UNWANTED QUESTIONS: Skepticism, not objectivity, is what makes journalism matter

Posted April 8, 2021
By Ivor Shapiro

Democracies need reporters who follow their curiosity, ask uninhibited questions, and tell unwelcome stories. 

"Oh, Ivor, stop being such a journalist.” 

I have a friend, a physician, who says this to me from time to time. Let’s say the topic’s Covid (what else?), and I ask what evidence he's seen that lockdowns save more lives than they cost. “Journalists,” my friend mutters, and trails off. Or maybe, in a lighter moment, he mentions Canada’s having lost its top-10 ranking for citizens' happiness, and my brow furrows while my mouth frames an earnest inquiry about the survey’s sampling strategy or demographic weighting. Or, in one of our frequent debates, he might suggest that "most people agree" about some or other matter of common sense, whereupon I might ask this (a reporter's most annoying—and perhaps most important—question of all): “How do you know that?”

Sometimes, he just looks at me and sighs. 

The asking of annoying questions is to an aging reporter what red cells are to human blood. It's just one of several good reasons why democracies "need an unlovable press,” as Columbia University’s Michael Schudson has so adorably put it. Young journalists learn to give their curiosity free rein—to ask inherently impolite open-ended questions that push against their own prejudices and their subjects' assumptions.[1]

This comes easier to some than to others.  I, for example, started out unspeakably shy. It took stubborn practice to develop the nasty habit of questioning everything. When someone expressed an unusual point of view at one of those social gatherings that used to exist, I forced myself to bite back the instinctive, "That's interesting,” and ask, instead: “How did you come to believe that?” Eventually, the habit stuck. Today, when someone complains at having experienced an everyday injustice, I might say, ”Oh, that’s awful,” as one does, and then add, without thinking: “Who did that to you? When?” Likewise, habituated journalists don’t simply admire one another’s work—they ask: “What’s missing from this story?” as the Poynter Institute’s Doris Truong suggested with special reference to the inclusion and diversity of sources and communities. 

And when finished lobbing often-unwelcome questions, journalists move on to tell often-unwelcome stories. ”The best and highest use of journalism isn’t simply to tell readers what they want to hear,” said archetypically unlovable US journalist Bari Weiss during a recent Munk Debates podcast about "the future of speech and open debate."

Well, you might wonder (as many of my best friends and respected colleagues do), who the hell has time to care about free speech and open debate right now? 

We are, after all, living through a long-overdue revolution in pursuit of racial and social justice. Many Black, Indigenous and other people of colour, and others who have been waiting too long for equity, have come—not without reason—to suspect that the very phrase “free speech” is White people's code for, “Wait a little longer while we get comfortable, OK?” 

My unarguable privilege, not just as a White guy but as a tenured full professor approaching comfortable retirement, makes a powerful case for putting these old liberal principles in storage for a while until they're needed again. For everything, there is a season, and this is a time for rage. Yet it's not just my wannabe philosopher's head but my old activist's soul that keeps the questions flowing. When long-deprived people demand a new order, the beating of my heart echoes the beating of the drums and my mind's eye sees a ragged tricolor hoisted to the threefold cry of liberté, égalité, fraternité —a reminder of true freedom's indivisibility from equity and inclusion.  

Revolutionaries in every age have allowed one or another stripe on this banner to fray. The populist right, for example, is in thrall to freedom, not inclusion; back in Paris during those best and worst of times, la liberté was engorged by the blood of headless dissenters. 

Today, those storming the Bastilles of white, cis, or male power have good reason to feel less than confident in conversations' capacity to craft change. More immediately effective than dialogue, by far, is platform-afforded power to ostracize resisters and silence dissenters. 

Publicly shaming those of whom we disapprove, and demanding their retraining in acceptable discourse, can bring an immediate rush of satisfaction; it "draws a neat line between good and bad, us and them," as  Ligaya Mishan has put it, but "hasn’t succeeded in toppling any major figures — high-level politicians, corporate titans — let alone institutions." Changing the world is harder work and takes longer, and Loretta Ross, a Black feminist and veteran civil-rights activist, worries (as at 37 minutes into a recent CFE interview) that the yearning for uniform opinion actually distracts from the struggle for deep change. 

On the other hand, it's worth pressing pause on anti-cancellation outrage to understand how and why good people's frustration can lead them to give up on potential allies—and even on important careers.  

One exceptionally smart and warm-hearted former journalism student, now in management at a US-based digital-news operation, told me recently that the colour of their skin is enough to keep them far away from established Canadian newsrooms for the rest of their life. It's just one heartbreakingly familiar story among many told recently by racialized journalists who've wearied of quiet persuasion tactics in Canada's still-shamefully White-led, White-dominated newsrooms.  

Melinda Maldonado has a Master of Journalism from Ryerson and reporting experience in four leading Canadian newsrooms. Now a strategic advisor for Ontario's Anti-Racism Directorate, Maldonado remembers being told by a fellow journalist that Black teens would never agree to describe, on the record, their experiences of police stops. That didn't stop her trying, and she attributes her resulting interviews partly to her being a woman of colour, partly to honestly engaging her subjects with the impact and consequences of being quoted in a news story, and partly to the way she framed questions. “How do YOU think this story should be told?” she asked one youth organizer. 

That's a great example of tough-minded and open-ended question-asking, but Schudson's broader point about "unlovable" journalism's necessity faces a big timing problem. It's so easily mistaken for an expectation spotlighted by many racialized journalists: a selective, and inconsistent, demand for professional detachment.

“Our professionalism is questioned when we report on the communities we’re from, and the spectre of advocacy follows us in a way that it does not follow many of our White colleagues,” wrote Pacinthe Mattar in The Walrus last fall. In her disturbing memoir of uneasy newsroom conflicts over race, she described walking a professional tightrope to tell stories that challenge privileged audiences’ (and editors') interests and assumptions. The effort of pitching stories of race “takes a toll," according to Mattar (another stellar graduate from Ryerson's MJ program). Even in the majority-BIPOC city of Toronto:

Everyone who’s been the Only One in the Room knows what it’s like. The silence that falls when a story about racism is pitched. The awkward seat-shifting. The averted stares….

We know that there is often an unspoken higher burden of proof for these stories than for others.… As a result, we overprepare those pitches. We anticipate your questions. We get used to having the lives of our friends and families and the people who look like them discounted, played devil’s advocate to, intellectualized from a sanitized distance.

As one of Mattar's sources, an anonymous news producer, put it: “There seems to be the assumption that [racialized journalists] cannot coexist with the journalistic standards of being fair and balanced and impartial. Really, what we are fighting for, what we’ve always been fighting for, is just the truth.” 

The truth.

Which brings us to a really annoying question made infamous when a super-privileged Roman man asked it of a doomed revolutionary two millenia ago in Jerusalem: "What is truth?

At this point, I must—trigger warning—use the O-word. 

As in The Walrus's headline on Mattar's story: “Objectivity Is a Privilege Afforded to White Journalists.” 

As in last year’s Atkinson Lecture at Ryerson by Denise Balkissoon, entitled: “Objectivity, Trust and Truth in an Age of Information.” 

And likewise, the just-published book by father and son British professors Brian and Matthew Winston, entitled: The Roots of Fake News: Objecting to Objective Journalism. [2]

Objectivity and its stepsiblings, balanceneutrality and detachment, are uncannily resilient. Ever-anachronisticlong recognized as lazy shorthand for journalists' self-serving rituals and contingent tactics, these controversial norms are still widely invoked. In the United States, especially, long after the word's removal from that country's professional journalists' ethics code in 1996, the O-word declines to go gentle into the postmodern night. 

Around the millennium, clever academics provided emergency life support by squeezing and contorting the meaning of "objective" to suit a more limited purpose than dictionaries' concern with intellectual detachment, [3] but audience members and busy news workers largely missed the subtleties. "Bias" remained inadmissible, career-wise, and even in Canada, my own team's research in 2015 suggested that most journalists see themselves as detached watchdogs—monitors of power and privilege. 

Meanwhile, in j-school classrooms, I don't know how many times I've heard graduate and undergraduate students saying words to the effect of: "We know objectivity's impossible, but we've been taught to aim for it anyway. "

"Oh," I commonly respond, and then (well, you know) I ask: "How does that work out for you, in practice?" Silently, I might wonder: Is a journalist's job not hard enough that they must also strive for the impossible? And yet, the unattainable expectation abides, with some expected to fly closer than others to that untouchable sun.

For decades, the "bias" missile has been fired at Jewish and Muslim correspondents in the Middle East, at women covering #MeToo, at gay men and women covering marriage reform. Reporters and producers, you see, should not dare to report from territory to which they've spent their lives acclimating. Well, unless you count, like, education, or health. Or sports or travel or sex or real estate or cars. But, you know, these are just different—like, obviously. 

So, when a Washington Post reporter revealed that she was one of the myriad women who have survived some form of sexual abuse, and then became one of the myriad publicly pilloried for doing so, she was quickly pronounced too potentially prejudiced to cover stories that hinge on sexual misconduct.   

(Heaven forbid that a journalist be biased against rape.) 

Here, then, is one more awkward question: Why cling to a so-called norm that has to be qualified and redefined in order to be even vaguely realistic? Why not just do with the O-word and its entitled relatives what journalists are trained to do with ambiguous, pretentious jargon generally—hit delete?

Of course journalists bring "subjective" experience to our work: we are human beings. Psychotherapists call it countertransference, and deal with it.

Of course we are "biased." For a start, we, like most human beings, favour happiness over pain. Scientists, who understand both gravitational forces and epistemological biases, deal with those, too.

And, of course, many journalists have, from the dawn of newspapers until the present day, been unapologetic advocates for one or another form of social change (whether leftward or rightward) or for the status quo. 

