Letter from the Editor: ‘Journalism needs a new ethic’

Drone photograph of the Memorial Union Quad.

Marcus Trinidad, Editor-in-Chief

After publishing a news story about Oregon State University food retailers switching to paper straws, I realized at time of press that the story neglected to represent marginalized persons with disabilities who may be negatively affected by the switch away from plastic straws.

As someone who has participated in social justice-oriented work, I thought I would have enough foresight to ensure that all sides affected by such changes would be represented in our coverage. I was wrong.

I could easily blame a reporter for a failure to contact sources negatively affected by the switch. I could easily do the same for the section editor. But ultimately the buck stops at the top. After reflecting on how this could happen, I realized that we need to better incorporate diverse worldviews and experiences into our newsroom. I realized that we have work to do. But there was also something deeper and more troubling to consider.

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I saw that journalistic objectivity, as an ethic, would not see our failure to include people with disabilities in the story as an actual failure. That led me to the following conclusion: Journalism needs a new ethic.

Objectivity is often considered a journalistic golden standard: find the facts and report them. With a deeper criticism into objectivity, as it pertains to journalism, objectivity is not real. When I say not real, I don’t mean it is non-existent and unimportant for consideration, but not real in the sense that it is non-empirical. You can’t hold objectivity. You can’t measure news stories in units of objectivity. That doesn’t mean the concept of objectivity doesn’t serve a purpose. Objectivity still has a value in discerning the difference between fact and opinion, crucial for functioning public discourse. 

It is possible to argue that the paper straw story we published was objective in the sense that it focused on the institutional change using facts and quotes from sources. The story identified the conflict and reported why the change was made. End of story.

Diving deeper beyond simple indisputable facts and considering the published story holistically, it is possible to see the chip in the armor of objectivity. It can be argued it wasn’t objective because it failed to fully consider the people negatively affected by switching to paper and the suffering it could cause. But that is an insertion of what is considered to be a personally held value. That consideration shifts the story entirely. No longer is the environment at the forefront, as was intended for the change in policy to begin with. Adding this angle to the story could read as a condemnation of the switch while opening the door to criticize our coverage for distracting from the environmental ramifications.

In the code of ethics outlined by the Society of Professional Journalists, it explicitly states that journalists should ‘examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.’ Reporting facts is critical to the work journalists do, but the weight they carry is undeniably charged with context.

Inherently, objectivity tries to claim and define the middle ground. What is considered the middle ground is intrinsically tied to the epoch of which we live and its prevailing dominant worldview. There is something noble in journalism being an arbiter of truth seeking to find the truth and report it. But culture changes and what is considered tolerable could eventually become intolerable, and with that the middle ground shifts.

Slavery was once tolerated. Segregation was once tolerated. Joseph Avery, a man whose name once graced buildings at OSU, once promoted those views in a newspaper he owned as it was considered an uncontroversial and mainstream position at the time. Objectivity, to an extent, often fails to challenge damaging worldviews.

Our coverage of the switch to paper straws may communicate that the suffering of people with disabilities is tolerated since we failed to reach out for that perspective. That indicates a profound failure to represent a community that has been historically underrepresented in media. It should be unethical. 

Unknowingly, our commitment to objective reporting narrowed our vision to a single issue thinking it would be truthful and honest. Its presentation of the facts were in fact truthful and honest. Holistically, and in hindsight, there was more we could have done.

But I’m here to be truthful and honest as well, and I believe that it might be time to rethink what it means to be objective. Using objectivity as an ethic ultimately is complicit to the status quo and fails to fully challenge views and serve the public. Right now is as good of a time as any to re-evaluate the responsibilities journalists have in serving their communities.