The student-run newspaper at the University of New Mexico ran an editorial last week calling out “Journalism’s problematic love affair with objectivity.” In it, the Daily Lobo’s editorial board argues that mainstream White-led news media often perpetuates racism and “actively sides with the oppressor,” and that one way reporters do that is by unquestioningly repeating police narratives.
Daily Lobo News Editor Lissa Knudsen spoke with KUNM News Director Hannah Colton about how she says a dedication to the notion of objectivity can lead reporters to obscure the truth.
Disclosure: Knudsen worked at KUNM for a few months in 2019 as a graduate student employee doing data analysis for the newsroom's Public Health New Mexico project.
LISSA KNUDSEN: One of the things we think we were really tapping into is the concept of false balance, or what’s been dubbed as “both side-ism,” where the media is presenting an issue as more balanced than the evidence would actually support. An example of this is, recently, the Albuquerque Journal ran a headline about the shooter that was at [Juan de] Onate protest in Old Town. The headline ran, “Suspect tied to shooting released.” And as our reporters were on the scene there, and they watched the videos and were also witnesses, they saw the person pull the trigger and actually shoot another person who was there. And so to use the verb “tied to,” we felt this was an example of where the edict was to be objective, and so they wanted to be fair because this person has yet to be convicted, but they were ignoring all of the overwhelming evidence that in fact this was the shooter.
KUNM: Some people might say, ‘Oh, that’s just semantics.’ How are you seeing wording like this actually be dangerous?
KNUDSEN: We have been looking at history. As you’ll see in the editorial itself, there’s a reference to Emmett Till, back in 1955, and the media coverage of that particular torture and murder of a young Black boy, and how that media coverage likely played a role in the ultimate outcome of the all-White jury that basically said that the killers were not responsible. And we look back to the Rodney King trial, and the same thing happened there, and if you watch documentaries and watch the footage, the Black community will say ‘the media coverage played a role in this outcome.’
So we see our responsibility as the reporters and journalists of tomorrow as feeling obligated to take a different stance. We see that we’re dedicated to accuracy and truth, and not some sort of false concept of balance or “both side-ism” that is actually preventing us from actually seeing what’s going on.
KUNM: We’re in this moment of pandemic and of Black Lives Matter uprising in which I think a lot of White people, with a lot of privilege, are grappling with the extent to which systems have always harmed people of color. And you and I are having this conversation as two White journalists, also -- it’s important to point out -- whose organizations have always been pretty White-led. So it strikes me that in this editorial you’re really, like, taking a stance and saying ‘we’re trying to broaden the scope of who this institution is for, and really, like, try to be anti-racist journalists.’
KNUDSEN: Yeah I would say that’s exactly what the editorial board and our reporters are invested in doing. We debated for a long time whether or not to write this editorial and how to write it, and we wanted to lead with our own acknowledgement of the racist systems that our own institution had been a part of. We started with the things that we knew overtly were examples of racism, and then we sort of moved into the more systemic things. Things like: even ‘objective’ journalism is based on a series of subjective decisions, right? Which stories to cover, which sources to get quotes from, how to frame what you’re covering, what to highlight, what to downplay. And we really wanted to spend some time investigating ourselves and see what we could do to be better at that.
KUNM: How do you think the Daily Lobo should change to better serve its audience, and how are you working on that?
KNUDSEN: That’s a tough question. I think we’re continuing to struggle with it. Trying to do a better job of literally going out into our community, and trying to create a safe and supportive space for not only Black reporters, but all students who want to be reporters, to feel welcome, to become a part of our organization, and to become leadership. And we also feel like we need to continue systemic racism at the institution. The University of New Mexico, we’re not an exception.
Support for this coverage comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and from KUNM listeners like you.
UPDATE, Tuesday 6/30, 1p: This post has been updated with the disclosure that Knudsen was previously employed at KUNM as a graduate student worker.