This past year has been a tumultuous one, to say the least. From the mental health crisis exacerbated by COVID-19, to the systemic racism that has resulted in the death of Black and Asian lives, The Varsity has followed stories of inequity in the U of T community.
In the process, we have continued to reflect on the concept of objectivity — particularly how journalism’s obsession with it can render the practice complicit in the very problems it strives to report on.
Breaking down objectivity
Objectivity has been a subject of great debate in the field of journalism. For some, it is the field’s very foundation, one that makes it possible to determine whether or not a publication is ‘trustworthy.’ Unfortunately, in practice, as Wesley Lowery wrote In The New York Times, value is instead placed on the reader’s perception of objectivity, rather than the reality of practising objective journalism. The distinction might seem minute, but the consequences are vast.
Valuing the perception of objectivity asks the journalist to always imagine a reader who is unbiased and unswayed by any opinion or culture, and to make their writing and content appealing to them. As Pacinthe Mattar wrote in The Walrus, objectivity means having distance from the subject that journalists are reporting on.
Especially in the realm of journalism that is focused on equity-related issues, this is a distance that is primarily afforded to white journalists. It should come as no surprise then that, historically, white men have dominated newsrooms.
Striving to always maintain the traditional ideal of objectivity results in an arena of discourse in which particular lives and lived experiences are suddenly up for debate if they don’t fit the definition of the neutral, supposedly undebatable, truth of whiteness. If this past year has taught us anything, it is that such rhetoric is not only misleading but extremely dangerous.
In the context of Canada as a whole, there has been an expansive history of silencing Black and brown voices, and presenting the white Canadian voice as the truth by default. It is a reckoning that Canadian journalism has had to face for years. This history of sidelining racialized perspectives has contributed to the ongoing genocide of Indigenous peoples, the lack of historical knowledge surrounding Black people, and the overall reckoning the nation is currently having with systemic racism.
U of T has been complicit in more ways than one — a recent example being its consistent disregard toward community calls to defund and abolish Campus Police.
However, a new and better path is possible and has been suggested for some time. In the early 1900s, Walter Lippman and Charles Manz criticized The New York Times for its coverage of the Russian Revolution. By reporting the revolution through the eyes of individuals who wished to quell ‘Red Peril’ uprisings and supported a call for Allied intervention, the publication supposedly reported on what it wished to see instead of what actually was.
Lippman’s solution to this was to suggest a scientific approach to journalism. To define true objectivity as a “unity of method, rather than aim; the unity of disciplined experiment.” Lippman went on to clarify that this meant striving for “a common intellectual method and a common area of valid fact.” This unity of method meant that journalists would not imagine the neutral, unbiased reader, but instead dedicate themselves to the facts and be cognizant and critique how these facts affect people’s lives.
In the publication of content that questions people’s lived experiences under oppressive systems, we cater ourselves to this imaginary objective white reader. In holding ourselves true to their imaginary judgement instead of our own, we do not critically question who defines the truth, what is objective, and how it impacts our reporting. We abandon the ability to hold ourselves to a unity of method and instead focus on being perceived at a standard of objectivity that is impossible to fully attain.
What does this mean for us?
The Varsity’s Code of Journalistic Ethics makes clear that reporters, despite the biases that they inevitably carry, should strive toward objectivity, and should produce balanced and impartial work. On the opinions’ side of journalism, the code also calls for a diversity of viewpoints.
In general, these familiar principles are worth pursuing for any serious media organization. However, they must be balanced with other principles that are often less prioritized, such as harm reduction and equity. Indeed, our code also calls on journalists to consider how publishing material can have a real impact on readers and society at large.
To clarify these principles, we published an equity guide last year — a comprehensive document that informs our stylistic and editorial policies with the goal of including, empowering, and fairly representing equity-seeking communities in the U of T community.
The guide reminds journalists that complete neutrality is not possible because there are always power dynamics at play. Journalists must reflect on who is being excluded from the story, as well as why and how this exclusion is occuring.
That is why, as opposed to impartiality, fairness and accuracy are the most important traditional principles a journalist should uphold. A journalist risks losing their critical lens and the truth of the matter and giving credence to false balances if they force themselves to take a centrist approach to every story. A fair and accurate journalist should be able to denounce white supremacy and climate crisis denial. Reporting and opinion writing alike must reflect these understandings — lest the white neutral reader be prioritized at the expense of everyone else.
It is important, however, to make a distinction. The Varsity continues to value an optics of independence and impartiality when it comes to general matters in the U of T community. Aside from views expressed through an editorial, individual masthead members will never express opinion on student politics or a university policy. But when it comes to fundamental matters of human rights, like anti-racism, journalists should be free and encouraged to take a stand through their writing and editorial process. There is no valid ‘both sides’ to harm or hatred.
This could mean no longer considering the police as a neutral source, critiquing medical research that ignores demographics such as racialized groups, and stepping away from language that defines people by social constructs such as ‘criminal’ or ‘mentally ill.’ We call on other publications to also reconsider their understanding of objectivity.
Here at The Varsity, we remain committed to growing and developing our equity standards, including an annual review of last year’s equity guide — readers are encouraged to submit feedback — publishing an annual demographic survey of staff members, producing equity-focused issues with compensation to marginalized contributors, and consulting members from marginalized communities to build meaningful relationships and inform better practices.
We hope that Volume 142 does not rest complacent, and reinforces and builds on these foundational steps taken over the past two volumes.
Journalism, like any other industry, is constantly in flux. We are always learning different ways to share the truth, our voices, and our experiences. We must also reflect on the changes around us and ensure our publications reflect the values of the people working behind them. This reflection, as we’ve come to learn and we hope our readership will come to learn, does not hinder our ability to do ‘good journalism.’ In fact, it allows us to do and be better.
The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email [email protected]