Lauren Wolfe in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan (Courtesy)
Since i was switched on from The New York Times At the end of January, no matter what I post or say about online journalism, angry people come out of hiding to yell at me. They say I’m biased (usually “biased shit”), that journalists are all corrupt, and that I’m a perfect example of why no one can believe anything we say in the media.
So I’d like to talk a bit about this idea of bias – and its implicit opposite, objectivity – in journalism. They are inextricably linked.
When I was starting out, a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism told my magazine writing class that being a story or story writer means you can have a point of view. (He also told us that the only way to make money in journalism was to write a book that became a movie, or … well, marry a rich man.)
Now, this is why I wanted to discuss why it is okay for some types of journalism to have a point of view. Because editing and reporting hard news means not have one, and this is what I was hired to do last year in The times. It was my first time working in the straight news arena.
Yet very few Americans seem to understand the distinction between different types of stories, although it is not subtle. In the news, your opinion remains on the sidelines. Their bias remains hidden, especially in political reporting. You are as objective as possible; in fact, it is not “you”, but the document itself, and there is a complete system in place to ensure that your final copy achieves this.
Having a point of view does not mean that you do not follow the facts where they lead you. It just means that you are honest about the perspective you are bringing to the story; it means that you can tell a story subjectively, which adds emotion to a piece and attracts the reader. Sometimes you may even want to use your own experience. as part of the narrative.
My job as a journalist, as I see it, is to collect information, translate it for my audience, and communicate it clearly and effectively. Sometimes the best way to do this is by bringing your own perspective along with your sources. And often the most powerful way to do this is by writing in the first person.
As journalists, we can all use what appears to be a “neutral voice”, but that does not mean that our implicit bias is not guiding our choice of sources, or even the stories we publish. to decide cover.
To pretend that we are all capable of being constant and absolutely objective seems absurd to me. Instead, I have always believed that it is best to be open about my views on the issues I cover, which have long been war and international human rights. And yes, I often write with an agenda, with a view to generating change.
In fact, I would describe the mission of my work the way ProPublica describes theirs: “Exposing the abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by the government, companies and other institutions, using the moral force of journalism from Research to drive reform through highlighting wrongdoing. “
So yes, I am biased and conscientious when it comes to certain topics, especially when I am reporting on crime. But I don’t see that as a bad thing.
When I wrote a lot about sexual violence in war zones, I used to joke with my friends: “What? I am supposed to not say that rape is bad? Should I have the opposite point of view there? The ‘pro-rape’ voice? That is not to say that you do not try to talk to the alleged perpetrators. But when I do, it is not always in search of “balance”, but rather as a means to get to the truth, to give readers a glimpse into the minds of the (usually) men who commit these crimes. We have to keep trying to understand horrible things if we are ever going to fix them.
As we have seen in recent years, the relentless need for the media to find an objective balance in the stories has actually led to a dangerous imbalance, and the media too often gives as much space for lies as it does for facts.
“Objectivity and Journalism: Over the last century, these two words have been inextricably linked.” write Gina Baleria, professor of media studies at Sonoma University, for Poynter. “But fighting for objectivity has prevented us from adequately covering the truth, providing context and achieving fairness.”
TThe kind of journalism I’ve always tried to do, the kind of journalism that exposes wrongdoing, sometimes means that I personally get involved in a story, or (gasp!) Even part her.
“Verboten! “I hear people yelling. But here’s why I say it’s not.
When you work closely with sources and engage in an outcome, you may become a figure in the story, as happened when my work incited the arrest of a gang of child rapists. I was up front about what I was trying to accomplish, and once felt like I had passed the invisible line of being. on the story, I wrote about it.
My actions as a journalist had brought about a change, which became part of the story I was telling. To continue reporting without mentioning this would have been impossible, and I just couldn’t help but cover what was happening to these girls.
Transparency triumphs over pretending that we are not human with opinions and emotions like everyone else.
As the Online News Association put it, POV journalism “holds that journalists can have and express a point of view and seek to inspire action or change. With that in mind, they should be transparent with the reader about what they believe and why, and reveal any links they may have with like-minded organizations and individuals. “
When The New York Times hired me, I asked them about the decade of political tweets I had on my timeline, including critics of Trump and other prominent Republicans. The man who hired me told me there was no problem as long as I stopped at that point.
“Political views are a kind of journalistic Schrödinger cat: if a journalist’s opinions are locked in a box, they exist in a quantum state of conservative and liberal.”
I thought it was strange. Not that I should stop, but rather that my previous tweets could be allowed to remain in the ether. He had also written opinion pieces that were anti-Trump to main points of sale like CNN.
I never hid my political opinions. But okay, stop now, and I guess I’m okay? If I no longer tweet or post my thoughts, will my opinions be somehow a mystery?
It’s as if I could only get biased opinions if I republished them, and during the period when I don’t actively make them public, they are a kind of journalistic Schrödinger’s cat: if a journalist’s opinions are locked in a box, they exist in a quantum status of both conservatives and liberals.
Besides, they also told me that if I wanted advice on how to move forward on social media, I should speak to a woman who had just been hired for exactly this purpose. I approached her. Three times. She never came back to me. And then she was the one who called me to tell me to immediately delete my “chills” tweet and that I would be losing my job because of it. (By the way, I had chills because we had been through an insurrection and weeks of lies about a stolen election, and our democracy was working again). Good times.
In any case, the reason I was concerned about my previous job and social media was because I had never done any direct news reports or edits, and NYT hired me to do both. Initially, he was editing and reporting the newspaper’s live COVID-19 coverage, with occasional stints on the Metro desk. But when the newspaper started a blog about live elections, I started working on that on its first day as well.
In my time at the newspaper, I have never seen a case in which a journalist did not put aside his own feelings on a political issue. It is insulting to think that we were all manipulating the coverage to impose our personal opinions on our audience. We were and are professionals, we know what our work entails and how to do it well.
I am not saying that there is no implicit bias in the The times or in other newspapers, but most journalists at the top of their field are very good at keeping it out of their news reports. Of course, Some it will always leak, but that won’t necessarily make the coverage misleading or inaccurate.
Once again, journalists are still human.
One of my biggest concerns about how negatively Americans view journalism these days because of all of this is that many people don’t seem to understand the difference between a cable expert and a news reporter. Or an editorial writer for a news writer. (Or that those of us who are not televised work in very salary scale different from that of millionaire experts).
In most major media, there is a kind of separation between church and state between the newsroom and the newsroom. There is no cross pollination, something few outsiders seem to know or believe.
But my equally great concern is that too many people seem to think that being a journalist means that everything you write is intentionally biased, serving a secret agenda, even when you “pretend” to be neutral. It is disparaging for those of us who work extremely hard to bring the truth to the public, and it is simply wrong.
Some have even called for the death of the American media. I’m pretty sure those folks have no idea how lucky we are to have the Fourth Estate and what it would really mean to live without a free and diverse press, like big part of the world it does.
So please haters go ahead and call me “piece of shit”, my ego doesn’t get hurt that easily. But I hope you now know a little more about how different types of journalism work and stop trying to insult me with the word “biased.”
Yes, I am biased. But when my job demands that it not be, I work very hard to create unbiased journalism, that’s what a professional does.
This piece originally appeared on Shaking chills, the Substack run by Wolfe.