Take note of conversations about policy, politics or politicians. Often, they will devolve into a smearing of sources and the news organizations that provided the information; they’re perceived as being for one ideology and against another.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that there are not news organizations that have a definitive perspective when it comes to controversial topics such as these. The same might be said for journalists and pundits, too, and the public has become hip to it.
In fact, when you consider how most consumers of news choose their sources of information, which often align with their own perspectives and beliefs, it’s easy to see how the lines in the sand have been drawn. Part of the daily mission for many conservative news outlets is to seed distrust among fans, making them leery of all other sources of information from “the liberal media,” including local, regional and national newspapers. Meanwhile, representing the Left, there are organizations like Media Matters for America, which spend resources on correcting or exposing misinformation perpetuated by conservative news sources. And on social media, “fake news” lives on.
The public is rightfully confused and unnecessarily agitated, and newspaper brands have suffered because of it.
Objectivity as a Guidepost
Perhaps the greatest misconception that the public has about journalists and the business of newsgathering is that pure objectivity is not just possible, but that it’s the whole job.
What they may not realize is that sticking to “just the facts,” or merely the “who, what, when, where, and why,” makes for an interminably hollow story, like a naked skeleton. It lacks context, flavor, understanding based on research and knowledge. A “just the facts” story is both boring to read and a dereliction of a journalist’s duty to go beyond the “5 Ws,” with insight, perspectives, and things that become known during the newsgathering that should not be unknown for the sake of appearing purely objective.
“We saw ‘objectivity’ held up as a goal during the post-WWII heyday of journalism. At the same time, it wasn’t always a goal in this country, and it certainly isn’t seen as a standard in other countries,” said Pete Vernon, a Delacorte fellow at Columbia Journalism Review.
“Being fair, seeking facts, those things are important,” he continued. “But embracing objectivity for its own sake seems misguided…We all come to stories with our assumptions and worldviews. It’s important to journalists to acknowledge those underlying assumptions, and to seek out information that challenges them, but ultimately, the best antidote for any bias we bring to our subjects is thorough reporting.”
Distrust in journalists and news organizations is a tale at least as old as Yellow Journalism itself, probably older.
In contemporary context, that distrust has been broadcast and amplified by politics and social media. Read most any Twitter or Facebook thread and the accusations fly about how the news source cannot be trusted, how every story is “slanted,” and so on. It need not matter the subject matter, the sources of the information or anything at all about the quality of the reporting. “MSM,” “liberal media,” “fake, faux news,”—and far worse—fill up the comments spaces below.
David Corn, Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones, covers politics and politicians. It has afforded him some historical perspective on the anti-media climate, which has been, without question, fueled by the politics of today.
“The charge of ‘fake news’ and ‘bias’ comes mostly from the Right,” he said. “It’s a continuation of a conservative agenda that goes back to the 1970s and 1980s, when Jessie Helms led a campaign against Dan Rather at CBS for being ‘liberal media.’ It has long been part of the conservative playbook to position the major media outlets as arrayed against them, and seeds this feeling of cultural resentment that exists far more on the Right than on the Left.
“When you ask if publishers and journalists should be concerned about it, my first inclination is to say, you have to understand the historical context, so that you don’t overreact to these accusations.”
Corn also suggested that journalism should not be confused with dictation. While it may appear objective to simply write what sources say, minus any context or perspective wrapped around it, that is not journalism, he said, offering journalists covering the current president as an example.
“All politicians and all presidents, both on the Left and Right, say things that are false, spin, and occasionally lie to serve their political agenda,” Corn explained. “If you look at any fact-checking outlet…Donald Trump has set a record—by order of magnitudes greater—in terms of putting out false statements. I think the mainstream media—and I don’t use that in a pejorative way—has long been loathe to evaluate assertions.”
Corn suggested that it’s a disservice to the public when known inaccuracies aren’t challenged, or are but meagerly so.
“I’ve always argued that if a president says something false or wrong, the news is not what the president said, but the fact that he said something false or wrong,” he said. “But that’s not the prevailing cultural norm for a media business. Trump has forced media outlets to contextualize his remarks, because often they’re so far from reality. So now you have the New York Times and others begin to use the word ‘lie.’ I think that’s justifiable and important, but what that does is compel Trump to attack with even more fierceness, calling them ‘fake news’ outlets for daring to challenge his accuracy.
“And when that happens, I think journalists have to stand by their guns and not let his attacks cause them to modify or pull back, but it does create a much harsher dynamic than Washington reporters for major news outlets have tended to be comfortable with…There has been a revulsion to ‘taking sides,’ or more importantly, to be seen as taking sides. But sometimes reporting the truth entails taking sides. Objectivity is not the goal; accuracy is. You don’t serve the truth by only objectively reporting what someone says.”
So what’s the takeaway for newspapers covering politics or controversial news?
“While social media certainly provides a platform for claims of media bias to be amplified, it’s not like people who aren’t on Twitter or Facebook hold some sanguine view of an ‘objective’ media,” Vernon said. “Roger Ailes cast his network as ‘fair and balanced’ way back in 1996, in an implicit criticism of other ‘biased’ outlets.”
As this article was coming together, news broke that Fox News was forsaking its long-time tagline, its vow to be “fair and balanced.” Pundits speculated that the old branding was dated and carried the negative connotations of the network’s Roger Ailes era and the scandals that led to his and Bill O’Reilly’s ousting.
“While plenty of people both on the Left and Right see ‘bias’ when whey they really mean ‘I just don’t like this reporting,’ it is important for journalists to listen to valid critiques and to be as transparent as possible about their story choices and reporting methods. That won’t be enough to convince everyone, but it’s worth the attempt,” Vernon said.
