The Sunday Magazine

Objectivity is 'the view from nowhere' and potentially harmful: expert

More and more people, including many journalists, are questioning the sanctity of objectivity — especially when the arbiters of what’s objective truth and what’s opinion are largely the mostly-white, mostly-male people who run most newsrooms. Candis Callison is a professor of journalism at the University of British Columbia who argues that objectivity in journalism is illusory and that it reaffirms the outlook of a white male-dominated world.

Is objectivity an outmoded value in journalism?

"Objectivity, [has been] interpreted in most newsrooms as a view from nowhere, as a way of not acknowledging your social location as a journalist," says Candis Callison. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Most news organizations consider objectivity or impartiality a cornerstone of journalism and essential for maintaining credibility with readers, listeners and viewers. It is key to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's set of guidelines, the JSP: Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Journalist Candis Callison is a professor of journalism at the University of British Columbia. (Submitted by Candis Callison)

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of objective is "to not be influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts."

However, Candis Callison calls objectivity "the view from nowhere" and considers it potentially harmful. She has worked as a journalist in the United States and Canada for television, the internet and radio, including at the CBC. At CTV, she launched the first news and current affairs program focused on Indigenous issues. Callison now teaches at the University of British Columbia in two departments: in journalism, as well as in the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies.

She is co-author, with Mary Lynn Young, of a new book, Reckoning: Journalism's Limits and Possibilities.

Here are some highlights from Callison's conversation with The Sunday Edition's host, Anthony Germain, condensed and edited for clarity.

Is it possible to be objective?

I would say it's really impossible since everyone comes from somewhere. That's not to say that you can't use good methods for evaluating evidence, for establishing facts. In terms of thinking you can adopt a view that doesn't include where you come from, I use one of my co-podcasters Kim TallBear's shorthand all the time: "We all have mud on our feet from somewhere."

Oftentimes, how we think about what's true reflects where we're coming from, reflects our perspectives. And I think journalists really have a tall order and that they need to establish a sense of what happened from multiple perspectives.

The book is thinking about how journalism contributes to social orders by often repeating dominant narratives or dominant points of view, and that's one of the ways in which journalism can also cause harm. Harm in the profession of journalism has really only emerged in the last couple of decades, believe it or not. Thinking about minimizing harm has just made it into ethical codes.

How does objectivity contribute to harm?

Objectivity, [has been] interpreted in most newsrooms as a view from nowhere, as a way of not acknowledging your social location as a journalist, that there has been reporting on certain topics and certain communities in the past that may have caused harm.

Recognizing that the individual journalist has a view from somewhere, and that journalism has been doing all kinds of work in the past, allows you to have clarity about what you're contributing as a journalist, about whose social order you're maintaining.  

It's been a very interesting few weeks on social media. And especially on Twitter, where you have Indigenous journalists and Black journalists talking about what's happened to them in the newsroom. Those kinds of narratives really illustrate the ways in which journalism is absolutely a work of interpretation, and recognizing journalism as contributing to a social order is a first step in seeing it as a tool that might do good in the world. 

How many times have journalists been sent out the door to cover a story with a sense already of what they think the story is, why they think it's news and why they think it should be covered?

Indigenous journalists, in particular, Black journalists as well have been saying this, that when they go to cover a story or an issue related to their community, they're seen to be having bias when, in fact, what they have is a form of expertise.- Candis Callison

How would reporters go about "locating" themselves?

That's, I think, something that requires a certain amount of experimentation. There's a lot of possibilities for thinking about how to situate yourself and whether or not that informs what your story is going to be and who you search out. And I think one of the most important aspects of locating yourself is recognizing that, in some areas, you're going to have expertise.

If you think about some of the narratives on Twitter that are coming from Indigenous journalists, in particular, Black journalists as well have been saying this, that when they go to cover a story or an issue related to their community, they're seen to be having bias when, in fact, what they have is a form of expertise.

There's a limit to how much you can put yourself in, but when you begin to think in terms of your place in society, what your relative privilege is, what social orders have benefited you and where they have not benefited you, I think this is where you're thinking about a news story. [It] shouldn't just be about a news story as an event, but how it's an intersection of systems and structures.

The work I see that's transformational is really when journalists are recognizing that they are located somewhere, and that makes them accountable in particular ways.

What social media platforms have ushered in is a sort of a real time response to when journalists get it wrong, when there are ethical missteps.- Candis Callison

You cited a Gallup poll that shows audiences perceive more bias in mainstream media…

We quote that because we're also trying to recognize that audiences have driven a lot of the change in how journalists think about themselves. I mean, what social media platforms have ushered in is a sort of a real time response to when journalists get it wrong, when there are ethical missteps. The bias poll is super-interesting in that I think audiences recognize that journalists are coming from somewhere. The next questions would be about which media you trust, which media you find credible and why you find them credible.

One of the great books this year on journalism is by Desmond Cole, talking about his experience working at The Toronto Star, what it is to be a Black journalist and how it is that objectivity props up white supremacy.

Where and how do we draw the line between activism and journalism?

This is a super-interesting question. When I first did research, it was about climate change and it was about the way that journalists and scientists have struggled with how to both maintain professional roles related to objectivity, related to providing information to society.

I came up with this notion of near advocacy as a way of talking about how they navigated their position ethically as journalists, and as scientists, on an issue where action needed to happen. And so how do you begin to think about advocacy in relation to communities that have been misrepresented, not represented or harmfully represented?

There's, again, this long scholarship that talks about how media has in particular represented Indigenous communities quite badly and caused a lot of harm right up until the present. If you look at how media reported on Tina Fontaine's death, a 15-year-old girl in Manitoba who suffered in the foster care system: that wasn't the first thing that the media reported on. They didn't use it as a way to open up the way that the foster care system had failed this young girl, and really engaged in some victim blaming. And some news organizations were called out on Twitter. So I think we have to really think again about having clarity about whose social order you're contributing to and how you're repeating dominant perspectives and a dominant narrative.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full conversation.

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