Stop asking if journalism is objective. Start asking if it’s responsible

When the RCMP arrested two journalists on Wet’suwet’en territory in November, it set off a debate about journalistic ethics — which almost entirely missed the point

On Friday, Nov. 19, snow blanketed the ground as heavily armed RCMP officers descended upon a tiny house occupied by Wet’suwet’en land defenders in northwestern B.C. 

The RCMP’s job: clear the way for construction on the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which is planned to supply the LNG Canada terminal with fracked gas for export.

There was one small hitch — two journalists were inside the tiny house. 

One of them, Amber Bracken, was on assignment for The Narwhal. Bracken, an award-winning photographer who also works with publications like The New York Times and National Geographic, clearly identified herself as a journalist, yet was arrested, charged with contempt of court and detained in jail for three nights.

Within 48 hours, the Canadian Association of Journalists pulled together a letter signed by more than 40 news outlets and press freedom organizations, calling for the immediate release of Bracken and freelance documentary filmmaker Michael Toledano.

“The RCMP stated the reason for arresting the two was because they had ‘embedded’ with the protestors, which has never been illegal in Canada,” the letter stated.  

In this case “embedded” seems to mean that the journalists were in the injunction zone, beyond police lines — which happens to be exactly where they needed to be to document the militarized police raid. 

Alas, much of the debate that simmered in the weeks following the arrests circled around the RCMP’s false insinuation that the journalists had crossed a line between journalism and activism, stoking the small cadre of voices who falsely claim The Narwhal is engaged in “advocacy.” 

Often, this line of critique overlooks our strong code of ethics and accuses The Narwhal of having a “point of view.” Let’s look at that more closely. To accuse one news outlet of having a point of view is to assume that other news outlets do not have a point of view. But is that really true? 

As The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau chief Denise Balkissoon said in her 2020 Atkinson lecture, objectivity is an impossible ideal. Who a journalist interviews, what quotes are used, what stories are assigned in the first place — all of these are subjective decisions being made in newsrooms every day. 

“You do have a point of view. You are not coming from nowhere,” she said. “The person who can challenge your point of view is yourself, and it is something you should be trying to do as a journalist instead of pretending it just doesn’t exist.”

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The very concept of a “view from nowhere” is one that privileges status quo interests, which are easily invisible to the untrained eye. For instance, why does every newspaper have a business section, but not an environment section? That’s a choice about editorial priorities made by every newspaper in the country that few people ever think about. While stories in the business section of the newspaper may touch on environmental issues, they are almost always told through the primary lens of business interests. 

Meanwhile, The Narwhal operates a bit like the mythical environment section of the newspaper. We focus on a different set of issues: biodiversity, climate science, Indigenous Rights, sustainable development, the intrinsic value of the natural world. Quite often, we choose to report verified facts that may be inconvenient for those in power or others who want to protect the status quo. Do these choices represent a point of view? Sure. But no more so than the choice by a newspaper to have a business section and not an environment section. 

Another example: racialized journalists have long been told they can’t cover certain stories because they’re “too close to them,” whereas white journalists haven’t been told the same thing. In this case, the dominant white perspective is considered no perspective at all, while the perspective of a racialized person is considered a “point of view.” This is clearly an illogical and racist double standard.

Similarly, when a traditional news outlet that receives millions of dollars in fossil fuel advertising revenues calls Indigenous people on their unceded land “protesters,” that choice conveys a point of view just as much as when The Narwhal chooses to call those same people “land defenders.” One happens to come from a colonial, corporate worldview, while the other is more informed by an Indigenous worldview. But let’s be very clear: both represent a choice.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has argued against the “view from nowhere” approach for years.

“What authority there is in the position of viewlessness is unearned,” he writes. “In journalism, real authority starts with reporting. Knowing your stuff, mastering your beat, being right on the facts, digging under the surface of things, calling around to find out what happened, verifying what you heard.”

These are the things we value at The Narwhal: knowing your beat, verifying your facts, diving deeper, finding angles not covered elsewhere and amplifying underrepresented voices to help rebalance our discourse — a discourse that “objectivity” has kept stacked in favour of those in power.  

By all means, we all make mistakes sometimes and we must always strive to do better. But doing better doesn’t mean doing the same thing as everyone else. In fact, nearly 5,000 people have donated money to support The Narwhal this year because we do something different.

“I value how hard your team works to report on topics that mainstream media won’t cover,” wrote one new member this month. “I support the rights of Indigenous people,” wrote another. “I value the way you report on the big issues, not just the juicy topic of the day,” another new member wrote.

The very fact that The Narwhal is a non-profit organization signals that we value different things than traditional news outlets, which rely on advertising revenues and are expected to turn a profit for owners and shareholders. Conversely, we don’t run any ads and our publication’s success is built upon our relationship with our audience, whose donations comprise our single largest source of revenue. We’re also radically transparent about our sources of funding, unlike virtually any other news publication in Canada.  

Being freed from the constraints of the advertising model allows us to think outside the box and focus on one job: serving our audience. In the three years since we launched The Narwhal, there have been dramatic shifts in the Canadian media landscape. What was considered pushing the boundaries a few years ago — say, connecting a catastrophic forest fire or flood to the root issue of climate change — is now considered best practice. 

And I have no doubt that what a small and shrinking group may consider to be “advocacy” today will likely be considered responsible journalism a few years from now. 

Thankfully, if there’s one thing we’ve never been afraid of at The Narwhal, it’s being ahead of the curve. 

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Hey there keener,

Thanks for being an avid reader of our in-depth journalism, which is read by millions and made possible thanks to more than 4,200 readers just like you.

The Narwhal’s growing team is hitting the ground running in 2022 to tell stories about the natural world that go beyond doom-and-gloom headlines — and we need your support.

Our model of independent, non-profit journalism means we can pour resources into doing the kind of environmental reporting you won’t find anywhere else in Canada, from investigations that hold elected officials accountable to deep dives showcasing the real people enacting real climate solutions.

There’s no advertising or paywall on our website (we believe our stories should be free for all to read), which means we count on our readers to give whatever they can afford each month to keep The Narwhal’s lights on.

The amazing thing? Our faith is being rewarded. We hired seven new staff over the past year and won a boatload of awards for our features, our photography and our investigative reporting. With your help, we’ll be able to do so much more in 2022.

If you believe in the power of independent journalism, join our pod by becoming a Narwhal today. (P.S. Did you know we’re able to issue charitable tax receipts?)

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