Exploratory Thoughts for the Month
Intentions Do Not Erase Consequences
There is a sadly pervasive idea that the intention of an action means that the consequences should not be as severe (or should be ignored/forgiven). For example, if a person says a phrase that another person is hurt by, the first person will bring up their intentions: “I did not mean for it to come across that way” or “My intentions was to show support.”
However, this ignores the consequences: one’s words and actions have an impact, and those hurt by the words and actions — their experience and feelings are valid just as valid as anyone else’s. Intentions cannot erase those consequences. Instead, listen and learn and grow to be better. No one is perfect, and intentions are not magic.
Positive Outlooks Should Not Ignore Injustice
A wave of “positivity” seems to be sweeping social media lately. The approach seems centered on this idea of conflict as inherently bad, and that folks should just accept other people’s viewpoints and never question them.
I feel this is a dangerous approach. One can be positive but still point out how people’s actions or worldviews uphold or are complicit with the systems of injustice that are inherent within our society. Ignoring those systems or trying to claim that one is being “negative” by bringing them up is a silencing tactic and is gaslighting. One should not ignore the consequences of one’s actions, which plays into my first point above — intentions aren’t magic.
Son of Baldwin said it the best:
A positive outlook shouldn’t be used to ignore or dismiss injustice.
Journalism Is Rarely (If Ever) 100% Objective
Journalism is a field that reports on human behaviors, words, the surrounding systems created by human beings, and on the environment and universe in which human beings live. Human beings have inherent biases (or tendencies and/or prejudices), whether we wish to acknowledge them or not. Even reports on scientific expertise is, as a larger whole, subjective in that it interprets scientific discoveries, theories, and facts to tell a story. Stories are subjective.
If I am to write about subjectivity, then I also must be upfront. I am a white (European American), transgender (specifically non-binary), demisexual individual, who has lived a large segment of my life in poverty. I consider myself an intersectional feminist that strives to be active in activism rooted in justice and equality/equity, particularly anti-racism and transgender movements. I have a Bachelor’s in physics with a minor in music composition, and I write science fiction, poetry, and various articles. These attributes and experiences shadow all of my writing.
However, having a bias/tendency does not mean a person’s article or experience or viewpoint is unreliable and thus must be discarded. Nor does subjectivity mean the article is invalid and must also be discarded. If this was so, then we would have to discard all the writings throughout history. No, instead, the article must be read critically, where the reporter’s biases should be noted, so that the experiences and/or evidence presented within the writer’s interpretations can be critically examined and acknowledged (or debated).
Acknowledging a person’s argument is not the same thing as agreeing with them.
What is a bias? A complicated question this can be! I like the Merriam-Webster definition of it:
a : an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially : a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment : prejudiceb : an instance of such prejudiced (1) : deviation of the expected value of a statistical estimate from the quantity it estimates(2) : systematic error introduced into sampling or testing by selecting or encouraging one outcome or answer over others
And for further definition, a tendency from that same dictionary means:
a : a proneness to a particular kind of thought or actionb : direction or approach toward a place, object, effect, or limit2 a : the purposeful trend of something written or said : aimb : deliberate but indirect advocacy
All human beings have a tendency toward a particular worldview, and this can color what we write and how we interpret events, facts, and behaviors and words of other people. Understanding one’s biases (or tendencies) and/or prejudices is crucial to writing well and a person’s growth.
This isn’t to say there cannot be any objective sentences within the larger journalistic piece. Objective points in journalism concern facts from a well studied scientific theory or is a statement that reveals a characteristic that is immutable. Examples (X, Y, Z mark an immutable event or number):
- gravity exists,
- elephants have trunks,
- Visible light is part of the electromagnetic spectrum,
- symbiotic bacteria exists within a human body,
- Y archeological and/or palaeontological finds
- ice caps are melting by X amount/percentage,
- sea levels have risen by X percentage,
- change in global temperature has risen by X amount (or percentage)
- this nation is located in this geographical region,
- X people were killed in Y attack.
- Y historical event happened in X year.
However, there is the problem that people will claim objective facts that are actually societal biases/prejudices. Below is some examples of societal biases/prejudices claimed as “objective facts” (many of these examples are often harmful beliefs that hurt marginalized communities and their fight to be heard and recognized as human beings worthy of respect, justice, and equality):
- racism is over with
- black people are inherently violent or more prone to crime
- trans people are mentally ill
- gender is male or female only
- default perspective is white cisgender straight male, and those who are of this group, when speaking calmly and rationally, are always objective
- X event is due to Z reason because of this claim, where the claim lacks a source (or uses a disreputable source) and holds inherent prejudice against the demographic of which the claim concerns
Note the last example: people will often claim that any people of color reporting on issues of police brutality (or any issue related to racism) is prejudiced and disreputable, but this falls into a societal prejudice that claims people of color cannot be trusted to report accurately and that any attempt to speak up about injustices means they are prejudiced against white people. Both of these societal claims are wrong as speaking up about injustice does not equal prejudice.
