This is the second post of three on media. The first post, Monday, was on Gerth’s piece in the Columbia Journalism Review that raised issues of whether the Times was following its own rules, and how such outlets might increase trust- via various forms of accountability and transparency. It looks like Gerth’s piece was posted on January 30.
In this post, we’ll take a look at a WaPo opinion piece by a former executive editor “Newsrooms that move beyond “objectivity” can build trust.” It also appears to have been posted on January 30.
But increasingly, reporters, editors and media critics argue that the concept of journalistic objectivity is a distortion of reality. They point out that the standard was dictated over decades by male editors in predominantly White newsrooms and reinforced their own view of the world. They believe that pursuing objectivity can lead to false balance or misleading “bothsidesism” in covering stories about race, the treatment of women, LGBTQ+ rights, income inequality, climate change and many other subjects. And, in today’s diversifying newsrooms, they feel it negates many of their own identities, life experiences and cultural contexts, keeping them from pursuing truth in their work.
As a veteran of many TSW discussions, I agree that individual and diverse perspectives are important in the newsroom, as everywhere else. And that is how we jointly make a world, by sharing our own truths and seeking the outlines of the bigger truth, as in the old blind men and the elephant story. As Wikipedia says, in that ancient parable, the moral is that humans have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on their limited, subjective experience as they ignore other people’s limited, subjective experiences which may be equally true.
Let’s parse out the last sentence. The subject seems to be “the concept of journalistic objectivity” which “negates many of their own identities, life experiences and cultural contexts, keeping them from pursuing truth in their work.” So it sounds like he is arguing:
- We should trust what journalists say.
- Journalists no longer need to explain other peoples’ points of view because
- Their truth is more true than other peoples’ truth.
And we know that because they earnestly believe it to be so.
Sorry, this does not build my trust.
Then Downie goes on to add some more practical suggestions that might help build trust:
We urge news organizations to, first, strive not just for accuracy based on verifiable facts but also for truth — what Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward have called “the best obtainable version of the truth.” This means original journalism that includes investigating and reporting on all aspects of American life.
Newsroom staff diversity should reflect the communities being covered — not just gender and ethnic diversity but also diversity of economic, educational, geographic and social backgrounds. Inclusive newsrooms should encourage their journalists to speak up and be heard by their colleagues and leaders in making decisions about coverage.
News media should also be as transparent as possible about their newsgathering decisions and processes. When possible, they should hire or designate an editor to field and act on reader complaints and questions.
Responsible news organizations need to develop core values by having candid, inclusive and open conversations. Making these values public could well forge a stronger connection between journalists and the public.
I think “making these values public” but more importantly “living up to those values” would forge a stronger connection with the public. I think it would be helpful if they would provide a list of “expectations of reporting,” and then have a person designated to help readers track accountability (“complaints” have a negative connotation). For example, I had never heard of some of the NY Times requirements Gerth wrote about. I’d suggest an Office of Journalistic Accountability, at least for the WaPo and the NYT. It seems to me that in terms of equity, there is an argument to be made that those whose profession includes holding others accountable should have their own public processes for others to hold them accountable. Sauce for the goose and all that.