BEHIND THE STORY | Sense and sensibility

There are times when my sensibility gets in the way of being able to carry out my job as a writer, and there are times when it works for me. I’m constantly either pushing against it or allowing it, and then questioning myself afterward about whether I swayed too much one way or the other.

Specifically, I worry. I worry about the people I write about, especially when I’m writing about communities that have historically been underrepresented. I think a lot about privilege in my work, and how my access and/or gatekeeper status as a writer affects those communities. There’s a part of me that wants to be an ally, and that does play a role in how I cover things and what I cover, but I know that as a journalist I can never leave all objectivity behind. There’s a certain point — a line I have to draw where I have to use my best judgment and write what in my perspective is the truth, and sometimes not everybody is happy about that. 

I’m definitely in the camp of journalism that argues that transparency trumps objectivity, because if you set out to be objective, your values and worldview enter in the “back door,” as Leo Strauss would say. I do try to always be aware of that — of my own values and privilege and how they influence how I perceive things. At the same time, I’m writing for a general audience, and I have to be fair to all sides, even the ones I don’t agree with. I don’t believe in “balanced” journalism, because I don’t think it exists, but that doesn’t mean I think you can throw all objectivity out the window. 

It’s the worst feeling, to hear from people that I screwed up or was writing from a privileged perspective that I try so hard to fight against, but it happens — quite a bit, honestly. Over the years I have a thicker skin about these things, but I still fret endlessly about it.

Does it do any good, the hand wringing I do about how communities will react? Does it help my writing to beat myself up when I’m called out for writing from a privileged perspective? Maybe a little, maybe not. I doubt it’s the most emotionally healthy way to go about things, but that’s pretty much how I’ve managed to operate so far in my career. 

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  • Comment on a Sheila Regan column on the Twin Cities Daily Planet - I think your questioning and worrying about this stuff is part of what makes your work good. I've seen you change and get a better understanding of context, of what our white privilege means. The stories you cover are rarely covered (and almost never as well covered) in the corporate/mainstream press and that's something important for this town. I also think there's something to be unpacked in the 'objectivity' idea. For instance, if you see a campaign for justice, and there's a lot of male leadership and women in that campaign are critical of that, you can either focus on that criticism (which corporate journalists might, since they seem to like to undercut any justice campaigns (given they are biased in their ways)), report on the campaign and include the critique, or say 'this campaign is so important, I'm not going to mention the sexism.' As an ally to social justice, you can't do the first, as a journalist who feels the need to include all the important details, or calls it like you see it, you won't do the last. The middle path is the one I'd think you'd take. Yep, people might be pissed. Saul Alinsky would have said you ignore the negative and push the positive, since winning is the important thing. There's maybe some truth to that. But opposition to social justice will oppose whether they have a hook or not. And still, any critique will hurt and yeah, thicker skin is probably helpful. - by John Slade on Thu, 07/03/2014 - 11:20am
  • Comment on a Sheila Regan column on the Twin Cities Daily Planet - I think your questioning and worrying about this stuff is part of what makes your work good. I've seen you change and get a better understanding of context, of what our white privilege means. The stories you cover are rarely covered (and almost never as well covered) in the corporate/mainstream press and that's something important for this town. I also think there's something to be unpacked in the 'objectivity' idea. For instance, if you see a campaign for justice, and there's a lot of male leadership and women in that campaign are critical of that, you can either focus on that criticism (which corporate journalists might, since they seem to like to undercut any justice campaigns (given they are biased in their ways)), report on the campaign and include the critique, or say 'this campaign is so important, I'm not going to mention the sexism.' As an ally to social justice, you can't do the first, as a journalist who feels the need to include all the important details, or calls it like you see it, you won't do the last. The middle path is the one I'd think you'd take. Yep, people might be pissed. Saul Alinsky would have said you ignore the negative and push the positive, since winning is the important thing. There's maybe some truth to that. But opposition to social justice will oppose whether they have a hook or not. And still, any critique will hurt and yeah, thicker skin is probably helpful. - by John Slade on Thu, 07/03/2014 - 9:51am

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Sheila Regan's picture
Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan (sheila [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer.