What is newsroom objectivity?

(This is an expansion of this thread)

When is a news organization being fair to a range of good-faith perspectives, and when is that newsroom retreating from a moral responsibility? When is a reporter taking a partisan stance and when is it a stance for justice?

With the rise of the social web in the last 20 years, this reevaluation of journalistic principle has been frequently described through the lens of newsroom objectivity. It reached a fever pitch in 2020, resulting in an important dialogue on objectivity and “moral clarity” in newsrooms.

This concept was the topic of a session in November 2020 during the virtual 12th annual Klein News Innovation Camp unconference I help organize. I’ve revisited the conversation, and I want to share what I took away.

I moderated the discussion (which can be seen in full at the bottom of this post) between Alexis Johnson, a reporter disciplined last year by her former newsroom for perceived bias; CBS News reporter Wes Lowery, a Pulitzer Prize-winning proponent of ‘moral clarity’ in newsrooms and Tom Rosenstiel, the American Press Institute executive director and a critic of the ‘moral clarity’ framing.

Interestingly the idea of newsroom objectivity has long appeared in our annual unconference on the future of news. In 2011, I led a session that returned to the phrase “transparency over objectivity,” and in 2016, New York Times reporter Michael Gold said, “Newsroom objectivity is a white male construct. ” But we might be using “objectivity” is a strange contorted way. (Transparency over objectivity has long been a tenet of the newsroom I lead.)

Here’s what I got from the conversation (which I do recommend listening to in full; the full video is at the bottom of the post):

1. Objectivity is not neutrality

Rosenstiel has done an admirable job arguing that journalism practitioners have lost sight of how the word “objectivity” first came into newsrooms. Rosenstiel referenced the tradition of journalists being developed in an “anti-intellectual” apprenticeship model — vocational, but rarely theoretical or historically grounded in our work.

In 1920, Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz published a content analysis of the coverage of the Russian Revolution by The New York Times, assessing claims of “unconscious bias.” They argued newsrooms should adopt “a more scientific spirit,” Rosenstiel said. This adaption of “objectivity” was replacing a sense of “realism,” in which focused more on the feeling of truth than only verifiable fact. (It was Lippmann in 1919 who introduced the phrase “objective reporting”)

 That meant reporters should “show how you do your work,” Rosenstiel said: “More transparency, more rigor, more discipline.”

“This notion of objectivity never was meant to [be] simplistic balance, or ‘he said-she said’ reporting, “Rosenstiel said. “Journalism was always aimed at truth, not mere accuracy. “

For example, the Hutchins Commission of 1947, Rosenstiel notes, warned against accounts that were “factually accurate but substantially untrue.” Referencing the 2000 book by Thomas Haskell, Rosenstiel summed up his historical point: “Objectivity is not neutrality.”

Rosenstiel has defended this use of “objectivity” since at least 2000, when he co-published the first edition of his excellent Elements of Journalism. The third edition came out in 2014, and I recommend it.

2. Objectivity has been hijacked by news organizations without strong convictions

Alexis Johnson was thrust into a case study.

In summer 2020, she was reporting for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on that city’s protests following the killing of George Floyd. She sent a tweet from her personal account that satirized criticisms of the property damage that followed Black Lives Matter protests by comparing them to the destruction following big events with whiter audiences like country music concerts. For that, her news organization barred her from reporting on BLM, under the guise of “objectivity.”

“Is [supporting] Black Lives Matter supporting a ‘political movement’ or standing for human rights?” Johnson said. “Who does ‘objectivity’ serve? Are there two sides to racism?”

“Objectivity” may have first been used in newsrooms a century ago to describe a process that would allow Johnson to report on a protest movement with which she was aligned but its meaning has changed — as all language does.

“In newsrooms, objectivity has grown to mean a lot of things it was never meant to mean,” Lowery said. In the Post-Gazette example, objectivity was swapped out for neutrality and balance in a situation where many are arguing that neutrality is abhorrent. In this case and unlike its origins, objectivity was neutrality.

One way to track that change is through the possible business implications.

As Matthew Ingram has noted, in the 1890s, industry advocates “warned editors that advertisers wanted less criticism of public officials and reminded publishers that partisanship hurt circulation and, consequently, advertising revenues.” Objectivity began as a business strategy.

In the 2020 Pittsburgh example, the opposite may have happened. Johnson said advertisers and subscribers pulled their support of the Post-Gazette following the incident, and its perceived lack of conviction. Pulling Johnson could have been a rational short-term business decision if Post-Gazette ownership felt more advertisers and subscribers would have pulled their support if they hadn’t done something, but I doubt that would have been the case.

“The point of an objectivity of process is to accept as premise that the individual journalist is going to have bias,” said Lowery. “We can’t check our biases if we don’t accept that we have them.”

Below hear Johnson in her own words.

3. ‘Moral clarity’ is already present in newsrooms (we just don’t talk about it)

The phrase “moral clarity” was first popularly used in the 20th century as a way of justifying war and civilization clash. More recently, it’s been associated with a social justice and racial equity movement. Lowery is credited for bringing the phrase from today’s progressives into newsrooms. We must have firm lines around that which is good and that which is bad, goes the argument.

