Objective journalism went awry in the wake of Eric Garner's death. Credit: John Minchillo/AP

The murder of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police officer last July became one of the most widely covered cases of police brutality in the United States. As coverage of the case continued, interested readers were likely to learn more about the incident via the Associated Press, which published a story last December with the headline, “Police: Chokehold Victim Eric Garner Complicit In Own Death.”

In the first paragraph, the AP describes Garner as “overweight” and “in poor health.” The article quotes the president of the police union, a professor of police studies, and a congressman sympathetic to the police. And while Garner’s final words—”I can’t breathe”—have since become symbolic of police brutality in the U.S., the AP coldly reported, “If he could repeatedly say, ‘I can’t breathe,’ it means he could breathe.”

With more than 1,700 newspapers republishing its content daily, the Associated Press is a central source of “objective” reporting in the U.S. Yet, as their coverage of Garner’s death demonstrates, striving toward objectivity in reporting can distort reality, particularly in cases of social injustice like police brutality.

“In journalism, there’s presuppositions about who the authorities are, and who has standing,” said Jim Naureckas, editor of Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, a corporate media watchdog group. “In the case of police killings, the police are very often the main or the sole source, and by the conventions of corporate media, that makes them the default source whose view of the world takes precedence.”

Objectivity as a journalistic ideal has its origins in the 19th century, when newspapers began to worry that they would alienate potential readers by aligning themselves with particular political viewpoints. According to Naureckas, the decision to report news in the manner of repeating both sides of an issue equally has distorted the philosophical understanding of objectivity, that there can be “reality independent of the conscious mind.”
“When journalists talk about objectivity, they say that you can only report claims about the world,” he said. “You report claim X from one side and claim Y from another side, and then you’ve done your job.”

By uncritically repeating the statements made by both sides of an argument, even when one has demonstrably more evidence to validate its case, journalists lose their standing as rational observers, which leads to false balance on issues like global warming, where strong scientific consensus can be downplayed.

In an era of growing national consciousness about issues like mass incarceration and police brutality against people of color, mainstream media outlets are being challenged as they continue to use the techniques of “objective” journalism in ways that distort reality. Social media channels amplify previously excluded voices that can call out these glaring mistakes, such as an incident earlier this year in which a New York Times article about the history of lynching in the south only used the word “white” twice, ignoring the perpetrators of the violence.

“Twitter and Facebook are giving people a voice that wouldn’t otherwise have one,” said Juan Thompson, a reporter for the Intercept who focuses on police violence. “It’s allowing black people to call out the media when they mess up.”

What can the mainstream media do to better inform readers and cover social justice issues more accurately? To Eric Ferkenhoff, journalism professor at Northwestern University and editor of the Youth Project, a publication that explores justice, race, and poverty, the biggest room for improvement is having more diverse newsrooms. As a recent Columbia Journalism Review report demonstrates, people of color continue to be grossly underrepresented in the media, giving these outlets fewer voices on stories covering topics of racialized violence that would benefit from varied perspectives.

“In reality, everybody comes to a story with their own background that informs everything they see and do in life,” Ferkenhoff said. “If you pair reporters from different backgrounds together on a story, it will produce a much more robust story that demonstrates more viewpoints fairly.”

What about reporters who wish to critically report on social justice issues in the mainstream media? For Thompson, who has explicitly made advocacy a central focus of his reporting, the urgency of addressing the violence facing people of color overrides any concerns over trying to present his reporting as “objective.”

“The people whom I’m writing and reporting on don’t have anybody in the mainstream media who are actually interested in reporting on them,” he said. “It’s going to be a battle for us no matter what, but I’d rather go down fighting than just stand there on the sideline.”