A war lesson: The reform of journalism will be feminist

By Johana Kotišová. Originally published by Revue Prostor (in Czech).

From objectivity to the abyss

Journalism is in crisis. This mantra has been used for years by media theorists from the so-called Global North to describe anything from the consequences of the post-2008 economic crisis in the media through the precarity of media professionals linked to the rapidly growing multi-skilling requirements to the diversity of nonfiction media content and its creators brought about by digitalization. The crisis is an umbrella term for the lack of money in foreign or cultural journalism, the extinction of local titles, oligarchization, distrust of traditional media, rampant disinformation, and the normalization of offline and online violence against journalists. The crisis has become a generalized state of the journalism profession.

The many lines of the crisis – mistrust, violence, precarity, the spread of misinformation – intersect in the problem of journalism’s irrelevance. Mainstream journalism has become a stodgy, cumbersome, innovation-averse, paternalistic institution – for which it has been criticized, for example, by OSINT analysts who belong to newcomers to the journalistic field. Authors of the recently published The Journalism Manifesto, including the well-known American theorist Barbie Zelizer, argue that journalism has lost the ability to be relevant to its audiences. It has become detached from their reality. The authors see the problem in the institutional form of journalism, which has been defined, mainly over the last two hundred years, by privileged white men from Europe and North America as autonomous, coherent, and permanent. The tangle of terms that, at a particular time in a particular place, has so influentially defined the journalism profession has included ‘objectivity,’ ‘balance,’ ‘neutrality,’ ‘impartiality,’ ‘factuality,’ and contrasted them with emotion, engagement, values, and commentary. The unquestionable concepts, translated into concrete journalistic practices and stylistic principles, are instilled in generations of future journalists: give similar space to both sides of a conflict, don’t pass judgments, don’t color, don’t take sides.

According to journalism historians, impartiality, neutrality, and the dry style allowed the fledgling profession to resist criticism and build legitimacy; moreover, they corresponded to the 19th-century technological requirement of brevity. On the other hand, they became a pole of professional-ideological dichotomies that mutated into a deep chasm between the journalistic ideal and the conditions of the real world, between journalists and audiences. Mainstream news is largely controlled, performed, inhabited, and consumed by a relative elite. The ideal of objectivity – understood as neutrality, balance, and impartiality and designed for Western liberal democracies without existential problems – is dysfunctional in most contexts. It is no longer only inapplicable in authoritarian countries but more and more so in ‘our’ world of ever-illiberalizing democracies, the climate crisis, or the nearby war. In all these contexts, there is a needless and tiresome conflict between journalistic professional norms such as impartiality and dull balance and the moral norms of journalists as human beings. Elitist isolation, outdated norms, and ignorance of contemporary audiences thus undermine the ability of the journalistic institution to fulfill its role – and, ultimately, its very existence. The Global North becomes an impossible context for its own ideal of journalism.

The crisis of journalism thus brings hope. It allows us to wake up from the hypocrisy of dichotomies of objectivity and emotions, neutrality and values. It requires us to expand our imagination and reform our view of what journalism is, who and what it is supposed to speak about, how journalistic knowledge is produced, what it is for, and who is entitled to participate in journalistic knowledge production.

Feminist standpoint epistemology and reality without scare quotes

According to Zelizer and co-authors, reforming journalism requires that journalists return to forgotten or ignored humanist, liberal-democratic values underpinning the institution of journalism. These values, however, must be applied in a much more inclusive way. Transparency and coming clean are not enough. We need to move from the unspoken to a more explicit, fair, and democratic liberalism that emphasizes transformative action as a guiding principle of journalism. Journalism – the pantheon of the privileged – should actively open up to excluded and oppressed communities and insist on value standards (to be sure, value-ladenness and partisanship are two different things). Reform of these standards should build on (critically thought-through) inclusivity, social justice, human rights, careful selection of sources, public service, and cosmopolitanism. To meet their audiences, journalists should also rethink and accept the role of emotion in their work.

