Oh, let’s start with a quote, shall we?
Tridib said that we could not see without inventing what we saw, [and so] if we didn’t try ourselves, we would never be free of other people’s inventions.
That line comes from the narrator in Amitav Ghosh’s novel, The Shadow Lines, a beautiful book about nationality and heritage and the borders we draw to separate ourselves from “others.”
The quote is on my mind now because I am thinking about diversity. And bias. And the places where we get our information. An ongoing debate among citizens and journalists alike concerns whether or not we should–or even can–expect “objectivity” from those charged with the responsibility of delivering to us the world’s news. One camp (and for the sake of full disclosure, I should say that this camp is the one that I reside in) argues that “objectivity” is a myth–no news coverage can be stripped of all possible slant, and that fact in and of itself does not make slanted coverage immediately irresponsible or unreliable. Those on the other side of the debate disagree, arguing that “objective” journalism is not only possible but essential for a democracy; only with objective journalism can citizens come to their own conclusions about the issues and events of the day.
What is especially odd to me about this debate is that it seems to be entirely rooted in politics: Does it matter if a journalist donates money to a political campaign? If a journalist attends the Rally for Sanity, can we expect unbiased coverage from that reporter on issues related to, say, presidential campaigns or Supreme Court decisions? Given our two-party system in which “objectivity” in the press usually means representing the proverbial “both sides” of a debate, it’s not surprising that the objectivity/subjectivity argument has broken down along these lines. Never mind that most issues have more than “two sides” or two ways of thinking about them; a reader needs only to look at the comment section of virtually any reputable news organization to see a wealth of perspectives and good ideas that have not been represented in the given reporting.
Because I tend not to believe in objectivity, I am very much concerned with diversity. When people complain about Fox News or MSNBC, the complaints have less to do with one reporter or news anchor and more to do with the fact that the organization as a whole seems to be one big exercise in groupthink, and thereby each is less a news organization and more a political mouthpiece (or, even worse, a flat-out propaganda engine). Other news organizations might do a better job appearing objective by more skillfully stripping their politics from their news reports, but they seem still to be suffering from diversity of perspective. Recently I attended an ONA Bay Area meetup, and what immediately struck me was how incredibly white the crowd was. The Bay Area of my daily life is far, far, far more diverse than what I observed at this gathering; if these folks were representative of the amount of diversity in Bay Area newsrooms, I think that’s problematic. And I don’t think this is a Bay Area problem; I’ve also seen news orgs I follow on Facebook posting photos of their launch parties or member gatherings or blogger meetups, and every time I am shocked by how few people of color there are in the photos. There is just something very strange (and very concerning) to me about a newsroom that looks nothing like the communities that it purports to cover.
Much was made of Sonia Sotomayor’s remark that “Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see.” I think the same can be said of journalists. Every semester, my students undertake a project in which I require them to choose a given issue or group or major story and then research how various news media report on that issue or group or story. A popular topic for students to choose is immigration (perhaps because many of my students are immigrants themselves), and every time when I am helping them sort through the news articles they’ve chose, I’m alarmed at how often they find information with a disturbingly “immigrant as ‘other’ ” slant. I have been similarly disturbed by the raw data students have collected when researching such topics as the Oscar Grant murder trial and articles related to murders of gay teens. I have no doubt that to the authors –and their editors–these articles read as “objective,” simply reporting “the facts.” But my students, trained to critically analyze the language and the information selected in each story, overwhelmingly find a decided lack of objectivity. What they say helps them feel truly informed, then, is reading a variety of publications to get a more diverse look at one particular topic. And here’s where the quote that began this post comes in: whenever we tell a story, we are “inventing what we saw.” The more perspectives we turn to as storytellers and as “story-hearers,” the more we free ourselves “of other people’s inventions.”
Of course, most people agree that it’s a good idea not to get all your information from one source. And we believe in that maxim for exactly this reason: diversity matters. We all bring our individual life experiences with us every time we observe–and then report on–the world around us. It makes sense, then, for news orgs to devote themselves not to the myth of objectivity, but to the goal of diversity and the power that diverse perspectives bring to any newsroom–and thereby to the communities they seek to cover.