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Opinion: Why I Can't Be An 'Objective' Journalist


I grew up in journalism decades ago with crusty old editors who had a simple credo for what it was we journalists do.

Our job, they said, was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

I have thought about the meaning of that nearly every day in my 46 years of reporting in a profession where I have been told over and over again by good journalists, fine people, that I must always be objective in my reporting, above all else.

It's a standard I find impossible to meet.

I can't wrap my head around the idea that all opinions are to be given equal weight, that no one is right and no one is wrong.

Complete, pure objectivity is a standard no one can truly attain – not if you are a sentient human being who thinks things through.

American journalism is in a period where journalists are struggling with this, after years of having the president of the United States call us "enemies of the people" and "horrible human beings,'' and through the nationwide uproar over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer.

The protests that have spread to all 50 states, from the biggest cities to small towns, are forcing journalists to reckon with questions of right and wrong. To make judgements.

This should not be hard. Daily journalism in any form – on the radio, TV, in print, and digital formats – involves constant decision-making by reporters, editors, news directors, copy editors. Who do I quote in my story? What do I include and what ends up on the cutting room floor? Should we be covering this story at all?

There is no objectivity involved in any of those decisions.                       

Our readers, our listeners, our viewers tell us constantly that they aren't looking for our opinions; all they want is the facts.

They want objectivity, however they might define it. I don't try to define it; I can't.

Most of us, I believe, strive for fairness rather than objectivity – reporting that is complete, fact-checked, reliable and honest. And most of all, fair.

We're living in a time when journalists are being pulled into the battle for fundamental human rights for all Americans whether we want to be or not. Many of us are fine with that.

In the past few weeks, we've seen rank-and-file journalists at newspapers such as The New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer rebel against the decision-making of editors on issues related to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Those rebellions have cost some top editors their jobs.

We've seen hundreds of our fellow reporters and photographers being attacked and harassed by law enforcement during massive demonstrations where wearing a badge saying "press" is a useless, meaningless exercise. We've seen one photographer lose an eye in a confrontation.

As a profession, we tend to wrap ourselves in the First Amendment and its guarantee of press freedom and sometimes forget that everyone else in this country has rights that are just as important as ours. And that we have an obligation to defend as well as our own.

What I am saying to my fellow journalists is this:

It's OK to stand up for civil rights for all – for racial justice, gender equality, for LGBT rights, for the civil rights of all. Loudly and consistently.

If we stand by and pretend to be nothing more than stenographers and recording secretaries while our world is turning on its ear, we are certain to become irrelevant and be left behind.

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Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

  Read more "Politically Speaking" here. 

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.