As a journalist, I still deserve to have an opinion

Demonstrates+carry+a+peace+sign+flag+on+Boston+Common+in+reaction+to+Joe+Biden%27s+presidential+victory+on+Saturday%2C+November+7%2C+2020.

Photo: Lizzie Heintz

Demonstrates carry a peace sign flag on Boston Common in reaction to Joe Biden’s presidential victory on Saturday, November 7, 2020.

By Lucia Thorne, Living Arts Editor

As journalists, we are taught that objectivity is the key to good reporting. We’re taught we must not allow our biases to seep into our reporting and writing. We either must keep our opinions to ourselves or drop them off in the opinion section. 

To ensure this, many news organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The Philadelphia Inquirer bar reporters from having bumper stickers, buttons, or signs that support any political movement and from participating in political protests, to protect their papers’ objectivity. 

While these policies may seem to be the proper precautions to take against bias and maintain an objective reputation, they could actually be doing more harm than good. 

Last semester, one of my classes had a Canvas and Zoom conversation about ethics in journalism. As a first semester freshman, I felt I was here to learn ethics (not question them), seeing as my high school journalism program was lacking in several ways, to put it lightly. I was eager to gain the wisdom of experienced journalists at my dream school, until we actually got around to the case study we were to discuss.

In 2006, Allentown, Pennsylvania’s Morning Call features writer Frank Whelan and his partner co-grand marshaled a gay pride parade. As a result, questions were raised and his editors threatened consequences if he went through with his plans to attend. 

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At the time I read this case study, I was in the closet. I hadn’t disclosed my sexuality to anyone at that point, so to learn that because I’m going into journalism, I don’t get to experience my first pride— was soul crushing to me. 

My professor let us decide amongst ourselves what was right, it was implied that the participation in activism for journalists was a very fine line, and we should avoid crossing it. Whelan ended up quitting and settling lawsuits against Morning Call out of court. Yet no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t understand how threatening consequences was acceptable for the news outlet to do, and perhaps even considered the “right” thing to do by many journalists’ standards. The more I thought about it, the more frustrated I became. 

Journalists should keep their biases in check when reporting, there is no doubt about that. However, is it biased for any BIPOC, LGBTQ+, disabled, or otherwise marginalized journalists to express, whether it be through social media or protests, their right to exist without fear?  The way these objectivity policies are implemented send a message that as journalists, we do not have a right to care about the social issues that affect us as individuals, and the world we live in. 

The intention of these policies aren’t bad—their intended point is to create fair and objective news for their audience. The argument for the validity of these policies are generally the same. They state that staff should avoid publicly displaying their political views in order to reduce confusion of the papers’ stance to their readers. Yet even if the intention is good, these policies silence marginalized journalists and in turn, these policies tell society that being apolitical, even at the expense of your own human rights, is required to pursue the truth.

By telling these journalists that simply demanding their basic rights makes them biased implies that those who oppose the oppressive systems deep-rooted in our society are untrustworthy. This also subconsciously tells the general public that people who belong to a minority group are incapable of fair and honest reporting if they advocate for their own rights. 

As Gina Baleria states in a Poytner op-ed, “The ‘facts’ and ‘truth’ that have generally been deemed objective are actually centered on a mainstream, white, male, able-bodied, cis-gendered perspective— not actually objective or neutral at all.”

BIPOC, LGBTQ+ persons, women, immigrants, religious minorities, and people with lower socioeconomic status have faced oppression for hundreds of years. Each of these groups include journalists. Telling a journalist who belongs to any of these groups that they cannot protest for their rights upholds systemic oppression. 

As a lesbian, a woman, and a journalist, I write objective stories all the time, like my coverage of the Disclosure panel, Boston Ballet, and alum profiles. Does my sexuality or my gender determine whether or not the story I wrote is truthful, unbiased, and objective? If not, I should be able to go to a Pride parade. If not, I should be able to attend a women’s march. 

