Journalism Is An Act Of Power

Robert Kingett last week wrote about the need for less objective journalism, and there’s just a couple bits I wanted to pull here, mostly about the idea that, yes, journalism is a thumb on the scales of power but so-called objective journalism is pressing on the wrong side.

All throughout my journalism classes in the United States, I was forced to be objective. It didn’t matter if I thought something was wrong, or inaccurate, I had to give equal weight to more powerful subjects that would use that power to then spin an angle. I couldn’t omit anything, they had to have the same article space as the underdog, or powerless subject, in the story. I also couldn’t say my opinions at all, I had to be a stenographer, even when someone was clearly using leverage to get the interview and then use the press to give them free PR.


If I’m supposed to be covering a story about workers’ rights, why on earth should I give equal space to the CEO that’s actively working to make sure their workers don’t have rights and, well, just continue to work. I can gather facts without being objective. I’d interview the CEO, get their side of the story, but then I wouldn’t just print their quotes without context, let alone give them the majority of my paper space. I’d print what they said to make sure their point of view is clear, but I’m not going to just hand them a microphone and say whatever they tell me because that would be giving power to the powerful subject in the story.

There in fact is no such thing as objective journalism, and while I for damned sure didn’t always get it right when I was experimenting in what was variously referred to as stand-alone journalism, civic journalism, amateur reporting, and/or hobbyist journalism, I did at least eventually (for some reason not until early 2004, according to the Wayback Machine) post the principles to which I’d aspired at the time, drawing from The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel and The Weblog Handbook by Rebecca Blood, so at least people knew how to judge what I was doing.

Robert is right when saying that “if you’re being objective, you’re saying you’d rather work as a stenographer”. All of this, in part at least, is why I tended not to refer to myself as a journalist, preferring to refer to the work as journalism. Sometimes I think people who do journalism get caught up in the personal noun over the public-facing verb. (I know: “reporting” and “journalism” are nouns, but I nonetheless always viewed them as actions.) By which I don’t mean that reporting cannot and should not come from a personal perspective, but that I long ago grew weary of people who used “but I’m a journalist” as a blunt cudgel against public critique.

(You’ll see some examples of the last if and when I manage to get around to getting posts in here from the height of my comics fandom days.)

What matters is the act, and the work—and that both the act and the work should be serving those who aren’t served by or serving the powerful.