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Objectivity: Trust and Truth In An Age of Disinformation

Atkinson Lecture 2020
October 28, 2020

On Oct. 27, 2020, Denise Balkissoon, executive editor of Chatelaine, gave the 2020 Atkinson Lecture. She spoke about the concept of objectivity—whether it's possible, whether it's useful, and what role it plays in keeping certain stories untold.

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Denise Balkissoon gives 2020 Atkinson Lecture

By: Jonathan Bradley

Denise Balkissoon, the executive editor at Chatelaine, gave the 2020 Atkinson Lecture (external link)  called “Objectivity: Trust and Truth in an Age of Disinformation” over Zoom on Oct. 27. 

The annual lecture, supported by the Atkinson Foundation, had been postponed from the Winter 2020 semester due to Ryerson University shutting down campus because of COVID-19. 

Balkissoon began by noting that objectivity is not entirely possible. One of the reasons why she believes objectivity is not entirely possible is because who journalists interview, what quotes are used, and how content is juxtaposed are subjective decisions. 

“However, the main reason that I think objectivity is not entirely possible is because that is what I’ve been told my entire career,” she said. “And that is what many racialized and marginalized journalists have been told their entire careers. We’ve been told that we’re too close to certain stories.” 

She said 2020 was the year objectivity broke into the mainstream conversation because it was a year of intense energy in the Black liberation movement. There were many Black journalists who said coverage of issues about Black people and policing had not been done well. 

Balkissoon brought up what happened to one of her colleagues, Pacinthe Mattar, who also has been told objectivity is impossible for her. Mattar wrote a personal essay (external link)  about her career for the Walrus. In the personal essay, Mattar recounts a story from 2015 where she went to Baltimore to cover protests related to the death of Freddie Gray, a Black man who died in police custody, for CBC Radio. 

She interviewed two young Black men about their experiences with Baltimore police. Mattar came back to Toronto, where her producer questioned if she was sure the men gave her their real names. This question was insulting to the interviewees as well as suggesting Mattar was too involved in the story to assume a critical, professional stance. 

Balkissoon said she loves what Dean Baquet, the executive editor at the New York Times, claimed about objectivity. Baquet said (external link)  on the Longform Podcast that people have different ideas on what objectivity is, but a great journalist is fair and independent from their organization.  

She said fairness is important because journalists might have ideas about stories, yet they should not be unfair in the space they are given. While journalists have colleagues and editors to bounce ideas off of, they should not be unduly affected by them. 

Balkissoon discussed a column (external link)  by Wesley Lowery, a journalist, for the New York Times that covered objectivity as a Black journalist. Lowery quoted Alex S. Jones, a Pulitzer Prize winner, who said journalists should make a genuine effort to be honest brokers of the news. Balkissoon agrees with this sentiment.

Journalists can be more fair and impartial when they know where they are coming from. They should determine which of their ideas are supported by facts and which ones are held up by opinions before sending them out to a larger audience. 

Balkissoon said the world is in a terrifying age of disinformation. Because of this, she disagreed with Baquet when he suggested journalists should go into each story “with a blank notebook.” Instead, she pointed out the necessity of doing all the research possible when striving to do great reporting.

Along with challenging the concept of objectivity, Balkissoon gave attention to the idea of balance, in which all sides are given space. Pointing to the history of climate change reporting, where those disseminating debunked science were given equal time with experts, she noted this pursuit of “balance” is how untruths have been able to come into public discourse. 

Journalists can prevent the spread of disinformation by providing analysis. Being a journalist is more than blurting out facts, because the audience might not know how to weigh them. Including media literacy in the package is part of the job, she said. 

Balkissoon said journalists need to recognize their own biases and confront them. 

“You do have a point of view,” she said. “You are not coming from nowhere, but your point of view is probably valuable as long as you know that it’s grounded in facts. The person who can challenge your point of view is yourself, and it is something you should be trying to do as a journalist instead of pretending it just doesn’t exist.”