The Convenient Lie of 'Objectivity'

Image: Hulton Archive (Getty Images)

When Washington Post editors banned national politics reporter Felicia Sonmez from reporting on sexual misconduct because she is an assault survivor, they reportedly told her that they were worried about the “appearance of a conflict of interest.” Top editors reassured her that they themselves didn’t think there was a conflict; they believed she could write an unbiased story on the subject, they said.

Sonmez spoke out about her sexual assault in 2018, following a letter she wrote to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China accusing Jon Kaiman, her former colleague, of assaulting her one night when she was drunk. A woman named Laura Tucker had made similar allegations against Kaiman earlier that year, and national outlets picked up both of their stories. Kaiman, who was working at the Los Angeles Times at the time, resigned after the paper launched an investigation into the accusations. (Kaiman has denied both Sonmez’s and Tucker’s allegations and insisted that “all acts we engaged in were mutually consensual.”)

Months later, when sexual misconduct allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh emerged, Sonmez was told by Post editors that she couldn’t cover the story. The restrictions were temporarily lifted before being reinstated in 2019, according to Somnez. Since then they have prevented her from writing about Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s revelation that she is a survivor of assault; the several allegations against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Missouri Governor Eric Greitens; and the Violence Against Women Act.

After Sonmez tweeted on March 28 about these restrictions on her reporting—and after Politico and Jezebel covered Sonmez’s story—the Post announced that it would be lifting the coverage ban. “Following a newsroom discussion two weeks ago, editors began re-evaluating limitations on the scope of Felicia’s work as a breaking-news reporter,” Kristine Coratti Kelly, Chief Communications Officer at the Washington Post, told Jezebel. “They have concluded such limitations are unnecessary.”

What might at first seem unusual and anomalous about what Sonmez faced at the Post is in fact the opposite. Her treatment is symptomatic of newsrooms’ sometimes uncritical devotion to the principle of “objectivity,” which can easily be warped and deployed for sinister ends. Part of the problem with objectivity is that no one can quite agree what it is: Does it mean attempting to occupy the exact middle ground between two extremes of opinion (what New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and others call “the view from nowhere”)? Or does it mean balancing the scales, because doing so creates a more precise rendering of the truth? Is the latter what we would call “fairness,” and if so, is this what many of us actually mean when we say objectivity, or is it a separate idea entirely? These are difficult questions which don’t necessarily have a single, definitive answer. Reporters face them anew each time they sit down to write a story.

When objectivity is so revered while at the same time so ill-defined, it is only a short road to it being weaponized, its most facile interpretations indulged. In this instance, the Washington Post has reduced objectivity to a state of being; a reporter either has it or she doesn’t. The having, it seems, fundamentally relies on what body a reporter occupies, and the experiences they’ve had in it. When objectivity is taken to this extreme, it is inevitably marginalized reporters who suffer the consequences, as well as their audiences, who are denied the rigorous, nuanced, and intellectually honest coverage writers can produce when an issue hits close to home.

“It’s just not workable to broadly bar reporters from covering issues connected to their identity or their experience, and in practice most such rules fall apart when subjected to any real scrutiny,” said Parker Higgins, the advocacy director at the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Standards regarding conflicts of interest need to be “thoughtfully crafted so that they can be applied fairly and effectively,” Higgins continued. “Otherwise those same rules threaten to marginalize the people whose perspective can lead them to a fuller understanding of the truth that readers are looking for in the first place.”

What Sonmez’s story makes so clear is the way journalistic neutrality can incentivize reporters to carry on as if they are unbiased or else potentially disclose painful traumas like the one Sonmez experienced and recuse themselves from coverage where their sensitivities and perspective are needed most. Both options are disastrous for journalism. The idea that being a survivor of sexual assault could make someone “biased” in their coverage of sexual misconduct—or, as Post editors maintained, that it would at least create the appearance of bias—foretells concerning possibilities. With roughly one in five American women having been the victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime, it would appear as though many women reporters would have to declare themselves too “biased” to cover the subject. If we were to take into account the broad spectrum of sexual misconduct (including, say, the sort of inappropriate touching and comments Cuomo stands accused of) I would venture that nearly every woman reporter would have to take themselves off misconduct-related stories.

And what else might be a conflict of interest, according to this rubric? Can a person who has had an abortion write about abortion? Can an Asian person report on the recent surge in racist anti-Asian attacks? Can a person who has experienced police violence report on Black Lives Matter or police brutality? White cis men have always benefited from the assumption of their inherent objectivity, largely because they were the ones who got to decide what it meant to be objective in the first place. In newsrooms—many of which remain disproportionately white and male-dominated—that assumption can get codified into editorial practices. In other words, it is no accident that marginalized people are usually the ones accused of having irreversible biases and kept from doing their jobs because of it. It is also why white male reporters are rarely asked questions whose answers could also be revealing of biases, like, “Have you ever been accused of assaulting anyone?”

