Opinion crowns with an imperial voice

When I was considerably younger, I had it in my mind that I wanted to be a journalist. I liked the idea of writing about what I saw, uncoloured with opinion unless cornered by necessity. But I think that was what bothered me the most: the need to constantly monitor all reportage for balance: objectivity. Now that I’m retired, I do write a blog twice a week, but I sometimes struggle with it. Some things just don’t merit a place on the plinth. They’re only rumours, or maybe worried ‘what-ifs’, and reporting them as co-equals might dilute whatever facts are at hand -might lend borrowed credence to gossip.

Of course, the opposite could also be suspected by offended readers, and the journalist accused of bias in the reporting because they didn’t agree, or thought the reporter was too close to the story to be objective. But it occurred to me that all of us are, by default, inherently biased about some things. Does fairness always require distance? Should empathy be discouraged because it is likely impossible to achieve an impartial understanding and appreciation of how anyone other than yourself experiences the world?

So, should we avoid the Achilles’ Heel of balance? And anyway, are all opinions in need of airing? In need of equal time? For that matter, should we all be entitled to our own opinions; should we all be permitted think whatever we like?

The obvious answer is ‘yes’ I suppose, but maybe only if we can argue for them successfully. There are different varieties, different classifications of opinion. Some are obviously wrong: believing in the existence of a round square, for example; some are trivial: preferences about the best colour or what constitutes a beautiful picture, say; some require technical expertise, divorced from political theories: climate change, or radiation hazards. Some types of opinion, in other words, involve a degree of uncertainty -personal taste can be argued, but some opinions are based on more objective criteria than ‘preference’. Are we entitled to hold opinions that are contrary to expertise in the field? Well, to hold yes, but to have them respected, or treated as alternative worthwhile views, probably not. There’s a big difference between losing an argument, and losing the right to argue in the first place, isn’t there?

So where do the journalistic reporting of facts, and the requirements for objectivity come into this? The issue of impartiality surfaced in an essay I happened upon, written by Ivor Shapiro, a professor of Journalism at Ryerson University. His thesis was that skepticism, not objectivity is what makes journalism matter: https://theconversation.com/skepticism-not-objectivity-is-what-makes-journalism-matter-158777?

‘As far as I can tell,’ he writes, ‘few professors use the O-word [Objectivity] nowadays in Canadian journalism schools. Journalists inevitably bring their subjective experiences to work and must learn to recognize and manage their biases and assumptions.’ Still, the religion of O, is a strong one, and as he says, ‘most Canadian journalists still see themselves as detached watchdogs — autonomous monitors of power and privilege.’

But, perhaps a more inclusive and ultimately helpful label for journalists might be ‘skeptics’. ‘Skeptical journalists make no claim except their own ignorance and they expect to be surprised daily. When called upon to opine, interpret or analyze, they stay within sight of evidence… It’s neither bias nor objectivity but simple curiosity that has led journalists to ask unsettling questions like: … Is the science of combating pandemics more complicated than governments would have us believe? Does realistic health policy require setting a numerical limit on “acceptable” deaths?’

In other words, ‘To ask dumb questions when all around believe they know the answers requires both mental discipline and hard-won confidence. But it’s both more reasonable and more inclusive than enforced detachment… Skepticism, not objectivity, is why democracies need journalists.’ A refreshing perspective, I think. The idea of asking questions is not new to journalism, obviously, but it’s the type of questions asked that can avoid suspicion of bias.

The other day, a friend of mine video-called me about a documentary she’d just watched on PBS. I thought I’d practice what I’d learned from Shapiro.

“It was about women artists throughout the ages,” she said, excitedly. “I had no idea there were so many, you know. It used to be a boys club,” she added, rolling her eyes.

I hadn’t seen the program, but it sounded interesting. “So what kinds of paintings were they doing, Nancy?”

Her eyes started to narrow until she made a concerted effort to tame them. “They weren’t all paintings, G!”

I could almost see the exclamation mark; I could certainly feel it. “Sorry, Nance… What kind of Art impressed you, then?”

I could see her carefully examining my face on her screen as if she was trying to see if I was toying with her. She was obviously excited about the program and felt a need to share. “Well, there were some very clever and intricate paper-cuttings.” She could tell by my face that I had no idea what she meant. “It’s an ancient art practiced by many cultures, G.”

She looked serious, but I wondered if she was just pretending that cut-outs and needlework were the only accomplishments of women in the past. I still had no idea, but I didn’t want to disappoint her. “It must require a lot of patience, I imagine.”

She stared at me through the screen, still uncertain of whether I was pretending to make fun of her. She decided to change her tack. “The program also sampled the work of the female painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, who was famous in 17th century Italy. She didn’t just paint children and babies…”

“I think I’ve heard the name… But remind me of a work she was famous for.” 

I could see her shaking her head slowly. “You really don’t know anything about Art, do you G?” I shook my head, but more quickly than her. “I don’t know why I even talk to men about these things,” she continued when she saw my reaction. But she was smiling now. Like she possessed knowledge that had been hidden from me.

“You paint in watercolours, don’t you…?” I said, deciding to change the subject. Her smile grew. “You showed some of them to me last year… They were very good, as I recall.”

Her face softened. “I’ve been doing a lot more painting during the pandemic, actually…”

“I’d like to see them.”

Her eyes sparkled and she seemed suddenly excited. “The bookstore where I work wants to hang one of them in their Art section, next week…”

“Is it open to the public, yet?” The closures seemed hard to predict because of Covid restrictions. But some places were allowed a restricted number of visitors.

“They think it should be,” she answered, and then scrunched her face comically. “Would you consider announcing it in your blog this week, G?”

Ahaa, the reason for her call. “What’s the subject of the painting?” I tried to look interested.

“Something very feminine,” she said, winking into the screen. “Something that women throughout the ages would understand…”

“Uhmm, a beautiful flower arrangement?” The words just escaped before I could censor them. She pretended to look shocked. “Just kidding,” I added quickly.

A wicked grin suddenly appeared on her face. “Nope. It’s a kitten…” 

I couldn’t stop a sigh escaping from my lips. Well, at least I could make my blog objective

“Sitting on a woman’s lap… and she, in turn, is sitting on a man’s lap. I call it ‘Family’.” Her face became serious for a moment as she studied mine. “Do you like the idea?”

“Uhmm…” I realized I had to be careful here -not too skeptical- but I couldn’t think of a suitable response, so I merely smiled. If I was going to put it in my blog, I’d have to make it more sound more interesting than that.

“They’re nude,” she said, no longer able to contain her laughter.

There’s more to journalism than I imagined.

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