PBS on Media Objectivity

Rocky Mountain PBS explicitly endorses objectivity: “Rocky Mountain PBS is committed to providing balanced, accurate and quality content both on-air and online. We value the public’s trust and respect the high standards set for our work. Rocky Mountain PBS strives for fairness, objectivity and responsiveness to the public’s feedback and input. And we ensure transparency in our news and information content, while avoiding any improper influence from funders or other outside sources.”

This has not changed, but a recent letter by Amanda Mountain to PBS supporters puts objectivity in context: “Rocky Mountain Public Media is committed to ensuring everyone in Colorado is seen and heard, and we join the call to end racism in all its ugly forms. . . . Silence is not an option to overcome the change that lies ahead. We don’t accept that racism is a political issue alone. And we don’t accept that to be ‘objective,’ as public media, we cannot give direct voice to the innate value and dignity of Black lives. We want to be a part of a new, better ‘normal’ we are all trying to build together as a community.”

So PBS is committed to being objective, but it sensibly denies that objectivity means failing to give voice to the oppressed or failing to recognize the value of human lives. This is all fine, provided that such sentiment does not become cover for bias and for ignoring different voices.

Elizabeth Green of Chalkbeat, on the other hand, comes out explicitly against what she regards as objectivity (hat tip Corey Hutchins): “We must be antiracist. We must, in Chalkbeat’s case, make an implicit element of our mission and values explicit. Only by publicly and explicitly standing against racism can we achieve our mission of informing and engaging the communities least served by public education. I know that some might view this statement as a departure from our journalistic values and may even trust Chalkbeat’s reporting less as a result. I need to state clearly that our commitment to telling the truth without consideration of ideology or advocacy has not changed. We take this step because we believe and hope that we can in fact offer stronger, more honest coverage, and build more trust with our readers, by making our values transparent and clear. When we write about the public school system, we know it is founded on and imbued with the legacy of systems of racial oppression, as so many American institutions are. We know that schools must themselves embrace antiracism if they are to serve all children. We know the legacy press is another institution imbued with racism. As we recreate local news, we must dismantle the journalistic practices and traditions that uphold white supremacy, such as overwhelmingly white male ownership structures, disproportionately white newsrooms and newsroom leadership, and a tradition of objectivity that silences the voices and perspectives of the majority of Americans who are members of marginalized groups and eschews writing directly about uncomfortable truths. Only if journalists embrace antiracism can we fulfill our potential to serve Americans of all races and backgrounds with the news and information they need to participate in civic life.”

Again, most of this is not a problem, and I appreciate news organizations making their values explicit. (Indeed, I have always been very explicitly an advocacy journalist, and I now write for an overtly ideological publication, Complete Colorado.)

I pause at Green’s framing of objectivity, which I think is totally wrong. Objectivity does not mean silencing marginalized voices. Indeed, objectivity entails the opposite: telling the full story, including all relevant voices, and facing facts.

I also worry that Green seems to imply that white reporters are somehow inherently less able to cover news stories involving issues of race. Have we already forgotten that the Abolitionist cause consisted of white and black activists, standing shoulder to shoulder, staring the injustice of slavery squarely in the face and struggling, together, against it?


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