Bring Back Objective Journalism: Too Many Editors Are Abandoning Traditional News Values

From a Wall Street Journal commentary by Walter Hussman Jr. headlined “Bring Back Objective Journalism”:

Beyond objectivity or back to objectivity? That seems to be an essential question for American journalism.

Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication recently released a survey of some 75 journalists titled “Beyond Objectivity.” Many of them argued that objectivity should no longer be the standard in news reporting.

“I never understood what ‘objectivity’ meant,” Prof. Leonard Downie Jr., a co-author of the report and a former executive editor of the Washington Post, wrote in a Post op-ed. “My goals for our journalism were instead accuracy, fairness, nonpartisanship, accountability and the pursuit of truth.” Much of the public would regard that as far more objective than what they read, hear and view now.

Stephen Engelberg, editor in chief of ProPublica, echoed Mr. Downie’s mystification: “I don’t know what it means.” While they may not understand objectivity, the public certainly does. A Gallup/Knight Foundation survey released in 2020 found that 68% of Americans “say they see too much bias in the reporting of news that is supposed to be objective as ‘a major problem.’ ” The Gallup poll, which questioned 20,000 Americans in all 50 states, also found “a majority of Americans currently see a ‘great deal’ (46%) or a ‘fair amount’ (37%) of political bias in news coverage”—a total of 83%. In 2021, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University surveyed 92,000 people in 46 countries. One question was “Do you trust the news media in your country?” Finland had the highest positive response, at 65%. The U.S. was dead last, at 29%.

Gallup has been polling trust in American institutions for more than 40 years. In 1979, 51% said they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers, more than triple the 2022 figure of 16%. In 1979 objectivity was much more accepted as a standard in news reporting. When editors like Emilio Garcia-Ruiz of the San Francisco Chronicle say “objectivity has got to go,” it further erodes public trust.

While journalists argue over semantics, and Washington Post executive editor Sally Buzbee calls the word objectivity “a political football,” the public understands objectivity, which a dictionary defines as “not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased.” You will never get politics out of opinion commentary, nor should you. But politics shouldn’t influence news reporting.

Comments from some editors help, like this from Ms. Buzbee: “We stress the value of news reporting, so you (the reader) can make up your own mind.” And her New York Times counterpart, Joseph Kahn: “You can’t be an activist and be a Times journalist at the same time.” It is also encouraging to see Chris Licht, now head of CNN, trying to move the network back toward the center to regain trust.

One recommendation from the ASU survey was to “define your newsroom’s core values.” My company has some experience with that. In 2017 our 11 daily newspapers began publishing a “Statement of Core Values” on page 2 every day. You can find it at CoreValues.news. The public response was immediate and very favorable.

One of those values is a complete separation of news and opinion and labeling opinion both in print and on our websites. We label not only political columnists, but any opinion, from restaurant reviews to sports columns.

Today media has more opinions than ever. More opinions, especially contrasting opinions, are good. What is bad, and erodes the public trust, is blurring opinions with news reporting. Why does this happen? Human nature explains why we want others to think like we do and agree with us. But that isn’t what the public wants from news reporting. They want the who, what, when, where, how and why without any personal bias. The best reporters don’t want popularity for what they write. They want respect. In my 48 years as a newspaper publisher, our readers gave the most respect to those reporters whose political views were impossible to tell from their work. Readers want the reporter to give them the facts straight so they can make up their own minds.

How to restore trust in the media? With a significant loss of advertising mostly to Google and Facebook online, subscribers today have more influence than ever, as many newspapers and websites are highly dependent on circulation revenue. Those considering buying subscriptions could request that statement of core journalism values. You could also write letters to the editor or use social media to advocate for impartial news reporting at your local newspaper, television station or news website. You could ask your college or university, if it has a journalism school or department, what its core journalistic values are. If your local high school offers journalism courses, ask the same of the teachers. Since the public needs more trust in news reporting, the public needs to get more involved.

Our core values begin: “To give the news impartially, without fear or favor.” That’s a quote from Adolph Ochs (1858-1935), publisher of the Chattanooga Times and later the New York Times. We think those nine words are as relevant today as they were in the 19th century. Ochs helped steer American news reporting away from partisanship toward impartiality, fairness and, yes, objectivity. Moving news reporting in that direction again would help restore the public trust in the Fourth Estate, which is essential to our democracy.

Walter Hussman Jr. is chairman of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was the newspaper’s publisher, 1974-2022.

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