Journalism theory, thinking through the way out of the journalism crisis, thus starts drawing inspiration from the Feminist Standpoint Epistemology. Professor Linda Steiner argues that the solution to the crisis of journalistic authority and relevance is not radical constructivism or judgmental relativism and the rejection of truth, which is paradoxically very popular in media studies. Not even transparency will fix the problems of bad journalism. Replacing the objectivity paradigm requires incorporating a more consciously contextualized and self-reflexive notion of one’s social situatedness, credible argumentation, ethics, and social and epistemological responsibility into journalistic production. Journalists should constantly question how their own and their sources’ experiences are blinding or illuminating. Journalists should stop denying their bodies and examine how they both limit and enable knowledge. The identity of the journalist should encompass the journalist-as-human and social actor. Otherwise, the self-destructive professional illusion that journalists are unique, disembodied, colorblind, genderless beings who transcend embodied subjectivity lives on.

To do this, journalists must stop thinking away their humanity – experience, bodies, emotions – and embrace it; rethink the outdated dichotomies that push emotions and values out. Inspiring in this regard is the philosophy of emotions, which long ago incorporated feelings into knowledge production, stripped them of the stigma of irrationality, and showed how important they are to cognitive processes and rational action. In the context of journalism studies, Richard Stupart uses the example of reporting from South Sudan or investigative journalism in South Africa to show how anger, moral resentment, fear, or even the biological sensation of heat can benefit journalistic descriptions of reality. Similarly, Theresa Kulbaga and Leland Spencer bring into communication studies ‘outrage epistemology’ – seeing anger and resentment as sources of knowledge, for example, among women or marginalized ethnic groups. And there is also the well-known notion of ‘journalism of attachment.’ In the words of its author, BBC war journalist Martin Bell, attachment journalism knows but also cares and is aware of its responsibilities. This journalism ‘will not stand neutrally between good and evil, right and wrong, the victim and the oppressor.’

It is no coincidence that Bell formulated his ideas based on his experience in the Bosnian war, Stupart based on research into conflict journalism, and Kulbaga and Spencer focused on inequalities in cisheteropatriarchy, white supremacy, and neoliberalism. It is precisely in crisis or conflict that the underlying values of the journalistic institution come clean. Therefore, for a change, we could learn from journalists who are at home in crisis. How do Ukrainian, Syrian, or Palestinian media professionals work with their local embeddedness, bodies, and emotions? In line with the journalistic professional-ideological dichotomies, it would be easy (albeit arrogant) to dismiss their practices en bloc as biased. But the Global North now needs their know-how.

Research shows that the work of media professionals who are at home in a war – but also, for example, journalists who cover the climate crisis – is often permeated by thorough and continuous self-reflection. How can I be a professional journalist when my country is at war? How do I remain neutral when I can’t? (And also: How do I work with balance when traditionally conceived balance means giving space to hateful and anti-democratic perspectives that have entered the political mainstream?)

Time dedicated to contextualized and self-reflexive journalism can help alleviate some aspects of the crisis of journalism: bring it closer to audiences, make it more interesting, and separate it from the plethora of online content. Linda Steiner believes that a critical integration of one’s social situatedness – class, sexuality, ethnicity, gender (and, by extension, emotions and body) – into journalism practice will also help journalists solve the problem of post-truth. This is because such integration requires demystifying journalists’ own, very often privileged, position, approaching one’s knowledge as provisional, careful verification, and embracing particularity. All this results in producing more truthful stories. It frees us from the illusion of a universal, apolitical, and disembodied subject that raises suspicion. Thus, integrating feminist standpoint epistemology into journalism can help re-establish journalistic credibility and reconnect journalists and their audiences.

Such an approach does not mean being self-absorbed, shifting the attention to oneself. It is not even necessarily/only about installing women editors-in-chief. (Feminist standpoint epistemology suggests that women do not have a universal perspective, and Steiner points out that women news executives do not always stop harassment or turn newsrooms into less sexist places.) Instead, the future of journalism requires diversity at all levels, thinking more carefully about which sources to give space to in a given context (and why), letting go of mechanically applied neutrality and balance, and quiet and focused attention to one’s own emotions and experiences as both important sources and limits of knowledge. After all, anyone who still feels threatened by the feminist label of the reform might call very similar principles, with Kate Wright, ‘critical realism.’ Critical realism, too, involves reality and truth without scare quotes, the abandonment of moral relativism, responsibility for the content produced, thorough self-reflexive work, and ethical-political engagement.

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