What Ida B. Wells can teach journalists about the value of objectivity
After the 2016 election of Donald Trump and the 2020 murder of George Floyd, many journalists argued that the press needed to abandon its traditional commitment to objectivity. Electrifying a decades-old skepticism of objectivity with a sense of political crisis, these journalists charged that while objectivity purports to be about neutrality, it really only serves power. This growing repudiation of objectivity and the defences that have arisen in response signal that the profession is wrestling with big questions about the nature of truth, whose account of the truth we tell, and what it means to speak truth to power.
Objectivity’s critics have pointed out how, under the banner of objectivity, the press has produced coverage suffering from issues like false balance, stenography, and story framing that obliviously takes its own ideological assumptions to be neutral fact. But it’s reckless to reject objectivity as a framework for reporting altogether because it can offer indispensable guidance to reporters and editors engaged in the fraught work of seeking the truth. That said, it might help the debate over objectivity if we stepped outside of it for a moment. The debate sometimes feels stale, circular, and muddled, despite thoughtful individual contributions to it; there is a widespread lack of consensus over what we even mean by “objectivity.”
We could gain some much-needed clarity into the larger issues at stake by turning to the reporting of Ida B. Wells. An African-American woman who became both a pioneering investigative reporter and crusader against lynching, her writings offer uncompromisingly principled yet worldly-wise insights into what today’s debate over objectivity is really about: how to navigate the complicated, often conflictual, and unavoidable relationship between reporting and politics. Reporting, Wells’s writings suggest, is an activity that originates in political passion and that has political aims—but it requires an exercise of impartiality that transcends the partisanship of politics, even in times of fierce struggle against urgent injustice.
Wells was born into slavery in Mississippi in 1862 several months before the Emancipation Proclamation. As a young woman in the postbellum South, she witnessed the Reconstruction era experiment in racial equality wither and die with the disenfranchisement of black voters, the establishment of Jim Crow, and the widespread use of white-supremacist violence, notes the historian Mia Bay in her introduction to The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader. In 1892, white supremacists tore a hole in the fabric of Wells’s life: they lynched one of her closest friends, Thomas Moss. The lynching followed a series of escalating altercations between black and white people in Memphis that eventually centred around a grocery store that Moss co-owned, but Moss was largely uninvolved in the conflict. It appears he was lynched because his successful grocery store competed with a white-owned store across the street.
At the time, Southern society justified lynchings as retaliation against black men who had raped white women. Like many others, Wells had not questioned this explanation. She had thought that “although lynching was irregular and contrary to law and order,” it was a matter of “unreasoning anger over the terrible crime of rape,” she wrote in her autobiography. “Perhaps the brute deserved death anyhow and the mob was justified in taking his life.” But the murder of her close friend, not even accused of rape, opened her “eyes to what lynching really was,” she wrote: “an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and ‘the n****r down.’”
“I then began an investigation of every lynching I read about,” Wells wrote. Wells found that, for two-thirds of lynching victims, there was no accusation of rape, and when there were such accusations, the evidence was dubious. Rape allegations seemed more like cover ups following the discovery of consensual sexual relationships between black men and white women. In 1892, Wells published an editorial denouncing this justification for lynching: “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape white women,” she wrote in her newspaper, the Free Speech. “If Southern white men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”
The editorial was incendiary, sparking an explosion of racist fury. The editor of a white Memphis newspaper, assuming the author of the editorial was a man, threatened that a white mob would tie “the wretch who has uttered these calumnies to a stake … brand him in the forehead with a hot iron, and perform on him a surgical operation with a pair of tailor’s shears.” A mob descended on the offices of Wells’s newspaper, closing it for good. Wells, out of town at the time, became an exile in the northern United States under threats that if she ever returned, “they would bleed my face and hang me in front of the court house.”
Wells continued to write about lynching, however, and built a political coalition against it. She co-founded the NAACP, among other civil-rights organizations, and catalyzed the founding of a British anti-lynching committee. She advocated for black Southerners to take action against lynching through boycotts, emigrating from regions where lynching occurred, and armed self-defence. She considered it the duty of the African-American press to educate and uplift African-Americans and “champion race rights.”
Wells was clearly an activist engaged in political struggle where the stakes were black life and death. She was also an investigative reporter. Already, this combination of roles is one that mainstream media outlets today would prohibit for their reporters due to concerns that their political activity could bias their reporting. Many editors would likely justify this prohibition by invoking objectivity. Wells obviously did not believe that her activism precluded her from reporting, but interestingly, her investigative reports do repeatedly emphasize the impartial character of the truths they contain. These avowals of impartiality may have partly been rhetorical manoeuvres meant to defend her credibility, under vicious attack first from the white Southern press, then even the bien-pensant New York Times. The newspaper of record notoriously called Wells “a slanderous and nasty-minded mulattress, who does not scruple to represent the victims of black brutes in the South as willing victims.” But it’s hard not to read these avowals of impartiality as also reflecting Wells’s sincere efforts to address the real potential for political activity to interfere with seeking the truth as a reporter.
