The killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and the protests that followed, helped spark a debate in many newsrooms and journalism schools around the country about the time-honored principle of objectivity in journalism, and whether it serves any useful purpose. Former Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery wrote in the New York Times that what we call objective journalism “is constructed atop a pyramid of subjective decision-making,” and has been defined “almost exclusively by white reporters and their mostly white bosses.” Since then, journalists at the Los Angeles Times and other newsrooms have spoken out about their longstanding experiences of racism, and the impact those have had on the journalism they and their employers do. So is objectivity a relic? And if so, what should we replace it with? We got a group of journalists and other experts together on CJR’s Galley platform this week for a virtual panel discussion on those and other related questions.
Lewis Raven Wallace is a writer, journalist, and author of the recent book The View From Somewhere, as well as the host of a podcast of the same name. He is also a co-founder of Press On, a Southern collective of journalists, storytellers, and organizers that uses journalism in the service of liberation. Wallace’s book is based in part on his personal experience as a former reporter for Marketplace, from which he was fired in 2017 after he wrote a blog post questioning the idea of objective journalism. “As a transgender journalist, it was a scary time,” he said during our interview. “I didn’t feel I could or should have to be silent about the Trump administration’s attacks on trans people, people of color, and freedom of the press.” Wallace said, in his view, it’s not an either/or debate between personal journalism versus objective journalism. “I believe objectivity itself is a myth that’s been perpetuated based on a normative white male cisgender perspective in journalism,” he said. “The journalism we call objective is generally just biased towards acceptable social and political norms.”
The media, Wallace said, needs to think about “the relationship between journalism, identity, community, and truth.” Focusing on that relationship can offer a path forward for journalism that rebuilds trust with audiences, he said—trust that has been lost after decades of supposed objectivity.
Morgan Givens also argued that there needs to be a complete reframing of what journalism is and how it operates. Givens is a writer, performer, and audio producer based in Washington, DC. He works with NPR and WAMU, and is also a former police officer who worked in prisons to eliminate sexual violence. “Black Americans have always lived in a United States where police killed us and still do with impunity, but this was an America that white journalistic institutions and those who allow them to function ignored,” he said. “Is ignoring these communities an example of being objective or ignoring the truth because the reality makes white journalists uncomfortable?”
Heather Chaplin is the founding director of Journalism + Design at the New School. She is also co-host of the podcast Tricky and has been a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. She told CJR’s Josh Young that she tries to distinguish between objectivity and “neutrality, which is a concept that has never made any sense to me. I think what people are upset about, and incorrectly calling objectivity, is really BS neutrality. When the New York Times bends over backwards to give voice to someone espousing obviously racist views that’s not objective. That’s trying to adhere to a nonsensical notion of neutrality.”
Brent Cunningham is the executive editor of the Food and Environment Reporting Network, and a former deputy editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, where he wrote a piece for the magazine in 2003 entitled “Rethinking Objectivity.” He said he agrees with Wesley Lowery that “this embrace of an impossible standard has produced coverage that fails to convey the truth of a given situation, given cover to lazy reporting, and allowed those who would spin and distort the truth the ability to do so without being called on it.”
Will Meyer is a writer, editor, and musician from western Massachusetts and editor of a local publication called The Shoestring. He told CJR that in addition to moving beyond a commitment to an old-fashioned concept like objectivity, “I would argue that [we] need to move beyond an advertising/commercially driven press system. Yes, the objectivity standard absolutely privileges the white male vantage point, and I would agree with everyone who says there needs to be more work on diversifying newsrooms.” But Meyer said he also thinks that the practice of journalism has to “think about moving beyond the commercial pressures that created this shoddy standard to begin with.”
Here’s more on objectivity and newsrooms:
- Rigor: Wallace said in his interview that just because he isn’t a fan of traditional objectivity, “this doesn’t mean that I don’t advocate for rigor and meticulousness and the use of some of these methods, such as seeking multiple sources, eye witnesses, careful data analysis, etc.” Fudging numbers and interpreting them based on your own biases are two different things, he said. “Lying, and applying a frame to facts and truth, are also two different things. Neither are objective, but the latter is what we are all doing in all of our efforts at journalism. So we also need more nuance in how we talk about work that isn’t objective. Is it evidence-based? Is it transparent about its methods? Is it transparent about its biases?”
- Failure: If we can recognize the ways our society has failed in considering the idea of objectivity, Givens said, “if we can take the time to pause and reflect when we have a biased idea or a prejudiced thought, if we can recognize it in ourselves, then we can get to the truth.” It’s only when we fail to recognize our own human nature and the biases we already have, he argues, “that we miss the truth. This isn’t about losing the ability of journalism to shake the foundations of power and be truth tellers, it’s about allowing others to tell the truth that has always been ignored, and that will make many people uncomfortable in the beginning.”
