The Myth of Objectivity

The trinity of doctrines is the basis of journalistic claims to objectivity. This claim acts as a strategy of silencing and erasure, particularly of non-White bodies. It is Western journalism’s most fantastic conceit and vehemently defended myth. It emanates from a normative view of the world created by “a separation of the reporter’s views from the views being presented – a separation that is so rigid that it is the equivalent of erasure, the eradication of the reporter’s positions from the reporting.” [Durham, Meenakshi Gigi, “On the Relevance of Standpoint Epistemology on the Practice of Journalism: The Case for ‘Strong Objectivity,’” Communication Theory, 8(2), May 1998:117-140].

But claims to objectivity are journalism’s greatest lie. “Discourse,” Michel de Certeau writes, “gives itself credibility in the name of the reality which it is supposed to represent, but this authorised appearance of the ‘real’ serves precisely to camouflage the practice which determines it. Representation thus disguises the praxis that organises it.” [Michel de Certeau, “History: Science and Fiction,” in Heterologies: Discourse on the Other, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, 1986), p. 203]. Ironically, even those who own media do not believe in this myth. “Show me a man who thinks he’s objective,” Henry Luce, the founder of Time magazine, once argued, “and I’ll show you a liar.” [Ward, Stephen, J. A., Ethics and the Media: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 2011:132].

But Western journalists insisting on the need for “objectivity” and “neutrality” remain blind to their historical and social situatedness and the power this bestows on them to define what is truth, judge people’s struggles as legitimate or illegitimate, which histories are honoured, which are dismissed, and what is considered normal.

Some may pay lip service to its limits, accepting that there can be no one objective position to write from. Still, the myth of achievable objectivity seems never to die: journalists continue to claim it by resorting to claims of direct experience or attempt to capture the essence, to try to “see them as they see themselves,” or to “let them speak for themselves” and other such theatrics. [Trinh T Minh-ha, When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics, Routledge,1991:56]. From this place of perfect objectivity, they claim the right to define truth and judge the Other.

And yet, the subjects remain subjective; their perspectives, opinions, arguments, claims, struggles, and ideas of liberation are always interpreted through a Western journalist’s unquestioned, unacknowledged, self-proclaimed place of neutral, objective judgement. The other can only offer biased and subjective information; the journalist knows how to recast and reframe it into a proper, professional, seemingly “balanced” narrative and explanation.

The “aesthetic” of objectivity is achieved through a particular journalistic writing style, where the authoritative “I” of the narrator (journalist) disappears, and a Gods-eye view is offered through careful use of seemingly neutral, apolitical, unemotional language, discourse and terms. The Cartesian dualism remains through–subject, object–and the world is presented as if the journalist stands outside it, does not influence it by her presence, isn’t influenced by it, and carries no influences, ideologies, interests or agendas of her own. She looks, sees, asks questions, and then gives us the experience in a lucid, “honest” form. That there is a taking, a possession, an act of domination and control exercised by the journalists is never mentioned. You take, and you say nothing. You “observe” and “report” and enforce the idea of the power to offer an unbiased and unaffected view of the “real.”

But, as Rabinow has pointed out, “There is no absolute perspective from where we can eliminate our consciousness from our object.” Rabinow argued. [Rabinow, Paul. Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco, University of California Press, 1977:151.]. There is also no way to participate in human social worlds without distorting them because these participations rely on the categories and priorities we create. We find the social categories, communities and issues we seek and sculpt the world into those categories to achieve our goals. Yet, journalists claim the power to step outside the social world she is travelling and reporting and see a pure, brute, objective “reality” they can then represent.

Journalists have long understood the interpretive and narrative nature of their craft and how the ethics of journalism–ideas of objectivity, the definition of justice, and critiques of power–are deeply entangled with political and social ideologies. These ethical demands act as protectors of the status quo. The way journalists use the idea of objectivity works to stop them from reflecting and examining the influence and machinations of power in journalistic practice. By adopting the disguise of objectivity, a journalist can avoid asking questions about their place within an imperial national context, a capitalist society, and even a Eurocentric one.

Journalism is a “performative discourse” and relies on its commitment to objectivity to maintain its place as the Fourth Estate in a democracy. [Broersma, M., “Journalism as Performative Discourse: The Importance of Form and Style in Journalism,” In Rupar V., (Ed), Journalism and Meaning-Making: Reading the Newspaper, Hampton Press, 2010]. It also uses a particular writing technology to claim its authority to speak about the world and represent it for our concern or indifference. It is a project for creating narratives and determining how we talk about the critical issues of our time. And do so by making us forget the machine of production of these narratives and the power ideologies they are informed by. It derives its “authority from its power to persuade people to believe it is telling the truth about the social world and from the textual forms it uses.” [Broersma, M., “The Unbearable Limitations of Journalism: On Press Critique and Journalism’s Claim to Truth,” The International Communication Gazette, Vol. 72(1): 21–33, 2010].

This power to construct the narrative, act as the expert and possess “objectivity” is no minor privilege. It emerges from existing social, economic, and political structures that privilege certain actors as authors and agents while marginalising others if not entirely silencing them. Objectivity is created from the power to disappear the self and take one’s experiences and points of view as objective and absolute.

“Expertise is not merely something that is in the heads and hands of skilled persons,” Jasanoff has argued, “but rather that it is something acquired and deployed within particular historical, political, and cultural contexts.” [Sheila Jasanoff, “Breaking the Waves in Science Studies: Comment on HM Collins and Robert Evans, The Third Wave of Science Studies,” Social Studies of Science, 33(3), 2003:389–400]. The right to speak with authority is one a journalist achieves through institutional and political settings. By framing the world from the subjective location deep within an imperialist, Eurocentric, and capitalist social order, journalists can disappear, marginalise or overlook voices that challenge these norms and offer insights critical for understanding the state of our world. This social order has long excluded racialised and working-class bodies, women, and the Indigenous.

“For the colonised subject,” Fanon argued, “objectivity is always directed against him.” [Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press, 2004(1967):77].

It isn’t an authority granted to anyone. It is an authority jealously guarded. It is an authority fundamental to the right to chalk the line. Jane Rhodes noted that as a journalist of colour and a self-identified feminist at “a mid-size daily newspaper in a rustbelt American city,” she “was never trusted.” Her editors assumed she “could never be neutral–that my identification with other aggrieved groups would overwhelm my journalistic skills.” Only the white, male, western journalist at the publication could achieve the God trick by stepping outside ethnic, racial, political, ideological, and class allegiances to report on the world objectively and without bias. “The mantra of objectivity,” she adds, “was a convenient device through which to enforce a gendered hegemony that would make a feminist or anti-racist subject position problematic while allowing those reporters with conservative politics to function unquestioned.” [Rhodes, Jane, “Journalism in the New Millennium: What’s a Feminist to Do?” Feminist Media Studies, 1:1, 2010:49-53].

Objectivity is a myth. The three doctrines provide the foundation of its claims and its enforcement. Everything outside these three doctrines becomes subjective, questionable, debatable, and dismissable.

Objectivity is also a weapon. Amputated from its historical, material and ideological foundations, it becomes a death sentence for the Other.