The Cult of Objectivity

by Sten Spinella

Objectivity, 1962, oil on canvas by Sol LeWitt. (Photo/Cliff | Creative Commons)
Objectivity, 1962, oil on canvas by Sol LeWitt. (Photo/Cliff | Creative Commons)

Objectivity is overrated.

Well, it’s misunderstood. Journalists commonly call it “covering both sides.” The traditional and (self-proclaimed) unassailable reporter will say that there’s never an angle to a story. Maybe there’s a story begging to be told, but never an angle—never to be covered from one viewpoint, and never, under any circumstances, to pick and choose quotes and facts to back up a personal bias.

The abominable “journalism” practiced by the Fox News channel completely abandons this conventional knowledge, and the talking heads/glorified columnists that dominate their airwaves are proof of the impregnable cult of objectivity.

Make no mistake, the objective belong to a cult. This is because objectivity is outdated.

Every journalist is biased. The only journalistic sin worse than claiming to be impartial while spouting an ideology is to champion impartiality when a situation calls for subjectivity.

The idea that there are two sides to every story is a fallacy. When one side has facts and the other does not, cover the first. When one side has facts and the other has some facts, tell the truth—that is, cover all sides whose arguments are backed by indisputable information. And if the facts are equal to both sides, then tell it that way.

False objectivity is a tragedy. As the political and intellectual dialogue increases in diversity and polarization, there are those who cling to objectivity so vehemently that they over-indulge. It is true that oftentimes opinion and “hot-takes” overshadow journalism. To me, there is no purer literary pursuit than a feature story told with heart, truth, proof, and an angle.

Take one all-encompassing example: black students and allies have taken to the public realm of college campuses in order to protest widely-varying individual incidents and historical institutional failures. This widespread movement has been theorized to have started with the well-documented and well-discussed murders of black men and women at the hands of state employees (police). Yet, rather than support this wholly-necessary, long-overdue, and courageous effort, many journalists have chosen to be “objective,” making sure not to step on administrative toes, or alienate police, or sound too “bleeding-heart.” Timidity is where journalism dies, and it’s something that journalists often mistake for objectivity. Stories abound about “safe-spaces” and issues of “free speech,” as if the story isn’t instead the deep-seated racism that began with the denigration and enslavement of the black race by the white, male powers that be in America, and the subsequent step in combating this distinctly American evil.

The story isn’t about students over-estimating what administrators can do, it’s not about student activists kicking out a photo-journalist from an event, it isn’t about “coddling” millennials or the age of “political correctness;” it’s about righting a longstanding wrong. Treating it otherwise is negligent.

How does this relate to the literary journal? Depending on the mission of the publication, literary magazines are the last bastion of well-reasoned inveighing. Research, quality of prose, wit, and having a point are characterizations of a literary essay. No, that isn’t hard news, and my argument is not against hard news. It’s just against hard news without a heart.

Sten Spinella is a junior English & political science major at the University of Connecticut. He is Interviews editor of the Long River Review.

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