(Opinion: continued from Page 1)
Should the lie of objectivity be maintained?
by MELANIE POOLE August 10, 2010
Today's public statement by correspondents of this paper raises a mélange of complex questions.
In my previous opinion piece (right) I concluded that ‘objectivity’ – conceived of as the privileging of ‘knowledge’ over deeply felt experience, or as the equal balancing of ‘two sides’ in an asymmetric power relationship – did not exist.
I argued that reporters should listen to their hearts as well as their minds, that there should be room for the reporter to reveal, at least partly, their own perspective. I argued that they inevitably do so anyway, but that it is more dangerous to project neutrality than to openly acknowledge one’s position. After discussion among my group and reading Malou’s opinion, however, I realized that my thoughts needed further development.
It was easy for me to talk of making space for the expression of sentiment I agreed with – for example, the plight of Palestinians. But what if my words could equally be used to justify blatant Fox News style sensationalism? Racism? Sexism? Making space for bias or prejudice unanchored in fact is obviously not something I would wish to argue for!
In seeking to finesse my earlier statements, I concluded that there is trap we fall into when we critique objectivity: we create a false dualism between objectivity and subjectivity. I use the word 'dualism' because the process of dualising involves taking something that is whole, a continuum, and artificially separating it into two halves. A dualism is more than a binary opposition. The logic of dualising holds that one half must ALWAYS be superior to the other.Thus - white is always privileged over black, male over female, man over nature. The inferiorising of subjective to objective knowledge is a deeply entrenched idea (I have certainly experienced it in truckloads while going through law school!)
But an analysis of legal and political history reveals what has been presented as 'objective' throughout history has in fact been the story of the dominant white male. Thus, stories that seek to speak from a female perspective are not 'objective' but 'feminist', the stories of Indigenous people in Australia are 'the Indigenous perspective'. Essentially, the 'other' (members of oppressed groups or minorities) can never be 'objective' because the standards and norms that we consider to be 'neutral' are in fact those of the dominant majority.
When, for example, Israelis or Americans or other 'western' nationals are injured in a terrorist bombing, it is not 'subjective' for reporters to show graphic images, to report the grief of families. Yet when reporters seek to convey the story of the less-powerful, non-western 'other' - such as the Palestinians - they are automatically "anti-Israel", or accused of not representing 'both sides.'
My team mate Marika adds in her analysis that defining objectivity has always been shaped and defined by great power politics.
The truth is that the two cannot be separated. What is subjective is also objective, depending on who is beholding. But does this mean we should simply allow our own views to run rampant? Should we continue to pursue the ideal of objectivity even though we know it is impossible, because at least in trying we may limit the extent to which we allow our own bias to permeate? What about when we feel something deeply, when we, as Atwood (right top) puts it, believe that we see the world clearly only when we see it through our tears? Should we nonetheless wipe those tears away and try to avoid shaping our story around them? Does this not then result in desensitized reporting which in fact obscures human suffering?
Perhaps the answer is that we should acknowledge our own narrative, our own subjective positioning within the story and that, while what we seek to present is the 'truth', we are flagging our own limitations. In other words, we are still trying, as best we can, to represent the 'truth' but we are telling the reader whose eyes they are witnessing this truth from.
The problem with this is that it raises pragmatic constraints, namely, what would happen if the media was honest about the non-existence of an objective truth? Would readers just turn off altogether? What would we turn to to fulfil the insatiable human appetite for 'truth'? This is a problem that is raised when we discuss any institution of power - if politicians and judges did not play the game of false objectivity, if they acknowledged the values, personal prejudices, emotion and other influences on their decisions, would we not just lose faith in our institutions and descend into anarchy? Should the lie of objectivity be maintained because we do not want to know that truth is impossible to find? In addition, for journalists to openly admit that there is no such thing as objective truth there would need to be an absolute revolution in the production of media. The idea of an objective truth is deeply entrenched in human psychology across the world. Take, for example, one of the central messages of the Bible – that “the truth shall set you free”. Alternative conceptions of ‘truth’ can be found in Sufi teachings – for example Rumi writes “You are the truth, from head to toe. What more do you need to know?”…but can we really expect a mystical 13th century Persian poet to affect mainstream thought and infiltrate institutions of power? Even if we were to decide that the lie of objectivity should end, is it foolishly naïve to think that this could ever actually happen? I am certain that deeper layers of thought on this topic lay beyond the unsettling place where I now find myself. For now, I must grapple with questions I cannot yet answer.
Israel, Palestine and What Objectivity Really Means
By MELANIE POOLE August 05, 2010
The facts of this world seen clearly
are seen through tears
why tell me then
there is something wrong with my eyes?
