Margaret Sullivan in the WaPo: “Reporting is the product of choices. We choose what to focus on, what to amplify, what to investigate.”

From Margaret Sullivan’s Washington Post column headlined “Mission must drive journalists’ questions”:

With the country in turmoil over racial injustice, a public health crisis and devastating job losses, it should be no surprise that journalists are caught up in the tumult. . . .

Numerous New York Times journalists publicly denounced their editorial page management for publishing a commentary article by a U.S. senator — headlined “Send In the Troops” — that advocated deploying the military to quell protests in American cities.

Amid the fallout, the Times announced Sunday that editorial page editor James Bennet had resigned, and Jim Dao, the deputy editorial page editor overseeing op-eds, stepped down from that position and will hold a different role in the newsroom. . . .

Hundreds of journalists have been attacked or harassed as they tried to do their jobs covering the protests over George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police. . . .Not to mention thousands of journalists have been laid off or had their pay deeply cut by news organizations reeling from the economic fallout of the covid-19 epidemic in the past few weeks.

The core question is this: In this polarized, dangerous moment, what are journalists supposed to be?. . .

Every piece of reporting — written or spoken, told in text or in images — is the product of choices. Every article approaches its subject from somebody’s perspective. Every digital home page, every printed front page, every 30-minute newscast, every one of the news alerts blowing up your phone, every radio talk show is the product of decision-making.

We choose what to focus on, what to amplify, what to investigate and examine. . . .

What if we framed coverage with this question at the forefront: What journalism best serves the real interests of American citizens?

Make decisions with that in mind, and at least some of the knotty problems get smoothed out.

Using that lens, Senator Cotton’s views should be known, but not amplified and normalized within the prized real estate that is the op-ed page of the New York Times. Rather than present it as stamped with the imprimatur of the Times opinion pages, why not examine it in a news story that can provide context and can interrogate the facts he advances?. . .

I am enough of a traditionalist that I don’t like to see mainstream reporters acting like partisans — for example, by working on political campaigns.

But it’s more than acceptable that they should stand up for civil rights — for press rights, for racial justice, for gender equity and against economic inequality.

Yes, it gets tricky in the moment. . . .

Trust in the news media (as in many American institutions) is low, which is one reason police can get away with attacking — even arresting — reporters who are doing their jobs.

Some propose to fix this by neutering journalists’ best instincts, the same admirable impulses to improve society that drew them into a line of work that is rarely lucrative and often dangerous — especially right now.

Others are intent on placating their political critics.

But none of that is the answer.

As these difficult moments continue to arise — and they will — journalists and their newsroom bosses shouldn’t be trying to make their work inoffensive. They should concentrate on how they can best serve their mission.

And let the decision-making flow from there.


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