#45 Objectivity Doesn’t Exist And That’s Okay

In fact, here’s why that’s a great thing

The Media is flawed in many ways. It has a lot to account for in terms of the current state of the world. For clarity’s sake, when I say the media: I mean traditional corporate media (e.g. The New York Times or CNN, Vogue magazine, the BBC or your local newspaper) anyone that employs professional journalists to research and write/broadcast stories.

I also believe two opposing things can be true at once, which is why I also believe the media is an important element of civil society that helps us make meaning of important events in the life of humanity. It is flawed, but essential.

But one element of traditional media that I think has done us (society) a great disservice and no longer serves the larger societal benefits of media is the idea of objectivity. I don’t know if it ever did, but in a much more diverse society that has room (through social media especially) for more voices and perspectives, the false ideology of objectivity stands in bright, glaring opposition to common sense. Translation: news audiences can no longer be assumed to be middle aged white men with varying shades of the same opinion and experience and journalist can not be assumed to be the same but impartial variation on that theme. While newsrooms have been slow to acknowledge and reflect our multicultural reality, the false narrative of objectivity and its close friend impartiality as essential to news storytelling has laid bare the failure of the institutions themselves.

Objectivity was an attempt to make something partially creative entirely scientific and it landed somewhere messy and ineffectual instead. Over time.

Because, how can any human person ignore their history and experiences to tell a story that is “balanced” and objective? Not to mention unconscious bias. It is arrogant to believe any of us can or that it’s worthwhile in the current socio-political landscape. That view is what made room for birtherism in the media and gave national attention to bigots and white supremacists in the process. It has done more harm than good. Especially when facts are balanced against opinion in the name of objectivity.

This Walrus article on race and objectivity in Canadian journalism by Pacinthe Mattar, delves into some of the challenges of objectivity in modern journalism and how it impacts journalists of colour as they do their work.

But this is a newsletter about storytelling not a forum for my rants on the state of journalism (summary of my position: dismal). So why am I talking about this? Because I think traditional objectivity gets in the way of impactful storytelling and truth telling. Whether you’re a journalist or writing your memoir.

It’s okay to tell a story that is objectively unobjective. To lend your unique experience and lens to an idea or event. When you’re writing news, you need to start with facts, but what’s wrong with then also including how you and other sources have seen that come to life? That is a perspective and it’s not objective and that’s okay.  For example, when writing about a woman’s experience of a toxic workplace, what do you get by adding the scripted voice of HR at said workplace? Pushing it further, what harm do you cause by adding that dissenting voice when you’re trying to tell her story?

I would love for us all to read the news through the lens of asking why the reporter has chosen to speak to the sources they have and how it shifts the perspective of the story. What bias is affecting those choices? Or editor’s opinion?

My journalism professors might shudder at my advocating for a rethink of objectivity—it has been the gold standard since the 50s, but I also think we live in a world that is in desperate need of nuanced perspective rather than rigid adherence to providing two sides—no matter how vile or harmful one of those sides may be. But they’re also the ones who introduced me to the work of Hunter S. Thompson the anti-objectivity journalist, so perhaps not.

I think acknowledging your experience and where you’re writing from (whatever your history may be) can add richness to the tales you tell. And make them relatable to your audiences. Own your perspective, do the right and responsible research, and then share it with the world. As a marketer, as an individual, as a business owner, and even sometimes as a journalist, your stories will be better for it.

Acknowledging your lack of objectivity and making your POV clear actually makes it easier for an audience to receive and critically evaluate what you’re sharing, rather than pretending you or your publication doesn’t have one. Traditionally the objective default perspective has been white and male and that just doesn’t serve the many millions (billions) of non-white, non-male consumers of media today. The privilege of telling gonzo stories as Thompson and journalists of his era did, should not be the privilege of a single group, granted authority by way of their gender or race. Sorry, I’m yelling at “the media” again.

The lesson for us as storytellers is to embrace our perspective, explore others widely and then create and share a story that lives somewhere within the resulting spectrum, while acknowledging where you started. Don’t lie to yourself or your audience, look your perspective in the face and then see what you can do with/about it.

Some additional reading on objectivity if you’re a journalism/media nerd:

A Time article and an American Press Institute paper

Related, but this letter is already quite long so I’ll leave it to you to explore:

This isn’t exactly about objectivity, but it’s…something (and far too common):

A Story Well Told

Do you drink whiskey? I do. I love it. So, when a friend (and reader!) told me about a new brand started and built around the man who taught Jack Daniels how to make whiskey I was intrigued. Little did I know the founders of Uncle Nearest had master marketers on their team. They tell the story of Nearest Green on their site and in the process, create an instant emotional connection and legacy for a company that is relatively new for whiskey drinkers. The brand video (because that’s what it is) is 10 minutes long, but worth the watch.

Thanks for reading and I’ll “see” you next week. Whatever the world may bring, there will always be important stories that need you to tell them. I’ll be here to help.

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