Important Point 1: People of color’s reporting often are backed up by numerous scientific studies that have been repeated numerous times and examine reams of numerical data of events, but these studies are often ignored or people make the erroneous claim they are unreliable because people of color are assumed to always be biased. This again assumes that white people do not have biases, which is absolutely false — all white reporters have a bias. I feel like I can’t stress this enough.
Important Point 2: Studies that show trends over time due to specific recorded events are just as valuable and important for discussion as scientific evidence that has been proven to be true. One can agree on the event’s existence, which can be seen as an immutable fact, but how one interprets the event will have a lens of bias.
Subjectivity concerns itself with narration of a story, and that story can hold truth (or lies or misleading statements) but the bias of the narrator will color the story. One cannot escape one’s biases, but one can examine and admit them and try to work around them.
A journalist needs to admit one’s biases in order to have honest and fair journalistic articles. For those in positions of power, who may have privileges that other demographics don’t have, this point is particular poignant. Being aware of these privileges and admitting them adds power and importance to a journalistic piece, and provides a more fair portrait of what is being written.
This isn’t to say a journalistic piece is worthless. Quite the contrary as stories about the real world examines situations, people, environment, politics, etc… and tries to show these topics as accurately as possible, which to do so means admitting one’s biases.
Important Point 3: Scientific journalism can be difficult to write as the established facts inherent within the science needs to be differentiated from the subjective examination of the journalist’s approach to these facts. The way we present the facts (or studied topics) of mathematics and proven scientific facts is the subjectivity within a science article, but that does not mean that the facts within are not immutable or not true. Also, science is not a static field, and it grows and its theories may change to accommodate more data and discoveries over time, and this also needs to be kept in mind.
This is why media literacy is important, so that readers can derive what is an objective fact, what is the event that is being portrayed, what are the established truths about said event, and what is the larger subjective theme/worldview/opinion/story that the journalistic piece is portraying.
Important point 4: Media literacy also examines any article that claims to be scientific to determine if the studies mentioned are actual scientific studies that have an accumulative and proven track record — meaning, the study needs to be repeatable and if repeated, the same results (within an tiny margin of error) should be found, and several diverse groups need to prove that the discovered results are indeed consistent. If the scientific article fails to have a study that meets those criteria, it is safe to regard the article as suspect, and the scientific claims may not be “facts.”
Short example of media literacy: an article makes the claim that mentally ill people are dangerous and then quotes a few lines of one study. However, after further investigation, the reader discovers that the piece fails to mention numerous other studies that consistently show mentally ill are not dangerous and instead are often victims of violence. The reader also discovers the writer has a track record of cherry-picking studies to bolster their claims. In this example, the article would be suspected of being incorrect or misleading, and by placing it in the larger framework of society, a reader could see how it contributes to the larger narrative of harm that vilifies a demographic.
Ijeoma Oluo has an excellent thread on this that I will quote below (the first statement is an embedded tweet, but I will quote the rest of the thread that establishes the cornerstone of the argument).
“The moment you decide what you write, you are showing bias. The questions you decide to ask shows bias. What you edit out for word count and flow shows bias.
There is a prevailing idea that white male journalists are the vanguard of unbiased journalism. They can rise above emotion to cover politics, race, feminism… But white male journalists are not only biased, they are steeped in a bias that they’ve been allowed to believe doesn’t actually exist.
Their entire life experience has been labeled both default yet extraordinary and they’ve never been asked to confront the the incompatibility of both. And so they’ve been allowed to celebrate the ordinary, while normalizing the extraordinarily horrific, of white male life – while still calling themselves unbiased.
As writers and journalists, every single one of us comes to every piece we write with an abundance of bias. But writers of color have had to be aware of their bias every day of their careers. Because we’ve had to fight every day for the right for our writing, and yes – our biases, to be included in these national discussions.
Never trust a writer who claims to be unbiased. And NEVER trust a publication who claims they are looking for non-bias. They are looking for the unexamined bias of white supremacy, and they don’t even know it.” — Ijeoma Oluo (Author of So You Want to Talk About Race and editor at The Establishment)
I’ll end here today.