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Wallace Raven Lewis
Wallace Raven Lewis discusses objectivity in journalism. (Katherine Webb-Henn)

405. Former public radio journalist pushes back on ‘objectivity’

Lewis Raven Wallace has never been entirely objective — so how could he expect to be as a journalist? 

He cut his teeth as an activist and community organizer for issues such as transgender rights, police violence in Chicago and racial discrimination. On top of all that, as a transgender person his identity was never considered part of the majority. Yet when he began a career in public radio on a fellowship meant to bring more diverse voices to the newsroom, objectivity was the name of the game.

“But I believe very strongly that diversity without also shifting power structures and making meaningful s

pace for diverse voices and for leadership and structural change — diversity without those things is tokenism,” he said.

He learned to report within the industry’s definition of neutrality and used traditional principles such as a deference to government officials and law enforcement for information. But something started to shift when the Black Lives Matter movement surfaced, and Wallace saw how activists could guide reporting.

“The coverage of Ferguson obviously was heavily influenced by that sort of strategy and activism. And then, all around the country newspapers were looking into uncovering the death of unarmed black people, but also all deaths at the hands of police in new and different ways,” he said.

He went to work for Marketplace on NPR in May 2016, but after Donald Trump’s inauguration he decided he couldn’t keep all of his opinions to himself.

“And it was while I was there that I wrote a blog post on my personal blog about questioning the idea of objectivity,” he said. “And I was really thinking hard about how journalists were going to kind of step up to this political moment and cover the rise of white supremacy and transphobia.”

His bosses told him to take it down, he refused and was subsequently fired.

But the question still gnawed at him, so while cobbling together various assignments he began researching “The View From Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity.” He published the book last year and recorded a companion podcast series breaking down the origins of journalistic objectivity and why, in Wallace’s view, it never existed.

“And so it began to really come into focus for me how balance, journalistic balance in and of itself has always been sort of tied up with power and oppression and identity, which is something that I had a sense of for myself before,” he said.

Wallace, now based in Durham, North Carolina, and co-founder of the southern journalism collective Press On, is not the first or only journalist to make this argument, but what “The View From Somewhere” does is forces readers and listeners to look at objectivity and neutrality from the flip side. It questions why certain topics, language, angles and sources are by and large acceptable in American journalism, and why others are considered controversial, opinionated, biased or subjective. Can journalists really expect to remain unaffected by stories that directly affect them, and is it fair to ask already marginalized reporters to take the same stances of their nonmarginalized colleagues?

Wallace’s research includes stories of well-known figures like Ida B. Wells and Horace Greeley, who took a stand with their coverage, as well as not-so household names. He writes about Sandy Nelson, a reporter, activist and lesbian who was reassigned after protesting efforts to overturn local protections against anti-LGBT discrimination; about Desmond Cole, a black Canadian freelance opinion writer who was chastised by his newspaper for taking a stance at a public meeting against a discriminatory policing policy; and about Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse, who was punished by her bosses at The New York Times for participating in a reproductive rights march as a private citizen.

Wallace also writes about people who weren’t punished, who have been allowed to work as journalists and be publicly opinionated.

With “The View From Somewhere,” Wallace posits that maybe the future of journalism lies not with “objectivity” and “neutrality,” but with independence and curiosity. A running mantra throughout the work comes from his podcast producer Ramona Martinez: “Objectivity is the ideology of the status quo.”

On this week’s It’s All Journalism podcast, Producer Amelia Brust talks to Lewis Raven Wallace, a former NPR journalist who lost his job for expressing a political opinion in a blog post. They discuss Wallace’s book, The View From Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity, and its companion podcast, and whether journalists can ever be — or even should be — truly objective in their reporting.

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