The idea of “objective journalism,” the theoretical ability to stay completely neutral in recounting current events, is nice and comforting to think about. It’s also a complete illusion, an utterly ahistorical approach to understanding how journalism affects society.
Objective journalism assumes that all parties in a conversation, or all groups concerned with a single event, have an equal claim to freedom of expression. It therefore assumes that there’s nothing else at stake when covering events of political and social consequence than a difference of opinion.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
In the real world, the value and consequences of speech are directly informed by structural and inherent forms of identity, like race, sexuality, gender identity, ability, or socioeconomic background. During the Civil Rights movement, nonviolent action by black folks seeking freedom from legal and extralegal exclusion and violence was often called “uncivil,” a label meant to strip the legitimacy of those movements (University President Lawrence S. Bacow recently used similar language of favoring “reason,” not “demands” in response to the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign’s demands). Separately, women are often called “hysterical” and “emotional,” a rhetorical move that implicitly but clearly reduces the female claim to so-called “rational” discourse. Rhetorical moves like these are even more dangerous when they legitimize legal and social action that threatens certain groups: because black people have been racialized as essentially “uncivil,” actions like police brutality and mass incarceration gain legitimacy; sexual assault victims (of which a significantly disproportionate number are women) don’t receive proper justice because “they’re emotional, they’re clearly lying, they’re overreacting.”
When the idea of objective journalism assumes an equality of speech, terrible consequences follow. So-called “balanced” information privileges powerful entities like the state and large corporations, entities that have enough power to influence and produce narratives, to inform and shape truth to match their agenda. In doing so, it normalizes the very real tools that systems of power can use to delegitimize and threaten the marginalized.
In his book “Just the Facts: How ‘Objectivity’ Came to Define American Journalism,” communications scholar David Mindich points out that news publications that reported on lynchings in the 19th and 20th century would include the actions that led the lynch mob to kill, in the pursuit of including all perspectives. This objectivity implicitly rationalized lynching; it constructed a logic by which lynching might be able to occur, therefore normalizing racial violence.
There is a contemporary parallel in how publications choose to cover police brutality. In 2014, a New York Times article covering the death of Eric Garner (a victim of police brutality in New York) describes him by mentioning his weight, highlighting that he was “about to be arrested on charges of illegally selling cigarettes.” In another Times article, the president of a labor union representing police officers said that had Garner “not resisted the lawful order of the police officers placing him under arrest, this tragedy would not have occurred.” In this article, the Times also mentioned that Garner “had other health issues, including diabetes, sleep apnea and asthma,” which the medical examiners cited as “contributing conditions to his death.” By including these details about Garner’s death, I believe the Times constructed a world in which Garner shared responsibility for his death with the police that killed him.
The pursuit of these “objective” constructions of truth can also yield drastic consequences for marginalized groups whose access to civil rights largely relies on their ability to escape unjust laws, to remain anonymous. A prominent example is the incarceration and deportation of undocumented immigrants and activists following their identification in public media. There’s abundant evidence that the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement keeps track of local protests and immigrant activism in order to identify potential targets for incarceration and deportation.
Immigrant activism includes student activism. Earlier this month, Act on a Dream, a student-led immigrant rights organization at the College, published a petition challenging The Crimson’s coverage of an “Abolish ICE” rally that Act on a Dream hosted in September. Alongside descriptions of the event itself, the article mentions that “ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday night.”
In an attempt to provide a “balanced” perspective on deportation, news outlets that ask for the agency’s response risk providing the very means to bring protests to ICE’s attention, which can cause the agency to identify undocumented immigrants, enact political violence upon those activists, and silence their calls for equal rights and freedom from systemic injustice.
In pursuing objectivity, we silence the marginalized. In silencing the marginalized, we tip the narrative of “truth” into the hands of the powerful.
Like all news organizations, The Crimson must remain critical and reflective of the way it approaches news, about what legitimacy it lends to which voices, and how its reporting might threaten certain student populations. Yes, in an ideal world, objective journalism would exist. But also in an ideal world, undocumented immigrants wouldn’t suffer the constant threat of being stripped of their rights, of being arrested and deported and subjected to other forms of legal violence. In the real world, a world shaped by history and culture and systemic injustice, journalists must pay strong attention to how their words might affect their audience, how their journalism might endanger the real lives of the characters in every story that they construct.
Ajay V. Singh ’21 is a Social Studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.