Newsroom objectivity and “moral clarity” are not in opposition

(This is adapted from a Twitter thread)

No, newsrooms don’t need to throw out “objectivity’ as a principle. Yes “moral clarity” should mean something for news organizations.

This thread comes from my own experiences, plus this helpful conversation I had during Klein News Innovation Camp with Alexis Johnson, Tom Rosenstiel and Wes Lowery.

When the phrase “objective reporting” was first used in 1919, it did not mean “neutrality,” as we mean it today, said Tom Rosenstiel. It meant “show how you do your work…More transparency, more rigor, more discipline.”

It was a call for a more scientific approach “Objectivity reporting” was hijacked by weak-kneed publishers.

Last year the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pulled Alexis Johnson from reporting on BLM protests because they claimed she couldn’t be “objective.”

Johnson asked: “Are there two sides to racism?”

In response to that kind of weakness, Wes Lowery brought the “moral clarity” charge to newsrooms.

“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,” he said. But flat-earthers are just wrong.

Perspectives from Tom and Wes have been described as in opposition, but not to me. On issues that have two good-faith perspectives (not all do!), newsrooms must hear both out. An editor told me I should always be able to convincingly argue both sides I’m reporting on. That documented process is objectivity.

“Moral clarity” isn’t in competition with an originalist use of “newsroom objectivity.” It is a reminder that journalism has always been used to defend foundational beliefs, but these beliefs can’t be unspoken anymore.

For example:

  • Does your news org believe in free and fair democratic elections?
  • Does it believe climate change is a societal risk?
  • Does your news org believe it is unjust for race to be a better predictor than income of wealth?

All news orgs already hold beliefs on these and other core societal questions — we just don’t come out and say it. Publishers hide from these questions of “moral clarity” by misappropriating the important idea of “newsroom objectivity.”

News orgs can be clearer about their “foundational beliefs” without having to pick policy approaches (which is the part that breaks journalistic norms). We should get comfortable with the distinction between beliefs and approaches and be transparent about them to our communities

For example:

  • Foundational Beliefs: the world is round; democracy is good; climate change and racial inequality are bad
  • Policy Approaches: remove the electoral college; introduce a carbon tax; distribute baby bonds

Not making a choice to define your beliefs is making a choice. “Neutrality” on climate change and racial inequality is de facto support for the status quo. I’m reminded of the Christopher Hitchens line: “The problem with open-mindedness is that it can become empty-mindedness”

Last June, our newsroom “approved of” DC reporter
Michelai Graham participating in a BLM protest. This was an issue of human rights and personal expression; ideas that fit within our news org beliefs. We did not view the act as a partisan one.

Our newsroom maintains “newsroom objectivity” for reporting. But we won’t apologize for the “moral clarity” we hold for our foundational beliefs. There aren’t two sides to the threats of election legitimacy, racial inequality or climate change. There are competing perspectives on how to address those threats.

We can’t muddle the two (beliefs and approaches).

TL;DR: News orgs must consider what precisely their foundational beliefs are — and we should share those more explicitly with our communities. Those beliefs represent “moral clarity,” which doesn’t necessarily compete with newsroom objectivity

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