I should be allowed to stand up for myself, for others, and for what is right, especially at a time when hate crimes are on the rise. The truth is systemic racism, classism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, anti-semitism, and xenophobia are major problems in our society, and have been since the beginning of time. So, why can’t we convey these issues for what they are and not pretend otherwise for the sake of readers’ guilt? If not in print, why can’t we do this in our own lives? 

Promoting diversity in the newsroom (or any workplace, for that matter) means hiring reporters of color, LGBTQ+ reporters, women, and reporters who come from different countries, financial situations, or religions. Yet if they are not allowed to voice their opinions (on their own time outside of reporting, I might add) after they’re hired, then this isn’t about promoting diversity. It’s about promoting the image of progressive change for the sake of the social capital of the organization. 

Following the killing of George Floyd in May of last year, Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country, and held strong through the summer months. 

Axios CEO Jim VandeHei sent out a memo stating that employees who chose to participate in these protests would have the full support of the organization. While the move may have been frowned down upon in the world of journalism, I believe it to be a step in the right direction in creating a fairer new media space

For decades, the news was reported with inherent bias to appease their white readers. When reporting on civil rights movements, the media would often bury stories and leave out the voices of black protestors.

NPR spoke with Hank Klibanoff about the history of front page coverage in the Birmingham News, to which he recalled the story about the protests at Kelly Ingram Park in 1963 was pushed to page two or three for the sake of white readers. Klibanoff said, “If you go through the entire story, it’s straight reportage minus the voices of an entire segment of people and that is the blacks that were out there demonstrating.”

This kind of story placement and biased exclusion only changed after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and more of the public started to denounce the inhumane treatment of Black Americans. But even nearly 60 years later, the issue still persists. 

This past summer, Alexis Johnson, a Black reporter of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was barred from covering the Black Lives Matter protests because of an observational tweet she posted, poking fun at how people vilified the BLM protests. When dozens of her co-workers at the paper stood in her defense on social media, they too, were barred from reporting on anything protest related. 

The behavior of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is the same treatment Black veteran journalists like Slyvester Monroe dealt with when working as a correspondent with TIME during the Rodney King protests in 1992. Being in a predominantly white newsroom, Monroe recalled how frustrating it was to deal with their ignorance. 

“Just as the people demonstrating in the streets felt their cries for police reform and justice had fallen on deaf ears, I wanted to scream at my bosses who had not been listening to me. I wanted to scream the frustration of being a Black reporter and having to bury my personal feelings .… But I was a TIME correspondent, and I could not,” Monroe said. 

It has been almost 30 years since Monroe had that experience, but reporters like Alexis Johnson still face this discrimination today. The industry needs to do better regarding workplace equity as a whole, and allowing reporters to make observations on social media like Johnson’s is a necessary step. Gina Baleria writes, “Her perspective is actually needed as we navigate coverage of this important and ongoing story — her personal objectivity isn’t.”

My sexuality, my gender, and my views on the world’s many injustices should not be a determining factor of my credibility: My work should. Again, as journalists, we are taught that objectivity is key. We know this, and we regularly practice it. The majority of us keep our opinions out of our reporting and only in the opinion section, just as I am doing now. But I should be able to attend a protest advocating for my reproductive rights or my right to be paid based on my job title and work ethic, not my anatomy. 

I should be able to protest for my rights as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. I should be able to protest with my fellow humans; protest against the murder of Black Americans, protest against the infringment of rights and assaults on BIPOC, protest against xenophobia and anti-semitism, and protest against white supremacy.

We need to stop enforcing policies that do not allow BIPOC and LGBTQ+ journalists to advocate for their right to live without fear of assault, harassment, or, god forbid, fatal harm.

We shouldn’t have to live in a world that forces us to reassess where we want to work, because the options are personal liberty or sacrificing your beliefs for your dream job. I would love to work at any one of the papers I have listed above. But I also want to be happy and true to the person who I am finally embracing. I spent 18 years of my life acting, I deserve to be myself for the rest of my life, in both my personal and professional life. 

Our duty as journalists is to tell the truth and serve the greater good. I am only a credible and truthful journalist if I can be true to myself and what I believe in as an individual. 

 

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