A great idea that has been trashed over the last few years is that of objective journalism. Remember Sgt. Friday in the original Dragnet TV series? His famous line was “Just the facts, ma’am.” And really, that’s what we need and all that we need.
Yet it appears we are very much heading toward the European media model where what you watch or read depends on whatever reinforces your beliefs.
I was trained old school in that if you stick to the facts in straight news reporting, and always try to get both sides of a controversial issue, the result will be a true and balanced account.
This idea served me well at the Associated Press where I spent 15 years overseas reporting from right-wing dictatorships like Somoza’s Nicaragua and Pinochet’s Chile, and also the then-Communist countries of Eastern Europe. Sticking to the facts got me by in situations where government watchdogs were spoiling for a fight. But if the stories I wrote were accurate and balanced, there wasn’t much they could complain about.
Yet the concept of objectivity seems to be waning even to some extent at my old alma mater, the Associated Press. Top editors now seem to be bending over backward in the interest of promoting “social justice.”
For example, AP staffers were recently encouraged to stop using the word “riot” in describing “protests” that turn violent. Webster’s provides a clear distinction between riot and protest. To my mind when a protest degenerates into shooting, looting and arson, you got a riot.
The argument for trashing objectivity is that it no longer serves any purpose because, as former Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery wrote in the New York Times, it “is constructed atop a pyramid of subjective decision-making defined … almost exclusively by white reporters and their mostly white bosses.”
This is not that hard folks. If you report on a protest all you have to do is reflect what happened. Report how many turned out, why, what they did and what they accomplished?
What is not needed is a reporter’s opinion on whether or not the protestors or authorities were justified in their actions. Present the facts. People will figure it out.
What is even more troubling is that the idea of crusading news reporters seems to be percolating to some of our educational institutions.
Lewis Raven Wallace, co-founder of a Southern collective of journalists and storytellers, suggests journalism should be used in the service of liberation. However, Wallace acknowledges writing that got him fired in 2017.
“As a transgender journalist, it was a scary time. 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.” He added that, “I believe objectivity itself is a myth that’s been perpetuated based on a normative white male cisgender perspective in journalism.”
Raven Wallace’s problem is his inability to keep fact-based reporting and opinion separate. There is plenty of room for opinion but it should not be woven into a factual report and it should be labeled as such.
No less than a professor emeritus of journalism at Stanford University says, “It’s time for reporters to abandon objectivity and become warriors for ‘social justice.’”
In an interview with the Stanford Daily he said, “Journalists need to be overt and candid advocates for social justice, and it’s hard to do that under the constraints of objectivity.”
“Journalism,” he said, “should free itself from this notion of objectivity to develop a sense of social justice.”
He is not alone. the Columbia Journalism Review, a respected trade publication, recently compiled a list of social justice related actions at various schools. Here are a few highlights:
Editors at the University of Missouri student newspaper, the Maneater, decided to require links to Black Lives Matter fundraisers at the end of every related story this past summer.
The Diversity & Inclusion board at the U.T. Daily Texan asked staffers NOT to report whether a victim of police brutality was armed.
The Daily Northwestern at wife Ellie’s alma mater apologized for covering and photographing student demonstrators during protests over a visit by Jeff Sessions, who was the attorney general at the time. The statement suggested that in publishing photos of protestors they had covered the story “in an insensitive and hurtful manner.”
The good news here is that most newspapers and local television news reports are still trying to report without any kind of agenda. The same cannot be said about some of the national networks and some of our national newspapers, like the New York Times, and that is unfortunate.