No news is good news

COMMENTARY | AUGUST 30TH, 2012
No news is good news
Breaking down the myth of objectivity
Written by Joan Moses | Photo by Jaqueline Brandon | The McGill Daily

It was widely reported that, on August 22, many people marched on the streets of Montreal. Most media sources also agreed that these people were demonstrating against Quebec’s proposed tuition hikes, and part of a loosely defined “Quebec Student Movement.”

Beyond that, though, media outlets’ reports did not seem to converge on many details of the march. For example, the Link, Concordia’s student newspaper, stated in an article entitled “The Last Day of Action” that “this protest was specifically focused on what Quebec’s new government should be,” while rabble.ca, an alternative news website, implied the marchers had a broader motivation, titling their article, “Tens of thousands march for social justice in Montreal.” And while the Montreal Gazette, in “Thousands of students and supporters stage peaceful demonstration,” drew focus to the fact that “numbers were far short of those seen last spring,” rabble.ca announced that this demo was yet another “monster, monthly [march].”

Even reports of the number of people marching – a fact that would seem to be objective – varied widely. A counting firm hired by Radio-Canada reported that 12,250 people had protested; a journalist writing for rabble.ca said that it “exceeded 50,000.” La Coalition large de l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (CLASSE), a coalition that took part in organazing the march, said that 100,000 people attended.

The facts of the march, then, remain unclear, despite numerous articles. A single reality of the march remains undiscovered by journalists in anglophone Quebec media (whose coverage of the Quebec student movement, it should be noted, has been notoriously bad).

The differences between these accounts of the march illustrate a larger point about journalism. While journalists speak of attempting to attain a kind of ‘objectivity’ or ‘neutrality’ in their reporting (for example, news editors last year at The Daily refrained from wearing red squares in order to not appear biased), objective truth often isn’t attainable in reporting. Sometimes, it can be literally impossible to find. In the case of the march, for example, it wouldn’t be possible to speak to every protester in order to discover what their ‘real’ motivations are.

Further, in the case of almost every story, facts are contextualized by journalists in a subjective way. Journalists choose what background to flesh out a story with, what sources to quote, and where to put these quotes in the story. In short, they narrativize the facts they find, framing them to make sense of them and to explain them to the reader. Even the hardest of news stories contain a subjective, interpretive element.

This subjective element is crucial to the practice of journalism, and it shouldn’t be glossed over. When journalists claim to be objective, they risk offering one interpretation of reality as the only interpretation, and thus erase the voices and experiences of those who weren’t included in the account. Further, a publication’s positionality and political leanings affect its interpretation: the mainstream Gazette covered the August 22 march in a more negative light than the progressive and independent rabble.ca. 

Many alternative publications, including The Daily, recognize that journalism can’t be a neutral pursuit. This recognition needs to become more widespread. Journalists shouldn’t despair, but they should disclose their biases and understand that their social position affects how, what, and why they report. We need to give up the fallacy of objectivity and start practicing a journalism that recognizes the incompleteness of its own truths.

Joan Moses is a U3 Honours Political Science student, and a former Daily Coordinating and Design & Production Editor. She thinks most journalism is macho bullshit, but still harbours a secret love for All the President’s Men.

A diversity of tagtics

A diversity of tagtics
Why we write graffiti
Written by Seamus Mercury * | Photo by Hera Chan

When viewing the Montreal skyline from the chalet on Mount Royal, most people focus on the snow-topped buildings and the bridges in the distance. As in most cities, the logos and text of corporations, banks, and hotels stand taller than any church or library. But there are those who search for the mark of a city’s authentic inhabitants, those who search for the writing on the wall. What captures their attention is the gigantic “VC” painted on an industrial tower towards the southwest. These people are graffiti writers: the inhabitants of cities around the world who know their environment better than any bike messenger or cab driver, and who take the advice of “making your mark” quite literally, and very seriously.

Regrettably, the state deems these graffiti writers to be criminals. Members of the public, who only want to consume graffiti when it has been repackaged and sold back to the streets that created it via commodified art and marketing campaigns, perpetuate this criminalization of public art and expression.

The demonization of graffiti has happened through the marginalization and stereotyping of writers as malicious and mischievous youths. Most notably, the development of the “Broken Window Theory” by social scientists in the early eighties unjustifiably tied all graffiti to antisocial behavior, and denied graffiti its aesthetic merit and nature as an invaluable resource for social history.

Indeed, there is no such thing as a typical graffiti writer. From rich to poor and left to right, all kinds of people write graffiti and they do so for very different reasons. Writers in the modern school of graffiti, which emerged in New York City in the second half of the 20th century, leave their homes at four in the morning with a backpack full of paint because they want to see their name in every neighbourhood and on every block. The motivation may be for themselves, other graffiti writers, or the public, but the ultimate goal of “getting up” consumes those who dedicate their life to ensuring that everyone in their city knows their name, but not their face.

Once one’s name is on the street, one’s reputation needs to be maintained. For many, graffiti can become an addiction as the repetition develops a profound intensity. But this world of graffiti isn’t a game. The egos, violence, drugs, passion, legends, and the smell of fresh paint on the cold night air are all part of the nocturnal art whose effects are only revealed as the sun rises.

In conversations concerning graffiti, the typical refrain goes something like this: “The colourful murals are really great, but not that stupid tagging shit.” But this is an ignorant position. If it’s an aesthetic judgment, then sure, everyone is entitled to their own taste. But without that first tag scrawled in an alley, the graffiti writer who now paints murals would never be where they are now. Graffiti, as with all forms of art, is a process of developing and harnessing talent, and this maturity grows in the can. A little tag evolves into a throw up, which evolves into a burner, which then evolves into a piece; Sharpie scrawls and commissioned stencils are co-dependent entities within the city.

But these murals, tags, and pieces occupy space that the ruling class deem only fit for profit. Every day, we are subjugated to absurd amounts of advertising visible from virtually every vantage point. On the streets, they are the only legal additions to the built environment. Indeed, just to hang a poster in the SSMU building necessitates approval from someone. By writing on walls, be it a political message or a tag or a heart, people challenge a system that says art in public space should only exist to sell.

In Montreal, the Quebec student movement was quick to utilize graffiti as a tool for political dissent. After the manifs had finished for the night, painted messages on walls, wheat-pasted posters on lampposts, and red square stickers everywhere maintained the physical presence of political engagement.

For some, graffiti is about reaction. When a city dweller living out their daily routine notices ink on a wall, their mental state is altered, if only for a split second. Their reaction could be laughter, annoyance, curiosity, or anger, but what matters is the invisible connection between artist and viewer. For in that moment, the mundane glimpses the extraordinary like the darkness between frames on film; in a world increasingly characterized by isolation, moments like this should be cherished.

By taking the art from museums to the street, the ephemeral nature of existence becomes physically present. What is painted on a wall one day can be covered up the next, but this destruction only creates a new canvas for the next individual willing to break the law in the name of expression. Indeed, graffiti writers, consciously or not, are responding to capitalist societies that are both alienating and debilitating in their colonization of public space. So get yourself some paint, hit the streets, and authentically and subversively engage with your city! Just don’t write over someone else.