Stop indulging the myth of journalistic impartiality

A camerawoman walking in a dusty street.

I have worked in media for much of my adult professional life, and, as we know, I am unapologetically partial. Sometimes I am hired specifically for that partiality, as for example when I’m writing opinion pieces. But when I’m working on reported features, it’s there too, and it shapes where I place work and who reads it. I don’t set out to affirm a previously-held belief, but I also don’t magically return a totally neutral story on whatever it is I’m exploring, whether it’s labor rights or disability policy.

I can’t speak for every journalist on the face of the earth, but many of my colleagues share a similar experience. We are humans. We have beliefs. Those beliefs make us partial. There’s a reason one person might work for The Nation instead of The National Review. Both publications have slants. Writers at each have their own slants. Similarly, people don’t apply to work at just any broadcast outlet. They pick NPR, or Fox News, or MSNBC, because that outlet both needs journalists and speaks to the kind of work they are interested in doing. The New York Times is generally understood to be centrist to left, unlike, say, the conservative Orange County Register. We all get this, right?

Apparently not, because 2016 was filled with people screaming about how journalists are supposed to be impartial. The New York Times even publicly scolded journalists for cracking Trump jokes on Twitter. Other news outlets similarly penalised reporters who had opinions or issued abject apologies to readers for failing to live up to what is, and always has been, a myth. Journalists and media aren’t impartial because they are humans, or driven by humans.

Some outlets are explicitly partisan, attracting similarly-inclined journalists, and the people reading them have come to expect and sometimes even demand that. Others, large though they may be, try to represent a mix of information from a variety of people, but fundamentally also have a slant. There’s a reason newspapers have editorials and election endorsements and those tell you something about the ethos and beliefs of those who run those publications. When the Times runs a page one commentary on gun control, that is not partial. It is also what the editors believe is a cultural imperative. And it’s something readers may also think is an imperative — the same people shrieking about impartiality are usually also yelling when papers ‘don’t pay attention’ or ‘refuse to report’ or ‘cover up’ things that they care about.

In some cases, there are definitely some important ethics issues that come up. For full-time journalists working in a newsroom, for example, it’s not good to report on a campaign you donated to or volunteer for. Or in fact to report on your candidate’s opponent. If you’re reporting on development policy and you have a financial stake in, say, a building that’s at the centre of a dispute, someone else needs to take that story. If you have a clear conflict of interest, that’s an issue.

Sometimes that spills over into social media — though journalists aren’t speaking for their organisation on their private social media, what they say definitely colours their reporting. Someone making fun of sources or trashing an issue and then reporting on it would give me room for pause. Someone making a constant stream of snarky Trump jokes might also be an issue if that person were a political reporter covering Trump or the election. But a single flip joke? The occasional casual comment? A criticism of the publication someone works for? This is not grounds for a public flogging.

Because journalists are human. And their biases are pretty obvious to anyone who sees where they work and reads what they write, so these things shouldn’t come as a shock and a surprise. If someone reported broadly on Clinton and wrote sympathetic profiles of the candidate and her staff, seeing a Trump joke wouldn’t shock me. If someone covers gun violence, making a snarky candidate about the NRA wouldn’t come as a huge surprise.

The myth of impartiality is incredibly damaging because it puts journalists in gross places, but it’s also not that great for papers/radio outlets/TV and readers. I follow a lot of journalists on social media because that is sort of what one does with one’s colleagues, and also because often they have interesting thoughts, news, and commentary, not all of which makes it into their work. When I know a journalist solely as a byline and some articles, that’s definitely a choice on that person’s part, but I often long to know more about them. To hear where they are coming from when they work on stories. Following Alyssa Rosenberg, for example, expands my understanding of and appreciation for her work. Sarah Kendzior often has interesting commentary that helps me understand the world. Sometimes in conversations between journalists, I watch collaborations and stories taking form.

Don’t think that you ‘know’ someone because you follow them on social media, or that you own them or they owe you their attention, that they must perform in a certain way to satisfy you. But view social media as an extension of a byline and bio, as an enrichment of their work. And better to see biases and opinions out in the open to know how they affect stories than to have them hidden out of view where you have no chance to engage with them — if a reporter hates disabled people, for example, I’d like to know that before reading their stories on disability issues. Rather than clinging to the myth of impartiality, embrace a world in which journalists feel more comfortable being open about their thoughts and feelings on the issues, including the issues we report on.

Image: M6 envoie les camerawomen au front, Sylvain Szewczyk, Flickr