In America, politicaland commercial strains have led to questions about its value and meaning
Have youheard the news? It’s about the news. Ascorrespondents covered the widespread protests on the streets of America inrecent months, many were engaged in a parallel protest of their own—againsttheir employers. On private Slack channels, public Twitter feeds and in op-edcolumns, journalists revolted. Editors apologised, promised change and in somecases were sacked, their downfall promptly written up in their own papers.
The immediate cause of this rebellion is race: how it isreported and how it is represented among staff. More than 150Wall StreetJournalemployees signed a letter saying that they “find the way we coverrace to be problematic”. Over 500 at theWashington Postendorseddemands for “combating racism and discrimination” at the paper. Journalists attheNew York Timestweeted that a senator’s op-ed advocating a showof military force to restore order “puts black @nytimes staff in danger”.
But at the heart of many of these arguments is anotherdisagreement, about the nature and purpose of journalism. As a Bloomberg employeeis said to have remarked at a recent meeting, reporters are meant to beobjective, but to many the distinction between right and wrong now seemsobvious. A new generation of journalists is questioning whether, in ahyper-partisan, digital world, objectivity is even desirable. “Americanview-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failedexperiment,” tweeted Wesley Lowery, a Pulitzer-winning 30-year-old now atcbsNews.The dean of Columbia Journalism School described objectivity as an “inheritedshibboleth” in a message to students. TheColumbia Journalism Reviewpondered:“What comes after we get rid of objectivity in journalism?”
Objectivity hasn’t always been a journalistic ideal. EarlyAmerican newspapers read a bit like today’s blogs, says Tom Rosenstiel of theAmerican Press Institute (api), an industry group. Benjamin Franklin’sPennsylvaniaGazetteand Alexander Hamilton’sGazette of the United Stateswereunashamedly partisan. As they sought wider audiences in the 19th century,newspapers became more concerned with what they called “realism”. Some of thiswas provided by the Associated Press (ap), founded in 1846, which suppliedstories to papers of diverse political leanings and so stuck to the facts. Asthe news pages became more even-handed, publishers established editorial pages,on which they could continue to back their favoured politicians.
Hot takes andalternative facts
Only in the 1920s did objectivity truly gain currency. “ATest of the News”, by Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz, found that theNewYork Times’ coverage of the Russian revolution was rife with what today mightbe called unconscious bias. “In the large, the news about Russia is a case ofseeing not what was, but what men wished to see,” they wrote. At the same time,as communism advanced, Joseph Pulitzer’s view of the centrality of journalismto democracy—“Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together”—gainedadherents. These lofty aims overlapped with commercial ones. Advertisers wantedless partisan coverage to sit alongside their messages.
And so objectivity became journalism’s new lodestar. AsLippmann put it, the journalist should “remain clear and free of hisirrational, his unexamined, his unacknowledged prejudgments in observing,understanding and presenting the news.”
A century later, four trends have put this principle understrain. (The Economist, a British publication, has grappled with most of them.)One is Donald Trump’s rise and the challenges it has posed to traditionalreporting. Some of his statements can be accurately described as lies, or asracist. But such words are so seldom used of sitting presidents—except bypartisans—that writers and editors have reached for euphemisms. After Mr Trumptold four non-white congresswomen to “go back” to the “crime-infested placesfrom which they came”, theWall Street Journalcalled his words“racially charged”; theTimesplumped for “racially infused”.
The Trump era has also exposed problems with journalisticnotions of balance. Giving equal weight to both sides of an argument is an easyshortcut to appearing objective. Yet this “bothsidesism” has sometimes come toseem misleading. At an impeachment hearing in December, “the lawmakers from thetwo parties could not even agree on a basic set of facts in front of them,”reported theTimes. Which facts were real? Readers were left to guess.
