Questioning Journalistic Objectivity

Journalism, as we've known it, has been mourned deeply over the last few years. The Internet has changed everything. "Citizen journalism," a phrase that still inspires dirty looks at most journalism conferences, has blurred the lines between objectivity and subjectivity, paid and unpaid labor, news and opinion. It gives veteran journalists agita to imagine totally untrained people messing around in their exclusive, albeit hardscrabble, club.

With all this reshaping and shifting of our industry, all this talk about changing financial models and publishing structures, now is an opportune time to question one of the field's most defended values: objectivity.

This issue has been particularly present for me as I'm on the final stages of writing a book -- a collection of profiles of ten people under 35 who are doing interesting social justice work. It's been necessarily intimate; these are 8,000 word, very in-depth, largely psychological profiles. They require a level of openness, on the part of the subject, and a level of listening, on the part of the journalist, that surpasses any of the shorter, less personal genres. In my interviews for this book, I've discussed a range of sensitive and difficult topics: physical abuse, immigration, class, gender identity, rape, divorce, death, race, and birth. I've sat in my subjects' offices, favorite restaurants, and classrooms, taken walks with them through their childhood neighborhoods, cried over their suffering, rejoiced with them over their victories.

After asking my subjects to be so trusting, so transparent, and so generous with their time, I feel compelled to make them feel safe in the experience of being written about -- an inherently objectifying and frightening prospect. I made clear that I wasn't planning on writing glowing press releases about them, instead aiming to be honoring and honest, empathic and compassionately critical.

And I told them that I would show them drafts and give them a chance to give me feedback and correct inaccuracies before the pieces become public.

Here's where I can almost hear the journalism professors scream, "Stop the presses!" The traditional journalistic approach is to conduct your interviews and experience a connection with your subjects, then sit in a room and write about it, removing them from the process -- except perhaps for some cut-and-dried fact checking (such as "confirm the date of your birth, your first wife's name, and the spelling of your alma mater"). If I was following this convention, I would transcribe, write, revise with my editor's guidance, and publish. End of story.

The argument for sticking with the traditional method is fairly straight-forward -- people will want to meddle with "the real story." Journalists have to create bonds, and then break them, in honor of the larger goal: Truth (with a capital "T"). Besides, no one ever thinks they've said anything the way they've actually said it -- even when you play the tape back for them. Giving them a chance to comment pre-publication is a fool's errand.

There is certainly wisdom in this, but it denies the dynamic of human perception. We each come to our lives and the lives of others with a lens worn and weathered over years of learning, experiences, and social conditioning. We don't see others -- even in seemingly banal situations -- through a pristine, a-historical point of view; we see them through a unique assemblage of all the prior references we have, all of our prejudices -- conscious and unconscious, all of our own fears and passions. To deny that is to deny human nature.

And beyond that, there's a rarely talked about but very powerful reason that journalists hide behind this convention. It's not just that we want to uphold Truth. It's incredibly frightening to think that you're going to have to be accountable to real people in the writing process. It's much easier to pretend that your master is Fact (with a capital "F") and call it a day. Facts don't speak back -- unless you get them egregiously wrong and then people speak back for them. Even then, you might be seen as careless, but usually not insensitive. Your effectiveness and credibility, not your humanity, is at stake.

Opening yourself up to feedback from your subjects is frightening, yes, but it's still not as scary as being written about. Becoming the subject of a journalistic piece is objectifying. Even when I write about myself, I cringe at being exposed. It's like having just one snapshot of yourself projected on a giant billboard. It's you, indeed, but it's only one version of you. So of course I understand how complex, strange, and sometimes offensive it can be for others to be shaped into a caricature of my own making.

That's why I'm deeply committed to this collaborative process of talking and listening, writing and responding, editing and reflecting with my subjects. That's the least I owe them, and rather than discouraging a poignant or honest portrait, I think it often enhances my work. The courage it takes to write about people as I really see them, flaws and all, is related to the courage it takes for them to expose themselves, and then engage in the process of commenting on my portrayal. This congruency seems to support a certain sort of magic on the page -- a process of mutual pursuit of a truth, rather than a one-sided, hubristic claim on the Truth.

The goal contemporary journalists should strive toward -- at least in long, reflective form -- is not objectivity. The goal should be, as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jack Fuller put it in Shop Talk & War Stories, "work of genuine intellectual integrity," and I would add emotional accountability. It might be messier, but it's ultimately more transformative.

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