The question of whether journalism should prioritize objectivity has troubled the industry since the twentieth century.
American journalist Richard Kaplan defines objectivity as a stance where journalists, like scientists, “vow to eliminate their own beliefs and values as guides in ascertaining what was said and done.” Objectivity, by this definition, should make journalists impartial — unaffected in their coverage not only by external forces like politics, but also by their personal philosophies.
This nonpartisan reporting style became increasingly popular in the early 1900s as journalists tried to split from a previous tradition of partisanship, where authors often wrote articles clearly and unabashedly in support of their own political views. From around the 1920s onward, journalists have been discouraged from voicing their personal opinion on news and from straying from the centre of the political spectrum. Among journalists, objectivity essentially became the pinnacle of journalistic integrity.
However, this desire for objectivity has resulted in journalism that has sometimes simply echoed the voices of politicians, businesspeople, and celebrities without adding to the conversation. When we insist on adhering to an overexaggerated version of objectivity above all else, journalists report on what the “people in power” are doing without providing enough background information or attempting to critique the social elite.
The consequences of prioritizing an objective lens in journalism have been numerous. In an attempt to achieve objectivity in journalism, the issue of false balance — when the media presents opposing viewpoints as equal, even when that’s not supported by credible sources and facts — emerged. It’s no surprise then that watchdog journalism — where journalists question and vet those in power — only saw a rise in the US in the late twentieth century, when officials’ conflicting opinions on issues like the Vietnam War made journalists broaden what they considered ‘objective’ perspectives.
In today’s day and age, what objectivity means to news organizations is now decided by each organization. Both the definition of objectivity and the level to which we should prioritize it are things that many journalists discuss constantly.
Here at The Varsity, we’ve been talking about what we mean by it for years. In a previous editorial, we expressed our thoughts on why prioritizing objectivity can get in the way of important considerations about equity, and why we think it’s so important to centre equity in our journalism. But we’d also go further than that: not only can a focus on objectivity over all else be harmful to journalism, we think that there are some cases where objectivity should not even be journalism’s goal.
Experience and background strengthen a story
Objectivity has its place when covering politics and other public organizations — but reporting about marginalized and underrepresented communities requires different priorities. The most impactful problems within a community won’t always be obvious to people coming from outside of it. Additionally, if sources have been misrepresented before by journalists who look nothing like them, those sources may rightly be cautious about engaging with the media again.
This doesn’t excuse the press from doing our job — no matter what the topic, no matter what our personal backgrounds, journalists have the responsibility to do whatever work we need to dig and fact-check and verify that we’re asking the right questions. But when writers come from a marginalized group that they’re covering, or have specific personal experience with their topic, their background knowledge can make their writing even better and more informed.
We’ve seen that in our own coverage. And outside authorities seem to think so, too: a majority of the pieces published in The Varsity that received nominations for the Canadian University Press’ John H. Macdonald (JHM) Awards this year drew directly in some way from the authors’ personal experiences.
Sometimes these connections between the author’s experiences and the articles’ content were explicit. Rhea Jerath’s “Tales from the closet” starts with Jerath’s feelings of isolation around her identity during the pandemic — and that experience helped her better handle other incredibly sensitive stories of LGBTQ+ isolation in conversations with her interviewees, she wrote to The Varsity.
In the case of Synthia Fahima Chowdhury’s reported feature “Beyond skin-deep,” about the effects of the prescription skin medication Accutane on users’ mental health, she wrote directly about her personal experiences with the drug — including her introduction to the online support networks through which she later found central sources.
In some cases, the author’s connection to their work isn’t always immediately apparent, but this doesn’t detract from the role their experiences play in their reporting. Alyanna Denise Chua’s news article “After years of advocacy, international students’ work limit temporarily lifted” wasn’t written about the author’s personal experiences — but Chua, an international student herself, has been writing about international students at U of T for The Varsity since 2021.
She was first inspired to start reporting on the subject because she found existing coverage on international students in Canadian media made little mention of the disproportionately high international tuition rates. The tuition gap had a much bigger effect on her own experience of U of T, and on the experiences of other international students, than the articles she was reading seemed to acknowledge.
Since then, she’s written many articles on the tuition gap. She says that these previous articles gave her background on the international student work limit — in past interviews, sources had already told her about some of the insidious problems they faced because of the work limit, so she knew where to start. Plus, her existing knowledge of international student networks at U of T meant she had an easier time finding sources.
Another article nominated for JHM awards this year was Nawa Tahir’s feature on the Andy Orchard story — one of the two articles in The Varsity nominated in the Racialized Reporting Category. In bringing the story of Orchard’s misconduct to light, Tahir reported on the work of marginalized, racialized early-career scholars. As a racialized woman who has herself experienced instances of racism and sexual harassment, Tahir was able to use her experiences to relate to her sources, and to make them feel understood and heard during interviews.
Shortly after, Tahir started working on another story on sexual harassment in academia that won a JHM award for Investigative Reporting. This one, published in November 2022, was about UTM Professor Robert Reisz’s misconduct. Tahir told The Varsity that, for this sensitive reporting, she had to rely on connections with marginalized people and community organizers. Those relationships were founded on the fact that her sources could trust her with their experiences — which could have been a lot more difficult if she hadn’t approached the stories with firsthand experience of similar incidents.
On working toward increasing diversity here at The Varsity
Over the past few years, The Varsity has endeavoured to create a more diverse newsroom that allows for stories of marginalized communities to be covered in a respectful and equitable manner. This has been possible in part due to our outreach efforts over the course of many years.
Having a more diverse masthead means that we have been able to better cover issues that are relevant to marginalized communities, by drawing on prior knowledge about the communities to which we belong. The people whose stories we tell may also be more comfortable talking to reporters they can relate to, allowing for more accurate and representative reporting.
Three years ago, during volume 140, we published our first Black History Month (BHM) issue, which aimed to highlight the stories of Black people at U of T. We have continued to publish an annual BHM issue since then. For this special issue, we compensate Black contributors because we want to improve our coverage of Black communities on campus, and publish more coverage from within the community, without putting undue burden on community members.
In January of this current volume, we published our first-ever Indigenous issue, which featured several articles and illustrations — including cover art — by Indigenous contributors. Similarly, for this issue, we reached out to Indigenous communities on campus for contributors and compensated Indigenous contributors for their work. The issue wasn’t perfect, but it was the first step in the right direction, especially since we had been trying to publish this issue for at least a couple of years. We hope to continue publishing an annual Indigenous issue in years to come.
Although we have made progress in the last few years, there is still a long way for us to go. In upcoming years, we commit to continue taking action to increase the diversity of our journalism at The Varsity — and supporting a diverse newsroom will be a big part of that.
We will continue our outreach on campus, and we will especially work on building sustainable relationships with equity-seeking student organizations and groups which represent marginalized communities. We will examine our internal structure, policies, and work culture to ensure that we are an organization that is accessible to all students.
We want to encourage writers from currently underrepresented communities to contribute to The Varsity, and eventually become part of our masthead. We want them to have a say in our editorial practices and in the decisions we make about what kinds of stories we run. We hope this is a place where everyone can tell their stories — and where we can tell everyone’s stories fairly, informedly, and accurately.
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].