Oberlin students likely spent the summer plagued by the question, “Is Oberlin really like that?” in reference to The New Yorker journalist Nathan Heller’s investigation of student activism on campus (“The Big Uneasy,” May 30, 2016). Though Heller faced backlash for supposedly favoring outspoken activists, the Review Editorial Board applauds the way he curated voices from all walks of life at Oberlin and allowed these accounts to drive the piece.
Heller’s piece reflects what we hope to accomplish at the Review this year: to strive for a holistic narrative that gives agency to those involved in the story. Instead of reaching for an unachievable goal of pure objectivity, we want to let the voices of students, community members and faculty and staff guide our pieces and provide perspectives from all facets of the issues we cover.
Achieving objectivity in journalism is a principle that has long been understood as a cornerstone of the field, but it is an outdated and unrealistic standard. An article is the product of multiple hands retouching a story that a reporter and editor wrote based on their personal values and the culture of the news organization.
The writer chooses their subjects and interviewees, which quotes to include, the context in which they are presented and the overall angle of a story. And while objectivity has been the gold standard for years, its impracticality contributed to its erasure from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics in 1996.
Objectivity has also been criticized for enabling lazy journalism, in which reporters merely quote what others have said instead of pressing for better explanations. Writers feel constrained by the “he said, she said” style of journalism by which a piece is considered complete and balanced if it shows “both” sides of a story. We want to push past that by finding more than two sides to every story, and, like Heller, seek those sides from diverse voices from the communities that are reported on.
Where Heller’s story did fall short, however, was in his failure to push back on some of the voices he included. As journalists, our job is to follow the narratives, but not to accept them as fact. For example, Professor of Theater and Dance Roger Copeland related an anecdote that took place during the fall of 2014. In a play rehearsal he was coordinating, Copeland said he “spoke sharply to a student: a misfire not of language … but of tone.”
The conflict escalated quickly when a formal complaint was filed against Copeland, but Heller either did not follow up with the student involved in the incident or failed to mention reaching out to the student for comment. In an essay that spends a significant portion of its impressive length discussing intersectionality and questioning if diversity and inclusion are merely superficial buzzwords, it appears hypocritical of Heller to abandon inclusivity at this point. The student’s narrative would have contributed a valuable perspective on the incident.
Rejecting the notion of objectivity does not mean that the Review will embrace any particular viewpoint. But we believe that a holistic narrative is the new objectivity, and that being fair and balanced are better alternatives to the impossibility of objectivity. Recognizing that we are biased individuals and a biased organization will allow us to more effectively confront our flaws and ultimately publish higher-quality journalism.