By Noah Tesfaye
When newspaper editor Ida B. Wells was investigating lynchings of Black Americans following Reconstruction after the Civil War, her priority was not objectivity. It was to tell the truth about the horrors that were being faced by Black Americans.
Today’s Black journalists covering stories about Black America often find themselves faced with a premise of objectivity that not only was not created by them, but also forces them to conform to a standard that inhibits their ability to seek the truth as Wells reported it.
“If the argument is all reporters should seek truth, then that is something we all should agree on,” said Aaron L. Morrison, who covers race for the Associated Press. “But if the argument is certain reporters, by virtue of who they are, cannot be perceived as objective when they report a story, I think that is an outdated, false narrative that needs to die.”
Truth vs. objectivity has become a point of debate in newsrooms where the role of Black journalists has been restricted in covering racial issues such as Black Lives Matter and equal time is given to the resistance against protesters, such as in Republican Sen. Tom Cotton’s controversial “Send in the Troops” op-ed in the New York Times.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and correspondent for “60 Minutes’” “60 in 6,” Wesley Lowery wrote about the challenges that exist when covering topics of race specifically pointing to the concept that is ubiquitous in discourse surrounding current-day journalism: objectivity.
He argues in a New York Times opinion piece that objectivity in newsrooms today really means objectivity from the eyes of white editors and reporters. That piece that has re-centered Black journalists in discussions of covering not just race, but all issues.
Lowery, like many Black millennial journalists, learned journalism around the end of the Bush era and the start of the Obama era. Journalists were questioning how objective their industry was in covering the Bush administration amid questionable information from U.S. officials regarding the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The idea that we want our journalism to be objective, meaning we want it to communicate objective truths, is completely inoffensive and completely correct,” Lowery said. “But that’s not what I think people are talking about and certainly not what I’ve been talking about in this space.
“Rather, what we’re talking about is in the pursuit of being able to claim this objectivity, newsrooms at times are contorting themselves in ways and punishing reporters for things that do not actually impact their journalism in tangible ways.”
Instead of sometimes facing direct and overt racism, some Black journalists are questioned on their ability to remain objective and unbiased on a story. Morrison sees this as a deflection from the true problem.
“The very assumption is based in white supremacy because what it says is that white reporters bring objectivity to those same stories, and we know that to not be true,” Morrison said. “We know that it is possible for a story about police brutality to give much more voice to the law enforcement side than it does to the community side.”
It’s this dual standard that Morrison sees in the newsroom. It appears not only in covering race as it pertains to politics, but in sports as well.
Master Tesfatsion was covering the NFL for the Washington Post at the time San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was protesting police brutality when he learned firsthand about objectivity being shaped by white editors and writers.
“The sports editor of the Washington Post told a white person to write a story about sports and race and the NFL and involving NFL players and he told that white reporter to go talk to me to get an understanding of what angle to take,” Tesfatsion said. “That was extremely disrespectful because you value my perspective enough to have someone else pick my brain to understand what the best angle for a story would be, but you don’t value my perspective enough to empower me to write that story.”
Lowery says this is part of the contortions used to avoid calling racism what it is: racist.
“There are all these concessions made to the imaginary white guy reading the coverage without any consideration for if the reader may be a person of color,” he said.
But on a topic seen as “white,” Black voices have also been silenced.
When Allison Davis, an NABJ founding member, was a producer for the “Today Show” from the 1980s through the 2000s, she had booked a Black dermatologist to cover the importance of wearing sunscreen in the summer. She received a response that Davis saw as willfully ignorant at best.
“I’ll never forget my senior producer or my executive producer saying ‘Oh we can’t book her,’ and I said ‘Why? She’s a dermatologist. She teaches at Georgetown.’ And she goes ‘Well she’s Black. What does she know about sunburns?’”
This attitude manifests in how not just Black reporters but all reporters cover topics like race. For Yamiche Alcindor, “PBS NewsHour” White House correspondent, it meant confronting her newsroom in the coverage of Trayvon Martin following his murder and how his image in no way should dictate nor justify negative coverage of his death.
“I had to explain that ‘In the culture I live in, people have gold teeth, people smoke marijuana, people skip school sometimes, people might get in trouble,’” Alcindor said. “At the end of the day, they are regular 17-year-olds doing what 17-year-olds in Miami do. And I’m so grateful that in my newsroom, they listened to me. In my newsroom, I felt like we humanized Trayvon Martin.”
Alcindor says showing the full picture is how she centers all of her reporting: seeking to tell the truth.
“I approach stories in a way to be objective and fair, but it’s about telling the truth and being accurate,” Alcindor said. “I think we should always be seeking to tell the truth in a raw way that really illuminates the issue at hand.”
Journalists of all races have biases. Morrison sees this discourse surrounding objectivity in newsrooms as racist because it is applied only to Black journalists. He says it can be equally damaging for Black journalists to distance their race or experiences from their job.
“The moment you begin to do that, you compromise the journalism,” he said. “If you don’t acknowledge the life experience, the lived experience you have, if you don’t acknowledge that affects the way you approach the work, it’s almost like a form of dishonesty.”
Lowery and Alcindor say an important factor to address the problem is leadership, and that leadership, which is now predominantly white, has not prioritized Black and other non-white voices.
“Newsrooms, which are made up of very smart people, could have solved these problems a long time ago if they decided these problems were urgent to be solved,” Lowery said.