Rosenstiel, for one, warns against “moral clarity” as a replacement for “objectivity.” As he said: “The Proud Boys have moral clarity. Nazis have moral clarity.” One commentator argued that the switch from objectivity to moral clarity amounts to “trading the unattainable for the unknowable.”

Those criticisms, though, muddle what ‘moral clarity’ is with what moral clarity could be used for. News organizations should maintain (and be transparent about) strongly-held ‘basic beliefs.’

In my estimation, newsrooms already have many of these core beliefs. Most just don’t spell them out explicitly. I’d venture that most mainstream U.S. newsrooms believe that representative democracy is the preferred form of government, and that a free independent press is a necessary instrument of that form of government, and that journalists can effectively use discretion to publish anonymous sources. Anything that counters those beliefs is bad; I’d argue that that is a kind of moral clarity.

Anyone can challenge the validity or value of those (insert Manufacturing Consent), but I believe most mainstream news organizations operate with them as foundations. That is territory in which we debate and, I’d bet, would protest for; we certainly have a long history of legal battles. (For example in 1735, Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton won an iconic early libel court case on behalf of his client and publisher John Peter Zenger, who had published anonymous sources criticizing government officials.)

“No one who I am aligned with or know is arguing against journalism that is fair, that seeks to find out what the truth is,” said Lowery, the proponent of newsroom moral clarity. “No one is arguing [against] a reporting process in which you talk to all sorts of different people.”

In my reading, then, the more productive question isn’t if moral clarity should replace objectivity, but rather, when should moral clarity supersede objectivity. When is talking to a dissenting source is important, and when is that dissenting source no longer a good faith actor? For example, at some point in the 20th century, there was not uniform scientific consensus on whether human activity was causing global warming, and later consensus was formed. Somewhere in that journey, interviewing the dissenting voice on climate science went from important interview to enablement. Finding that moment is more complicated than we might want to believe it.

Exactly because reaching the goals that extend from such beliefs are not “on-off switches” (for example, what do we really mean by gender equality?), that ‘moral clarity’ ought not extend into the tactics of how to reach those beliefs. That’s a healthy place for advocates and activists (and the good ol’ opinion column, or traditional op-ed pages).

So, a news organization might now hold a belief like “Climate change is a real societal threat that must be addressed,” but ought not decide what is the right tactic to address it, as various paths are explored. Use narrative storytelling to tie peer-reviewed science, creditable economics and policy together to highlight the range of tactics being pursued.

I do think exceptions will arise. I do think when a news organization and its staff of subject matter experts feel an important and clear perspective is being lost, that news organization can amplify that story. But I do still hold true to the notion that a journalist has to be the one who will return to first principles and challenge all comers.

This is a view not from nowhere. Rather a news organization needs to give itself, its staff and its community a sense of that for which it stands. Newsrooms, then, must defend the direction we are headed as a society — but not the speed and the mode of transit.

Some might disagree; others may still view this as too timid. Is informing a discourse but not making a call abdicating one’s vaulted responsibility, or is it a necessity for defending the legitimacy as an honest and fair contributor to discourse? I believe the latter. I think, though, we’re in a phase in which news organizations are going to forge a variety of paths, and we’ll see convergence around consensus in time.

“Journalists are showing more of themselves to the public than in the past — for better or for worse,” said Lowery. News organizations have been able to leave their basic beliefs in the background. Moral clarity is a challenge to make clearer what those beliefs are, even while the tools of objectivity remain important.

4. What newsrooms can do now

Should a reporter and a police officer be held to the same ethical and moral standards in their actions, both during and outside working hours? I tend to think yes. News organizations, then, can follow many patterns expected of police departments: among them, fairness, transparency, consistency and representation.

To ensure moral clarity and objectivity do not clash unnecessarily, Johnson champions one in particular: “Does your newsroom look like the community you serve?”

If only white people oversee newsroom decisions, then only one kind of “gaze” is put on our storytelling. “Hire more people of color, retain more people of color,” Johnson said, and invest in them to bring them to leadership roles.

Policies do help. This is, though, a time of transition. I’ve personally tried to catalog a variety of behaviors and set specific policy around each — can a reporter tweet something like this? could a non-editorial staffer donate to this? what if an org leader attended this kind of political rally? It’s exhausting and, I’ve found, at least for now, ineffective. It felt like I was dissecting the bird to try to find the song.

Start with your news organization’s mission, vision, values and core beliefs. Those are guiding principles.

Last summer, it felt easy to encourage Technical.ly’s D.C. reporter to protest personally and loudly at a Black Lives Matter protest, as she had wanted. I felt firmly that this was an issue of human rights and personal expression, ideas that fit within our organizational beliefs. We did not view the act as a partisan one. The line, though, will continue to move quickly.

Many journalism traditions built over time are helpful too. Journalists must at time be harbingers of inconvenient truths. Lowery put it well, then the reporter’s job is to get the narrative down as they understand it.

Then, he said: “Get the good faith version of who you think is the villain and ask the tough questions of those we think is the victim.” It sounds like objectivity after all.

Below is the entire 30-minute conversation we had:

(Photo of fall leaves by McCabe Coats via Unsplash)

(Photo of eyeglassses by Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash)