“Neutrality” is never apolitical, and oppression is not political opinion
For newspapers, truth and impartiality are noble goals. The soul of (meaningful) journalism has always rested on the idea that readers should receive nothing but the truth when it comes to reporting. Naturally, in a society where ideas are classified on a spectrum relative to what is considered socially and politically acceptable, the “truth” becomes synonymous with being “impartial.” This is a fair goal to achieve when the priority of a news piece rests in accuracy, and impartiality includes things like neutral language and tone.
However, ideas and ideology do not exist in a vacuum. As a result, particular ideas themselves are classified as “left” or “right” based on where they stand within the realm of “social consensus”—and even then, consensus among one circle of individuals may differ vastly from the consensus of a neighbourhood a few blocks away, or of a farming town farther north, or what the dominant ruling class of the state considers to be socially acceptable.
This begins to bleed into aspects of identity and societal oppression. Criticisms of capitalism have been labeled “left” since the advent of this social consensus model, because these ideas challenge our current dominant capitalist mode of production. The very notion that systemic oppression exists and has an effect on everyday interactions and structural long-term changes in society is considered an inherently “left” idea. The police brutality of racialized people and indigenous genocide are an extension of this, but are equally labeled “left”. The existence of trans and nonbinary people, let alone the considerations of gender being both socially constructed and incredibly diverse, is soundly labelled “left”. Even the existence of climate change and the sustainability of the environment is considered a “left” idea. But all of these are valid and true, and can be corroborated through the decades of work done by physical and natural scientists, sociologists, activists, and the everyday people who face the burden of these specific oppressions. So why are they still in dispute, and why do they continue to be the focus of a struggle that has put many lives on the line?
A peculiar notion of elitism has developed in our increasingly politically polarized climate, which manifests itself as a focus on “impartiality” in news. It is the “centrist” path, where impartiality and truth waltz hand in hand through a constant dialectic between the “left” and the “right.” This type of reporting masquerades itself as being intelligent and wise, but is in fact the opinion of the never-ending mediator, which solely places itself within the cradle of the social consensus, believing that all opinions are equally valid. In doing so, it flies above the riff-raff to deliver a “careful truth” about the nature of society.
This perspective has been seen everywhere from discussions of Charlottesville to Jordan Peterson to a slew of recent editor-penned articles in The Varsity which held the idea of “impartiality” above all. When this perspective is touted as a truth in itself, it is ultimately misleading and obscures that a social consensus is far from objective when it is embedded in societal context and all the oppressive forces included. To understand this, we need to first break the myth that the centrist path is the objective path. When we define centrism and impartiality as we do above, we see that it best attempts to model a “balance” by deferring to a social consensus and a status quo. But the fundamental problem with this is that it believes all ideas to be mere ideology, holding no connected context to the greater structure of society.
What is Canadian society embedded in? It is a capitalist settler-colonial state that holds white supremacy in its core and gleefully engages in imperialist destabilization worldwide before turning the other cheek and having public debates about the acceptance of the people it displaces. These systems are perpetuated deliberately, because they allow those who possess power in society to maintain it—even at the expense of marginalized people—and through this power, dictate acceptable societal ideology. The window of the “social consensus” does not move freely through the verbal exchange of the people. If it did, why then, in the United States and Canada alike, is politics considered so poorly representative of its people—and especially its marginalized people—to the point that voting becomes less about representation, and more about a short-term strategy to prevent the worse fellow from winning?
Social consensus is embedded in the nature of the ideology of the state. Newspapers are no different, as unbiased as they attempt to be, because ideology is reinforced through funding and through people who occupy different and complex social positions. A purely unbiased newspaper is myth, even in a section like science, as nothing embedded in society can be fully disentangled from the tendrils of its ideological base.
When impartiality defers to this, it throws out the possibility of “truth” and has the potential to present a reality of oppression as the objective and truthful reality. When an article asks to constantly present “both sides” of an argument for the “full context of the information”, rarely have I seen the presentation of the larger societal context of oppression it is embedded in, something that is both “left” and “true”. This gets particularly bad when opinions are framed as equal despite the opinion of “one side” possessing no solid basis.
For instance, never mind the fact that fluidity and flexibility of gender is scientifically accepted, that trans and nonbinary people are real and can discuss their experiences in person, that they face an extremely disproportionate amount of violence and discrimination based on lack of social acceptance—or that the only thing that is harmed by this truth of gender is the structural role of the gender binary under capitalism, used to maintain an exploitation of specific types of enforced labour. What becomes more important than discussing the deep social context is the “counter-view” of transphobia, presented without commentary in an attempt to stay “impartial”—even when this view has no basis besides mere bigotry. This is not a presentation of the ideal of truth that journalism wishes to achieve. This is a reproduction of the oppressive systems embedded within society, nefariously passed off as being morally good.
Meaningful journalism—journalism that can fully report the truth—implies a deep and effective investigation into the nature of the truth. Journalism that forsakes the truth for the impartiality of a centrist social consensus, at a time when marginalized people are constantly under threat of harm, is lazy journalism. If impartiality and truth should be tied together, then impartiality should not limit itself to the views of society’s embedded ideology. If this turns a newspaper into a “leftist rag,” so be it.
This article is part of an ongoing series in which The Strand tackles issues relating to systemic oppression, privilege, and identity. All are welcome to contribute to the discussion. Pitches should be directed to email@example.com