The "God Trick" of Objectivity
How the mainstream media is wrapped up in a cult of power—and how interrogating this dynamic can help us better understand religion.
Yesterday, I explained that I’d be sharing certain excerpts from my thesis—particularly the points that I felt were salient to our ongoing, public discussions around religion. I will be wrapping up this segment of the newsletter by the weekend, when I’ll officially be past Finals season and onto graduation. (Sorry to be too religious, but Hallelujah!)
This week, reproductive justice organizers protested outside the home of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which prompted outrage in the media and swift funding to protect SCOTUS by our legislature. These dynamics left many of us questioning the role “civility” plays as a method of control—particularly who the media demands civility of, versus who they don’t.
This is a fitting (if disturbing) backdrop for the first part of our conversations about religion. Today’s topic doesn’t exactly feel religious, but you’ll understand why it is once you read tomorrow’s piece. For now, enjoy a brief dive into the “the god trick” of objectivity—and why we should seek to ask questions of what are considered the “dominant” ideas of our time, and who determines what the “truth” is.
Before you keep reading, just a reminder I’ll be on Instagram Live tonight at 7PM EST with the poet Cleo Wade discussing religion, Roe, and what’s next! I’d love to see you there.
We must be open to interrogating whatever society deems “normative.”
The idea of “owning one’s shit” is utterly essential if we want to approach any issue with accountability and empathy. It’s not the only thing we’ll be asked to do when it comes to unpacking our major understandings about religion, but it’s a fundamental starting point. In fact, a lot of justice-oriented work asks us to challenge big assumptions that are commonly accepted as true. Let’s not forget that we live in a country where the criminalization of homosexuality and the enforcement of segregation in our schools were once normative beliefs accepted by the mainstream and propagated by the media.
The unraveling of these assumptions shows us how they’ve animated our world and informed our values, beliefs, and the ways we view or treat others. The core of this issue is that there seems to be a default point of view (“the norm”) that is not inclusive of most people in our society. Our proximity to that default point of view, or how it is constantly fed to us by institutions of power, is an important thing to dissect.
Religion is a tricky concept to play with because it both informs the normative and suffers from it. (We’ll get more into that tomorrow, when we dive into the “East vs. West” divide.) But first, in order to own our shit, we’d be wise to understand how the normative works in our daily lives. So let’s talk about the role of “objectivity” in the media—a concept widely considered to be noble, fair, and just—and then explain how it’s actively working to harm and marginalize people in the world.
Objectivity: Is It Working, Really?
One of the most important discussion points in Journalism 101 is the concept of objectivity. We are always taught that good journalists are objective, or that they are able to cover a topic or event without including their own, personal (read: bad, tainted, emotional) biases into the piece. The problem with objectivity is that somebody, somewhere, at some point, had to draw lines around what it means to be objective and put it into practice. Historically, the “objective perspective” in mainstream media has been dictated by older, college-educated, cisgender, heterosexual white men.
It’s no surprise that objectivity has been on trial throughout the past decade of journalism, thanks in part to civil rights activists (feminists, LGBTQ+ leaders, and Black Lives Matter organizers, to name a few), and in part to the public raising hell on social media. In his book titled The Prince of This World, Adam Kotsko comments on “the mainstream media discussion of the Black victims of police shootings.” He writes, “Again and again, we learn that the victims were ‘no angels,’” referencing the infamous New York Times article that ran about Michael Brown after he was shot six times and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The out-of-touch coverage of police brutality—an issue that results in disproportionate levels of casualties for Black Americans—helped prompt an overdue indictment of American newsrooms. Key (yet frustratingly elementary) questions were suddenly being asked of all the titans of media, from the editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit to the head of the New York Times Opinion section: Why were newsrooms not more diverse? Why was it that diversifying newsrooms still often left white people in positions of leadership? Who gets to decide what kinds of stories matter or get front page placement? How do the systems that are in place continue to stymie stories that center marginalized people? And, most important of all: Who, exactly, dictates how marginalized communities are covered and which journalists cover them? (If you’re interested in reading a little more on this in brief, check out this thread from my friend, the former NPR host Sam Sanders.)
Media coverage of police brutality is just one example of how the concept of journalistic objectivity is wrapped up in a cult of power. You could apply this same philosophy to any number of big media stories that have prompted a serious excavation. In more recent times, many Americans were stunned to revisit the complicated and atrocious legacy of our government’s militaristic interventions in Afghanistan–a revelation that only occurred once images of the Taliban marching into Kabul were spread across our television screens. The 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising—a rebellion against police brutality that is largely considered the beginning of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement—resulted in a revisiting of how journalists often employed moralistic language in coverage of gay activism and the AIDS crisis. Even the treatment of public figures—American icons who we’d consider to be way beyond this scope—has forced us to rethink the media’s role in how we experience pop culture. Britney Spears, Pamela Anderson, Janet Jackson, Eartha Kitt, Jane Fonda, and countless other prominent women have been part of an overdue correction of the record of their pasts. Each of these women had to contend with mistreatment by the mainstream media, an institution run by men who had particular views of how women should behave in the public eye. Each time, many of us in the public looked back on these stories with an uncomfortable feeling: Did we believe the narrative that was told? And if so, why didn’t we do better?
