You are not objective

Way back when my hair was dark and my stomach was flat, I got a job on a small daily newspaper. Hiring me was a subjective decision on the part of the editor. Even back then newspapers had a high ratio of applicants to jobs.

As typically happens with the new guy, I was handed the cops-n-courts beat. But while that may have been tradition, it was still a subjective decision.

On my beat I had to cover the police department, fire department, municipal court and superior court in town, plus the county sheriff’s office and the local operations of the state Highway Patrol. How I divided my time among all those agencies was another subjective decision. And within each one there were still more subjective decisions to make.

Let’s zoom in on one part, the county courthouse: It was a small town, but the courthouse still had several courtrooms running simultaneously. Which cases should I pay attention to? If something was happening with more than one important case at a time, which one should I sit in on? How late could I stay and still have time to go back to my desk to write the story? The paper did not give me unlimited space for my words, so which were the most important parts of the case to report?

Once I turned in the story, the editors would make their own subjective decisions about how well I’d written it and where to place it in that day’s layout.

So here we have one subjective decision building on another, creating a chain of dozens by the time the paperboy rounds the corner on his bicycle and throws the latest edition into the bushes.

More than once I had an unhappy reader ask, “Why can’t the stories just be objective?”

I’d like to think that most reasonable people would have made most of the same decisions that I made in handling my beat. At least I’d expect most of them to understand my decisions, even if they might have made other choices. But that’s consensus, not objectivity. A bias is still a bias even if everyone shares it.

I’m not sure it’s even possible for a human being to write objectively in any meaningful sense of the word. You can try to be dispassionate, detached, fair, rational and analytical, but you will always have to make choices. Each time you are saying, “this choice is better than the others.”

Even if you are just listing names and numbers, you have to choose a form: Alphabetical? Largest to smallest? Oldest to newest? How about by importance?

So no matter how dull and dry a subject you have sitting in front of you, don’t fool yourself for a moment that you are being entirely objective.

And that’s OK. There’s nothing inherently wrong with subjectivity. It’s one of the things that gives you value as a writer. You are imposing some degree of order on chaos. You are using your skills to condense and shape bits of life in such a way that other people can make sense of them. And that’s objectively a good thing.

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