Do you actually know what the word “trope” means?: A response to Quinn Richert

The Manitoban has published its last issue of the year. Thus ends my term as its science and technology editor, as well as my overall tenure with the paper. In a way, this is relieving: it frees me to devote more time to music with the hope of making a career of it. But it’s also a little frustrating because this final issue contains an editorial by my colleague Quinn Richert that I will not get a chance to respond to within the paper’s pages. So instead, I’ll do it at greater length and with hopefully greater coherence in this space.

Richert says that he is uncertain of what “objectivity” as it applies to newswriting actually means. Articles that deliberately and overtly stake out a position belong in our “Comment” section, whereas supposedly “objective” articles fall under the purview of our news staff, of which he is the head. But, he says, in looking back at articles he and others have placed in the News section, it’s not clear that they are free of bias—even if they don’t state anything false or mislead anyone, there is clearly an agenda at play behind them. I will go so far as to add that the same thing can be said about the mainstream non-student press—that is, this is not a problem unique to us because we are amateurs, but a structural issue inherent in the business of newswriting.

He also points out some cases of writing that overtly takes a position, but a position that presumably any reasonable person would assent to—surely this is not biased. Richert goes on to give an example of ways a journalist’s opinions can inadvertently influence newswriting, and how a malicious person could do the same deliberately.

He cites Chris Hedges arguing that “the creed of objectivity” is bad for the news, but ultimately disagrees with Hedges. “True objectivity,” Richert says, “attempts to make up for the fact that the reader couldn’t be there to witness a story’s unfolding.” The journalist should relay information as prosaically as possible, giving just the facts. “Just tell them what happened. That’s news.”

While I think he makes some important points, overall the article misses the mark. If we have learned anything from the last century, it is that the observer is part of the system: there is no external position from which we can make ethical or factual judgments. That is not to say there is no such thing as wrong or boring or stupid, just that if I judge that you have done something wrong or boring or stupid, I am doing so as myself, the Right Rev. Sir Thomas M. Ingram, OBE, not as some camera floating outside the nexus of culture, upbringing, random circumstance, and mechanical laws. Every declarative statement I make comes with an implied “I believe that…” tag, even (especially!) this one.1

What that means is that it is impossible for a journalist to fully make up for the fact that the reader was not there to witness a story unfold. It’s not just that the journalist is more biased than some Skype-laptop setup, it’s that even if you watched the news story through a Skype linkup as it occurred, you still would not have an objective view of matters. You witness the stabbing or shady back-room deal, but you don’t know the full story. Maybe the stabber and stabee are actors hired by some perverse millionaire. Maybe the lawyer’s family was kidnapped by Satanists so they could force him to bribe the official.

All you see is the camera’s point of view, which is narrow and compartmentalized. You see the incriminating moment, but not all the stuff before that may or may not explain or justify it.

You also don’t see what’s behind the camera. That is, journalists are totally capable of misleading you by omission. The worst part is that this doesn’t have to be intentional. Sometimes we run out of space and stuff gets cut—this is the reason for newswriting’s famous “inverted pyramid” structure for articles. The stuff at the end can be safely cut because it’s less important than the stuff at the beginning.

As Richert himself says, a news article should “read like a succession of facts, starting with the most pertinent and working backwards.” But what are the most pertinent facts? Who makes this decision? No facts are “objectively” pertinent, they can only be pertinent given some point of view or agenda. The media might make a good faith effort to evaluate who their readers are and determine what facts are likely to be most pertinent for them. But there is a fine (which is to say nonexistent) line between predicting what readers will find pertinent based on what kind of people they are and deciding what kind of people they will be by telling them that certain facts are pertinent.2

Naive readers (i.e., readers) tend to assume that what they read has been vetted, that what the journalist claims is pertinent really is. We assume news articles are a legitimate reflection of reality, and we don’t bother to check because who’s got the time. The result is that the signifier replaces the signified (or whatever pomo lingo you prefer), and the news article, rather than reflecting reality, creates it.

So journalism’s pretense of objectivity is a gimmick. Or, to put it more accurately, objectivity in the journalistic sense is a rhetorical pose, not an evaluation of factual integrity. Hedges’s passionate journalist and Richert’s newsbot create different realities, to be sure, but while we can say that the newsbot more closely matches the “objective” style of newswriting, we have no grounds on which to say that the its reality more closely matches the “real” reality, whatever that is. The “objective” journalist says “I know better than you, and this is how it is.” It may be true (in many cases it is true), but it’s certainly not acting as “nothing more than a conduit”.

So there’s stuff the camera doesn’t show. But my telling you that is still a trick, because it obscures the deeper deception: Why is the camera at Main and Cathedral looking for stabbings and not somewhere else entirely? Even if journalists are rigorously honest in their reporting, the fact remains that they can only report so many stories, and the decisions of what to report and what not to report are themselves ideological.

Looking through the Manitoban‘s news archives, and ignoring the March Madness Movie Tournament and the news briefs, this is, I shit you not, what I see: Final TRC event, corporate culture at Hydro to blame for lack of Manitoba wind farms, UManitoba Confessions page posts sexist and racist confessions (problematic!), International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (which straight-facedly says that “some audience members were skeptical about the day’s impact on the greater university community”), U of W free speech panel (academic freedom!), and accolades not warranted for Jim Flaherty.

This is not the place for me to establish some grand ethico-political position with respect to these articles. I don’t have one; I’m sure I agree with plenty that’s in them and disagree with plenty more, and I’m sure everyone involved made a good faith effort to tell just the facts. I’m certainly not suggesting that there is any dishonesty or deception involved in our news cycle. But look at that list and tell me that we are not constructing a reality for our readers: one reality for those plugged into the university matrix, “this is what the world is like”, and one for those outside, “this is what kids these days think the world is like”.3 What the world is actually like, or what kids these days actually think, is irrelevant. Who’s checking?

By all means just tell ’em what happened. Pursue objectivity as hard as you can. But know that you can never get objectivity, only “objectivity”, and every article you write assumes a position. Comment articles are safer, because their bias is more obvious.

Notes

  1. Exercise for the reader: imagine what this does to avowals of (non-)belief, e.g. “I believe/do not believe there is a God.”
  2. Are all my Facebook friends trivial people because they read the Huffington Post, or do they read the Huffington Post because they’re trivial people? Hard to say, but I bet if every time they got an urge to read HuffPo they instead fucked off to a library and read Montaigne or Aristotle, my news feed would be a lot more bearable.
  3. Of course no one off-campus actually reads the Manitoban aside from the creepy old guy I worked with at a call centre last summer. But it is enough that they know it exists and they could read it if they needed to.
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