There is no objectivity in media, or in life

6 Jan 2016

Indigeneity is perceived as a form of inherent bias, whereas whiteness brings with it at least the potential to feign objectivity.

One thing I enjoy about being framed as an ‘Indigenous writer’ is that I don’t have to pretend that I’m trying to be objective. Even if I made every effort to do so not many people would believe it anyway as Indigeneity is perceived as a form of inherent bias, whereas whiteness brings with it at least the potential to feign objectivity.

I think some journalists probably try their best to be objective, those who are acutely aware of their inherent biases would be those best placed to reach a point vaguely resembling objectivity. I do make some effort to consider my own bias, but I make no effort to pretend they don’t exist. I don’t actually regard objectivity as a goal I aspire to, or even as an value or ideal worth aspiring to. Like everyone else, who I am, my experiences, and everything that makes me ‘me’ cannot be entirely separated from how I look at issues or think about certain topics. My upbringing, my gender, my sexuality, what I have read, who I have met, my identity, my appearance, all of these things contribute to my world view.

Journalism is not a science though (not that I think it is necessarily objective either), and chicken and egg arguments about objectivity, about whether media holds up a mirror to society or whether it shapes that image to suit its own agenda are probably worth having, but I suspect the answer is more in the latter camp than the former.

Media has the power to shape attitudes and ideas, as well as social and professional norms of acceptable behaviour. Often this conversation happens behind the scenes and is reflected in ever changing media style guides, a thing that most people rarely think about, but things which influence how media report about a wide range of topics, the terminology they use and do not use. Sometimes we are aware of the conversation, like the conscientious shift from ‘king hit’ to ‘coward punch’. These efforts are not always done in the public interest of course, ‘asylum seekers’ became ‘illegal boat people’ thanks to politicians, and native title became ‘they will steal your backyards’ thanks to ad campaigns paid for by mining companies.

Corporate and political interests are an ever present force in the dialogue of how media (not just news media) influence they way people see the world, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

Some of us who create media and who have abandoned any false pretense of objectivity try to be conscientious about the language we use, or try to encourage people to reflect upon existing and changing language, and tone, in order to help combat these influences.

For my own part, this often revolves around considerations of why a media organisation might choose to not capitalise the word ‘Indigenous’, or why they might put inverted commas around the word ‘racism’, or the implications of using terms like ‘Aborigines’ or ‘First Australians’, or even when and why and who decides it is relevant to even mention if a person in a story is Indigenous or not.

Sometimes these conversations are subtle and their influence is hard to pinpoint, other times the issues is more overt and their implications far more direct. We see similar conversations in other areas as well; sexism, domestic violence, suicide, disability, gender, sexuality, and with so many competing views and voices it can be hard to draw consensus. This is especially true when there are clear efforts to maintain the status quo, to blur an issue, to excuse individuals, or to demonise people or groups, but they are conversations that will continue to be had, as they must be.

These conversations help us understand how different individuals and groups can be affected by media, and identify when certain media trends perpetuate attitudes, blame victims, demonise the innocent, dehumanise people, allow perpetrators to avoid penalty or even scrutiny.

In the first week of 2016 in Australia we have already seen these issues played out in the reporting of sexism and sexual harassment, racism, domestic violence, and a potential murder-suicide. In America we are seeing similar conversations played out around gun violence, police brutality, racism, sexism, and domestic terrorism.

If we want to see less of these stories then we need to stop feigning objective fence-sitting and consider very seriously the idea that media does not simply report on these topics, but is an active player in them, positively or negatively, and examine if and how the language we use, the way we frame stories, what we mention and what we exclude can play a more positive role not just in raising awareness but in actually impacting on the number and severity of instances.

Some people will continue to believe they sit on the fence or at least claim to do so, some will resist change because they do not see a causal relationship at play, some will simply go whichever way the wind blows whenever it becomes popular enough to jump on the bandwagon and follow suit for a day or so, proudly wearing ribbon of various colours on various days and believing themselves to be ‘doing their bit’.

Others will continue to challenge the status quo, and challenge us to reflect on the role we all play in the world around us. People who can help us recognise that there are no spectators in life, that we are all active players. People like Celeste Liddle, Amy McQuire, Clementine Ford, and many others out there who are trying to have a positive impact on the issues they talk about. I see these people as actively raising the bar, and my sense of how the world works tells me that they might find it a bit easier to do so if we all help out with the heavy lifting, even if it is just within our own sphere of influence. Our family and friends, our workplaces, our social media, wherever and whenever we find the opportunity.

At the very least improving our own understanding and in turn our behaviours is unlikely to make things any worse, but at best it might mean that we help make this world a little bit better.

I can’t speak for the people I mentioned above, especially those of them that are actual journalists and who probably understand the concept of ‘objectivity in media’ much deeper than someone like myself who has just kind of blindly stumbled into writing stuff that other people read… but for myself at least, I’d rather be someone who tries to make the world a better place than someone who tries to be objective and ignore the potential impacts of my words.

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