The View from Somewhere
The fallacy of bland and faceless reporting hurts journalism by allowing bias and prejudice to masquerade as hands-off objectivity.
There’s no such thing as a view from nowhere. Almost a year ago, I stayed up all night waiting for the night coach to Chicago with a busload of young Occupy activists headed to the G20 conference. I shared a smoke with a gang of lads who weren’t more than twenty, whipping out the recorder from time to time to collect quotes for the piece I was writing. I began to ask them about their politics, their understanding of economics, when one of them, an eighteen-year-old high-school dropout called Sean, whipped out a dollar bill from his pocket, set light to it and used it to light his cigarette. “That’s debt, and that’s what we do with it,” he said. He wasn’t a rich kid, not by anyone’s standards. He owned the clothes he was standing in, a rucksack full of random belongings and half a cigarette.
He needed that dollar. But he burned it anyway.
I keep coming back to this moment, every time somebody asks how I can possibly claim to be objective when covering radical politics and youth movements as I have been for the past three years. Little Sean burning his money on a Manhattan street corner at two in the morning. His friends laughing and whooping, and me knowing that there’s no way they’d have done that if I hadn’t been there.
Every reporter changes the story. In this case, I was wearing my second-nicest tights and a bit of makeup and holding a recorder, and hence appeared old enough and professionally polished enough to be someone they felt the need to impress — but not so much older and more polished that they didn’t suspect there might be an outside chance of me shagging one of them in the hostel bathrooms later on. I eventually gave up the attempt to disabuse them of this notion and simply watched the peacocking until it became dull.
In fact, a fair few articles I’ve filed from the frontlines of the global protest movements over the past couple of years have featured young men at moments of crisis and violence lighting up cigarettes dramatically, exhaling meaningfully and saying something cheesy and rousing. This is not a coincidence. This is because, at moments of social interest and in the presence of an averagely attractive woman who seems suddenly very interested in their ideas, your garden-variety young male activist, anarchist or student troublemaker has the tendency to produce a cigarette, light it dramatically and say something they think is deep. They do this because it makes them look cool and sometimes gets them laid. I promise you, I’ve seen it happen. Meanwhile, my straight, male, suit-wearing colleagues, brandishing exactly the same recorder in front of exactly the same interviewees, often come away with suspicious grunts and stock quotes.
I’m only telling you this to make it clear that there’s no such thing as a “view from nowhere” — that weird mainstream media orthodoxy that holds that the perfect journalist, the ideal journalist, can only discover truth by adopting a posture of invisibility, that the perfect journalist should be little more than a human recorder himself — always himself, because this perfect reporter is invariably imagined as male, usually as a middle-class white dude from an English-speaking country. Those are the only people whose race and class and gender and nationality ever get to be “invisible,” whose views get to be from “nowhere,” because they are everywhere.
That’s just one of the reasons that in-the-field investigative journalism jobs are still given mostly to white men — even if they’ve never visited the country in question and don’t speak the language, editors still trust those people to tell the story over and above local reporters. The net result of all this is that anyone who isn’t a white, heteronormative Western man has to fight doubly hard not to get stuck in an office rewriting press releases — on this, trust me.
The whole notion of the “view from nowhere,” the idea of completely objective reporting that’s supposed to be the gold standard of journalistic practice in America in particular, is of course utter hogwash. Every view comes from somewhere, and who you are as a writer, reporter, filmmaker or blogger changes how people behave in your presence. It changes what they say to you; it changes whether they speak to you at all. That’s as true for your average white dude reporter as it is for anyone else, and it matters even if you don’t care a bit about equal representation in the media industry. It matters because the fallacy of bland and faceless reporting hurts journalism, by allowing bias and prejudice to masquerade as hands-off objectivity, by giving reporters license not to be honest about how their outlook affects their output.
When the August riots ripped through London in 2011, it was Guardian journalist Paul Lewis who got the story. The Orwell Prize nominee filed an unbelievable number of reports from every flashpoint in the city, following young people on every side of the fighting on Blackberry Messenger, chasing the chaos on Twitter, sleeping in snatches over those five frightening days. He went out, as he wrote in the days that followed, “wearing a hoodie and riding a bicycle; to blend in, and because no one could have got through in a car” — and that changed the story, too. People who went out dressed as “journalists” that day got their cameras stomped and their teeth kicked in by kids who knew perfectly well that the vast majority of the mainstream press in Britain was going to call them thugs and hooligans, because they’d been doing so for decades under the guise of objectivity, and these kids just didn’t care anymore.
When you put a story together, you change the story. It doesn’t matter if the report you write doesn’t use a single first-person pronoun, if your face doesn’t appear in the video: you’re there, whether you like it or not, and the most dangerous thing any journalist, “citizen” or otherwise, can do is buy into the myth of their own objectivity.
The idea of the standoffish white Western bloke in a tie as the universal journalistic eyepiece was able to develop because we have spent centuries seeing the world purely through the eyes of white men. Right now, that’s changing. Journalism is changing, and the internet is driving an explosion of media production from people all over the world who understand that subjectivity doesn’t have to mean innacuracy, especially when you’re telling stories .
Several months after that Chicago bus trip, I saw Sean again, sleeping on the streets of New York, outside Wall Street, in the dead of winter. I remembered how I’d laughed at his trick with the dollar. I remembered how he was so pleased with himself, how he told me about the new life he was hoping to build somewhere on the West Coast where the streets were warm. I understand that for some journalists, impassivity is a virtue, but I believe one cannot maintain it and tell true human stories with any degree of justice. In these anxious times, passivity is a stance in itself — and a dangerous one.