THE BLOG
07/03/2012 11:44 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Anderson Cooper and Journalism 101: The Myth of Objectivity

Brian Williams is a straight white man. Barbara Walters is a straight white woman. Both make a very good living. These facts inform who they are, what sources they seek out, what social circles they travel in, and what slant they may present in their stories.

The myth of some level of journalist objectivity is quite old-fashioned. In my journalism-school days (1980 to 1984), I knew it was an impossible achievement, and that the main goal was to acknowledge your bias and try to do your best to get all sides of a story. I was an out lesbian back then and did not see much of a future for myself in journalism. I had been warned, nicely, that I likely would not fit into the mainstream media.

Anderson Cooper had many reasons for not officially coming out of the closet as a gay man during his first decades in the news business, but I think one of the most overriding was his fear that he would not be taken seriously as a journalist, nor seen as "objective" when doing reports, if he was a "gay journalist."

This is why it was so important that he come out, not just because it shows that he is not ashamed of being gay, though that is very important, but because of these powerful, and mistaken, myths that a straight person can be more objective than a gay person, a white person can be more objective than a person of color, a man more objective than a woman, and so on. This fallacy has kept down many great journalists. There were reporters who were out of the closet and therefore not allowed to cover gay stories. Is someone who is straight (or closeted) any better able to cover a gay story? Every reporter has a long list of bias points. It is time we shatter this notion that being part of a minority group means you should not be able to cover that group.

As a side note, I also want to comment on a pervasive question: If an LGBT person can hide, should he or she do so? As a wealthy white man, Anderson Cooper had the option, but many others do not. Women and people of color usually can't hide these traits (though some have "passed" as white and/or male, at great emotional expense). It is very important that we as a community not use this ability to "hide," not just for our own community's sake but for our own, personal sake. The closet is damaging to those on both sides.

As a lesbian journalist working in LGBT newspapers since 1984, I have witnessed a tremendous shift in how LGBT people in the media have been welcomed. Back then, working in gay media was almost a death knell to one's journalism career. Now it can be a stepping stone. Back then, the mainstream media looked down on journalists in gay media as biased. Well, they may still do this, but there is more respect and attention, and even awards and associations that welcome the diversity of alternative media.

The myth of objectivity is also not some philosophical debate; it actually can cause damage. Finding the truth of a story does not always mean that the two sides, or all sides, are equal. Wikipedia features an interesting example of the goal of objectivity going too far:

Another example of an objection to objectivity, according to communication scholar David Mindich, was the coverage that the major papers (most notably the New York Times) gave to the lynching of thousands of African Americans during the 1890s. News stories of the period often described with detachment the hanging, immolation and mutilation of people by mobs. Under the regimen of objectivity, news writers often attempted to balance these accounts by recounting the alleged transgressions of the victims that provoked the lynch mobs to fury. Mindich argues that this may have had the effect of normalizing the practice of lynching.

These days I think we can agree that blaming the victim of a lynching would be objectivity gone wild. But there are still examples of the media quoting people with anti-gay views as a way to seem objective on a story about gay marriage. I don't know when the moment came and went, but at some point there was enough acceptance of interracial marriage that the media stopped quoting racists on that issue, with no sense of having failed in the quest for balance.

I understand that a mainstream paper has a different audience than a gay paper, but at some point anti-gay sources, racist sources, sexist sources, and the like present a dilemma for those who seek more than some unattainable "objectivity" but the truth. There will always be someone on the "other side" of most issues, including those who argue that the Earth is flat, that the ozone layer is fine, and that Obama is not an American. But are all these sources equal?

I welcome Anderson Cooper into this new society of openly gay journalists wading through the murky pool of new journalism, where we strive to tell stories with as much skill as we can, knowing that there is no way to please all viewers or readers, but that we can try to do the best stories we can, based on our whole selves.

Tracy Baim is co-founder and publisher of Windy City Times.