“There are all of these status quo assumptions that go into making a determination of whether or not someone is objective,” said Lewis Raven Wallace, the author of The View From Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity. “We all have a relationship to the idea of abortion or the idea of gender or race, but some experiences are more likely to flagged as a source of bias than others and that has to do with power.”

It’s not the first time the matrix of power in newsrooms has been made so clear. In May, a Black reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was reportedly barred from covering the mass protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death after she posted a tweet pointing out the racist double standard in people’s reaction to looters. “Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don’t care about this city!!!!!” Alexis Johnson, now a correspondent for Vice News, wrote of four images showing parking lots filled with trash and other detritus. “.... oh wait sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. Whoops.”

According to the New York Times, later that day Johnson was called to a meeting with top editors, who told her that they believed the tweet demonstrated she couldn’t cover the protests fairly. In June, when Michael Santiago, a Black photojournalist at the Post-Gazette, tweeted in support of Johnson, he was also pulled off assignments covering the protests. Meanwhile, a white reporter who had a similar conversation with editors about his social media use the same day as Johnson did not face the same consequences. (In a statement to the Times, the Post-Gazette’s executive editor denied singling out Johnson and Santiago because of their race.)

“So am I biased because I’m Black? Is it biased because I’m talking about a Black issue?” Johnson later said in an interview with the Cut. “Also, what sides are there to racism? What sides are there to police brutality? We’re literally watching men and women of the Black community die in front of our very eyes in the hands of this system.”

What Johnson alluded to is perhaps the foremost flaw of objectivity: a fetishization of bothsidesism, which inevitably favors the dominant ideology when it comes to issues like police brutality and sexual assault. As Wesley Lowery pointed out in a June Times op-ed, an uncritical commitment to impartiality often results in reporters resorting to euphemisms like “officer-involved shooting” when reporting on police officers who have fatally shot Black men, for example. In reporting on sexual assault, writers might rely on an excessive use of the passive voice in order to convey supposed neutrality, or default to common victim-blaming tropes. In both cases what is suggested is that certain indisputable facts and larger truths remain up for debate. Not only is this in itself a form of bias—a bias in favor of institutions, the state, and patriarchal norms—it is fundamentally dishonest. It also makes for some crappy writing.

It is fitting, in a way, that the Washington Post editors framed their concerns about Sonmez reporting on sexual misconduct as being about image. As Will Meyer wrote in a review of Wallace’s book for The New Republic, media institutions’ stated goal of objectivity is often about the appearance of fairness rather than some higher ideal. Keeping up this front might involve avoiding words like “lies” and “racism,” Meyer argued, “because those descriptions could be seen as evidence of left-wing bias.”

What I find particularly disingenuous about the Washington Post’s appeal to appearances is that its editors and staff need not defer to their readers when it comes to deciding what is considered fair and objective. Newsrooms—and especially newsrooms like the Post’s—have the power to establish what it means to strive for these principles, and set expectations for their audiences such that they won’t feel betrayed if a person who has been sexually assaulted goes on to report on sexual misconduct.

“In a way, it’s a self-set trap for institutions to say, ‘You should trust us because we’re never biased and we always stay away from any connection to the story,’” Wallace said. “Because as soon as something comes up—and it always does—where there is a question surrounding a potential conflict of interest, that gives the audience a reason to say, ‘We can’t trust you because you promised us this other thing.’”

The overall health of journalism could benefit from readers viewing reporters as real people with complex experiences rather than as authority figures with no personal stake in the events they’re reporting on. After all, in journalism, “real authority starts with reporting,” Rosen said in a 2010 interview. “Knowing your stuff, mastering your beat, being right on the facts, digging under the surface of things, calling around to find out what happened, verifying what you heard.”

This is precisely what Sonmez knew she could do so well—not in spite of her being an assault survivor or merely because of it. Perhaps it is some combination of the two.

Night blogger at Jezebel with writing at The Baffler, The Nation, The New Republic, Vice, and more.

DISCUSSION

buriedaliveopener
BuriedAliveOpener

White cis men have always benefited from the assumption of their inherent objectivity, largely because they were the ones who got to decide what it meant to be objective in the first place.

It took me a long time to get over the mindset that I wasn’t “qualified” to say whether something was racist or not because I’m black, to instinctively defer to a white people’s opinion of whether something was racist, and that if I thought something was racist but none of the white people around me seemed to think so, that meant I was overreacting because of my bias.

I also look back and wonder whether, in addition to internalizing that mindset and applying it against myself, I externalized it and used it against other marginalized groups, i.e. did I dismiss concerns of sexism raised by women, concerns of homophobia raised by LGBTQ+ people, concerns about xenophobia raised by immigrants?