Journalism, neutrality, and politics.

In the latest issue of the newsletter Chinese Storytellers, my friend Wilfred Chan had this question: 

In our time, as we fight for our lives under global authoritarian advances, is neutrality still possible? If our work is becoming increasingly political, does practicing journalism inherently require political commitments? And should we make those commitments clear in our work?

I promised him I’d share my thoughts, and was originally going to do it as a Twitter thread. But that would probably have been a very long thread, and there mights be others interested in this question as well, and so I decided I’d make it a special issue of my newsletter (Substack-to-Substack, y’know).

First off: where I’m coming from, because it’s very relevant to my perspective on this issue. I came to journalism through a few paths: joining the independent news website (then particularly dependent on volunteer citizen journalists) The Online Citizen, working as a production assistant/assistant producer for Lianain Films (now in Hong Kong, follow them on Twitter), campaigning against the death penalty in Singapore, and blogging throughout as my way to process it all.

In other words, by the time I moved into professional journalism, I was already known to be either (1) an activist, or at least (2) very opinionated. And because I still wanted to continue being involved in causes that I believe in, I wasn’t really interested in back-pedalling and getting a role in a newsroom where I’d be expected to pretend that I was “neutral”. Which is why I am where I am today, and why questions of neutrality, political stances, activism, and journalism are constantly on my mind.

In any case, I don’t believe in objectivity in journalism, because I don’t believe human beings can truly be objective. We all see the world through a particular lens, tinted by our upbringing, our economic background, our experiences of the world. And this lens impacts the choices we make as journalists and reporters, affecting the entire process from the way we choose the stories we pitch to editors, to how we relate to or empathise with the people we meet and interview, to the quotes and soundbites that we think are the most interesting, to the background and context that we choose to include/exclude under the pressure of word counts and deadlines.

I’ve also never met a journalist—a good one, anyway—who was really neutral. No one gets into journalism, especially political journalism, because they have no opinions. In my experience, journalists are opinionated AF (why do you think so many of us spend so much time on Twitter?) 

Some are just better at performing neutrality—like Yangyang Cheng’s account of the journalist who said he never votes in elections that he’s covering, so as to remain neutral. Sure, maybe he really doesn’t vote, but I’m not believing for a second that he doesn’t have opinions about the candidates or that he doesn’t favour one (or at least some) over others, and that judgement is coloured by his lens, just like the rest of us.

But while objectivity doesn’t exist, professionalism does. It has to do with ethics and morals, and also processes that deal with things like sourcing and right of reply—and all this can be done even if a journalist is open about their politics. We don’t need to agree with all our sources, but we should still try* to include their position or input in the piece as much as we can reasonably do—not just so we can perform “balance” (which I think some journalists and news outlets now perform as ritual rather than engage in with meaning), but because these sources are part of the context that helps our readers/audiences be better informed about the complexity of the situation.

(* I say “try” because sometimes people and institutions just won’t talk to us, as journalists working in authoritarian regimes can attest to—and that’s on them, not us.)

Wilfred’s question, though, isn’t just about whether we should be neutral. It’s also about whether being a journalist in an authoritarian (or creeping authoritarian) context requires political commitments. 

I don’t think journalism has ever been apolitical. The idea of the Fourth Estate, of watching and scrutinising the powerful, is a political stance. The idea of being the voice of the voiceless (though we may cringe at this now), is also a political stance. The Washington Post’s tagline, “Democracy Dies in Darkness”, is definitely political. Even in Singapore, where the mainstream media rejects (or has been told to reject) the notion of being the Fourth Estate and is framed as a conduit to inform and educate the people about government policies—that’s a political position too.

It’s precisely because journalism is political, and journalists active players in politics (whether we want to be or not), that journalism as a profession is under fire from authoritarians. They know the power that we have—after all, they’re adept at playing us for fools and using us in their quest for more power and/or wealth. And so it’s high time that we also get clearer about the political role we play, how we might often be complicit in the machinations of those in power, and what we want to do about that.

My experience as an independent journalist in an authoritarian country is that it isn’t just a personal decision about whether I wanted to take a political position or not—it’s also that I got politicised and labelled as a dissident, even though that’s not what I’d set out to be. Authoritarianism doesn’t like dissent, and authoritarians see anything that diverges from their narrative and their line as dissent. In a context where everyone is self-censoring, the person who self-censors the least sounds like the radical. You don’t necessarily have to push the boundary yourself; in authoritarian regimes, the boundary pushes you. How much ground are you willing to cede?

I don’t mean that journalists should all become partisan campaigners, or that we need to write more outraged hot-takes. Politics isn’t the same as partisan politics, and there’s always a need for solid on-the-ground reporting.

But we need to recognise and embrace our role in defending democracy—ideally because we believe in it and want it for the people who read/watch/listen to our work, but at least, on more self-interested level, because we need the rights and freedoms protected under democratic systems to be able to do our jobs properly.

And this sort of commitment to our work is political.

Now, questions for people who are reading this who may or may not be journalists:

This debate on objectivity and neutrality has been going round and round and round journalist circles for yonks, but I don’t think we ask people enough what they want to see. As readers, what are your views on objectivity and neutrality? What are your expectations of journalists and the media? Do you think journalism today serves the needs of the people? How can we all do better? Comment below, if you like!