Journalist discusses the ‘myth’ of objectivity in the profession

Tuesday, January 7, 2020 - 9:21pm

Author Lewis Raven Wallace speaks about his book "The View from Somewhere" during an event at Literati Bookstore Tuesday evening.

Author Lewis Raven Wallace speaks about his book "The View from Somewhere" during an event at Literati Bookstore Tuesday evening. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

Lewis Raven Wallace, an independent journalist from North Carolina, spoke at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday evening to a crowd of about 70 people. Wallace discussed his new book “The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity” at an event sponsored by the store. 

Wallace is an Ann Arbor native who turned his activism to journalism. He currently hosts his own podcast, “The View from Somewhere.” In addition, Wallace started his own company called Press On, a Southern journalism collective providing training and education about challenging harmful bias in the journalism industry. 

During the book reading, Wallace read passages describing how his early career as a journalist was affected by the LGBTQ+ activism he participated in as a teenager. The excerpts detailed how he was fired from a job at a daily paper when he wrote a blog post titled “Objectivity Is Dead and I’m Okay With It,” which would come to define the rest of his career. 

Wallace, who is transgender, said he knew his opinion about objectivity would be controversial but did not realize the extent to which it would change his career.

“I wrote about my experience as a transgender journalist, never neutral on the subject of my own humanity and rights, even as they were being debated in ‘both sides’ journalism,” Wallace said. “When I posted the blog, I knew it might be controversial. What I didn’t know was how dramatically it would change the trajectory of my life, as my own story became part of a tense national conversation over truth and journalism.”

Art & Design senior Brooks Eisenbise said it is important to challenge the idea of journalistic objectivity. 

“I like the message of pushing against journalistic objectivity because I feel like in our current fact climate where people can say whatever, it takes more than objectivity to tell people the truth and to know what’s real and what’s not,” Eisenbise said. “Talking to the source and talking with people on the ground is important. Telling the full story is really cool.”

To conclude his talk, Wallace said he had a dream where he was in a sinking boat. In the dream, he decided to save the children drowning at the bottom of the ship instead of himself. He explained this dream was a metaphor for him deciding to risk his career in order to share his opinion about journalistic integrity. 

Ann Arbor resident George Feldman said he found the sinking ship metaphor the most moving part of Wallace’s talk. 

“It was a metaphor for a situation we all feel,” Feldman said. “What would you do (in a situation) when it’s important … What do you do when you risk your job, or even when you risk your promotion, or you risk your friends cutting you off when you take an unpopular or difficult choice?”

After the book reading, Wallace held a question-and-answer session. Audience members praised his skills as a storyteller and debated the need for facts versus storytelling. Some said people are only interested in compelling stories and others said facts are of interest when they are from trusted sources. 

When asked to define the role of journalists, Wallace said the profession should encourage unconventional journalistic writing to keep up with current media trends. According to Wallace, traditional journalism styles, which prioritize key facts over narrative storytelling, were only relevant when news traveled slower, such as when people had to ride horses to deliver newspapers.

Ann Arbor resident Anna Brunner said she found Wallace’s ideas of reinventing the role of journalism was inspiring. 

“My favorite part was how he talked about the fundamental change that is needed in journalism today,” Brunner said. “Providing the different ways with being in community and reimagining a profession in a way that is centering justice and equity was really inspiring.”