What is the virtue of objectivity when actions taken in its service undermine human dignity?
This week, my alma mater's student newspaper The Eagle published a Letter from the Editor in the wake of a string of racist incidents on campus. You can read the full piece, which is linked above, but in short, the paper's editor makes known the paper's policy against reporters posting on social media or attending events in support of the victims of racism on campus. She says that doing so "could interfere with our ability to impartially report on the hate crime." Policies such as this are not rare in the news business, but I believe that they are wrong.
To illustrate the point, I think it's worth describing exactly what unfolded at American University to bring us to this point. At the end of the Spring 2017 semester, campus police found several bananas, inscribed with racist messages, hanging from nooses on the university's main quadrangle. The messages specifically referenced one of AU's historically black sororities, of which the President of the Student Government (the first black woman to win election) is a member. The incident occurred on her first day in office. In its wake, popular white supremacist websites instructed their followers to harass her further online. Students then organized on-campus events to show their support for AU's black students, and many students shared statements of support on social media. It was these activities that the student newspaper prohibited its reporters from participating in, on the basis that they "can't be both reporters and activists."
I do not dispute that impartiality is an important goal for a news organization to strive towards. Particularly in the world of political journalism, there are a ton of partisans waiting with bated breath to point out perceived bias or hypocrisy on the part of reporters. The easiest way to avoid such criticism is to never "takes sides" on any matter of public debate. However, the problem with exalting "objectivity" and "impartiality" above all other objectives is that these goals are easily manipulated by even worse actors. Too often, we confuse objectivity with political and cultural centrism, which is by definition a moving target. The fact that we now equate public condemnations of racism with partisan activism represents a major victory for racists.
In my view, the most honest and defensible explanation for The Eagle's policy is that they are adhering to an industry standard practice and protecting their reporters' future job prospects. In fact, the piece makes clear that The Eagle's editors modeled their own comprehensive ethics policy off of those of major news organizations. Just last week, POLITICO made headlines by detailing their policy of reviewing job applicants' social media history to filter out those who may be accused of bias. POLITICO staff allegedly asked editors whether they were allowed to tweet condemnations of white supremacy, and an editor responded that they should "try to stay away from those things."
Anecdotes like these make me suspicious of the actual intentions underlying publications' ethics policies. Put succinctly, the goal of an ethics policy that prohibits public condemnations of racism is not ethics. Speaking from the outside, these policies too often appear designed to head off partisan criticism, rather than to avoid problematic conflicts of interest or moral hazards. Consider the relative conflicts that accompany journalists giving paid speeches to interest groups, sometimes to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars per event for household names. If the goal is to maintain the integrity of coverage, why permit such arrangements?
I do not think it is hard to distinguish between political "activism" and public displays of solidarity that appeal to our common humanity. In the wake of terrorist attacks, journalists rightfully do not hesitate to express sadness and support for the victims. Unfortunately, racist incidents target marginalized communities by definition, and too often do not elicit a similarly unified response in the court of public opinion. In my view, news organizations have a responsibility to rise above that unfortunate reality, and journalists should not live in fear that publicly condemning specific racist incidents will cost them their jobs. Movements that deny others' humanity invite and deserve universal condemnation, not the passive consideration of their worldview by our society's most influential voices, which include journalists, whether they like it or not.
How far does a policy of impartiality extend? In an era in which the President of the United States is a confessed sexual assaulter of women and the government is making it harder for victims to seek justice, will it now become taboo for people working in the news media to express support for the victims of similar crimes? Amidst a national debate over healthcare policy, is it inappropriate for national news anchors to raise money on behalf of healthcare philanthropies? If the answers to these questions are "no," as I suspect they are, then news organizations should think long and hard about why the victims of sex crimes, terrorism and illness are worthy of public sympathy, but victims of racism are not.
All of this leads me back to the concept of objectivity and what it means to me. To me, objectivity goes beyond keeping an open and impartial mind to a wide spectrum of ideas and political ideologies. Objectivity also requires me to treat certain standards of behavior as normative, or, worded differently, as "objective" virtues. It requires me to uphold certain moral truths as non-negotiable, as our Declaration of Independence first articulated centuries ago and that we still aspire toward to this day. The equality of all people - regardless of their race, age, gender, or sexual orientation - is non-negotiable. To treat the denial of equality or human dignity as a simple difference of opinion is to diminish these virtues below their rightful place as moral truths. Silence in the face of eroding moral norms may avoid controversy, but as Elie Wiesel once wisely said, "silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." This is what objectivity means to me. I therefore do not wish for journalism to abandon objectivity. I wish for journalism to reconsider what objectivity is, and what it can be.
Now is the time to resist the slightest extension in the boundaries of what is right and just. Now is the time to speak up and to wear as a badge of honor the opprobrium of bigots. Now is the time to confront the weak core at the heart of America’s addiction to optimism; it allows too little room for resilience, and too much for fragility. Hazy visions of “healing” and “not becoming the hate we hate” sound dangerously like appeasement. The responsibility to forge unity belongs not to the denigrated but to the denigrators. The premise for empathy has to be equal humanity; it is an injustice to demand that the maligned identify with those who question their humanity.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, writing in The New Yorker, December 2016.