Subjectivity of Objectivity

Sometimes, it is black or white.

The filmmakers of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a film about Mr. Fred Rogers, made a curious discovery.  While sifting through Mr. Rogers’ papers after he died, they found a file on journalist Tom Junod. In it, Mr. Rogers laid out four pillars of journalism with Junod in mind.  (In fact, the film was largely based on Junod’s profile of Mr. Rogers.)

These pillars were:

  1.  Journalists are human beings not stenographers, human beings not automatons.
  2. Point out injustice when you have to.
  3. Point out beauty when you can.
  4. Be aware of celebrating the wonders of creation.

These are wonderful and important guides. I was struck by how kind they are, but, of course, Mr. Rogers. But there is another pillar in journalism, propped up since the 1890s, that journalists are expected to uphold. This pillar contradicts pillars one and two in particular. I took this pillar for granted as gospel and was surprised.  Except, not surprised. As a white woman in the mainstream, I  have benefited from it.

Objectivity is subjective

Last week on the Scene on Radio podcast, Season 4, episode 11,  I  heard something I had never heard before from Ramona Martinez:

“Objectivity is the ideology of the status quo.”

Wait. Isn’t it a good practice to be unbiased and objective? To seek the truth from all sides? How could the attempt at being objective keep us mired in racist beliefs and systems?

Signs: nothing should go back to normal. normal wasn't working.
Photo by the author, South Philly

Apparently, I was about 22 years late to the party on this school of thought. The Columbia Journalism Review  wrote about the pillar of objectivity in an article called Rethinking Objectivity. An excerpt:

In his 1998 book, Just the Facts … David Mindich … shows how “objective” coverage of lynching in the 1890s by The New York Times and other papers created a false balance on the issue and failed “to recognize a truth, that African-Americans were being terrorized across the nation.”

Reporters were “objective” on an issue when there is no room for debate — terror and murder are wrong — and thereby protected the status quo, which clearly devalued Black lives.  Mindich argued, examining journalist Ida B. Well’s thorough investigative research and reporting on lynching,  that this objectivity led to the continuation of lynching. Objectivity is subjective.

The problem with objectivity was also covered back in 2018 on the Backstory podcast Behind the Bylines, which also shared Ida B. Wells’ attempt to expose the real cause for lynchings, racism. “Objective” sources at the time explained the cause of lynching was just punishment due to so-called (but fabricated) criminal activity. The (White) public could rally behind  such an explanation, rather than confront the reality that they were complicit in killings completed out of racist hate and disregard for Black individuals.

Indeed, objectivity — what the public believes to be the uncontested norm — changes with time.  This  underscores Martinez’ assertion that it protects the current status-quo.

As Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel famously said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in part,

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”

Hallin’s Spheres of Consensus

Historian and journalist Daniel Hallin created a diagram to discuss the Vietnam war’s media coverage. The diagram, shared on the same Scene on Radio episode, is called Hallin’s Spheres of Consensus.

In short, as societal opinions shift,  these boundaries shift. What we consider acceptable discourse depends on where the topic is (at present) within these spheres.

The outermost Sphere of Deviance represents taboo topics that  journalists aren’t likely to consider credible. These days, that might be something like debating the merits of vaccines. At least, let’s hope.

Throughout history, societal norms have changed, and so has their sphere placement.  Consider the right to vote. At one point, the issue of women voting would have been considered a “fringe” idea, until it moved into being controversial or something worthy of debate. Finally, it landed squarely in the Sphere of Consensus.  Similarly, gay marriage was once taboo. Topics about gender and the trans experience are still debated but moving toward the inner consensus circle, if the clap back to J.K. Rowling’s transphobic comments  are any indication.

Topics close to my experience, such as the idea that we should not use animals for for food, however,  remain arguably in the outer sphere of deviance since upwards of 95%  of people eat animals or strongly defend it.  Some  may argue that animal rights is in the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy since at least half of us agree that animals should be treated humanely, even though there are no receipts available for this treatment in our industrialized (or even smaller, private) systems.

