those in power. The media aristocracy composed of rich, white, men has declared objective journalism to be journalism untainted by opinion, even if that opinion is congruent with the truth. After all, we live in an age of “alternative facts” where people can no longer agree on whether or not the earth is a sphere. What is fact and what is opinion has no process to undergo verification by society at large, and perhaps it never did.

It is impossible for journalists to be entirely objective, particularly in the way that traditional schools of journalism demand. Every piece of journalism is tainted by opinion, as well as rooted in fact (which to some, may as well be an opinion! Looking at you, flat-earthers.) We shouldn’t reach for objective journalism in the traditional sense; instead, we should strive for just journalism, for what is just is the truth, and all the truth — moral truth not excluded. Atrocities happen every day, and there is no way we can justify not taking a stand: not only because journalism is a tool that weaponizes the truth to make societal change, but because attempting to treat both sides of an issue with equal respect is just as much of a statement as fully committing to the beliefs of one side. We do not have the ability to refrain from having an opinion, not when that means omitting our objections to the very factual, very real cruelty that many Americans face on a daily basis. We must not forget that silence can say just as much as a scream. So even if in our sterile, indifferent, Chicago-style-approved silence we cannot even be impartial, why should we continue to try? 

If we take contemporary journalistic objectivity to mean, at its core, both sides-ism, we must consider this: when we have to report that a couple thousand immigrant children are missing and unaccounted for after being separated from their parents at the border, how can we stay silent? When a cop executes an innocent unarmed Black man by kneeling on his neck for eight minutes while he screams out for his mother, how can we remain impartial? From the epidemic of trafficking of Indigenous women to frequent murders of Black Americans by the police, you cannot report only the tangible facts completely objectively and be anything more than a spineless bigot.

Journalists have one job, and that is to report the truth. We happen to believe this includes the moral truth. If calling out racism, fascism and authoritarianism isn’t objective, perhaps we shouldn’t be aiming for “objectivity” anymore. The limitations of its tired definition no longer serve the people about and for whom we report. Consider that instead of striving for such an intangible concept like objectivity, we should strive to be factual, thoughtful, compassionate, ethical and just. Ethical and just journalism is journalism that attempts not just to report the tangible truth, but the moral truth. For example, a just journalist does not only report on the rates of homelessness, but also on how homelessness is a social ill that the government is callous not to address. Of course, like what is fact and what is opinion, what is moral is up for debate; but that does not mean there isn’t a right answer that we can find and fight for.

Just journalism means acknowledging that we are not indifferent spectators to the apocalypse, watching from the observation deck as the world burns. It acknowledges that we don’t report in a vacuum, we report in a fight — a fight against racism, sexism, ableism, capitalism, etc. — and as long as that fight is happening, we need to be fighting too, pen and paper in hand, on the side of the downtrodden, unheard and oppressed.