Martinez: Marginalized journalists don’t need additional rules

Marissa Martinez, Opinion Editor

I’m currently enrolled in a religious studies/political science class called “Reporting Islam,” where a combination of political science, religious studies and journalism students discuss how mainstream media outlets cover Muslims in America and how they get it wrong. For our last class, we watched a pre-screening of a documentary called “The Feeling of Being Watched.”

The film is about FBI surveillance of Muslim communities in Bridgeview, Ill. — a community a few miles away from my own home — decades before 9/11. The documentary was a blending of personal accounts from director Assia Boundaoui’s family and neighbors with the processing of thousands of semi-redacted files from the FBI, law enforcement statements and more. The end result was a beautiful piece of personal connection, activism, art and journalism — something hard to explain but indescribably inspiring.

As a fellow woman of color, I felt validated by all the things Boundaoui said during her Q&A session in my class Thursday afternoon. One poignant sentence: “Objectivity in journalism is bullshit.”

I regularly receive emails of “advice” from people who read my columns, stating that I’m not doing my job as a journalist because my pieces lack “professionalism” and show my “prejudice” and “bias.” Others claim I have low levels of intelligence and am unable to use critical thinking, simply because I voice my opinion in the opinion section.

Bias is considered prejudice in favor or against something and is often considered unfair. The word gets thrown around a lot when analyzing journalism and even in Medill itself — “bias ruins newsrooms.” But as I’ve learned more from my classes and conversations with people, it is impossible to remove bias. We are human, we have thoughts, preconceived notions and evolving ideas. We all have inherent biases. Pretending they’re not there will never solve anything. Instead, we must examine our thoughts frequently, both as journalists and as consumers of news. Why do we think the things we do? How do we acknowledge these thoughts within a media context?

At the same time, marginalized people are always seen as being affected more by biases than those in the majority. If our identities are particularly close to a story, we are automatically considered biased when we report on it. We are walking conflicts of interest. We constantly have to police ourselves when interviewing, writing and editing in ways that much of the rest of the newsroom will never know.

But marginalized reporters take journalism so personally because we need to. The policies we cover, the attacks we report on, the insults we face — they’re all personal. They affect our families, our neighborhoods, our communities. To artificially distance ourselves from a story and ignore its context is to fail as journalists. Backing away from that bias does nothing for ourselves or our publications. In fact, it makes coverage worse.

So we often have to sit and watch other reporters cover things we know well — discrimination, harassment, deep-seeded pain. They can parachute in, discover our trauma anew, and be airlifted out, as Boundaoui noted. This isn’t an argument for journalists to be pigeonholed into only reporting on their own communities, but newsroom leaders need to understand how hard a balance it is to strike in the first place.

I don’t mind the emails, the comments and the overall dismissiveness of what I do. That’s part of the job, akin to the grease stains on a chef’s apron or the paint-covered hands of an artist. They’re things I’ll have to deal with for the rest of my career as a woman of color.

But it does make me reevaluate what my role is as an opinion writer. Opinion is journalism — that’s an unarguable fact. However, it is said to have a direct purpose: persuading people. After being on this desk, I’m not sure if that’s true.

Boundaoui said empathy only goes so far. The typical rallying cry of this section is that personal stories effect change. While data does back that up, I have to question if it’s worth it. To me, the most effective journalism isn’t about changing a few minds here and there, although that can be a nice goal. What we actually need to fix is power structures, the ones that over the past hundred years surveilled hundreds of thousands of Americans like the ones featured in Boundaoui’s film.

That won’t happen if we continue to discount marginalized voices, voices that are often allowed to shine in a limited capacity — especially in opinion sections — because of the barriers that keep them out of newsrooms in the first place. They are barred from breaking the white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative rules that define journalism as it is practiced currently and taught to the next generation. We are constantly forced to reformat our perspectives to fit a system that doesn’t want us in the first place. Our intended audiences are erased in favor of a vague readership that has no interest in reading our pieces to begin with.

Opinion is about presenting a counternarrative. It’s about showcasing a new perspective. It is absolutely vital to journalism. And it’s also very hard.

However, hearing Boundaoui talk about how much the documentary meant to her, the communities she covered and how journalism can help heal and support just as much as it can harm us made me hopeful. Someday, newsrooms won’t be as closed off — that’s something I’m actively trying to fight in many ways. In the meantime, I will continue to try to open this section and my other reporting to inspire other writers to fight as well.

Marissa Martinez is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.