Similarly, my own spheres have changed. Years ago activists said we should dismantle the police. At the time, I thought that idea was extreme and absurd. Not have police? Sphere of deviance alert! Shouldn’t we just conduct implicit bias training for police like my Black neighbors,  who were community leaders, did, tirelessly?

What did not sink in, enough: These same neighbors said they feared for their son’s life when he walked our streets. Not because of our “dangerous” neighborhood — in fact, one of them had been shot by a (citizen’s) stray bullet — but because the police might stop him, or worse, for walking while Black.

we are what we fund
Photo by author, South Philly

Fast-forward to today, and I’m chanting a version of #DefundthePolice at every  turn, proving objectivity is subjective. Of course we shouldn’t keep funding a police force (no comment) that began in times of slavery and was built to reinforce white supremacy. A force that is part of a racist system which must be dismantled, as it disproportionately detains, arrests, confines, and kills Black people.

A tide of protests across the world — even in my sweet Greece — acknowledged with physical presence that defunding the police was smack in the middle of our Sphere of Consensus.

Discourse shifts public opinion

In the 1990s, Princeton University had a reputation as a party school including a culture of heavy drinking. When asked privately about this culture, college students believed they were more uncomfortable with the heavy drinking than their fellow students. They assumed — incorrectly — that most of the other students liked to drink and party excessively. Never had they attempted to counter the dominant narrative. Rather, they continued behaving in ways that strengthened this narrative out of fear of being ostracized.

These students were part of a research study that was published as Pluralistic Ignorance and the Perpetuation of Social Norms by Unwitting Actors.  In it, the researchers define pluralistic ignorance:

“Pluralistic ignorance describes the case in which virtually every member of a group or society privately rejects a belief, opinion, or practice, yet believes that virtually every other member privately accepts it. The term “pluralistic ignorance” is something of a misnomer, for in these cases, group members are not, in fact, ignorant of one another’s private sentiments; rather, they think they know, but are mistaken.”

Students would know they were not alone in their view by sharing it. Then, they and others would be more likely to change their behavior.

people drinking
Photo by Unsplash

Students who do like to drink heavily and identify with Princeton’s narrative are unbothered by pluralistic ignorance. Similarly, those of us who benefit from objectivity, or find our identities represented in what is considered “objective” do not notice or worry.

Consider the story of a radio soap opera in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, following the Rwandan genocide by the Hutu government against the Tutsi population. Psychologist Ervin Staub, who escaped the Holocaust, wanted to ensure this would not be repeated, and set about conducting a unique social experiment, asking:

“How do you convince people who once slaughtered each other to join hands and make peace? Is it possible to change a person’s deepest beliefs?”

Staub helped stage the radio soap opera as highlighted on the podcast Hidden Brain.  The play was about star-crossed lovers and included the message intermarriage will bring peace. It was a success, and widely viewed. But did it change attitudes about intermarriage? Well, no, unfortunately; scientists found that Rwandans still felt intermarriage would not bring peace.

Enter Betsy Levy Paluck, the leading scientist, who pushed further and found something incredible. Despite stated beliefs, tolerance increased in many areas including views on intermarriage, which was now supported between ethnic groups.  Social norms shifted by watching and listening to what others do or consider acceptable, even as fictional characters.

Discussion and debate, in short, can lead to the possibility for norms to shift, minds to change.

Never could a finding be more clear for the importance of extending this debate to our societal mouthpieces, journalists.  As Lewis Wallace shares on Scene on Radio, journalists are responsible not just for describing the world, but shaping it.  Journalism is activism.

To be sure, it’s important to represent the complexity of any argument. But this representation does not  simply mean giving voice or space to any contrary opinion, just because it exists. Rather, the journalist must be skeptical and decide: Does this contrary view help give meaning and context to the argument being upheld? What is my point of view?

Objectivity is subjective, changing. Sometimes it is black or white. The objective consensus? Black lives matter. In the words of Mr. Rogers, journalists must be  human beings, not automatons.


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