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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Author: Francisco Velazquez

Journalism with a purpose: A Q&A with Lewis Raven Wallace on The View from Somewhere

Lewis Raven Wallace is an independent journalist based in Durham, North Carolina, the author of “The View From Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity,” and a host and producer of a podcast of the same name. 

In “The View from Somewhere,” Wallace explores how the journalistic concept of objectivity has been used to silence marginalized writers and reinforce racism, sexism and transphobia. 

In his examination of social movements such as Black Lives Matter, Wallace argues against claiming that journalists are without bias in favor of a more nuanced understanding of journalists’ differing worldviews and the institutional power of the news industry.  

Wallace is also the co-founder and the national program director for Press On, a southern journalism collective that supports “journalism in service of liberation.” He previously worked for public radio’s Marketplace in the New York bureau and was the economics reporter and managing editor at WYSO Public Radio in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

In a recent interview, Wallace spoke with the Center for Journalism Ethics about being trans in the news industry, what he means by the “view from somewhere,” building trust with news consumers and the importance of validating the perspectives of marginalized communities. 

What has your experience as a trans person working in public media looked like? 

I’ve been out for almost 20 years and the way I came into trans identity … there was absolutely no choice but to be an activist and an advocate for yourself. It’s hard to describe how strange of an experience it was to be in a space where my identity would be depoliticized or people would treat it as apolitical. For me, politics of gender and race and identity are who I am and have always been so intertwined. There were countless times that I didn’t feel comfortable bringing myself into those spaces.

What are the ethical standards that journalists should consider? Are they changing? 

I’ve talked to a lot of people, mostly people of color, queer and trans people who have dropped out of a journalism program because of how uncomfortable they felt with the vision being presented. I think it can have a direct effect on who feels like they can become a journalist. And similarly, I have also talked to people who are still studying journalism, but who think it is not nuanced enough for the situation that we’re dealing with in media today. The standards are different, especially in online media. And it makes sense. A lot of jobs in media at this point are for openly un-objective outlets. Part of my argument is that, that’s OK. There are good reasons why the standards are different. There’s sort of an old school of mostly male, white, older journalists who feel the standards are chipping away. And I’m sure that there’s a grain of truth in that, but they’re clinging to jaded notions of objectivity that emerged when almost exclusively white men were in newsrooms. Keeping younger people engaged with the idea of what journalism is and could be is something that I’ve witnessed since the book came out. I’ve talked with a good number of journalists and journalism students who were just really relieved. It’s been reaffirming to me that people can see their worldviews represented. 

What inspired The View from Somewhere? 

“The View from Nowhere” is the title of a philosophy book by Thomas Navel that came out in the ’70s. I read that book and wanted to ground my studies in a real and honest consideration of the very concept of objectivity. There’s a central philosophical question about objectivity and whether there are truths in the world that we can all agree on. That idea is up for debate and has been for decades. I also wanted to reference Jay Rosen, who has integrated the concept of a “view from nowhere” into discussions about journalism and has pointed out the impossibility and hypocrisy of journalism outlets claiming to have a view from nowhere. I just appreciate in general that many decades of scholarly study have helped us understand what can happen when we problematize the very idea of an objective viewpoint. I like the idea of “a view from somewhere,” being a very honest take. To say, “Here’s where I’m standing and now I’m going to tell my story and what I can see and verify factually.”

What should journalists do to ensure that the public can trust the information being reported? 

I think some journalism organizations are already doing a great job at really digging into transparency and showing their work and their process when it comes to verifying information and even the possibility of being wrong. There’s a less combative relationship. I think the more transparent we can be about our process and the more we are willing to listen to healthy constructive criticism, that can help us interact with our audiences. I think we need to listen to criticism and take it seriously. I also think we need to take seriously the portion of the population that doesn’t care about the news that we’re putting out and take seriously their reasons why. Over decades and generations, if you don’t see yourself represented or talking about the issues that matter to you in a way that is relatable, of course you’re going to tune out. And that conscious divestment isn’t the only influence on the failing business models for journalism. Not at all. A lot of that is about corporate consolidation and social media platforms. Some of the people who are underrepresented in our political systems also have good reason to distrust and divest from news outlets. Taking those voices and the criticisms of those communities very, very seriously, is another path to rebuilding trust. I think this idea that we should just appear objective is a very ill-informed way of thinking about how people develop trust. Trust is relational, it takes time. 

What are the challenges journalists from marginalized communities face when creating their own news? 

The challenges are all structural. But the funny thing is, marginalized people will always find a way to tell our stories. One way or another, we’re often doing it without the resources that it might take to do it as well as it could be done or as deeply. A lot of frustration for me was working within the public media system and desperately wanting these national news outlets to put those resources into the kinds of stories that could connect with the underserved populations. It’s about structural access to resources. Which is why a lot of people are working as journalists trying to land a job in mainstream media. Having weeks or months to work on feature or investigative stories as a freelancer or independent outlet is extremely hard. Once those resources are tapped into, who has access to them? 

What can happen when a journalist becomes the news? Can this affect the news coverage of a sensitive issue in real time? 

