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Home > Publications > Quill > Biased Truth: Nothing is Neutral



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Thursday, April 13, 2017
Biased Truth: Nothing is Neutral

Admitting our biases and perspectives can help us tell the truth

By Lewis Wallace

Everyone has a story. When I became a journalist, I put much of my story behind me: I had come out as transgender in 2000, at age 16. I had worked as a baker, a barista, a busker and a sex-toy salesperson.

My friends were sex workers and anarchists and third-wave feminists; most people around me had dropped out of school at least once. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but I left home when I was 17, hitchhiked halfway across the country and rejected much of my background. I disliked liberal politics almost as much as I disliked frat parties.

When I became a full-time journalist about five years ago, I didn’t talk about my friends in prison or my friends in the sex industry; I did talk occasionally about my Northwestern degree and what my parents did for work (lawyer and professor). This was partly because I’d been encouraged to steer clear of any stories or work that might reflect a bias on my part, and talking about the activist outsider scene I moved in seemed like it would have made certain biases clear.

Lewis Wallace.

Covering the education beat for WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio. (Photo by Juliet Fromholt/WYSO)

But this reflected unspoken standards: In the newsroom, a lawyer for a father or professor for a mother was fairly normal, while being a transgender activist was clearly not. In each place I’ve worked, I’ve been the only out trans person. Some life experiences were treated as neutral: “Where did you go to school?” is a standard newsroom question. Others were outsider or unusual: “What pronouns do you use?” is a question I have literally never heard in a newsroom, yet it is a standard aspect of etiquette in my own community.

Then, earlier this year, I got fired from my job as a national journalist for the public radio show Marketplace. It was in the news, and you can read all about it; but long story short, I was fired over a blog post I wrote about neutrality. It was just a few days after the inauguration of Donald Trump. Here’s a bit of what I wrote:

Some argue that if we abandon our stance of journalistic neutrality, we let the “post-fact” camp win. I argue that our minds  —  and our listeners’ and readers’ minds  —  are stronger than that, strong enough to hold that we can both come from a particular perspective, and still tell the truth. …

As a member of a marginalized community (I am transgender), I’ve never had the opportunity to pretend I can be “neutral.” After years of silence/denial about our existence, the media has finally picked up trans stories, but the nature of the debate is over whether or not we should be allowed to live and participate in society, use public facilities and expect not to be harassed, fired or even killed. Obviously, I can’t be neutral or centrist in a debate over my own humanity.

I didn’t propose that we should all become opinion writers, but I did call for an exploration of the idea that none of us can be neutral, and that perhaps in an era of open attacks on journalism by a sitting president, it is not in our best interest as journalists to claim neutrality. My employer thought my public statements rejecting neutrality and objectivity didn’t represent the organization’s views on journalism, and after a bit of back and forth, I declined to remove the post from my personal blog on medium and was fired.

One of the questions I’ve been asked since then is: What does journalism “from a particular perspective” actually look like, if not mediocre leftist drivel or Breitbart-esque propaganda?

My answer is simple and hardly revolutionary: I think all journalism comes from a particular perspective. We all have identities and lived realities that shape the ideas we pitch, which voices we include and what questions we ask. I’m just suggesting self-awareness about that perspective. This is important in part because media bias skews toward a perceived center, and more often than not, white, male, educated and pro-capitalist perspectives serve as a standard for neutrality.

I want to consider a couple of examples of perspective, based on my own coverage of major events in 2016. One is the Pulse massacre, the mass killing in a LGBTQ nightclub on Latino night in Orlando. The other is Donald Trump’s election. I’m focusing on my own work only because I know how to explain the thought that shaped the stories.

ORLANDO

First, to Pulse: After 50 people (including the perpetrator) died in Orlando in June, I was shaken, as were many people in my community. But I was also angry. The hypocrisy of politicians from both parties attempting to exploit this tragedy bothered me deeply.

That anger transformed into a story. I pitched a piece about job discrimination, noting that in more than half the states in the U.S., including Florida, it is still legal at the state level to fire someone based on gender identity and/or sexual orientation. My editors decided to send me to Florida a couple of weeks after Pulse to report on the economic conditions for queer people.

I was delighted, and I also had an agenda. Victims of job discrimination among LGBTQ people are disproportionately trans women of color. I had also heard through my personal networks that many LGBTQ Latinx people and groups were upset at how coverage of Pulse had focused on white-run and English-speaking organizations, even though almost everyone killed at Pulse was Latino/Latina/Latinx. So I was determined to do stories that represented the voices of Florida’s marginalized queer populations accurately, which to me meant centering on the voices of trans women of color and Latinx people.

I ended up with two stories, one about a trans woman named Kat Gonzalez who’d been discriminated against over her gender identity in central Florida multiple times, and one about Latinx LGBTQ groups struggling to get money and resources to the families of victims. It’s clear that I had a very particular perspective in reporting these stories. I pitched angles based on conversations in my own community, I knew approximately what I was looking for before I went, and I hustled to find the types of voices I wanted.

I also outed myself as trans to my interviewees, which I don’t always do. That helped me make strong connections on a short deadline. Many non-trans journalists don’t have any trans contacts; I know because they ask me for help making those connections. For me, the opening question wasn’t how to find someone, but which type of voice would be best.

The stories aired for audiences of millions, and no one accused the stories of bias or unfairness. Yet a non-trans person, or a person with different ideas about race, or a person who spoke Spanish, would likely have all done very different stories than I did.

