Objectivity in the Modern Age of Journalism

By Cam Rodriguez

My first – or most formative – brush with journalism was Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, a 2014 documentary tracing Edward Snowden’s actions as he leaked information about international surveillance by the United States and United Kingdom to the international community. The documentary stunned me, particularly because it wasn’t a detached recap and analysis of the event after it happened – it instead showed Greenwald and Snowden side by side, evading police and extradition in Hong Kong. At times Poitras has to intervene in order to keep her source safe, highlighting a degree of involvement that was revolutionary to how I saw journalism at the time I was a teenager.

When I started pursuing reporting academically, the idea of being utterly unbiased was reiterated time and time again, and built on more traditional paradigms of what journalism is shown to be – I wasn’t supposed to intervene, I was to be a blank slate; I’m a mirror reflecting the two prismatic sides of an argument in order to best promote fairness and truth. But where should the line be drawn between reporter and stenographer? At what point can a reporter intervene, or at what point do we abandon this notion of “objectivity” and distance altogether?

The truth is that instead of learning how we can better address and incorporate our personal experiences and beliefs, we’ve been learning how to smother them. Instead of appearing as equal and on the same level as our sources, we’ve existed in a liminal and unattainable space, penalizing ourselves for living outside of our work.

And instead of acknowledging our lives, we’ve worked to hide them and ensure they don’t see the light of day, in fear that a random onlooker will call our entire portfolio into question.

It’s a counterproductive practice. In the same way that a sleepaway camper desperately wants to know their counselor’s name (and, of course, whether they have a crush on the other cabin’s counselor, too), by withholding basic and foundational information about ourselves and our beliefs, we fan the flames of people wanting some sort of discovery. We also create a falsity that we’re different from the people we interview – which can also come to haunt us as we search for sources and stories. We’re gatekeeping ourselves by subscribing to an outdated model of reporting that’s just unfit for the way that journalism is changing.

If we want to appear as trustworthy members of the community, we need to act like someone we would find trustworthy. If you were at a block party and someone toting a camera started asking you a bunch of probing questions about your life without answering any questions you had about them, would you give them the time of day?

There are grains of truth in our traditional understanding of an objective journalist as an impassive observer. Wouldn’t it be revelatory to have an impartial, unbiased look at news? To just have the facts? To have a clear view of the truth?

Of course, it would.

But our pursuit of objective reporting glosses over the very human process of reporting in the first place: someone picked what to study and what numbers to report; someone then took those numbers and picked which ones they saw as relevant for a story; the reader then picks relevant numbers of their own, and chooses which ones are important to share with others. The entire process of news, from start to finish, is entirely fallible, regardless of how much data is visualized or how many eyewitness accounts are acquired – and when the process is subject to scrutiny and is called into question, claiming objective reporting is just a fallacy.

I think that’s why Citizenfour struck me as such a standout form of documentary reporting. The film, married with Greenwald’s release of the documents Snowden leaked to him, stand as a form of journalism that doesn’t try to purport itself as something it’s not; Greenwald and, to a greater degree, Poitras, understand that the project borders on activism and advocacy. Citizenfour is even the third in a series by Poitras on the shady actions by the U.S. government following 9/11 – it’s a thematically consistent piece that’s hard-and-fast journalism by nature, but follows a narrative that Poitras is creating that she believes strongly in.

With tackling objectivity in our work, it’s not a matter of abandoning it altogether. Instead, it’s an industry-wide need to acknowledge that, despite our best efforts, we still bring our own personal narratives to the table. Doing this is a start to breaking down the walls built up by our readers and viewers: instead of viewing the media as a monolith, maybe they’ll view it as their neighbor down the street.



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