Davide Mastracci
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Objectively insufficient

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A Ryerson School of Journalism debate on objectivity misses the mark

Three established figures in Canadian journalism debated the role of objectivity for over an hour at Ryerson University on Monday, and they managed to completely avoid the most important points.

The panel, moderated by distinguished Ryerson professor Bernie Lucht, featured Jim Turk, a distinguished Ryerson professor, Ivor Shapiro, chair of Ryerson’s school of journalism and Lee-Anne Goodman, senior editor at Canadian Press.  Their conversation focused largely on the distinction between material and intellectual neutrality. Material neutrality was defined as journalists remaining free of financial ties that might influence their reporting. Intellectual neutrality, meanwhile, was defined as journalists not allowing their political stances and ideologies to affect their reporting.

Turk, Shapiro and Goodman agreed journalists must be materially neutral; they disputed the notion of intellectual neutrality as a journalistic ideal.

Turk said intellectual views can appear in an article as long as the methods used in the reporting are neutral. Shapiro said no one can ever be neutral, and a lack of intellectual neutrality is not as much of an issue as a lack of material neutrality. Goodman said neutrality is important in all regards, though noting that journalists can discount certain viewpoints, such as climate change denial, without compromising their objectivity.

One thing all three agreed on, however, was that it’s unwise for reporters to display their opinions; they could antagonize those in power, such as police sources, whom journalists rely on for their reporting.

This is concerning, as journalists’ very purpose is to hold those in power accountable. News organizations should not determine their stance on objectivity based on a fear of losing access to powerful institutions as sources. This is especially true since police forces and government figures have used the possibility of limited access as “incentive” for journalists to keep their thoughts and reporting to themselves.

Adversarial journalism is especially valuable because, at its best, it mostly transgresses the self-censorship common in mainstream journalism and holds exposing injustice as the absolute ideal. Any debate on objectivity must discuss this, but the speakers at the event on Monday avoided it during their presentations.

The speakers at the event also underplayed another significant element of any worthwhile debate on neutrality: the role identity plays in determining objectivity.

Turk said journalists must separate themselves from their partisan identity in order to report fairly. Yet the reality is that many journalists can’t do this because the very elements of their identity are treated as partisan. For example, Black journalists writing on police brutality are often attacked as being unable to report fairly because of the perceived connection between their race and subject matter. Goodman hinted at this when she noted specifically that CP has a woman covering the Jian Ghomeshi trial, as if women reporting on the case inherently have more to overcome in achieving objectivity.

A few months ago, I wrote, “Minelle Mahtani, a professor in human geography at the University of Toronto who has done extensive research into race and representation, says whiteness is often mistaken for expertise.” Whiteness, along with other demographic identifiers, is also often mistaken for objectivity.

The speakers did not address this reality in their presentations, and yet, in many ways, this is the most common issue in debates about objectivity among readers and in the experience of journalists barred from reporting on certain topics because their identities are politicized.

The role of objectivity in journalism is a topic worthy of discussion, but the debate must be significantly wider in scope–and more subversive–than the dialogue was at this event.

February 9, 2016- The original version of this post did not list Jim Turk as a panelist. It also listed Bernie Lucht as a panelist, when he was, in fact, the moderator. The Review regrets the errors.

One Response to Objectively insufficient

  1. Lee-Anne Goodman February 10, 2016 at 2:09 pm

    This is an interesting take on the discussion. I wonder why some of these questions were not asked by the writer when the discussion was thrown to the floor? I would have been happy to weigh in but they were very few raised hands.

    I don’t think anyone suggested on the panel that you can’t challenge police forces. I do recall acknowledging there can be practical, as well as ethical, concerns in allowing your biases to migrate into your news coverage. That’s a very different kettle of fish than how it’s being portrayed here.

    As for adversarial journalism, at CP we do it every day. We challenge governments and institutions to account for their policies and their decisions every day of the week. But we do it without editorializing, allowing our readers to come up with their own conclusions.

    After the discussion, however, I thought of one topic I do wish we’d delved into — unconscious bias. That can have an impact on everything from story selection to the quotes you choose to use from an interview. You may tend to disregard a quote, I suppose, that doesn’t reflect your opinion of a news event or a story, even if you’re not aware you’re doing so. And that’s dangerous, and a tough one to grapple with.


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