When journalists become the news, it can be for a variety of different reasons. But it’s complex. To not have your identity and body politicized or under attack is a form of  privilege. However, it can be a double standard for journalists who are constant targets because of their identity. For example, as I include in the book, I was fascinated by the New York media activists and queer media activists who reported on the gay community during the ’80s. Over time, it made it possible for journalists who were gay, to cover the AIDS crisis and make it visible. It was almost like a responsibility to do it justice. I think that kind of collective journalism is what matters entirely. It takes the presence of voices in the newsrooms, but also sometimes, louder voices outside of them. 

What do you hope audiences will take from The View From Somewhere? What does it mean to advocate for your work?

For the podcast episode that recently came out as part of our Kickstarter campaign, we talk about the “View from Somewhere” as an antidote to hopelessness. I think my collaborator Romana Martinez and I really want people to feel connected to these histories of journalists who have resisted and who stood up for justice. We want people to feel less hopeless about what’s possible. We don’t want people to give up on journalism because of the structural issues. We want people to take away that journalism still matters. It is a part of building toward collective freedom and liberation that is connected with history. I think it is a powerful way to be reminded of hope and possibility, that being part of change is possible.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about them”: A Q&A with human rights and international reporter Mariana Palau

Photo of Mariana Palau

Mariana Palau

Mariana Palau is a Colombian-American journalist based in Bogota, Colombia, who has covered the aftermath of a peace deal signed between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group. With support from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, Palau has dug into stories on the guerrilla groups that still exist in Colombia, causes of continued violence and the complications of bringing justice to those who committed war crimes. 

During a recent visit to the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus, we spoke with Palau about her experiences working with victims of trauma or violence and the ethical obligations she has to sources who may be fearful or skeptical of how their information will be used. 

What ethical boundaries do you consider when you work with vulnerable people? 

I spend a lot of time thinking about them, mainly because I don’t want to hurt them again. I don’t want to victimize them in any way. And so I make sure to know what my questions are and that the wording of them will not hurt them. I do however make it clear that they do not have to answer my questions if they feel really uncomfortable.

I give them that space to be comfortable and assure them that they’re not forced to do anything. I engage in conversation with them from the beginning. By getting just a little bit of trust, you put their worries at ease, at least for the moment. For someone who has been displaced, you aim to understand this phenomenon without pressuring them.

Has there been a time when you were interviewing someone and you felt like it was a bigger challenge than you expected?  

This happened in a very specific case in which I was going to interview a victim of sexual abuse. She had been abused through this hallucinogenic brew. They were placed in a psychiatric hospital at some point. But that was a while ago, and I was expecting to talk to somebody who was “completely sane.” I did find that they were a little off but in that circumstance the questions that I prepared were basically useless. The person wasn’t going to answer the questions, at least not in the way that I had expected. 

In that circumstance, I just engaged in conversation with this person. I also took everything that this person told me and double checked afterwards. But in those moments, things change and you have to improvise while still taking into account that you can’t leave this person simply because they throw you off.

Have there been any similarities in the people that you interview? 

They drastically change. I interview a lot of business people, people in the Army or in Colombia’s armed forces and for each, it’s a different experience. I’m always careful that they’re not going to spin me or tell me something that’s wrong. I always ask ‘how do you know?’ That is something very important to me. It ultimately depends on the source. Victims of trauma or violence aren’t looking to spin me so I hope to take their stories as they are. But of course, with some skepticism.

How do you adjust your ethical framework and how does it translate in different places? 

In a broader context, the ethics of journalism are changing with journalists. And somehow, I get the feeling that journalists don’t value publishing the truth as the first priority anymore. For myself, it translates with the sources that I have. Much of the time, my journalistic approach is challenged because of the media landscape. The power of social media is a power everyone does not consciously exercise and it’s very easy to spread lies. In this environment where everyone’s competing for everyone’s attention, I think it’s more likely that journalists are going to publish something that’s not true. You don’t have to be a public figure to have an impact, which can be good and dangerous. And I think that’s something we need to watch out for.

How do you deal with the difficulties of your own reporting at news organizations that you work for? Do you feel like they do enough to facilitate self-care given the often difficult work that you do? 

I’m very fortunate to work for a publication that covers me everywhere I go. Even in places that are considered safe, they have ways of following me around. In that sense, I feel completely backed up by my publication. When I do run into troubles and some people, usually politicians, do not agree with what I’ve published they begin to call my editors and throw a fit. My editors really do value and protect my work as a journalist, and I think that’s very important because with any reporting, especially international reporting, you can easily be bullied or intimidated.

What are the important ethical issues young reporters should consider when pursuing international reporting?

When you go to countries like Colombia, you have to be very strong in order to not fall under the charm that politicians will use in order to befriend a reporter. Once this line is crossed, you have an ethical problem because you feel an obligation to write something nice about them, which may not always be the truth. But in the U.S. and Europe, you’re under stricter rules because you want objective reporting, and I think that’s something that young journalists need to remember. If you want to pursue international journalism, stay strong in your position of unbiased journalism and look for the truth.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.