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Objectivity is a ghost.
An overheard conversation between two coworkers recently got me thinking about objectivity and how the supremacy of objective truth is a fantasy we uphold to our own detriment.
Before my tirade, some backstory.
The overheard conversation was about teaching history. One coworker argued that teachers should present facts about history and leave it up to students to decide what to think and what those facts mean about people, places, nations and leaders.
“If I can tell what my teacher’s opinions are when he’s done teaching, he’s not doing a very good job,” he said.
The other coworker disagreed – slightly. He pointed out that history is an endless barrage of facts. To condense the past to something meaningful, we select what we find most important and focus on that.
“We have to teach more than a history book that was written by 19 white men,” this coworker said.
For context, the conversation started because recently my state representative in Iowa’s 4th District, Skyler Wheeler (Orange City – R) wrote a bill that would take funding from schools that use the New York Times’ 1619 Project in any of their curriculum.
For additional context, the 1619 project is a collection of essays sharing historical information about America and Black history in America in the 400 years since the first African slave was brought to the America’s. Developed by Nikole Hannah-Jones and other writers from the Times and The New York Times Magazine, the project is full of facts that aren’t included in K-12 history textbooks.
Wheeler objects to the project and his argument is that it teaches people to hate America.
Also that it’s indoctrination.
In my four-county corner of the state of Iowa, we have 19 of Christian schools and a church for every 500 people. As a former evangelical(-ish) Christian, Wheeler’s “indoctrination” argument made me laugh.
I was on deadline during this conversation and didn’t chime in. But I think a lot about this idea of “just the facts” and the subjectivity that comes with choosing the facts to share.
The crux of the issue is that “just the facts” is not simple, and I experience that complexity up close. I’m a journalist. Facts are kind of my thing.
And there’s a shit ton of facts out there.
As a journalist, I’m supposed to present facts in a way that makes them useful to readers.
So I collect facts. Filter them in terms of importance. Accompany them with additional relevant facts. Arrange them in a logical or engaging narrative.
This involves a great deal of subjectivity.
I took just two journalism classes in college – the rest I of what I know came through on-the-job experience and watching editors and other journalists like a hawk. Both classes discussed objectivity and subjectivity at length. To summarize six hours of lecture and 50+ pages of text, objectivity is the goal in reporting. But subjectivity is unavoidable.
I sit down at my desk every day with the intent to share just the facts. Then I write down a list of questions to ask a source while we’re talking on the phone. As we’re talking, I type almost word-for-word dictation of their half of our conversation (I type very fast and that’s the way I learned to take notes). But sometimes I stop taking notes to just talk or shoot the breeze, or I leave out a statement that feels like small potatoes and is not important to my story.
Then I write the story. I choose a lead – the first sentence of the story, which contains arguably the most important information or the most engaging information. I organize the story in order of importance, relevance, or narrative flow depending on whether I’m writing about a car accident, a bond referendum vote, or someone accomplishing a lifelong dream.
I choose who to interview.
What quotes to use.
How to order them.
Which details go in and which stay in my notes.
There is subjectivity in all of this.
History is the same. We filter facts because there are too many. We prioritize what subjects and moments of history need to be taught. Which historical figures are part of the common lexicon of U.S. history (and world history and ancient history and modern history and any part of history you choose).
All facts are filtered. The more I write and report news, the more I realize that objectivity is a ghost. It’s not really there. You’re never going to lay your hands on it. You’re never going to get it on paper.
This isn’t to say I give up trying. I aim for objectivity, which for me means representation of as many facts as I can cram into the time and space I have.
This is why diversity in the newsroom matters. There are questions I will think to ask because of who I am and what I have experienced that my white male counterparts will not think of, regardless of their experience in this field. There are questions that neurodivergent journalists or disabled journalists ask that I don’t think of when brainstorming before an interview. There are stories that Spanish-speaking journalists would spot in my coverage area that I am blind to. There are stories that my former coworker, who is a Black journalist, would find that take me way too long to notice.
I still try. And I read and research and listen and try to catch the hidden biases and blind spots that shape the way I filter facts.
But at the end of the day, conjuring even a ghost of objectivity relies on having more people and more perspectives in the room.
“Just the facts” is a lie we tell ourselves because it’s expedient to believe in objective truths.
“Just the facts” makes me short circuit at my desk and turn in stories that are way too long and disorganized.
It also keeps me motivated to ask more questions. Take note of more details. Question whether little details are as little as I think they are.
Objectivity is a ghost that I keep chasing.
Hopefully it makes me a better journalist.
If not, it also makes me anxious, so I have that going for me.