FOR THE WEEK OF JUNE 29, 2020
Balance or ‘truth:’ Newspaper reporting standards are reviewed in this summer of discontent
Be an editor: Read about any controversy and tell whether the article presents facts and views fairly and usefully.
Identify a way this paper shows professional standards in design or reporting or its opinion section.
Now see if you can spot "loaded" language or a word choice that doesn't seem purely neutral, such as "claim" instead of "said."
Protests for racial justice and against police brutality focus fresh attention on how news media report on race, law enforcement and government. One focus of discussion inside and outside newsrooms is the concept of objectivity. Journalists traditionally claim to value being "objective," or neutral, about what they cover – as opposed to starting with a "subjective" view about what's right and wrong or true and false.
It's tricky – impossible, some say -- because every reporter and editor, like anyone else, is influenced at least a bit by past knowledge, personal views, life experience and biases that may be unrecognized. So "objectivity" is a goal that sounds ideal, but is hard to achieve or even define. College journalist Kamrin Baker, student newspaper editor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, tells Teen Vogue that the traditional goal involves "placing people on a level of objectivity that no one is capable of." She adds: "The truth is not neutral. In this political climate, the truth is that people are being oppressed, harmed, and lied to by government leaders, and it is not far-out to speak on those facts." Alex S. Jones, author of a 2009 book on this longtime debate, writes: "It is very rare that a reporter starts working on a story without having some notion as to what happened -- in other words, a point of view." Much more recently, "60 Minutes" reporter Wesley Lowery wrote in a New York Times opinion essay last week: "The mainstream [media] has allowed what it considers objective truth to be decided almost exclusively by white reporters and their mostly white bosses." He notes that objective journalism "is constructed atop a pyramid of subjective decision-making: which stories to cover, how intensely to cover those stories, which sources to seek out and include, which pieces of information are highlighted and which are downplayed." For example, many journalists in past decades accepted police departments as reliable information sources, but generally are more skeptical now.
A drawback of the quest for objectivity, critics say, can be an artificial false balance that gives the impression of at least two equal sides for each issue. That means giving equal time or space to those who deny climate change or defend Confederate monuments and flags. A prominent critic of that approach, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, mocks that approach as "the view from nowhere" – a disservice to readers who want journalists to evaluate information. Jones, the book author, supports what he calls "authentic journalistic objectivity," as contrasted with "the illusion of fairness by letting advocates pretend in your journalism that there is a debate about the facts when the weight of truth is clear."
Here's what a newspaper industry leader says last week in response to Lowery: "This notion of objectivity never was meant to be as simplistic as balance, or 'he said/he said' reporting. Journalism was always aimed at truth -- not mere accuracy," tweets Tom Rosenstiel, head of the American Press Institute, an educational nonprofit near Washington, D.C. For his part, Lowery suggests that journalists pledge to "devote ourselves to accuracy, to diligently seek out the perspectives of those with whom we personally may be inclined to disagree, and to be just as sure to ask hard questions of those with whom we’re inclined to agree." Easier said than done, of course, but the renewed discussion is among healthy signs of a country grappling with hard challenges after George Floyd's death while being arrested in Minneapolis last month.
Media scholar says: "Passionate independent inquiry does not mean mindlessly giving both sides equal treatment, thinking there are just two sides to a story, or using balance as an excuse for not doing the work of finding the truth." – Tom Rosenstiel, American Press Institute executive director
Defender says: "It is essential that genuine objectivity should remain the American journalistic standard, but we may be living through what could be considered objectivity's last stand." – Alex S. Jones, author, in "Losing the News"
Professor says: "This is a key moment in the history of newsroom objectivity." – Jay Rosen, New York University journalism professor
Front Page Talking Points Archive