For modern journalists, the myth (or cult, depending on how you look at it) of objectivity has more complicated repercussions. Journalists of color may be tokenized or only assigned stories that have to do with what a white editor believes is their “beat.” White male journalists, meanwhile, can cover anything from sexual assault to police brutality without having to confront or name their own potential biases. The same issue applies in stories that have to do with women’s interests—long looked down upon as “fluff” by “more serious” journalists. When Teen Vogue became a conversation topic in every publication from The Guardian to NPR, we were interviewed by mostly white male reporters who were flabbergasted that teenage girls cared about politics, without ever realizing that their assumptions about young women were rooted in sexist tropes. Worse, when one of my writers went viral for an op-ed critical of the Trump administration, she was told by the Fox News host Tucker Carlson to “stick to thigh-high boots”—an attempt to undermine her journalistic credentials because she wrote about politics and fashion.
The cult of objectivity has been particularly dangerous because it legitimizes false balance (both-sides-ism), or the belief that two opposite ends of an argument must be presented in a piece for it to pass the standards of objectivity. “Seeing both sides” of an issue is often regarded as practically moral (which in and of itself is informed by religious values), but we have yet to fully reckon with two crucial things in the media discourse: whose safety is jeopardized by platforming certain viewpoints, and whose voices still aren’t heard at all in any of these arguments.
Both-sides-ism is often regarded as a left versus right conversation—a dialogue that reinforces our political binary. This has flattened otherwise complex conversations into black-and-white debates, where the public either feels the need to pick a side or find a (perceived “righteous” or “moderate”) place somewhere in the middle. In these debates, some of the most crucial contributions get lost in the echo chamber.
For example, in one newsroom meeting at Teen Vogue, an editor explained that she was excited to cover the news of West Virginia’s decriminalization of medical marijuana. The commonly held belief among our staff was that legal efforts to decriminalize marijuana should be supported. I was quick to move on to the next item on the agenda, but a new staffer raised her hand with a question: “Is West Virginia also going to expunge the criminal records of the majority Black people they’ve locked up for marijuana possession?” she asked, explaining that her own father was currently incarcerated. “Are Black people going to be incentivized in any way by the legalization of medical marijuana so as to promote economic mobility?” All of a sudden, the tone of our editor’s coverage (and the newsroom) started to shift. A new voice in the room had challenged our viewpoints, encouraged us to consider the lives of incarcerated people, and therefore improved our coverage—for that story and for many more that would follow.
As Edward Said wrote, “The writing or reading of texts about human reality brings into play many more factors than can be accounted for or protected by labels like ‘objective.’” Instead, objectivity is better understood as a concept created by people who hold institutional, societal, and cultural power. Therefore, it’s the powerful who determine what is perceived by the public as the truth, despite it only ever being able to tell one part of the story. When we expose objectivity’s pitfalls, we can improve newsroom coverage to better reflect the reality of people’s lived experiences, and also help the public understand how their own views of the world are being informed by powerful forces that may only be telling one part of a story.
The God Trick
To be clear, this interrogation of objectivity shouldn’t lead to us further eroding the free press, or participating in the kinds of bogus, Trumpian claims that the media is spreading “fake news.” My intention is to illustrate how the mainstream media can improve to better serve its public—while a person like Donald Trump merely wants the media to bow to his singular perspective. Our goal should be to inspire a kind of critical thinking that enhances our storytelling, that better details the diverse contours of the human experience.
The historian of science Donna Haraway dubbed objectivity and other commonly accepted universal truths as “the god trick.” Such claims, she says, are made with the assumption that we can “see everything from nowhere.” Rather than strive for the kind of cold, hard objectivity that is valued by institutions like journalism, Haraway guides us toward what she calls situated knowledges. Under her proposal, we can understand that whatever we consider to be “objective” comes from a particular set of experiences, contexts, and cultural norms. When we acknowledge how something is situated, in context, we strengthen our understanding of it.
A position like this can easily lead to despair—if there’s no such thing as universal truth, isn’t everything up for debate? I like to think of Haraway’s “situated knowledge” not as imposing doubt on anything and everything, but a challenge for us to ask deeper and more meaningful questions about what we consider to be normal. While situated knowledge can help us challenge culturally accepted norms, it can also encourage us to examine our beliefs from a more well-rounded perspective, which can strengthen our convictions.
Let’s bring this back to the newsroom for an example. In 2018, the March For Our Lives—a massive, youth-led gun control rally—was set to take place in Washington, DC. As the chief content officer of Teen Vogue, I was expecting to attend the march alongside some of my colleagues. A newly-placed editor told me this would be considered journalistically unethical. The rule of objectivity, she explained, was that journalists shouldn’t participate in marches or rallies because they exposed a certain set of political beliefs. I understand why this is a rule in many journalistic institutions, and I don’t necessarily debate its validity in all contexts—but in this case, I wondered why the rule needed to apply. Teen Vogue had lifted the veil of objectivity by declaring our values as a publication and a staff—gun control being among them, LGBTQ+ equality another, Black Lives Matter, too. Were our staff members supposed to abstain from Pride, or marches that sought justice for victims of police brutality? Was a publication that claimed to be invested in the future of teenage girls expected to not participate in one of the largest youth-led protests in American history? And, under this “rule,” weren’t journalists from marginalized experiences being placed in a difficult bind that many of their colleagues weren’t—choosing their job over their right to be in solidarity with their community? If I was understanding correctly, objectivity was being valued over our ability to mobilize, demonstrate, and expose the ills of power. There’s a version of events where journalism is in service of these values, not opposed to them. A week later, we were right in the center of the March For Our Lives—that particular editor leading the charge.
I hope this helps us to articulate how the very concept of objectivity is dictated by—and benefits—those in power. This understanding should urge us to identify and challenge any view or claim that seeks to be “universal” or “default” by assessing how it works, who it benefits, and who it harms. An openness to interrogating what’s fed to us as “universal” or “normal” is going to especially come in handy when we talk about religion in the public square—and we’ll get introduced to the beginnings of that work tomorrow.