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Photo collage of protests in Albuquerque during June. Photos by Liam Debonis and Sharon Chischilly, collage by Joseph McKee. 

EDITORIAL: Journalism's problematic love affair with objectivity

In 2011, the Daily Lobo published a cartoon depicting then-President Barack Obama as a monkey. It wasn't our best moment. Unfortunately, it wasn't our worst, either.

Throughout our history as the independent student-run newspaper at the University of New Mexico, we have printed the n-word, never had a Black editor-in-chief and run an editorial in 1982 that asserted that "minorities are academically inferior to whites."

To this day, we struggle with how to attract and retain reporters and editors of color. We struggle to decide which stories to chase and publish. We struggle to get quotes from people who aren't like our predominantly white staff and to center the voices of those most impacted by the stories we cover instead of those with the most power. And, we also struggle to decide which parts of a story to highlight and which to downplay.

But — perhaps less obvious to the casual consumer of news — we also struggle with how to balance the values we have been taught in our journalism classes and by mentors from the old journalism guard with our commitment to report the truth.

There is not a member of our staff who isn't dedicated to reporting events and stories as they happen to the greatest degree of accuracy possible. But in the cases of racially targeted police violence, Black Lives Matter protests and the efforts to remove monuments that valorize the slavery and murder of Indigenous people, we have found that it's not possible to report the whole truth if we remain beholden to the traditional journalistic notion of objectivity.

We have come to terms with the fact that being "objective" perpetuates white supremacy and systemic racism.

As a term, objectivity is used as a catch-all for a few different ideas, namely that journalists should be balanced in their coverage and not let their opinions influence their reporting. It's taught and idolized in journalism school as a foundational pillar of ethics, and for that reason it's touted as an expected and essential characteristic of good reporting practice.

We are taught not to call an act we all watched with our own eyes murder until a court of law, in a systemically racist system, makes a ruling that verifies that it is, in fact, murder. We are taught to never — on any platform — betray a personal bias because it might ruin the reputation of the publication we represent and destroy our future job prospects. We are taught to get both sides of a story even when one side is clearly in the wrong.

But these directives ignore the ways mainstream (read: predominantly white) news media coverage actively sides with the oppressor.

Perhaps nothing highlights this better than the way most news outlets often unquestioningly repeat police narratives.

Alex Pareene, the erstwhile editor-in-chief of the online publication Gawker, addressed the problematic verbiage of "officer-involved shootings" in 2014, and his analysis is a manual on how newsrooms should combat false balance and police rhetoric designed to spin their actions.

"(Officer-involved shooting and police involved shooting) are cop-speak. Local news reporters love nothing more than adopting cop-speak, because local news is built on manufacturing fear of crime and venerating of police officers, but both of these terms fail the crucial test of actually being coherent explanations of what happened," Pareene wrote. "Of course police would invent an obfuscatory euphemism for when they shoot people — they would be fools not to try to come up with a nice way of saying 'we killed someone' — but the press' job is supposed to be to translate those euphemisms into plain English."

Alexandria Neason wrote a lengthy piece for the Columbia Journalism Review last fall about how police departments feed misinformation to the press.

"In the eyes of people from marginalized communities, the press was an ally of police officers who enforced white supremacy," Neason wrote.

As an example, she pointed to news coverage of the brutal 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black child who was tortured and killed by two white men in Mississippi. Several Southern news outlets covered the hate crime by quoting unverified theories of police officials.

One local sheriff was quoted as saying, "The whole thing looks like a deal made up by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People."

The Black press, on the other hand, called Till a martyr and described his murder in more graphic detail. These outlets didn't have a wide reach and were largely ignored by white readers, however, and an all-white jury declared the killers not guilty after deliberating for a single hour.

That same sort of cooperative, uncritical relationship between white journalists and the police is very much alive today.

In the week after white police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, many prominent news outlets, including the BBC and the Washington Post, ran stories with headlines reporting that Brown was a suspect in a robbery.

The police report of the robbery alleged that Brown stole a box of cigars and didn't mention any weapon. The Ferguson police chief later said that Wilson was unaware of the robbery when he shot Brown.

The first sentence of the BBC article reads, "Michael Brown, the black teenager shot by police on Saturday in Ferguson, Missouri, was a suspect in a robbery just moments earlier, police have said."

In our attempts to be objective, we often end up obfuscating the truth. In focusing on telling both sides of stories about police violence, we fail on the most basic level — reporting the facts to the public.

Oftentimes our embedded journalistic values lead us to create the illusion of fairness by pretending that there is a debate about the facts when the truth is obvious.This was the case when news outlets reported that what happened to George Floyd was anything other than murder, which is the premeditated killing of one human by another.

This was also recently the case when the Albuquerque Journal ran a headline about Steven Baca, the man who was witnessed and recorded shooting a UNM graduate student who was participating in a protest against the statue of Juan de Oñate that has since been removed from outside the Albuquerque Museum.

The headline read, "Man tied to shooting released," as if the man who pulled the trigger of a gun multiple times was merely "tied" to the shooting.

The Albuquerque Journal may as well have written the headline "Man holding gun who witnessed shooting released" to give the police their fair shake when multiple witnesses and video recordings of the event evidenced that Baca discharged a handgun and nearly ended a man's life.

The Daily Lobo editorial staff knows that there are legitimate reasons for Black, Hispanic, Asian, Indigenous, immigrant (both documented and undocumented), Muslim, gay and lesbian, transgender, gender-nonconforming people and more to be concerned about how they might be depicted in the stories we publish.

Until all of us do better, the media will continue to be complicit in the state sanctioned violence perpetrated on Black and brown bodies.

It is because of this that the Daily Lobo has made a conscious decision to reject the notion that our reporters will never betray a single personal bias. Instead, we will be honest about our opinions and devote ourselves to reporting the truth and to be conscious of power dynamics — intentionally creating a platform for those who have historically been oppressed.

Especially given our own publication's racist and oppressive history, there is no room for journalism that is objective about state violence and systemic racism. Amidst a national awakening of complicity in systems of oppression, passionate and clear reporting that tells these stories fully and truthfully is more important than ever, allegations of bias be damned.

This editorial is unsigned as it represents the views of the Daily Lobo editorial board.

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