In her preface to Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases, Wells wrote that her pamphlet was not “a shield for the despoiler of virtue, nor altogether a defense for the poor blind Afro-American Sampsons who suffer themselves to be betrayed by white Delilahs.” In other words, she is not trying to excuse actual rapists, nor “altogether” defend black men falsely accused of rape by white women. Her pamphlet is above all “a contribution to truth, an array of facts.” She continues: “I feel that the race and the public generally should have a statement of the facts as they exist,” she writes (emphasis added). “They will serve at the same time as a defense for the Afro-American Sampsons …”
In these statements, Wells reveals that the fundamental aim of her reporting is seeking the truth, and she portrays the truth as more impartial than any account of events whose primary purpose is advocacy, a “defense” of one side of an issue. In fact, she implies that such a “defense” is only really justifiable if it is based on the impartial truth, if the facts “as they exist” can “serve at the same time” as a “defense.”
Wells further elaborates on the distinction she is drawing between impartially seeking the truth and engaging in political advocacy, once again portraying the former as what underpins and legitimizes the latter, in Lynch Law in Georgia, a pamphlet about the horrific lynching of a dozen men in 1899. “In dealing with all vexed questions, the chief aim of every honest inquirer should be to ascertain the facts,” she writes. “No good purpose is subserved either by concealment on the one hand or exaggeration on the other. ‘The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,’ is the only sure foundation for just judgment.”
Wells’s warning against omitting inconvenient facts and playing up others when reporting on “vexed questions” seems like a rejection of the temptation to treat reporting not as a means of impartial investigation but as a vehicle for partisan advocacy. Partisan advocates, Wells suggests, are susceptible to adopting an instrumentalist view of facts, as if facts were merely advantages or liabilities for a cause in whose basic premises, implications, and moral truth the advocates already believe. Reporters, on the other hand, must first and foremost “ascertain the facts,” but Wells does not consider this apolitical. A situation’s fact pattern is what underpins, in Wells’s words, “just judgment” of that situation. In other words, an impartial account of the facts is the very basis of any justified political evaluation of a situation, and by extension, any subsequent just political action. That’s why, for Lynch Law in Georgia, she and other activists hired a private investigator to conduct an “impartial and thorough investigation” into what the lynched men actually did or did not do.
Frederick Douglass, the legendary abolitionist, man of letters, and former slave, displayed a similar view of the nature of truth and its relation to politics in a letter to Wells that introduces Southern Horrors: “You give us what you know and testify from actual knowledge. You have dealt with the facts with cool, painstaking fidelity and left those naked and uncontradicted facts to speak for themselves.” Douglass is by implication contrasting Wells’s reporting with its immediately recognizable foil: an account based not on “actual knowledge” but rather the one-sided perspective of partisan advocacy, reached not through “cool, painstaking fidelity” to facts but a hot-headed, cavalier treatment of facts that are not “left … to speak for themselves” but rather selected, framed, and slanted to “speak” for a cause. For Douglass, as for Wells, it is the “actual knowledge” produced by the impartial reporter that underlies “just judgment.” He writes:
“If American conscience were only half alive, if the American church and clergy were only half christianized, if American moral sensibility were not hardened by persistent infliction of outrage and crime against colored people, a scream of horror, shame and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever your pamphlet shall be read.”
Wells and Douglass are both stressing that, far from biased apologia, Wells’s work has subscribed to what we today can recognize as a form of reportorial objectivity. It’s just not the version of objectivity, clinical in tone and studiedly neutral in perspective, that many have attacked. Indeed, some will balk at associating Wells with objectivity at all. She is sometimes cast as objectivity’s ultimate iconoclast. But the vision of objectivity latent in the writings of Wells and Douglass is broadly consistent with an alternative school of thought espoused by many of objectivity’s defenders: it sees objectivity as an attitude and approach to inquiry that stresses the importance of impartiality, self-awareness, and high standards in seeking the truth.
One of the most sophisticated formulations of this view can be found in the work of Stephen J.A. Ward, a Canadian media ethicist. Objectivity’s critics would do well to read his work, as they likely would not oppose what they find. In books like his award-winning The Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond and his most recent Objectively Engaged Journalism: An Ethic, Ward develops a theory of “pragmatic objectivity” that understands objectivity as the natural desire to evaluate one’s own beliefs and conduct. It is not anything as grandiose (and impossible) as a requirement to totally transcend one’s own perspective, background, and values so that the journalist’s humanity dissolves and gives way to a pure, unfiltered, value-free view of a situation. Ward considers this to be the defining ambition of the prevalent, professional ethic of objectivity. “The fatal error came in the nineteenth century when journalists started to explain their objectivity in terms of a recording of events, as they are, allegedly devoid of the reporter’s interpretation, values, or perspective,” he writes in The Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond. “The epistemology of traditional objectivity grounds itself in the persistent metaphor of the journalist as a passive recorder who aspires to be a perfect recording instrument.” In contrast, Ward’s theory of objectivity is about adopting an attitude, which Ward calls the “objective stance,” and adhering to a set of standards for evaluating our understanding of the truth.
