On the Lie of Journalistic Objectivity and the Promise of Movement Journalism

As a freelance writer, I’ve long walked an uneasy tightrope between journalist and activist. You see, the rules of journalistic objectivity require me to approach all stories from a stance of neutrality, not taking sides or expressing personal opinions. I’m expected to report the facts and nothing but the facts, giving equal space to all perspectives.

But who I am as a person has always been ill-suited to this display of detachment. I am the type of person who wears my feelings all over my damn face. And so, the balancing act between journalist and activist has always felt wobbly, especially this past decade.

When I became pregnant in 2013, I became more unsure of my professional identity. At the time, I was the senior writer and editor for an organization of sexuality professionals, work that taught me a lot about the inadequate state of sex ed in America. During my time there, I became passionate about increasing access to comprehensive sexuality education. As my work leaned a bit harder into advocacy, I wondered if I was crossing a line.

Still, I forged ahead. In 2014 and 2015, I volunteered with the Center for Sex Education, a local Planned Parenthood affiliate. In 2017, I taught a course on writing as a tool for advocacy. In 2019, I landed a spot on the planning committee for the National Sex Ed Conference (which was later canceled because of the pandemic). In the fall of 2020, I launched Guerrilla Sex Ed.

Through it all, I continued my work as a freelance journalist. But I was now actively trying to increase awareness around the issues that fired me up the most.

The Cracks in the Lie of Journalistic Objectivity

The tipping point for me came in the summer of 2020. In early June, Black Lives Matter marches reached their peak after the murder of George Floyd on May 25. While media companies and other organizations released statements of support for the BLM movement, my part-time employer released a statement of neutrality to staffers, citing the need for journalistic neutrality and objectivity. I resigned the next day.

By that point, I was aware that many theorists, academics, and independent journalists had philosophized about the impossibility of true journalistic neutrality, and I was ready to abandon the concept as well. The discourse on the topic is exemplified by a 2017 piece that got journalist Lewis Wallace fired. In it, Wallace declared that objectivity is dead.

His piece illustrated especially the impossibility of neutrality for those within marginalized populations. “As a member of a marginalized community,” he writes, “I’ve never had the opportunity to pretend I can be ‘neutral.’ … Obviously, I can’t be neutral or centrist in a debate over my own humanity. The idea that I don’t have a right to exist is not an opinion, it is a falsehood.”

He went on to point out what is true for every journalist and journalistic institution, marginalized or not. That every decision an editor makes over which stories to cover is a reflection of internalized bias. That the way a story is written is a reflection of the writer’s internalized bias. That the way we frame facts, the angles we take, the sources we include are all reflections of internalized bias, as unconscious as they may be.

Fast forward to June 2020, when questions about journalistic neutrality were multiplying. Things came to a boiling point when the New York Times published an op-ed by Arkansas senator Tom Cotton titled “Send In The Troops,” which argued that the military should be sent in to violently “restore order” at Black Lives Matter protests. Staffers expressed frustration that such a piece was allowed to exist alongside the publication’s stringent social media policy that prevented non-Opinion newsroom staff from sharing political opinions online or participating in protest movements. The fall-out from that event led to further discussion on the many publications that continue to hide behind the lie of objectivity in their problematic coverage of problematic events.

More recently, Felicia Sonmez, a national politics reporter for the Washington Post, spoke out about the fact that she’s been barred from covering sexual misconduct stories at the paper because she’s previously been vocal about being a survivor of assault herself. That’s some bullshit, especially considering how broad the topic is, and how common the experience of sexual assault.

And Sonmez has been fighting the paper on this for quite some time. Last year, she was suspended for tweeting a link to an article about rape allegations against Kobe Bryant in the wake of his death. She was reportedly suspended after she went to her editors for help after having to withstand threats, harassment, and doxxing online.

Could Movement Journalism Be the Future?

In bemoaning my own inner conflict with my journalism and my activism, a fellow journalist mentioned movement journalism. According to Press On, a Southern media collective, movement journalism is “journalism in service to liberation.” Digging deeper in Neiman Reports, journalist Tina Vasquez explains that movement journalism is “journalism that meets the needs of communities directly affected by injustice.”

Vasquez goes on to describe her own experience learning how to engage in movement journalism, a process she says involved the “unlearning” of various journalistic practices that have long been considered the norm, including that pesky myth of objectivity. In tossing the concept of objectivity to the side, those who engage in movement journalism are able to create a body of work that is focused on community — and on the solutions that will help those communities thrive.

Still, Vasquez also explores how an embrace of movement journalism can be tricky, especially for those communities who stand to derive the most benefit from it. In the process of reporting her piece, she finds that journalists of color, especially, are wary of reporting on their own communities, as they are often dismissed as activists — versus true journalists — if they do so.

Still, the team behind Press On, including co-founder Lewis Wallace of the aforementioned 2017 article about the death of objectivity, hopes to normalize the practice of movement journalism. They emphasize that — difficult as it may be for journalists of color to practice movement journalism within certain established institutions — the organization’s work is rooted in the South and Black freedom struggles.

To that point, movement journalist Jonece Starr Dunigan tells Vasquez that she hopes the practice won’t be co-opted as just “another tool for ‘diversity.'”

Action Steps

To learn more about movement journalism and how you might practice it or support it yourself, I recommend reading “Out of Struggle,” a report by Project South on strengthening and expanding movement journalism in the South.

For more on journalistic objectivity, check out Wallace’s The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity.

And, you know, there’s always Roxane Gay’s Master Class on Writing for Social Change if you want a primer on making a difference with your writing.

Steph Auteri is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, VICE, and elsewhere. Her more literary work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Creative Nonfiction, Southwest Review, and other publications. Her reported memoir, A DIRTY WORD, came out in 2018. She is the founder of Favorite Genres: horror, comics, horror comics, and narrative journalism.

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