We live in a journalistic ecosystem today where personality is valued perhaps more than ever. More and more, as media professionals we are expected to provide instant reactions and commentary as a story breaks.
In her 2022 prediction piece for Nieman Lab, The Wall Street Journal’s Julia Munslow laid out how Gen-Z consumers value authenticity. It is one of the reasons this younger demographic trusts influencers more than they do traditional journalists. Authenticity for many means opinionated perspectives in place of fact-based reporting.
Right-wing figures have exploited the increased emphasis placed on personality in journalism better than anyone. Prominent voices, many of whom play fast and loose with facts, have built larger followings than most mainstream journalists. Meanwhile, many have rightfully criticized legacy media outlets for employing “both sides journalism” and failing to take right-wing-fueled misinformation head on.
Reporting today does not have to mean leaving objectivity behind. Rather, rethink what exactly it means — perhaps, focus more on honesty rather than some ambiguous notion of what it might entail. I spoke to three journalists about their views on objectivity and how they navigate this landscape today.
Value the facts
Viewpoints that build their positions based on fact should be offered a platform. Take the example of the climate crisis. The overwhelming majority — 99% — of scientists and experts agree that climate change is happening, humans are contributing to it, and it is an existential threat to the planet. The 1% that argues against this does not ground their argument in fact, yet they are often given an equal platform to voice their baseless claims. There is little point in facilitating a discussion as it normalizes misleading information.
“We are in a position to take a view that there are not two sides. On climate change, there are not two sides; on democracy there are not two sides; on racism there are not two sides,” said Ali Velshi, an MSNBC anchor who has also worked at CNN and Al Jazeera.
Velshi’s perspective is echoed by Peter Sterne, managing editor of New York Focus and founder of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. “The job of a reporter is not to be accepted, but to present the facts. If one side is saying ‘we don't like these facts you presented, we're not gonna believe them,’ then you have one side that may say, ‘I don’t like these facts but they are what they are,’” said Sterne.
The consensus among the journalists I spoke to is that reporters must present the facts, and incorporate voices not typically featured, in place of those that push false claims with no basis in reality. “I think that a journalist’s job is to comfort the afflicted, which means doing things like looking at which people are relatively powerless in society and which groups don't generally have their concerns respected or heard, and making sure to center their voices,” Sterne added.
Platforming and empathy
In today’s hyper partisan landscape it is easy to shut off dialogue. The challenge for journalists is how we can explore the systems at play that radicalize and make people fall for absurd conspiracy theories and embrace hateful ideologies in the first place. These issues come from a very real vulnerability. Ignoring the root cause does no one any justice.
There is a difference, however, between hearing out people who support harmful ideologies and actions, and platforming them in a way that enables them to spread.
“What is the distinction between hearing people out for the purpose of empathizing and possibly even validating them and platforming them? I think there are distinctions. There are people who you have to be very careful about giving this platform to because they are professional disinformation purveyors,” Velshi added, pointing to voices like former Trump Administration official Peter Navarro who has actively spread misinformation on major news networks and publications.
Fact-based journalism could stand to take a page out of the opinion writing playbook: use unequivocally clear language. If a policy is racist, call it racist. If a statement is untruthful, call it a lie. Passive language downplays the possible severity of an issue.
Journalism should always side with the facts. If one side of the conversation is opting not to embrace that, journalists should not afford its proponents an equal platform.
Molly Jong-Fast is an opinion writer for The Atlantic known for having rather upfront, liberal-leaning perspectives. While her position is partisan, her blunt approach is something that all journalists can learn from.
“You can't be non-partisan when it comes to democracy, so that's where people are getting into a lot of trouble. Also, what does free press during an autocracy look like? Nobody knows,” said Jong-Fast.
She acknowledged that there is a fine line between being so straightforward and coming off as condescending and, thus, biased. “It certainly makes people think they are being biased, and I think that sometimes that's true, and a lot of times it's not.”
At the end of the day, the job of a journalist is to hold people and institutions to account — with facts and honesty.