Last month, more than 1,200 New York Times contributors and 34,000 readers and media workers signed the open letter in the newspaper expressing concern over its coverage of trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people.
Predictably, the Times has denied all allegations of bias, saying its coverage “endeavours to explore, question and reflect social experiences, ideas and debates”. But those who believe the Times’ coverage of trans lives is not only biased but downright dangerous point to legal moves in several US states in support of anti-trans laws that cite the newspaper’s reporting and its opinion pieces and editorial pages.
The dangers posed by the Times’ coverage are both frightening and frighteningly predictable. These are the inevitable outcomes of adopting “objectivity” as a guiding principle in the United States media, creating an environment in which telling “all sides” of the story can harm those people who stories we seek to tell.
To understand how we got here, it’s useful to go back in time to unpack the origins of the idea that still guides not only US media but also US culture in general. Before the 19th century, objectivity was defined by its root word, “object”. If it is in the external world, something that can be touched, smelled or seen by more than one person, it is automatically considered objective, something real as seen.
The scientific revolution and the invention of machines like the camera, X-ray and voice recorder in the 19th century added another layer to this notion. In their case, objectivity has more to do with our ability to set aside personal feelings, attitudes and biases in understanding things, including people, facts and ideas.
But the original meaning of the concept has remained in this latest iteration, for machines – things – to perform detachment better than humans can. The camera, for example, and its processes of light capture and convergence have been praised for eliminating the error and bias that plagues human renderings of any scene. The same is believed for the voice recorder, the X-ray and many subsequent inventions until today when algorithms are seen as both more accurate and neutral than humans.
Then and now, we value objectivity as a way to overcome our emotions, our flaws – our humanity. From this basic fear of ourselves and our fallibility is born the idea of journalistic objectivity, which encourages the pretense of “machine-like” precision and detachment in journalists. In practice, this often takes the form of nonpartisanship, “telling all sides” of a story and avoiding too close a relationship with sources.
At first glance, these principles seem to make sense, allowing readers to draw their own judgments after digesting all the relevant facts. However these “objective” principles often mask deeply subjective trade-offs.
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 cover. reports, which information and characters are expanded and which. is minimized. And in the US, where newsrooms continue predominantly whitestories seen as “objective” often focus on white sensibilities.
That is why, in general, minorities – whether they are defined by race, sexual orientation or gender identity – are rarely covered with the same depth, nuance or care as the majority. Instead, in our search for objectivity, the media often falls back on the tropes expected of a white, cisgender, heterosexual audience: poor Brown people, angry Black people, sexually confused teenagers, the Indigenous living in harmony with nature and others. More than we like to admit, objectivity translates into laziness – both by the media and its audience.
The many failures of Objectivity begin to seem inevitable the more one unravels the history of the concept. The story I mentioned earlier about its evolution related to the invention of certain machines is only half of its true history, which is also related to prejudice and fear – of ourselves and of each other.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, for example, who was the first to frame objectivity and subjectivity in opposition to each other, also used these ideas to promote a racial hierarchy that placed “the Negro … lazy , soft and frivolous” below.
In recent years, the camera, revered for its ability to perfectly reproduce reality, has been revealed to be as subjective as the mind that operates it.
“A picture is not necessarily a lie,” writes critic John Berger, “but it is not the truth either. It is more like a fleeting, subjective impression.” This impression depends on the relationship of the subject to the photographer and that moment in time. It depends on the light, editing and composition. It depends on what is included and what is left in the frame, never seen.
Consider, for example, National Geographic photos. In 2018, the magazine asked scholar John Edwin Mason to dive into its 130 years of coverage and investigate its track record of racial representation. Mason found that the “magazine photo, like the articles, not only emphasized difference, but … placed difference in a hierarchy” with Westerners and white people at the top.
This kind of reckoning is rarely needed in our media institutions, especially in the US. Media studies discovered that throughout Europe, the Middle East, East Africa and South Asia, “objectivity” is not a main characteristic by media institutions, meaning that the US fascination with it is as culturally specific as celebrating the Super Bowl or the Fourth of July. It also means that if objectivity outlives its usefulness – or if its dangers outweigh its utility – we can and should look elsewhere for alternatives to take its place.
Today, most media in Europe and the Global South have adopted a style of “contextual”, “analytical” or “interpretive” journalism, which asks journalists to weigh their professionally grounded but nuanced opinions about to what is really true and why.
American journalist Wesley Lowery’s idea of “moral clarity” is also promising, demanding that sources offering false information or biased opinions are clearly labeled as such and that media leaders reflect deeply on who the platform offers an opinion piece or editorial, without the guard rail of a reporter’s follower- questions.
Moral clarity also means media institutions recruiting and empowering journalists from the communities they want to cover rather than simply believing that an “objective” reporter can tell any and all stories. communities.
Moral clarity, in other words, states that truth is not the same as objectivity, which can skate into being ahistorical, apolitical and context-agnostic. Compared to reality, objectivity is the easy way out, the trapdoor into which whiteness and fear set us up to fall. This is the present stripped of its past, a nation asleep to its own history – and a newspaper that believes its coverage can “research, question and reflect” without also shaping the very truth it covers.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.