But journalism is a big tent whose occupants, diverse even if only in interests and aptitudes, produce nuanced documentaries and breaking-news tweets, baseball reports and concert reviews, data-mining investigations and courthouse updates. Some are in this business to change the world; others live to fact-check; still others like making people laugh. All these and more have found a place in the world's newsrooms.[4]

Probably the most ubiquitous textbook on journalistic practice today is Bill Kovach’s and Tom Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism. Writing at the turn of this century, the authors steered well clear of outdated epistemic notions like objectivity and balance. Instead, they isolated ten distinguishing marks of journalism that hinge upon an obligation to truth-telling and a “discipline of verification” (an idea that is, as any reporter will tell you, quite ambitious enough).

Now required reading in journalism schools around the world, The Elements was published in 2001. Is 20 years not long enough for mass withdrawal from O-addiction?

For those almost ready to quit, if only for a benign replacement opioid, I do have a modest proposal: skepticism.

Uninhibited questioning of everything is not a new tool in the journalist's shed, sometimes stored on a shelf marked, "If your mother says she loves you…". But skepticism presents a far humbler face than the glittering O-suite. Skeptical journalists don't claim to lack feelings or to seek enlightenment—they presume nothing except their own continued ignorance. They expect to be surprised daily and are willing to be unpopular, which is what distinguishes them from marketers and propagandists. And when called upon to opine, interpret or analyze, they start with available evidence and avoid intentional departures from truth. 

As for their unifying purpose, it's not as lofty or complicated as that of the "detached." In the words of Oxford University's Rasmus Kleis Neilsen, journalism's limited resources suffice for just one, vital contribution to democracy: "relatively accurate, accessible, relevant, and timely independently produced diverse information" about public affairs.

It's this simple mission that has led countless journalists to probe decades' worth of unsettling questions: Were soldiers dying because governments spread lies to justify the war? Was a wildly popular newfangled financial instrument sound? Did a leading magazine skip fact-checking a false allegation of campus rape

The tradition lives on, despite growing awareness of dissent's hazards: Is the science of combatting pandemics more complicated than our governments would have us believe? Does realistic health policy require setting a numerical limit on "acceptable" deaths? Are Canadian lawyers debating a court-enforced declaration of pronouns? 

Journalists may be the only ones getting paid to ask unpopular questions in public, but they're not alone in sometimes having to quell life-inflicted inclinations. A nurse may get fired if they either show or deny favour to hospital patients based on race or gender. A judge may draw on their life experience to show compassion, but not to ignore the rules of evidence.  A plumber may dislike the election sign in my yard, but if they fix my pipes, they'll do it to code or see me in court. 

To ask dumb questions when all around believe they know the answers requires both mental discipline and a particular confidence that's especially hard-grown for those who've suffered social ostracism. But at least the expectation of determined skepticism applies to everyone. Under this rubric, subject matter with which you're intimately familiar is the opposite of forbidden territory; your own life's experience can provide a perfect trailhead to unfamiliar paths—you know where to look because you know what you don’t know. 

From the perspective of skepticism, the only bad story is an old story, a boring story, where all the good questions have already been asked and answered. And then, after the questions, comes something even harder—sorting out what's true from what's false. 

So now, perhaps, you're the one asking: What is truth? More on that when next we meet, under the working title: "The Facts Remain (How the Press Earns its Peculiar Freedom)."    

Any questions?

 

Ivor Shapiro is a full professor at Ryerson Universitys School of Journalism and a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Free Expression. He welcomes comments and suggestions by email or on Twitter.

 

NOTES


[1] This unlovable aptitude goes well beyond political questions. At the close of a disastrous outing by the English national rugby team, a BBC interviewer  recently pressed the team’s captain on what went wrong. When loyal fans lit Twitter up with objections to Sonja McLaughlan’s persistence, other journalists responded that she was doing what she’s paid to do.  If she’d been watching TV at home that day, maybe she’d have cheered for the lads in white. But that day, she was on the job.

[2] The Winstons argue against the “fantasy” of a journalism that provides “pure truth,” which is, indeed, a fantasy: I never met anyone who thought journalists could deliver anything "pure." And against this straw man, they go further than asking for more reasonable expectations; they want journalism to be rebuilt wholesale on a more “honest, biased, subjective foundation.” On my map, that’s several bridges too far.

[3]  Journalistic objectivity's leading exponent is media sociologist and historian Michael Schudson, who, in 2001, defined this "chief occupational value of American journalism" as "at once a moral ideal, a set of reporting and editing practices, and an observable pattern of news writing." With similar complexity and intent, Stephen J.A. Ward, a Canadian, holds that journalists have united behind a "pragmatic objectivity" that allows for democratic engagement with social issues through stepping back from their own beliefs and applying a range of standards including tests for empirical validity, logical coherence, "self-consciousness" and the welcoming of public scrutiny.

[4] When two German researchers studied journalists' published reflections on coverage of the right-wing populist AfD party prior to its stunning success in federal elections, they found a surprisingly uniform line of self-critique. It had been counterproductive and "unprofessional" for journalists to demonize the far right, journalists now realized. Despite personal aversion to the subject matter, journalists would more effectively inform audiences by avoiding moralization, and instead leaning on "critical questions and coolheaded counterarguments."