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The battle for the future of objectivity

Last month, more than 1,200 New York Times contributors and 34,000 readers and media workers signed a open letter to the paper expressing concern over its coverage of trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people.

Predictably, the Times denied any allegations of bias, saying its coverage “aims to explore, interrogate and reflect society’s experiences, ideas and debates”. But those who believe the Times’ coverage of trans lives is not only biased but downright dangerous point to legal motions in several U.S. states in support of anti-trans legislation that have banned the newspaper’s coverage and pieces in its opinion and editorial pages. quote.

The dangers posed by the Times’ coverage are both gruesome and horribly predictable. They are the inescapable result of enshrining “objectivity” as a guiding principle in American media, creating an environment where telling “all sides” of the story can harm the very people whose stories we are trying to tell.

To understand how we got here, it’s helpful to go back in time to unravel the origins of the idea that still guides not only American media, but American culture in general. Before the 19th century, objectivity was defined by the root word ‘object’. If it was in the outside world, something that could be touched, smelled, or seen by more than one person, it was automatically considered objective, something as real as it was tangible.

The scientific revolution and the invention of machines such as the camera, X-ray and voice recorder in the 19th century added another layer to this understanding. In their wake, objectivity had more to do with our ability to set aside personal feelings, attitudes, and biases in perceiving things, including people, facts, and ideas.

But the original meaning of the concept persisted in this latest iteration, for machines—objects—performed detachment better than humans ever could. The camera, for example, and its processes of light capture and convergence have been praised for eliminating the errors and bias that plagued human renderings of each scene. The same was assumed for the voice recorder, the x-ray, and many subsequent inventions to this day, when algorithms are seen as both more accurate and neutral than humans.

Then and now, we value objectivity primarily as a way to overcome our emotions, our flaws – our humanity. Out of this fundamental fear of ourselves and our fallibility has grown the idea of ​​journalistic objectivity, which encourages journalists to create an appearance of “machine-like” accuracy and detachment. In practice, this often takes the form of impartiality, “telling all sides” of a story, and avoiding overly close relationships with sources.

At first glance, these principles seem logical, allowing readers to make their own judgment after digesting all the relevant facts. Yet these “objective” principles often mask deeply subjective compromises.

In a world with limited resources and attention spans, editors and journalists still have to make choices about the stories they cover, who they interview, the questions they ask, how they frame the events they report on, what information and characters are reinforced, and which are minimized. And in the US, where there are still editorial offices predominantly whitethe stories seen as “objective” are often those aimed at white sensibilities.

That is why, in general, minorities – whether defined by race, sexual orientation, or gender identity – are rarely treated with the same depth, nuance, or concern as the majority. Instead, in our quest for objectivity, the media too often reverts to the tropes a white, cisgender, heterosexual audience expects: poor brown people, angry black people, sexually confused teens, indigenous people living in harmony with the nature, and so on. More than we care to admit, objectivity translates into laziness – by the media and the public alike.

The many failures of objectivity begin to seem inevitable as one unravels the history of the concept. The story I told earlier of his evolution related to the invention of certain machines is only half of his real history, which is also related to prejudice and fear – of ourselves and of each other.

For example, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who was the first to contrast objectivity and subjectivity, also used these ideas to argue for a racial hierarchy that placed “the Negro…lazy, mild-mannered, and insignificant” at the bottom.

Recent years have shown that the camera, praised for its ability to perfectly represent reality, is as subjective as the mind that controls it.

“A photograph is not necessarily a lie,” wrote critic John Berger, “but it is not the truth either. It is more of a fleeting, subjective impression.” This impression depends on the relationship of the subject to the photographer and to that point in time. It depends on light, mounting and composition. It depends on what’s included and what’s left out of the frame, never seen.

Consider, for example, the National Geographic photos. In 2018, the magazine asked scholar John Edwin Mason to dive into 130 years of reporting and examine his track record of racial representation. Mason found it that the magazine’s “photography, like the articles, not only emphasized difference, but … placed difference in a hierarchy” with Westerners and whites at the top.

This kind of reckoning is as rare as it needs to be in our media establishments, especially those in the US. Media Studies have discovered that throughout Europe, the Middle East, East Africa and South Asia, ‘objectivity’ cannot be taken for granted main feature of media institutions, meaning the American obsession with it is as culturally specific as the Super Bowl or the Fourth of July celebration. It also means that if objectivity has outlived its usefulness – or if its dangers outweigh its usefulness – we can and should look elsewhere for alternatives to take its place.

Today, most media outlets in Europe and the Global South have adopted a style of ‘contextual’, ‘analytical’ or ‘interpretive’ journalism, which asks journalists to weigh in with their professionally grounded but nuanced opinions on what exactly is true and Why.

American journalist Wesley Lowery’s idea of ​​“moral clarityis also promising, demanding that sources offering misinformation or biased opinions be clearly labeled as such and that media leaders think deeply about who is being offered the platform of an op-ed or editorial that lacks the guardrail of a reporter’s followers. questions.

Moral clarity also means that media institutions hire and empower journalists from the communities they want to cover, rather than simply believing that an “objective” reporter can tell the story of all communities.

In other words, moral clarity argues that truth is not the same as objectivity, which can skate past by being ahistorical, apolitical, and context-agnostic. Compared to the truth, objectivity is the easy way out, the trapdoor into which whiteness and fear have dropped us. It is the present stripped of the past, a nation asleep in its own history – and a newspaper that believes its reporting can ‘explore, question and reflect’ without also shaping reality itself.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.