- Margaret Atwood (read full poem here)
Most of the news sources I analyzed regarding violence between Israel and Palestine and related issues (such as the flotilla) painted Israel as the aggressor (albeit generally with some explanation of the Israeli perspective) and Palestine (/Lebanon/Turkey) as less culpable. This lead me to reflect upon whether such a perspective is biased, or whether an article could be clearly sympathetic toward Palestinians and nonetheless objective. The same question can also be asked vice versa – if an article treats both Israel and Palestine ‘equally’ (for example by devoting equal interview time and words to representatives from each side), are they being objective? Or is this a distortion of what is in reality an asymmetric power relationship?
Despite some subtle, implicit leanings toward Palestine (described in my analysis), western news sources (including AFP and Reuters, the source of most of the stories I found in the Turkish media) seem to have a penchant for reporting on violence between Israel and Palestine as a conflict between two warring parties, each of whom have valid claims to the land. The use of words like ‘conflict’ (rather than, for example, ‘colonisation’ or ‘occupation’), as well as lines such as “both sides blame each other” add to this impression. Political leaders, especially in the US, contribute as well – indeed, a senior US diplomat was recently reported as stating that the US were progressing from a firmly pro-Israel position to "holding both sides equally to account," thus clearly dismissing any suggestion that Israel bears greater responsibility for ongoing violence than does Palestine.
Taraki argues that to treat Israel and Palestine in this way is akin to arguing for an ‘even-handed’ coverage of black and white perspectives on South African Apartheid. When the South African State sought to deny equal citizenship rights to the black population, the world spoke of the black struggle – not the ‘White/Black conflict’.
Taraki asks why Israel and Palestine are different. She details the suffering endured by the Palestinians as a result of dispossession of their land, the complete denial of equal rights, the vastly disproportionate number of Palestinians who have lost their lives compared to Israelis. While it must be acknowledged that the Israel/Palestine conflict is one rooted in centuries of history and is extremely complex, her basic point - that one side is a militarily efficient, nuclear-armed state and the other is a dispossessed people - cannot be readily disputed.
There are many reasons why Israel may be treated vastly differently from, for example, Apartheid era South Africa. Israel’s deep historical connections to the West and ongoing political alliances with western countries are a clear factor. Sensitivities about the Holocaust also play a part.It appears that the construction of a ‘two-sided’ conflict is thus a result of political discourse, rather than a response to factual evidence suggesting equality of arms.
Adrienne Rich once wrote that ‘lying is done with words and also with silence’. Articles from the wires are generally succinct updates and do not provide deep analysis. Nonetheless, in simply reeling off numbers of dead and litanies of statistics divorced from their historical context, does the kind of reporting that we perceive as ‘objective’ in fact omit the narratives which give meaning to these numbers? Does simply listing different accounts of a conflict without attempting to illustrate the human suffering involved lead to an anesthetizing of reality?
Perhaps “Israeli troops kill one in Gaza amid flare-up of attacks” - the article which at first appeared most “one-sided” because of its use of the word ‘kill’ and moving photograph of grieving women, was in fact the most authentic. The author’s perspective on the situation may well have been more discernible than that of reporters on the wires. But this does not necessarily invalidate the story. Another author may be able to write a similarly authentic story of Israeli grief after a suicide bombing - indeed, such stories frequently appear in the western media without much controversy.
Reporters should always attempt to acknowledge differing points of view where these are accessible. But it may be that the depth of the human story can only be told when reporters somewhat reveal their own position. We tend to think of factual knowledge and rational thinking as the source of truth, and of our emotions as less trustworthy. But when presented with a situation as complex as Israel and Palestine it becomes clear that there is rarely (if ever) an objective or ‘factual’ way to report. What is to say that the way a reporter feels when investigating a story is a less valid way of knowing than the ‘rational’ analysis s/he goes through in trying to make sense of it? How do we know that what our hearts tell us is less correct than what our minds tell us?
Perhaps the most ‘balanced’ kind of reporting possible is one which reminds us not just of statistics but of the depth of the suffering involved; which holds those responsible for violence accountable; which recognises that, while there may be ‘two sides’ to the story, one of these sides is coming from a position of power and the other is not.
It may be that the Israel/Palestine situation offers the perfect challenge to the way we conceive of journalistic objectivity.
Foreign Correspondent: Turkey
Melanie Poole is in her last year of study at the Australian National University, where she is rapidly charging toward the light at the end of the long dry law degree tunnel.
For more of her research on the Israel-Lebanon conflict within Turkey's print media, please visit her website.
For more of her research on the Israel-Lebanon conflict within Turkey's print media, please visit her website.