The objective stance entails at least four dispositions, Ward argues. A disposition towards “open rationality” requires that we be “open to the demands of others to be logical, to face the facts squarely, and to give reasons that others can accept.” A disposition towards “partial transcendence” entails moving beyond the limits that our own point-of-view places on our understanding of an issue by encountering and critically but fairly assessing the perspectives of others, such that we partially fuse our understanding with theirs. The disposition towards disinterested truth “means not allowing one’s interests to subvert one’s truth seeking,” Ward writes. “It is an extension of our common and important ability to reflect on the grounds of our beliefs, apart from our partialities.” Underlying all of them is a disposition towards intellectual integrity, a trait that leads inquirers to “reject wishful thinking, to face up to the toughest questions, and, where necessary, to admit that their ideas are flawed.”
We act out these dispositions by adhering to three sets of generic standards, which take more specific forms when instantiated in different fields of human inquiry and activity, such as journalism, law, and science. There are “empirical standards, which test a belief’s agreement with the world; standards of coherence, which evaluate how consistent a belief is with the rest of what we believe; and standards of rational debate, which test how fair we have been in representing the claims of others and to what degree we have opened our claims to the scrutiny of others.” Objectivity is a matter of “standard-guided thought, or disciplined rationality,” Ward says. “The mind turns back on itself; it corrects and monitors its activity.”
The key principle of objectivity is impartiality, Ward writes. But impartiality, as we have seen with Wells, “is not value-free, emotion-free, or goal-free … and should not be confused with a spineless avoidance of taking stands or expressing viewpoints.” Rather, “what impartiality demands is that a person is willing and capable of not letting their partialities unduly bias their judgment. … Genuine inquiry derives from an impartial search for the truth, ‘regardless of what the color of that truth may be.’” When considering what impartiality looks like in practice, Ward gives the example of a judge: “The judge does eventually ‘take’ sides: she comes down on one side as having the better case in law,” Ward writes. “Impartial judging means that the judge does not prejudge the case.”
This tradition of objectivity is important to defend in the current debate because it helps reporters and editors properly navigate the relationship between politics and truth-seeking that is inherent to most reporting, not just reporting on issues as overtly political in appearance as an epidemic of white-supremacist violence. With this conception of objectivity, we can acknowledge that reporting itself is often a form of political activity while maintaining a basic distinction between the activities of truth-seeking and partisan advocacy.
On the one hand, reporting can’t avoid being political, if we understand the political realm to be that sphere of human thought and activity that engages normative considerations of what should be the governing framework and state of affairs for a society. After all, deciding what to report on in the first place generally means making a political judgment about what issues are in the public interest for people to know about because of how those issues affect society or what they reflect about it. Moreover, the very act of reporting stems from the political belief that it is not only good for the public to know about a particular issue, but that the public has a right to know about it, even when powerful people, organizations, and governments would rather keep it secret. What’s more, many reporters cover stories in the general hope that their reporting will lead to reform, and some even suggestively frame their stories around possible policy solutions to problems that their reporting has identified. It is clearly difficult to neatly separate reporting from the realm of politics.
On the other hand, as Wells makes clear, reporting is not about constructing partisan narratives, which is a risk if we do not sublimate the political passions that trigger the decision to cover an issue into an overriding passion to impartially uncover the truth about that issue. The source of the natural tension between reporting and political passion should by now be obvious: our political passions are often partisan in nature, commonly arising as emotions like indignation, pity, and solidarity in relation to specific individuals, groups, and organizations—but reporting calls for the exercise of impartiality. That means that we do our best to set aside our own political animosities and affinities for those we are covering as we engage in an even-handed, open-minded, and critical process of seeking a truth that may well not be what we expected. Impartiality entails recognizing that each person or organization we cover, including those we personally dislike or even revile, has a right to a kind of reportorial due process. The partisan bent of our political passions can tempt us to reject impartiality as a punctilious formality standing in the way of championing a righteous cause. Even more profoundly, it can lead us to become emotionally invested in the initial understanding of a political issue that excites our political passion to begin with, especially because this understanding is usually suffused with some larger moral meaning in keeping with the tenets of our political worldview. If we are not careful, we risk buying into this initial understanding instead of taking it as the starting-point of our inquiry. That is what can make seeking the truth so hard sometimes: it can strike at beliefs that we hold almost sacrosanct. Our political passions, taking on a partisan slant, can cast the complex events of the world into simple narratives, but reporting is above all about foregrounding the particularities of the evidence, the fastidiousness of factuality.
Political passion, left unchecked, can make us view reporting not as a form of inquiry, whose aim is making our image of the world correspond to what we can know of how it actually exists, but rather as a form of political action, whose aim is remaking the world in the image of our political vision. If the distinction between inquiry and political action breaks down, both are corrupted: the inquiry becomes so politicized that it does not uncover the truth and the political action loses its foundation in truth and becomes unjust.
Wells offers a case study in how to keep that distinction intact even when one’s biography, personality, and political circumstances compel one to undertake the risky business of engaging in both activities. Hers are words to live by: “‘The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,’ is the only sure foundation for just judgment.”
I am grateful to the historian Mia Bay and media ethicist Stephen J.A. Ward for reviewing this essay and speaking with me about it and the larger issues it explores.