How newsrooms’ racial reckoning changed the idea of journalistic objectivity

A mural of George Floyd in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) area of Seattle, WA on June 12, 2020. (Jason Redmond / AFP via Getty Images)

George Floyd’s death last May not only spurred nationwide protests for racial justice on the streets, but also inside America’s newsrooms — forcing what has largely been referred to as media’s racial reckoning.  

As Black journalists and other journalists of color posted a bevy of stories about the racism they’ve experienced throughout their careers, newsroom leaders from high-profile companies resigned and legacy outlets wrote reflections on their publications’ past racist coverage, the industry seemed to be grappling with the ways in which it has traditionally harmed non-white employees, readers and viewers.  

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In addition to these developments, the decades-old debate surrounding the professional value of journalistic objectivity appeared to shift as Black journalists publicly critiqued the ideal they have long argued treats the perspectives of white cisgender men as objective and neutral and places journalists in the position of having to justify or downplay racial injustice.  

“A lot of journalists of color are taught that they need to compromise and not speak to injustices transparently.”

As New York Times media columnist Ben Smith chronicles, though tension between “a tradition that aims to persuade the widest possible audience that its reporting is neutral and journalists who believe that fairness on issues from race to Donald Trump requires clear moral calls” had been brewing for years, social media provided a mechanism for reporters to share their perspectives and claim their voices, offering a “counterweight to their newsrooms, which over the years had sought to hire Black reporters on the unspoken condition that they bite their tongues about racism.” 

By the time Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds, many journalists were beyond angered at an industry where calling out racial injustice could get you labeled as biased and lead to termination.  

“It was the breaking point in what I was willing to tolerate in my writing and understanding of journalism,” Gabe Schneider, assistant editor of the nonprofit California outlet CalMatters, said of Floyd’s death. “A lot of journalists of color are taught that they need to compromise and not speak to injustices transparently… in order to tell the stories they want to tell and in the exhaustion of last summer, my tolerance for that compromise sort of evaporated.”  

Despite the near-omnipresent public-facing conversation about the value of objectivity that emerged last summer and growing awareness that journalists cannot simply rely on official police accounts, many reporters say the industry as a whole hasn’t meaningfully evolved its stance on the ideal. A year after the media’s so-called racial reckoning, such journalists continue to advocate for reimagining the industry’s embrace of objectivity, which they say works better in theory than it does in practice, and are calling for newsrooms to aspire toward fairness, transparency and racial equality in their coverage and newsrooms instead. According to them, journalism cannot become an equitable industry until after this significant reexamination.  

Does objectivity have a place in journalism?  

The questions of what objectivity is and whether objectivity in journalism can even exist are intertwined with the question of whether it should be an industry goal. As Doris Truong, director of training and diversity at The Poynter Institute wrote in an email, it’s “clear that definitions of objectivity differ,” further complicating the conversation surrounding it. Critics of objectivity often define it as “both-sides-ism,” whereas advocates view it as a synonym for fairness.  

Regardless of the different definitions of objectivity, most of the journalists interviewed for this story cited it as both a central tenant and “golden standard” instilled in them early in their careers and as a harmful mythical concept that isn’t realistic or achievable.  

According to Ricardo Sandoval-Palos, the public editor of PBS, there’s a “classic definition of objectivity,” which often relies on giving equal space to two sides, and a “more realistic definition of objectivity,” which places less emphasis on conflating two sides as it does on telling as “precise and thoroughly presented account of the truth as possible.”  

“The better guideposts ought to be accuracy and fairness.”

“Every decision we’ve ever made in journalism is a subjective decision, including which stories to go after, which quotes and headlines to use, how long we’re going to give to a particular broadcast piece,” Sandoval-Palos said. “I don’t really know if you can be objective in a subjective environment, which is why I believe the better guideposts ought to be accuracy and fairness.”  

While objectivity might not be tangible, the effects of newsrooms upholding it as a standard are, particularly for journalists from minoritized backgrounds who’ve been instructed by newsroom leaders that their identity and lived experiences are counted as bias rather than expertise.  

Ko Bragg, race and place editor at Scalawag, a digital magazine that focuses on the South, said that it’s time to acknowledge that objectivity, which materialized in the 1920s with the professionalization of journalism, was established as an industry ideal against the backdrop of slavery and before Black reporters were hired in legacy newsrooms.  

“A century or so later, we’re using the same kind of framework… and what it meant at the time was that white men were the ones to tell the story because they had this view from nowhere,” Bragg said. “There’s a lot of instances… where they have someone with lived experience — and maybe not honestly, since some of these stories lack someone who’s directly impacted — and then what newsrooms do to be ‘objective’ is get the other side of someone who’s bigoted and anti-trans and anti-immigration and from that objective standpoint, you can just say ‘well, I’m presenting both sides.’”  

Beyond validating hate, some journalists say the current framework for objectivity can also lead to the promotion of misinformation and false equivalency. Kris Vera-Phillips, a doctoral student and faculty associate at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, lists climate change reporting as an example where equating two perspectives with different levels of evidential support can misinform and endanger news audiences.  

“You have these scientists with years of academic study showing the root causes of climate change and then for balance, you pair that source up with a climate change denier, someone who doesn’t have years of research, who’s just going by their gut because ‘this is how I feel,’” Vera-Phillips said. “How can those two perspectives be equal, if you have one person going by their gut and another person going by evidence and facts?”   

Movement journalism, diversity and new ideals  

Replacing the language of objectivity may be a way for the industry to address some of the issues outlined above.  

Truong, who helped revise PBS’s editorial standards in 2018, notes that the word objectivity doesn’t appear in the guidelines. Instead, the recommendations underscore “fairness, accuracy and inclusion.”  

Other journalists have called for the industry to embrace “movement journalism,” reporting that centers marginalized people and supports social, political and economic transformation.  

“Once newsrooms start reflecting the reality of society, then you’ll start seeing fundamental change.”

“You can’t be neutral to inequalities,” Juwan Holmes, associate editor of the online news outlet LGBTQ Nation, said. “Even if you wanted to present inequality unbiased, there’s no way to do that because in attempting to do so you’re protecting the interests of the people or systems perpetuating inequality.”  

Journalists from minoritized groups have historically been “pushed out, reprimanded, or robbed of new opportunities” after challenging journalistic conventions, wrote Wesley Lowery, a correspondent for CBS News and a major voice on objectivity, in a New York Times editorial last year.  

Given this legacy, many see hiring, retaining and promoting marginalized journalists as the way to engender impactful change and coverage.  

“We’re not just writing for the people who traditionally bought our newspapers, so we have to be cognizant of how we’re portraying the entirety of our communities in our pages and on-screen,” Sandoval-Palos said. “Once newsrooms start reflecting the reality of our society, then I think you’ll start seeing a fundamental change.”