Atoning for Mistakes
There may be another misconception that the public has about news people: that they are not infallible. An unattributed quotation, a shady source, or just plain bad information can sometimes be career-ending for a journalist—even one who has decades of good work in the portfolio. Journalists are keenly aware of this, and no one feels more pain when a mistake is introduced than the writer, editor or broadcast reporter.
“I think most people understand that journalists are humans who make mistakes,” Vernon said. “As in politics, the cover-up is often worse than the crime. If a journalist or editor makes a mistake, owning up to it quickly, explaining exactly how he or she got it wrong, and being clear about how he or she will change practice going forward is the best we can do.
In the past, the press atoned for the sins of getting a story wrong with retraction or correction. Is that enough of a mea culpa for today’s news consumers?
“I think there is an obligation to (correct our mistakes) more than ever,” Corn said. “I’ve always thought that the willingness to correct a mistake is an indicator of trustworthiness. If you own up to your mistakes, people will trust you more, because it shows you care about truth and accuracy. In the age of social media, with everyone watching and able to point out your mistakes, it’s even more important to do that as much as you can yourself, proactively.”
Robin Fields is the managing editor of independent, non-profit ProPublica, an investigative journalism-focused news outlet. Unlike traditional newspapers and broadcast news, ProPublica isn’t as frequently subjected to angry accusations of being fake or biased, perhaps because of the non-profit status or that it has no editorial page or corporate purse-string holders. Nonetheless, Fields empathizes with her colleagues in mainstream news media, particularly when it comes to repairing any damage caused by a reporting error.
The reaction or response to an error should be dependent on the scope and scale of the mistake, Fields suggested. A misspelled name or an incorrect location may be simply corrected, but more substantive, considerable errors require a more deliberate action.
“When you have a problem with the premise of a story, or if something is centrally wrong, it’s important to engage fully and spell out as clearly as you can and not try to shove it in a dark corner,” she said. “Most of all, I think it’s critical not to be defensive. There can be a tendency to have that kind of a tone run through those exchanges, where you can almost sense that the journalism organization resents having to deal with it, like, ‘Here’s your damn correction; now, go away.’ I think that kind of posture comes across, and we have to resist the impulse to be in a protective crouch and convey that we are listening and open.”
Fields also pointed out that having a dialogue with readers is exciting and new.
“The conversation used to be one way,” she explained. “The journalism organization issued things at the public and said, ‘Here’s the story.’ There was nothing really coming back except a few letters to the editor. That’s not normal anymore. Everybody is a kind of publisher today, and because of that, you have to have a bona fide conversation.”
Who better to have those conversations than journalists, who are accustomed to defending their work to editors, day in and day out?
The best response to critics who decry media bias is simply to continue doing good journalism and telling the stories that need to be told. But it may not hurt to lift the veil on the process a little, to show readers from time to time what it’s like to “make the sausage.”
“With trust in ‘the media’ being what it is, transparency is more important than ever,” Vernon said. The vast majority of reporters are scrupulous professionals who are doing everything they can to get the story right.
“I think we’re starting to see some positive movement in that direction,” he added. “Whether it’s making clear within a story just how many sources were drawn upon—lines like, ‘This story is based on interviews with X current and former White House officials,’ or features like the (New York Times) Insider, or reporters engaging more with critics on social media, there’s an awareness that the audience wants to know more about how the sausage gets made. At the same time, especially in political coverage, there’s a reliance on anonymous sources that readers rightly question, but that reporters have to use in order to get officials to talk. I don’t know how to reconcile that.”
The New York Times Insider is an excellent example of a newspaper welcoming readers behind the scenes, to learn how noteworthy reporting or photojournalism came about: get insights from reporters and editors on topics of interest, even to better understand how the physical newspaper is made.
In 2015, the film “Spotlight” offered a sometimes nail-biting depiction of the Boston Globe’s reporters’ relentless, arduous, and Pulitzer-winning investigative coverage of local priests and sex crimes. Though a dramatic rendition of the Boston journalists’ work, it demonstrated for the masses the tenacity, eternal curiosity and persistence of journalists, their sincerity in believing that this work matters and is essential. It showed the necessary resources and pavement pounding and editorial judgment that it takes to understand, adjudicate and retell the story.
In less grandiose ways, journalists and media outlets, including newspapers, are seeing value in telling the stories behind the stories. Journalists author books that provide comprehensive story lines on topics they’ve extensively covered. Reporters leverage social media and tools like Facebook Live to field questions from readers, justify their findings and explain how news articles came to be.
At ProPublica, Fields credits transparency and data for instilling trust and confidence in its readers.
“So much of what we do is based on quantifiable things, such as data, and I think between that and our tendency to relentlessly show our work, we’ve tended to not get a huge amount of criticism,” she said.
Fields also cited the Washington Post’s David A. Fahrenthold as an inspiring example of how journalists need not wait until the reporting is done and the story has been published to show the work. In Fahrenthold’s case, throughout his research on Trump’s businesses and charitable donations (or, more precisely, a lack thereof), he kept the public apprised of his progress, and even enlisted readers’ help to find information he was seeking out.
“This can make our process much less scary and much less suspect,” Fields said. “What we found is that it’s really important, when people challenge your work, that you engage. I think there’s a tendency to put those comments in the circular file, where they can be ignored. Certainly, there are a proportion of those criticisms that are outlandish and you don’t engage, but if there’s a legitimate response, even if critical, you should engage and say, ‘Hey, thanks. We thought about that, too, and here’s why we did what we did,’ or something like that. Take that kind of exchange seriously, and see it as part of your journalism and not just a distraction from your work.”
Gretchen A. Peck is an independent journalist who has reported on publishing and printing for more than two decades. She has contributed to Editor & Publisher since 2010 and can be reached at [email protected]