The writer cannot be removed from the writing

We, as a society, consider objectivity an ideal for good journalism. Facts should be presented without bias, not allowing the journalist to take a particular side or push a certain agenda. Information should be presented in a candid, straightforward manner, such that readers are given the opportunity to take in raw data and form their own opinions about it. To do otherwise would be editorializing, a dirty word which refers to the inappropriate injection of one’s opinion into a presentation of factual information. 

Although I understand the good intentions of such an approach to journalism, I argue that objectivity is not only a poor ideal, but also largely a myth in that it is nearly always unattainable. I understand that this is a rather controversial opinion, and I see the irony in that my literal job to write about my opinions — allow me to elucidate my position by guiding you through an exercise of the imagination.

Imagine that you are a journalist tasked with covering a story: a new bridge is being built in a small town. You interview a few people and collect some numerical data, such as when the project is to be completed, how much it will cost and how those costs will be distributed to local taxpayers. You also look into why the bridge is being built, and what the benefits of its construction will be. 

You write up your article, detailing the objective facts you have collected. You report that it is, let’s say, a $1 million project, which will cost each taxpayer something like $5 in taxes per paycheck until the project is completed in a year. You note that the bridge is being built to connect two major roads that are currently separated by a stream. You briefly mention that because of the bridge, people who live on one side of the stream will enjoy shorter commutes. 

You have covered the story sufficiently well, not mentioning your opinions about the matter. Your narrative addresses all the relevant data, and you even managed to make your article relatively interesting through good word choice. The article is printed in the town newspaper, and nobody thinks twice about your skill in concisely conveying information. By conventional standards for good journalism, you have succeeded.  

Allow me to complicate your “success” with further imagination: on one side of the stream, closer to town, is a handful of large homes, occupied by white collar workers and their families. On the other side of the stream is a trailer park, and thus largely inhabited by low-income, blue-collar workers and their families. Your story was poorly received by the first half, not because you are a bad journalist, but because the town’s wealthy are now up in arms about the increased tax they will have to pay to cover the cost of the bridge. 

The latter half of town, however, is rejoicing — the travel time they will save once the bridge is constructed is invaluable. With just a few more minutes in the day, the mothers on this side of the stream will be able to get a few more precious minutes of rest before taking the kids to school in the morning. The children will be able to participate in extracurricular activities at school now because the walk to and from is now feasible. The fathers will be able to justify making a stop at the grocery store on their way home from work. Friends from across the stream will be more inclined to come visit. Families will save on gas money — money they could really use to improve life around the homestead. 

By prioritizing the coverage of objective information, we have become accustomed to ignoring the implications of various statistics on human beings. In the real world, numbers translate directly into our standard of living; in our minds, however, the information is often received without emotion. I find it irresponsible to report on something as seemingly simple as a bridge being built, to use my own example, without allowing the information to take on a human face. 

Rather than trying to remove the writer from the writing, we should encourage writers to make their potential biases absolutely clear. For example, if I were to write the bridge story, I would let it be known that I am a white woman and a communist, because these identities are inextricably linked to what I would write, and any attempt to obscure that influence would merely allow covert bias to seep into the piece. 

Striving to be objective ignores the reality that our world is both composed of and unavoidably filtered through the human container. That we may find it difficult to remove our own opinions from whatever stories we write about the world is not only unsurprising, but also a good thing! The act of condensing fragments of the human experience into different combinations of the same 26 letters and a handful of symbols is inherently creative; creativity is inherently subjective.