The orange journalist: thoughts on objectivity guilt and breaking all the rules
by Michael Lyons
Full disclosure: Yesterday, I made my first ever political contribution: $10 to the New Democratic Party of Canada. Today, I went to my first ever political rally/town hall (four guesses who for). This morning I gave a dollar for an orange pin that says, “Beard a part of it: NDP.” Soonafter I shook the hand of the woman I hope will be the MP of my riding (Toronto-Centre) within the month, and I told her how much I supported her campaign. Today, I shook the hand of the man I hope will be Canada’s next Prime Minister.
A little more than a month ago I finished a journalism degree where, in various instances over the past two years, faculty kindly and patiently explained to me and my cohort that the process of doing all of the above diminishes our credibility as journalists.
So even though I was so excited and emotional about attending my first ever political rally/town hall, chatting with some of the other folks there and finding a political organization whose values so closely align with my own, there was this nagging feeling in the back of mind… “Does this make me a bad journalist?”
Coles Notes version of the trajectory of my journalistic career: At the wide-eyed, innocent age of 21 I served as coordinator for the Queer & Trans supplement (an annual one-off fold-in issue) for Excalibur, York University’s student run campus newspaper. I took this example of my work to the offices of Fab Magazine, where I began as an intern and started covering gay men’s arts and culture in Toronto, then Canada and internationally. I began to write a little for Fab‘s sister publication, Xtra Magazine (under the umbrella company of Pink Triangle Press). All of this experience led to more and more opportunities before eventually returning to school, to Ryerson University, to receive some actual journalistic training.
As a professional I’ve always considered myself as much a writer as a journalist. As a journalist, I’ve always considered myself a hardline arts and culture writer/blogger–nothing makes me happier then feeling like I’m supporting an amazing artist or group of artists–although I’ve branched out into a lot into other topics, including politics. Also, as a journalist, I’ve always considered myself a champion of the underdog, someone who wants to (and, I hope, tries to) be a voice for the people who have trouble being heard in the limited ways I can.
That is to say, I consider myself an activist. In the professional sphere… that is apparently poison?
Even though the best journalists out there, certainly some of the best in Canada, in my eyes–Andrea Houston, Desmond Cole, Jonathan Goldsbie, Jesse Brown–have an undeniable activist edge to their work, usually explicitly so. Journalism is an exhausting and draining profession for all types, but all journalists make a choice about how they direct their energy, and the way these four direct their energy is the kind of work that really excites me, and advocates for those who need it most.
Anyone with the most rudimentary understanding of the history of modern journalism/reporting probably knows that the craft began as intensely partisan, and there are plenty of fantastic writing that explores that, but here’s a selection from “The Fall and Rise of Partisan Journalism“:
“Editors,” wrote one historian, “unabashedly shaped the news and their editorial comment to partisan purposes. They sought to convert the doubters, recover the wavering, and hold the committed. ‘The power of the press,’ one journalist candidly explained, ‘consists not in its logic or eloquence, but in its ability to manufacture facts, or to give coloring to facts that have occurred.’” (Their emphasis.)
Anyone with the most rudimentary understanding of modern journalism/reporting can understand how unbridled partisanship and this manufacturing of facts in mainstream media is a monster created by the media that is destroying the media. Meanwhile, digital media allows for people (like myself) to write whatever they want, whenever and wherever they want, sometimes diluting information and fact further.
I digress, another bad journalistic habit. Let me return to the rally/town hall this morning. I gave a lovely older lady distributing the latest edition of Socialist Action a twoonie for a copy and started on an article about divesting from fossil fuels and tackling climate change. I chatted with someone from the NDP Socialist Caucus briefly, received some of their literature, and signed their 4Ps petition–which I completely support, the somewhat dramatic move of the NDP towards centre has been distressing for many inside and out, I’m sure.
Before I could finish fossil fuels, the doors opened and we were ushered in. I snagged a single remaining seat in the front row, after asking a woman on the end, sitting beside it, if it was taken. We were the “backdrop section,” and we were warned as such that we might be on TV, and amicably joshed to look interested and not stare at our phones too much (which wasn’t asking too much of a bunch of people in orange, I don’t think).
Once settled, I turned to the woman and asked what brought her there. Turns out I was seated beside the Royal Canadian Mounted Police coordinator of security (or at least one of them?) plainclothes but for a little lapel pin identifying her as such–she was, unsurprisingly in a basement conference room of the Eaton Centre Marriott, not mounted. I was silently flabbergasted and a little horrified at first (my knee-jerk reaction is to immediately be suspicious of police-types), but she asked me about myself and we chatted, and it was genuinely lovely.
Being from New Brunswick, where the RCMP are our provincial police, I asked her a little about how it works in Ontario, and she laid it all out for me exquisitely. I asked if she was assigned NDP-only, and she explained no, she’s covered “VIP” events of all three major parties (sorry Greens…), though she’s normally criminal investigation. There was a bizarre juxtaposition to me about getting a bunch of socialist literature and then immediately having an in-depth conversation with a very friendly RCMP officer. I wondered, as a matter of course, what she thought of NDP leader Thomas Mulcair’s speech, and who she would be voting for, but being a polite little Canadian asked neither.
Coverage of the event in mainstream media is just starting to come out as I type this, but I’ll paraphrase my own experience. Toronto-Centre NDP candidate Linda McQuaig did a brief pump-up speech and introduction, but the main attraction was the Mulcair bear–unfortunate, since it was advertised as a town hall with the two of them. She is my prospective MP, and I would have loved to hear from her more, but this was Mulcair’s show.
I’m sure objective journalists (and non-objective op-ed writers) will offer their perspectives on the event, but here’s mine: I feel more hopeful after hearing Mulcair’s speech. The main point hammered home throughout the speech was, of course, that a vote for Trudeau is a vote for Harper–while, admittedly, more nuanced, I’d happen to agree, I would have at least considered voting Liberal had it not been for their disgusting politicking around Bill C-51.
But the hope was there, or at least promised. Mulcair said he’d repeal Bill C-51, stand up against the Trans Pacific Partnership deal, stand up for workers rights (especially that much touted promise to support manufacturing jobs). Most importantly, to me, is his promise that an NDP government would foster a united, coast-to-coast relationship with Canada’s indigenous communities. He took some validating jabs at the Conservatives’ recent switch to campaigning on blatant racism/Islamaphobia. Youth and jobs got a mention. If I could have, I’d have asked a question about NDP strategy around supporting arts, and muzzled scientists, but alas this was my first political rally, the machinations of which elude me.
I think it’s probably clear at this point who my vote will be for. Were I an objective journalist, I suppose admitting so would be the utmost blasphemy, but I guess what I’m trying to say with this more than a-thousand-and-a-half-word rant is that I really don’t give a shit. The Conservative Party have shown themselves to make a policy of actively antagonizing and manipulating the media. The Liberals have thrown their lot in with the Conservatives, silently and explicitly. In this context, as a journalist, the choice sometimes seems to either submit to the status quo, or to sacrifice objectivity. I choose the latter.
If I was to ever cover an event with a Conservative, a Liberal, a New Democrat and a Green Party member (BECAUSE THEY DESERVE TO BE INCLUDED IN ALL DEBATES AND EVENTS) I would give each an equal amount of my time and consideration, like any decent journalist would. The output, the final story, like all stories are no matter how “objective” the journalist or organization, would be coloured by my own background, positions and prejudices. Just because I support a party, even explicitly, doesn’t mean I’m blind to their faults, which are many. All that is to say, at least with this election, and this coverage, I’m a journalist and I’m goddamn orange about it.