- Commerce: Cunningham explained that the emergence of so-called objective journalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had a noble goal, but also one that was perhaps less noble. “The idea of an objective take on the news—as opposed to the rampant partisanship that had always characterized news coverage—seemed like a step forward,” he says. “But at the same time, the Penny Press movement was taking newspapers to a mass audience, with support from advertisers, as the nation industrialized. Those advertisers—same as their counterparts today—were eager to have their ads appeal to as many people as possible, and so the news that surrounded them needed to be as inoffensive to partisan ideologies as possible. So progress had a commercial end as well.”
- Bias: Mark Lukasiewicz is Dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, and was a longtime producer at NBC News and ABC News. He described how early in his career he reported on the Solidarność labor movement in Poland, despite the fact that his parents were Polish and supporters of the movement. “Compare that to the recent incident at the Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh,” he said, where reporter Alexis Johnson wasn’t allowed to cover the protests because of a single humorous tweet “comparing the aftermath of looting to a Kenny Chesney tailgate party. Generations apart, a stark difference in whose bias is tolerated, and whose is forgiven or ignored,” Lukasiewicz said.
Other notable stories:
- Tribune Publishing has struck a deal with its largest shareholder, Alden Global Capital, that adds the hedge fund’s co-founder, Randall Smith, to the newspaper company’s board, while extending an ownership standstill agreement until next year, the Chicago Tribune reported. The addition of Smith as a director, approved at a special board meeting Wednesday, gives Alden three seats on the now seven-member board. The standstill agreement keeps Alden’s stake capped at thirty-three percent until after Tribune Publishing’s next annual shareholder meeting, which can take place no later than June 15, 2021.
- Fox News says that it has fired America’s Newsroom anchor and former chief White House correspondent Ed Henry over sexual misconduct claims. “On Thursday, June 25, we received a complaint about Ed Henry from a former employee’s attorney involving willful sexual misconduct in the workplace years ago,” Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott and president Jay Wallace wrote in a memo to staff Wednesday morning. “Ed was suspended the same day and immediately removed from his on-air responsibilities pending investigation. Based on investigative findings, Ed has been terminated.” Henry’s attorney said that Henry denies the allegations “and is confident that he will be vindicated.”
- Peter Meehan, former Los Angeles Times food editor, has resigned from the paper after being accused on social media of fostering an abusive work environment for his employees. “Tweets on Monday alleged a number of things I don’t think are true, but they also compelled my staff to speak out,” Meehan wrote on Twitter. “I lost sight of people and their feelings. That is a terrible failing on my part. I offer actual sincere non-PR apologies to all of them and to anybody who my approach to editing and management hurt.” The accusations against Meehan were first shared by the food writer Tammie Teclemariam. Vice also reported on what appears to be a groundswell of criticism of Times executive editor Norman Pearlstine.
- A group of senators from both the Republican and Democratic parties have written to Michael Pack, the new CEO of the US Agency for Global Media, questioning his decision to remove all of the agency’s network heads in one fell swoop. “Given the bipartisan and bicameral concern with recent events, we intend to do a thorough review of USAGM’s funding to ensure that United States international broadcasting is not politicized and the agency is able to fully and effectively carry out its core mission,” the senators wrote in their statement. The group includes Trump allies Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham.
- Jacob Silverman writes for CJR about the challenges of reporting on Facebook, which engages in spin, obfuscation and even outright lying. Silverman spoke with more than fifteen journalists and industry observers who described attempts to stop them from reporting on the company, and other gambits designed to foil investigative journalism about the social network. “One longtime Silicon Valley reporter who covers Facebook told me the company has a history of front-running stories—feeding information to other publications to get ahead of potentially bad press,” Silverman writes. “It has demanded, and received, approval for quotes. Several reporters told me that Facebook, like other large tech companies, makes aggressive use of off-the-record sourcing to obstruct the reporting process.”
- Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn has started courting his devoted fans in the QAnon conspiracy theory, sending out signals of support for the underground movement that the FBI considers a potential domestic terror threat, according to a report by Will Sommer for The Daily Beast. “Flynn, who won a legal victory last week after an appeals court panel ordered a federal court judge to end the Justice Department’s case against him, recently added a QAnon hashtag to his Twitter bio,” writes Sommer, who adds that Flynn has “started writing an internet column filled with QAnon-style imagery.”
- Advertisements for more than 400 brands, including Coca-Cola and Starbucks, vanished from Facebook on Wednesday after the failure of last-ditch talks to stop a boycott over hate speech on the site, Reuters reported. Facebook executives including the vice president of global business solutions and the public policy director held at least two meetings with advertisers on Tuesday, the eve of the planned one-month boycott, three sources who participated in the calls told the news agency. Meanwhile, Nick Clegg, VP of communications for Facebook, wrote that the social network “does not benefit from hate,” and CNN noted that of the top 25 advertisers on Facebook, only three have paused their spending. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has agreed to meet with groups calling for a boycott.
- A New York appellate judge ruled on Wednesday that the publisher Simon & Schuster could go ahead with its plans to release a tell-all book by Mary L. Trump, the niece of President Trump, reversing a lower court’s decision from this week that had temporarily halted publication. The decision by the judge means that Simon & Schuster can move forward in publishing the book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, which is scheduled to be released at the end of July.