Objectivity doesn’t mean what you think it means.
Let’s use the dictionary definition of the word as our starting point. If a person or opinion is objective, it is “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.” As a former journalism student, I know the term all too well. For the general public, allow me to explain the tenets of journalism for you: for something to be considered truly journalistic, it must be fair, balanced, and objective. You can think of all these words altogether as neutral. All journos are taught that for straight-laced, hard news, the writing must be emotionally removed from the subject matter to deliver facts, allowing room for readers to form their own opinions on the subject.
On paper, that sounds nice, doesn’t it? Let me let you in on a secret, though. Publications and news corporations promote this idea because being neutral is least likely to land them in legal hot water. Namely, with the wealthy investors/conglomerates that likely own (and keep afloat) their businesses.
Like many of America’s businesses, an overwhelming majority of the media we consume bows to the desires of the entities that own and fund them, thus influencing the ways in which information is given to us, the stories we’re told, and the people we see. The wealthy have a vested interest in the way they and their related power structures are represented in the media publications they own; they need Americans to believe not too seriously that Republicans are dangerous, cops are violent, and that privileges in this society exist, in order for them to maintain their wealth. Media publications look to “objectivity” to appeal to as large an audience that they can, without offending too much in any one direction. This benefits the rich because it doesn’t disrupt the systemic status quo, on which their livelihood depends.
So if the rich can simply buy their way to favorability, is information truly free?
If established systems such as police can strong-arm the media (with threat of lawsuit) into using their preferred language — even if such language is misleading — is it really objective?
Objectivity cannot exist under a late capitalist system. And the public remaining willfully ignorant of the power structures that exist and the insidious ways these structures influence the news they receive — even from liberal publications — is counterproductive to keeping folks informed.
What’s more, the current obsession with “objectivity” in journalism has enticed the industry away from what great journalism was originally intended to do: stir affect. We forget the impact of “muckraking” pieces such as that from Jacob Riis. a journalist of the early 19th century that exposed the horrific living conditions of the working poor in “How the Other Half Lives.” He exposed in photographs the dilapidated buildings the white poor of the era were forced to live in. Nellie Bly, another journalist of the era, went down in history for essentially inventing investigative journalism. Her story about the dire state of asylums for the supposed “mentally ill” women of the 1800s made her a household name at the time. Feigning mental illness for 10 days is what gained her entry to an asylum, and the ensuing expose illuminated citizens to how traumatizing they were. (It also gave her in this century a biopic starring Christina Ricci.) What’s more, newspapers by slaves and free folk are some of our most honest accounts of the state of Black life throughout the 19th century, the archives of which historians refer to even today.
We must reclaim the spirit that journalists of yore manifested. It is imperative that we redefine “telling it like it is.” Making our way through the current civil rights movement, journalists must uplift the voices of the oppressed. Straddling the fence when one side is high rises and yachts and the other housing projects and chain-link fences is equal, yes, but not equitable. Real journalism balances the inequities that exist in society with the aim of bringing perspectives level again. The misnaming of objectivity only serves the dominant destructive forces in our society; it is a tool for legitimizing their social status by presenting their perspectives as equally as powerful to those they subjugate. But doing that, in actuality, is the opposite of fair to the marginalized. It is the “both sides” of the bully/bullied dynamic we learned as children on a societal level. How can the public reasonably stay informed with half-truths about the harm those in power are inflicting? How can the true moderate of society be convinced to join the side of justice when the strife of the marginalized is consistently presented so dispassionately? What hard news media is doing is not informing — they are maintaining social order. And the effects continue to alienate those most amenable to change from real knowledge.
As we look to CNN, The New York Times, MSNBC and the like for coverage of Black Lives Matter protests, we must ask ourselves if the neutral language we hear is telling us the whole story. Question who actually benefits from phrases like “officer-involved shooting.” Because until the interests of the current system are discarded by independent news entities, objectivity as we know it will only lead us in circles around the truth.