Subjectivity in journalism

Subjectivity reinforces objective stances of journalists

Journalists are asked to remain objective in their reporting, at risk of losing credibility and blurring the truth. But if journalists are to tell the truth, how can they deliver truthful stories if they are required to remain detached from the issue they are covering?

Journalism has evolved, while still upholding a dichotomy between objectivity and subjectivity. Either the story is fair, balanced, and neutral; or engaged, one-sided and biased. There is no grey area when it comes to news reporting. There is no room for an in-between.

Newscasting would gain integrity considering subjective stances to complement objectivity. Journalistic standards of neutrality can coexist along with personal insights.

Iowa State University professor of journalism Michael Bugeja said, “Objectivity is seeing the world as it is, not how you wish it were.”

Objectivity is essential in news making. However, it has its limitations, which subjectivity can help make up for.

Hence, journalism has to rethink objectivity to make it possible for journalists to elaborate their expertise beyond detached reporting: journalists must be encouraged to embrace their biases.

In their book Reckoning: Journalism’s Limits and Possibilities, Candis Callison and Mary Lynn Young explain how objectivity has roots in social order and relations of power that privilege some conventions over others. When journalists situate themselves from within the story, they have a stronger capacity to recognize what is “really” happening.

Objectivity reinforces dominant ideals and hides marginalized realities. When journalists seek neutrality and fairness, they sometimes censure and leave out aspects of a story. It empowers specific perspectives and excludes many potential paths to explore.

Journalists’ experiences strengthen the accuracy of their stories. Carol Linnitt, co-founder of The Narwhal, interviewed Callison for the article “Who tells the story of the present”. Callison explains how facts have a history and tie with different ethics. Objective stances sometimes fail to dig deeper into those multiple truths. Journalists must look beyond the statement itself to understand its meaning. In other words, when journalists personally commit to an issue, they gain the capacity to acknowledge which perspectives to scrutinize and whose voices to uplift.

When it comes to sources, subjective awareness also reinforces journalistic language. News stories are impersonal when journalists stick to the facts for the sake of detachment and fairness. Journalists even maintain a distance from their sources to deliver “neutral” portrayals, dehumanizing the sources themselves. For news to be representative and truthful, they must engage with sources, especially when they are marginalized.

As journalists prefer the role of the observer over the participant, they fail to humanize their subjects. Andrew Sayer, social sciences scholar from Lancaster University, explains how emotions, values, and the rationale make sense only when they come together. The subjective defines an integral part of our identity and how we understand the world. Journalists can only truly depict someone or something if they associate them with other’s truths. There is an immersive element that is crucial here and does not compromise objectivity but rather complements it.

Subjectivity allows journalists to extend their stories beyond factual events, exploring various angles of a particular issue and allowing them to be more grounded in reality. News has multiple truths, and biases enable us to navigate across those various languages.

Going back to Linnitt’s piece, the interviewee, Callison, shared how claims of objectivity normalize one singular truth by using the example of the Wet’suwet’en people mobilizing against the Coastal GasLink pipeline. Mainstream media outlets would name the Wet’suwet’en community “protesters.” But if they have never ceded their lands, is it fair to refer to them as such? Is it neutral to assume their behaviours? Sometimes, what we think to be objective is far from being the truth for others. Considering external realities contributes to deconstructing standardized perceptions. And yet, it requires concerns of subjectivity.

Stories need to be personified and less frigid. It is no coincidence that podcasts are so prominent these days: personal narratives contribute to connecting the audience with more emotions and agency. Storytelling enables journalists to share experiences and connect with people so they can make sense of ongoing events. In the article “Personal narrative journalism and podcasting,” Mia Lindgren, professor at Swinburne University of technology and editor for the Radio Journal: International Studies in Broadcast & Audio Media, suggests how subjective discourses allow the audience to witness experiences and relate to stories. It facilitates understanding and enforces empathy.

Journalistic institutions have the power over headlines; they decide how stories will be told and whose voices will be included. Journalism shapes the way society perceives the world. Hence, journalism must revisit objective narratives to include subjective stances, so subjectivity could coexist along with impartiality among news reporting. That being said, we still have ways to go in rethinking objectivity.

Initially, objective stances were proposed to deliver quick and concise facts to the audience. It is still predominant in journalistic practices as an efficient method to get to the point easily. As Brent Cunningham, managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, suggests in “Re-thinking Objectivity,” the concept also excuses “lazy reporting,” facilitates short deadlines, and protects journalists from the related consequences of stories.

But the truth is, stories are much more complex than facts and numbers. They involve multiple parties with various motives and tie back to messy backgrounds. And subjectivity enables us to dig deeper into those structures.


Graphic by Alexa Hawksworth

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