My name’s Anita Li, and I’m the media innovation editor at Discourse (ICYMI, Erin introduced me to you two newsletters ago). My job, in a nutshell, is to experiment, take risks and help push the boundaries of journalism here in Canada — even if change sometimes makes people uncomfortable.
As we continue to develop an “editorial product Canadians can trust,” my Discourse colleagues and I often have debates about how we approach journalism, both on a story level and in terms of our overall strategy. These discussions are occasionally intense, never boring and always helpful in getting us to think critically about the way people consume media. To challenge the status quo, you have to question it first. That’s why we’re bringing our debates to centre stage, via this newsletter, so you can weigh in, too.
One big idea we’ve been discussing lately is the notion of objectivity, and whether it still serves a purpose in journalism today. Having worked at legacy media institutions where objectivity was upheld as the gold standard, and at new media startups where it was important to be fair but not necessarily balanced, my personal view on this has evolved over time. As I see it now, objectivity — defined in this context as neutral, impartial reporting — should be abandoned. Or at least rethought.
Given that free and independent media are pillars of democracy, it’s the responsibility of journalists to accurately inform the public, so they can make civic-minded decisions. But “balancing” the perspective of a scientist against a climate-change denier, or an anti-racism activist against a white nationalist, gives credence to views that 1) aren’t based in fact, 2) encourage a false equivalence and 3) actually run counter to our country’s democratic principles. This so-called balance, then, doesn’t get us any closer to the truth.
It also feels reckless to slavishly pursue objectivity in such a fraught political climate — a time when journalists should be taking great pains to hold power to account. A more adversarial style of journalism makes more sense in an era when the U.S. president’s lies can fill the entire page of a newspaper (in a very small font!).
Above all, though, the value of objectivity in journalism is waning because people — particularly those from marginalized and underrepresented communities — are starting to question its value. Straight white men, the historical gatekeepers of mainstream Canadian newsrooms, decide what makes a story objective or not. They also dictate what’s newsworthy. So, “objective” is usually code for the very subjective “straight white male perspective.” This raises an interesting question: Is genuine objectivity in journalism even possible?
But before we determine whether objectivity is past its best-before date, we must clearly define it. Definitions of the word are inconsistent, both among journalists and the public,
with some saying objectivity has been conflated with neutrality, when it actually means “evidence-based, factual reporting.”
So, I’m asking you to help us define “objectivity.” Then tell me — via email, Twitter or Facebook — whether you think it still has a place in modern journalism.
P.S. If you enjoyed this newsletter, ask your friends to subscribe, and keep following our work!