A statement from The Tufts Daily on objectivity in journalism

The following is a letter from the Daily’s Intentionality & Inclusivity (I&I) Committee and its Managing Board.

A spring 2015 Nieman Reports article describes one of journalism’s major problems: “In a 2014 study by the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, only 25 percent of African-Americans and 33 percent of Hispanics said the news media accurately portrayed their communities. That could have something to do with who’s making the coverage decisions.”

This problem affects The Tufts Daily no differently than our professional counterparts. Media coverage is inherently less accurate and less inclusive when the staff doesn’t reflect the communities it covers and lacks a conscientious understanding of the readers’ lives.

At the center of this problem is the idea of ‘journalistic objectivity’ and what it really means to locate a ‘neutral’ perspective on a given story.

The intended purpose of journalistic objectivity is to suppose that journalists, by nature of their job, are inherently neutral or balanced — it is a practice used precisely because we are not. As the American Press Institution notes, journalistic objectivity is meant “to develop a consistent method of testing information … precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work.”

And yet if we examine the process by which a newspaper is created, it becomes clear that the goal of pure objectivity in journalism is simply unattainable. Consider, for example, the choices that are made in every step of a story’s formulation: As journalists, we decide which stories to tell and whose opinions we trust as sources. We decide the order of quotes and piece together an angle. We decide the headline, the accompanying photo, the story that goes on the front page.

Practices are tied to people, and we are not absent of our own biases — on this campus, we are student journalists with certain perspectives and social identities. In many respects, journalism does not do enough to challenge how those biases translate into the work of the people who make up its staff: the writers, photographers, editors and artists. Though we avoid editorializing (introducing opinion into the reporting of facts), we believe that there is no such thing as a purely objective newspaper.

We are not alone in challenging the merit of ‘objective’ journalism. In 1996, the Society of Professional Journalists actually dropped the term from their code of ethics and the issue of ‘objectivity’ has been the subject of academic discourse for many years. It’s time for us at the Daily to unbox and closely examine this practice and our commitment to it.

As students committed to telling accurate, reliable stories, working on a campus-wide daily newspaper that is not funded by either the Tufts administration or Tufts Community Union Senate, we recognize the privilege of our credibility and we handle it with care.

As the world around us quakes with uncertainty, reliable information that encompasses the needs and voices of all people will become more and more crucial to the survival and construction of a truly equal democratic society. This especially includes voices that are underserved by systems of power such as communities of color, the LGBTQ community, adjunct faculty, unionized employees, first-generation college students, undocumented students, students on financial aid and those who are disabled.

We intend to provide credible information to everyone and to take concerns about the quality and inclusiveness of our coverage far more seriously than we have in the past.

A few months ago, the Daily spoke to University of Texas at San Antonio Professor Sonya Aleman, the author of a comprehensive article titled “Locating Whiteness in Journalism Pedagogy.” She explained how “whiteness — an ideological system that prizes white skin and confers privilege — manifests in the academic socialization of journalism students, impinging their ability to reflect the racial disenfranchisement of communities of color.”

‘Whiteness’ is not only about a lack of racial diversity. Aleman and other journalists point to how the way we are taught the practice of journalism often reinforces a system of guidelines and values that prioritize privileged voices and how ‘neutrality’ is an ideological perspective in and of itself, one that stems from whiteness.

“Objectivity is historically rooted in white male perspective — that’s the norm,” she said. “So it reveals how difficult it is to report in ways that feel more authentic and accurate and responsive to communities and people of color.”

The Daily, like many other spaces on this campus, is primarily white, cisgender and non-disabled. This lack of diverse representation matters because newspapers cannot accurately cover communities they do not engage with or represent.

The solution cannot rest on the physical diversification of our newsroom alone. It will also require our writers to become better allies, in learning about our readers’ needs and creating critical spaces for campus dialogue.

We will be just as, if not more, rigorous in our pursuit of facts. As Brent Cunningham, former managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, put it, “Objectivity excuses lazy reporting. If you’re on deadline and all you have is ‘both sides of the story,’ that’s often good enough … We fail to push the story, incrementally, toward a deeper understanding of what is true and what is false.” Ultimately, the conversation we’re having in the newsroom is one of responsibility: How can we be more conscious of our role in shaping mainstream dialogue?

We want to join news organizations across the United States in exploring how our practices can be revised and re-taught to improve our coverage of all issues along more inclusive lines.

Here’s what we’re going to do: Instead of putting emphasis on a dogmatic commitment to abstract notions of pure objectivity in training new reporters and writers, we want to challenge ourselves to explore the complex relationship responsible journalists must have with their own power as well as our position in society.

The goal of problematizing and distancing ourselves from traditional ‘objectivity’ is not to favor a specific ideology or the interests of a certain group of people. In making our coverage more intentional, we believe we will be improving its accuracy and fairness, which has been lacking in the past in large part because of our commitment to this practice.

Over the past few years, the Daily has organized a concerted re-evaluation of our practices.

For example, the Daily has launched a support fund program for students whose time commitment to working a paid job while in school would preclude their participation in the Daily as a voluntary activity. And in an even more recent and exciting development, the Daily is now a paid position for anyone with a federal work study program included in their financial aid package.

The Daily’s I&I Committee has been working to make the newsroom a place that is self-critical, that supports minority voices, that fosters exploratory conversation on our roles as journalists and that forms new ideas of journalistic training and workshops. Throughout this process, we at the Daily see this paper as having three primary goals.

We aim to:

  1. Paint a comprehensive and accurate portrait of the university community and document how it changes over time.
  • Our coverage should reflect our community and describe it fairly, which means we need to speak with sources from a wide variety of backgrounds and attempt to cover the issues that affect people, without turning their lived experiences into political flashpoints.
  1. Inform readers of timely news and events
  • We aim to enable our readers to make better and more informed decisions within the Tufts community, whether those decisions pertain to campus politics or daily life. We also want to proactively cover the issues that catalyze big news events, like protests or strikes.
  1. Speak truth to power
  • Part of journalism’s public value comes in its role in amplifying the voices of underserved people. People, groups and organizations with power, capital and time — for example, the university administration — can do this with or without help from the media. Our non-editorial coverage will not carry political agendas, but we must work actively to amplify those who do not have a platform readily available for their voices.

We at the Daily love the work that we do. We love learning about people’s lives. We love researching and pursuing in-depth knowledge about relevant issues. We even love working long hours in the office meticulously combing articles for factual and grammatical inaccuracies (though some might not admit it), because we want to produce a paper that the Tufts community can be proud of. Most of all, we love to tell stories, but there is no pride in storytelling if we are ignoring, excluding or inaccurately representing our campus.

Improving our coverage and reshaping our relationship with the Tufts community will be a gradual process, and the quality and inclusivity of our coverage will not improve overnight. But we will improve, we will listen more closely, we will reach out more broadly and we will not be satisfied with the job we’ve been doing on this campus for the past 37 years. We hope to have the support of our readers and the larger university community in this effort, and we invite you to share this responsibility we have, to join our staff in any capacity you can and help build the future of the Daily with us. We also encourage all members of the Tufts community to attend our I&I meetings as we continue these conversations.
Thanks for reading.

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