I found it inspiring to hear Ibram X. Kendi and Jelani Cobb discuss objectivity as a fallacy, or mistaken idea, in the final keynote session at the Boston University 2021 Power of Narrative conference. Journalists, especially young journalists of color, can learn so much from these two about how to use narrative to decolonize prevailing truths about our past and present to empower marginalized voices and unify disparate communities.
Kendi and Cobb — two of the nation’s foremost public historians, nonfiction writers and anti-racism leaders — held a conversation over Zoom for the conference’s closing keynote on March 19. Kendi won the national book award in 2016 for “Stamped from the Beginning” and is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. Cobb joined the faculty of the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2016, has published two books and is a staff writer at The New Yorker.
What’s even more important is their work against racism. Both writers are historians and come to storytelling with a breadth of knowledge about the history of the Black body in the United States. Cobb specializes in post-Civil War African-American history, as well as 20th century American politics, and converged with rigor and empathy on Ferguson, Missouri, when Michael Brown Jr. was murdered in 2014. Kendi received his Ph.D. in African-American studies and is now the founding director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, which just announced the resurrection of The Emancipator, an early 19th century abolitionist newspaper, to share anti-racist scholarship.
When objectivity becomes false equivalency
Objectivity has been the goal for journalists in the United States since the 1920s even though it is a fallacy, Cobb said during their conversation. “The pursuit of objectivity presumes that we are able to escape the facts and experiences that have shaped who we are today.” And even with this goal being standard and a cornerstone for reporting, our narratives, that is Black narratives, are still skewed and being told from a particular vantage point –– the vantage point of society’s institutions working for particular demographics, a canonization of subjective perspectives. Change-making storytellers like Cobb and Kendi stay true to their narratives and report in a rigorous way that unearths present and historical truths.
During the conversation, they pointed out that objectivity comes from a history of reporting one person’s claims then reporting the opposing side. But that’s not enough to explore the whole truth. Journalists often fall prey to giving equal weight to two perspectives that are not equal, like facts that are scientifically rigorous with fantastical claims. Pertinent examples of this today are climate change denial and the infodemic of the COVID-19. Objectivity, defined and practiced that way, only ends up diluting and hiding where our biases actually lie.
Reporting on systemic racism is another aspect of the media’s struggle to bear witness to the truth of Black voices in this country. Kendi gave a great example: He says that there is a recognition of climate scientists despite lawmakers denying hard facts about climate change, but there is not a recognition of racial scientists and scholars in politics. Debates are being had between scholars of racism and other forms of bigotry with politicians denying the existence of racism from a political position. When these issues are not even debatable, how is this portrayal of racism supposed to change our society or lead to anti-racist awareness and policies?
Using narrative to “decolonize prevailing truths”
Kendi and Cobb painted a clear picture of the kind of power journalists hold in this information-driven world, both beneficial and detrimental. By picking what two sides of a story to tell, and claiming that is objectivity, we inadvertently reveal our values to the world and can empower fallacies that hurt marginalized communities instead of empowering them.
They gave two great pieces of advice to young journalists: First, that we should strive for truth and fairness instead of objectivity. And second, we should make sure the use of the “I” can apply to the universal “we.” Narrative deserves more respect than simply reporting one side and the opposing side. With these realizations, journalists begin to decolonize prevailing truths about our country’s past and present to unify disparate opinions.
This conversation helped me realize that as a writer, the most powerful tool I have to cause change is narrative. And the best path toward effective communication is to be true to the experiences and certitudes that have made me the woman I am today. This is why I am pursuing journalism––to tell the truth and elevate the voices of my community.
You can watch a recording of the full session with Kendi and Cobb here:
Britny Cordera is a published poet, nonfiction writer, and emerging journalist who wants to write and investigate how climate change continues to exacerbate environmental racism and displacement on people and their interactions with plants and animals.