Don’t hold your applause

Questioning journalism’s love affair with objectivity

The first time I stepped in a newsroom, I shadowed a sports reporter who left me with one key piece of advice: don’t clap. If I wanted to be a journalist, I shouldn’t cheer, celebrate or reveal my biases while in the field.

I heard a similar sentiment through the rest of my post-secondary career: reporters exist to observe and record, not to participate.

I took these words to heart and slowly trained myself to – at least outwardly – appear detached. Even today, I sometimes have to remind myself it’s okay to look annoyed after a bad call or to applaud at a concert.

A journalist, I learned, needs to be impartial. A professional can’t take sides and must objectively report the facts. It might sound great in theory. In reality, it’s impossible.

True objectivity, whether in the media or anywhere else, doesn’t exist. As Matt Tabbi writes in “Objective journalism is an illusion,” a 2015 New York Times op-ed, “Opinion can’t be extracted from reporting. The only question is whether or not it’s hidden. Everything journalists do is a subjective editorial choice, from the size of headlines to the placement of quotes and illustrations.”

The Canadian Press Stylebook, a newsroom reference guide, addresses impartiality as a crucial aspect of reporting, advising journalists to ask themselves: “Am I being as impartial, honest and fair as I can be?”

According to Canadian Press policy, “Parties in controversy, whether in politics or law of otherwise, receive fair consideration. Statements issued by conflicting interests merit equal prominence, whether combined in a single story or used at separate times.”

When approaching an assignment, a journalist typically chooses who to interview – that is, which voices to include in the story. And when those voices belong to people in positions of power, it’s worth revisiting that Canadian Press policy. Is including – or in some cases, prioritizing – their words truly fair?

It’s irresponsible and harmful for journalists to always weigh both sides of a story equally, especially when doing so serves to reinforce historically privileged viewpoints and dominant ideologies.

In the time of #metoo, this month’s devastating Supreme Court confirmation and upcoming elections in the United States and here in Winnipeg, reporters need to step up and change their tactics.

As Ana Kasparian writes in the New York Times, “Those who are lucky enough to have a platform have the most important responsibility – to provide people with the critical information they need to be savvy voters and citizens.”

Journalists and editors need to examine their own biases and reporting strategies to determine exactly who their attempts at neutrality truly benefit: their audiences or those already in positions of power.

Instead of instructing aspiring reporters to fairly share both sides of any story, it’s time to teach responsible journalism that doesn’t simply amplify the voices audiences have heard for years.

Danielle Doiron is a writer and editor who’s still getting used to clapping and cheering in public. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily represent the editorial views of The Uniter.

Published in Volume 73, Number 6 of The Uniter (October 18, 2018)

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