A second cause of doubts about objectivity is the changingmake-up of the American newsroom. Amid more diverse recruitment, the share oftheTimes’ editorial staff who are white is falling; the proportion whoare women is rising. Not only has this sharpened sensitivity to odd phraseslike “racially infused”; it has also made some wonder if the “objective”viewpoint is in fact a white, male one. The “view from nowhere” is just theview of “a white guy who doesn’t even exist”, Dan Froomkin, an outspoken mediacritic, has argued.
Concerns like these might in the past have remained on theshop floor. But a third factor—the rise of social media—has given dissenters amegaphone. It has also highlighted the contrast between the detached stylejournalists are meant to adopt in print and the personal approach many employonline—something bosses seem unsure whether to encourage or deter. Readers, fortheir part, are bathed on the web in highly partisan content that whets theirappetite for more opinionated news. The division between news and comment,clear on paper in American journalism, dissolves on the internet. A study fortheapiin 2018 found that 75% of Americans could easily tell newsfrom opinion in their favoured outlet, but only 43% could on Twitter orFacebook.
The final reason for the turn against objectivity iscommercial. The shift away from partisanship a century ago was driven partly byadvertisers. Today, as ad revenues leak away to search engines and socialnetworks, newspapers have come to rely more on paying readers. Unlikeadvertisers, readers love opinion. Moreover, digital publication means Americanpapers no longer compete regionally, but nationally. “The local business modelwas predicated on dominating coverage of a certain place; the national businessmodel is about securing the loyalties of a certain kind of person,” wrote EzraKlein ofVox. Left-leaning New Yorkers may switch to theWashingtonPostif theTimesupsets them. The incentive to keep readershappy—and the penalty for failing—are greater than ever.
These pressures are changing the way newspapers report. Lastyearap’s style book declared: “Do not use racially charged or similarterms as euphemisms for racist or racism when the latter terms are trulyapplicable.” Some organisations have embraced, even emblazoned taboo words: “AFascist Trump Rally In Greenville” ran a headline last year in theHuffingtonPost. Others are inserting more value judgments into their copy. A front-pagenews piece in theTimesthis month began:
President Trump used the spotlight of the Fourth of Julyweekend to sow division during a national crisis, denying his failings incontaining the worsening coronavirus pandemic while delivering a harsh diatribeagainst what he branded the “new far-left fascism”.
Disenchanted with objectivity, some journalists havealighted on a new ideal: “moral clarity”. The phrase, initially popularised onthe right, has been adopted by those who want newspapers to make clearer callson matters such as racism. Mr Lowery repeatedly used the phrase in arecentTimesop-ed, in which he called for the industry “to abandonthe appearance of objectivity as the aspirational journalistic standard, andfor reporters instead to focus on being fair and telling the truth, as best asone can, based on the given context and available facts.” The editor oftheTimes, Dean Baquet, called Mr Lowery’s column “terrific” in aninterview with the “Longform” podcast. Objectivity has been “turned into acartoon”, he said. Better to aim for values such as fairness, independence andempathy.
Back in the 1920s, Lippmann might have agreed with much ofthis. He saw objectivity not as a magical state of mind or a view from nowhere,but as a practical process. Journalism should aim for “a common intellectual methodand a common area of valid fact”, he wrote. That does not mean using euphemismsin place of plain language, or parroting both sides of an argument withouttesting them. Indeed, when journalism has erred in recent years, it has oftendone so by misinterpreting objectivity, rather than upholding it. The mostpersuasive calls for moral clarity today articulate something close toLippmann’s original conception of objectivity.
The danger is that advocates of moral clarity slideself-righteously towards crude subjectivity. This week Bari Weiss, aTimeseditor,resigned, criticising what she said was the new consensus at the paper: “thattruth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already knownto an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.” Earlier Mr Rosenstiel warned, in a largelysupportive response to Mr Lowery’s column, that “if journalists replace aflawed understanding of objectivity by taking refuge in subjectivity and thinktheir opinions have more moral integrity than genuine inquiry, journalism willbe lost.” July 16, 2020