Why journalism is shifting away from 'objectivity'

Amid the unusual pressures of the Trump era, some are advocating a more interpretive or even combative approach to journalism – and argue that will do more to help society.

Andrew Harnik/AP
President Donald Trump calls on members of the press during a news conference on Feb. 16, 2017, in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

When President Trump retweeted a meme earlier this week, sending out a cartoonishly doctored video that showed him clotheslining a person representing CNN, it escalated the conflict between Mr. Trump and the press – a conflict that may be fundamentally changing journalism.

For the president, his tweet was a “modern-day presidential” counter-punch to his critics, drawing on the scripted spectacles of professional wrestling. But coming on the heels of his recent Twitter attacks on the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” and his reference in February to the nation’s news media as “the enemy of the American people,” many journalists took it seriously.

They saw not a joke but a dangerous portrayal of violence against their profession. The Committee to Protect Journalists and other professional organizations weighed in, and CNN issued a statement saying, “It is a sad day when the President of the United States encourages violence against reporters.”

As press watchers and members of the media wrestle with the president’s rhetoric, some have begun to question a central tenet of modern journalism: striving to be objective and nonpartisan, conveying the news of the day with calm gravitas. But Mr. Trump is not the only disrupter in media; his presidency coincides with fast-paced changes in society and technology that are also reshaping journalism.

“We are without a doubt now and into the future moving into a more interpretive, perspectival journalism, and the attempt to define ‘objectivity,’ or ‘good journalism,’ as a kind of stenography that gives facts and facts only is really outdated,” says Stephen J. A. Ward, author of “The Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond.” “It’s not going to fly anymore, and I don’t even think it’s a good idea.”

How media treated George Washington

The question of the media’s proper role in society predates the current war of words between President Trump and the mainstream press, of course. Indeed, many scholars note that the very concept of nonpartisan and neutral journalism evolved within its own complex and stormy history.

The only profession mentioned in the Constitution, the press has long been seen as essential to the idea of democratic self-governance. Free speech, enshrined in the First Amendment, is one of the bulwarks of individual liberty and equality.     

This has not always included the idea of impartiality and objectivity, however. In the 18th and 19th century, in fact, most newspapers were often aggressively partisan. As one anti-Federalist paper famously quipped after George Washington left office: “If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by Washington.” 

Today, standards are different.

“I think for a long time now people judge quality in journalism by how ‘balanced’ it is,” says Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism at New York University in Manhattan. “It seems that journalism is attacked for not being balanced more than it’s being attacked for not getting things right, or not being intelligent, or not being wise.”

Professor Stephens, who is among those who say “good riddance” to the idea of nonpartisan journalism, traces the rise of disinterested, nonpartisan reporting in his latest book, “The Voice of America: Lowell Thomas and the Invention of 20th-Century Journalism.” He suggests that American news organizations, abandoning a “pretense to objectivity,” could be returning to their “loud, boisterous, and combative” ways of the past.

Professor Ward, founding director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, advocates instead for a “democratically engaged journalism,” which views journalists as advocates for a pluralistic society. For Ward, the issue is less embracing partisanship than redefining the notion of being neutral – in contrast to what he calls the “dualistic thinking” in journalism ethics that holds you can be a disinterested reporter or an interest-driven advocate, but not both.
“What we want to do is talk about informed, engaged journalism and a notion of objectivity as a method – a very flexible method that includes much more than simply reciting facts,” he says. Such “democratically engaged journalism,” would report on the needs of nation, and a political system, in which differing people must find ways to live with each other.

As such, he says, a “pragmatic objectivity” would be fair to all points of view, but include a commitment to the needs of a diverse democracy. “And all of those journalists who’ve won Pulitzer prizes, most thought they were reforming society, exposing what they saw as abuses of power,” Ward says. “I’m sorry, but that’s not neutral.”

Erosion of trust in media

But whether advocating for a plural democracy or embracing a more combative tone, mainstream news organizations face risks, at least in terms of public opinion.

CNN faced a wide-ranging backlash for responding to the Trump wrestling meme by publishing a story that essentially included a veiled threat to the creator of the doctored Wrestlemania clip.

Since the person is a private citizen “who has issued an extensive statement of apology, showed his remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts,” the person’s name would not be published, the cable news network said. Yet it added, “…CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.”

As Republicans and others expressed outrage at the network’s warning, #CNNBlackmail began to trend on Twitter.

“Any sympathy that CNN would have received after the president’s tweet, at least from me and lot of other journalists, I think – they just flushed that down the toilet,” says Kevin Smith, deputy director of The Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism at the Ohio State University in Columbus. “It was like, ‘OK, we talked to him privately, and he agreed not to do it again, like he’s in the principal’s office. That’s a miss on CNN’s part. That struck me as petty and unnecessary.”

In June, CNN was also forced to retract a story on its website that claimed the Senate was investigating links between a Russian bank and a close ally of Trump. The network apologized and three high-ranking journalists resigned.

The New York Times, too, had to correct a June editorial and apologize for incorrectly linking a map produced by Sarah Palin’s political action committee to the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords. The Associated Press has also issued corrections for its coverage of the Russian election meddling story.  

Such incidents have contributed to the erosion of trust in the media. On Monday, a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that more Americans trust the Trump administration than the media. While nearly 37 percent of those polled said they trust the administration “a good amount” or “a great deal,” only 30 percent could say the same about the media.

One of the reasons for this lack of trust, suggests Professor Smith, a longtime leader in the Society of Professional Journalists and chair of the committee tasked to revise the organization’s ethics code, is the erosion of the value of nonpartisan, neutral reporting.

“Most people are willing to understand and listen to both sides, to the possibilities of compromise in both the liberal and the conservative management of government,” he says. “So why would any organization want to alienate a huge segment of the population by suddenly deciding that we want to punt on neutral reporting and instead feed the beast on the left and right?”

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