And, of course, even another trans person might have done a very different story. My friend Meredith Talusan, then working for BuzzFeed, also traveled to Orlando after Pulse. She is trans and Filipina, among other identities. Her piece was entirely about queer resilience; she wrote that she was welcomed into the private world of grieving queer Pulse employees as if she were herself a part of their queer family, and the piece was empathetic and moving.

No doubt her particular perspective shaped both the framing of the story and the access she had to private, intimate spaces. This is part of why diversity must go beyond tokenism: We are each more than any single identity.

DAYTON

I was in the newsroom at Marketplace in New York on the day of the 2016 presidential election. Many were surprised by the outcomes; Ohio, the state I’d only recently left after reporting there for a few years, ended up going for Trump, against many journalists’ expectations. National newsrooms immediately started grasping for a new narrative, and largely settled on surging support from “the white working class” as the stated reason for the election outcome.

Ohio, to me, was not a monolithic place full of angry white men. It was complicated, like any swing state.

It had been profoundly burned by deindustrialization and the Great Recession. It was scarred by institutional racism and residential segregation, even as white people and people of color work alongside each other in factories and service jobs. And many impoverished Ohio communities had been very eager to welcome immigrants, many of whom are also working class or poor.

I insisted on being sent back to Dayton, Ohio; my supportive editor obliged. On Nov. 11, off I went.

As with Orlando, I went with some clear goals and a lot of questions. I wanted to challenge assumptions about “the working class” that had appeared in much national media. Dayton proper is largely poor or working class, surrounded by wealthier suburbs, an Air Force base, and a lot of farmland; while some still work in aerospace or auto manufacturing, many now work in service and health care. Montgomery County was split down the middle in the election.

I was determined to do stories that weren’t based on stereotypes (the angry fired factory worker, who is almost always male; the elite Clinton voter, who is very rarely poor). I wanted to talk to working-class black people; poor white people who were also pro-immigration; Trump voters who were well-off. And I wanted to understand what motivated people in as complex a way as possible.

I ended up with several stories. In one of them, two women who work together in a factory talk about their political convictions, class and race.

The white woman, Kate Geiger, admitted concern about Trump’s views on women and immigrants, but votes primarily based on small government and anti-abortion views, a traditional Republican. In my conversations with Geiger, I asked pointed questions about race and immigration, which produced one of the strongest pieces of tape I’ve ever recorded: “If I were a Muslim woman, and I didn’t know me,” she said, “I’d be scared of me.”

Her black co-worker, Robin Pink, was repulsed by Trump’s takes on race and gender; she voted for Clinton. But she also felt that Democrats had done little for the struggling people in her community. “I don’t know how people are making it today,” she said.

Another of my stories focused entirely on people I met outside a food pantry in Dayton. The crowd was split down the middle in terms of candidates they’d supported but had one point of agreement in my random survey: that politicians had always represented the interests of the rich.

For the Trump supporters, there was a hope he’d be different. For opponents, there was a conviction that he most certainly would not. But not everyone voted on economics; there was a rousing argument about women’s rights while I stood by with my recorder running.

For a counterpoint to that work, just search the phrase “white working class voters.” Too often (though not always, of course), it seemed like reporters from D.C. or New York flew into Ohio with a goal of finding a white man who voted Trump for economic reasons. Often that man actually had a good job himself; the logic of this was rarely questioned. And in Ohio, you can find pretty much any kind of person you go looking for. I felt these interviews mostly reinforced a narrative that had already been written.

I couldn’t tell you what motivated or informed these approaches, but I know the perspective I brought to my Ohio reporting had a lot to do with the desire to bust apart assumptions about the middle of the country and the people who live there. My coverage wasn’t revolutionary, but it was different than the stories we’d already been hearing, which was an explicit goal of mine.

PERSPECTIVE

Admitting that we have a perspective, and that this perspective shapes our journalism, is scary. We have to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions:

What might I be missing because of who I am and how I think?

• What questions am I not asking?

• What am I actively seeking that might obscure other truths?

• What does my privilege prevent me from noticing?

• What if I am not the kind of person my sources would normally open up to?

• What is the role of race in my interactions with sources?

• What about class and education?

• What questions might I ask if I were from here, or if I were from another country, or in another body?

The ways we are shaped by race, class, language, geography, ability, gender and a whole slew of other life experiences tend to be less visible to people who are in positions of privilege and power (with privilege). For example, editors, disproportionately white men, often make decisions based on impulses or on assumptions about what our audiences want. But it’s a privilege to assume your impulses and views are reflected by everyone else.

If you are not disabled, when is the last time you thought about how your lack of a disability might affect what stories you tell and how you tell them? If you are white, do you go into interactions with other white people considering how your race affects those interactions? If you are not trans, how much time do you spend navigating your gender identity in public spaces, in interactions with sources?

And yet, a practice of not asking these questions limits the ability of newsrooms to report on our world as it actually is, to see stories that aren’t being told, and to report with nuance and depth.

I’m committed to continuing these interrogations, and to say that I have an agenda is broadly correct. I think we all do, whether we’re conscious of it or not. To say that a person with an agenda cannot also be a journalist — a curious storyteller who puts power under the microscope — is just another falsehood in a time when we ever more desperately need to defend truth. ***

Lewis Wallace is an independent writer, editor and multimedia journalist. He got his start in radio as a Pritzker Journalism Fellow at WBEZ in Chicago. His work focuses on the voices of people who are geographically, economically and politically marginalized. He is transgender and goes by "he," "they," or "ze." On Twitter: @lewispants

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