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Q: How can a journalist be credible if working at a news outlet with left or right leanings?

Shepard Smith (right) worked as an anchor at Fox News, while his colleague Tucker Carlson is a commentator.

A:

Simple: by maintaining journalistic integrity. But, that’s easier said than done. First, let’s discuss what journalistic integrity even means.

Integrity is often used as a synonym for “good” or “upright” character, a quality we ascribe to those who respect themselves and others, don’t lie or cheat to get ahead, and are just all around decent people. When we add the modifier “journalistic,” it means that people who work in the field apply those very qualities to their work.

Journalists with integrity respect the audience enough to honor the trade’s ideals, including VIA (verification, independence and accountability), transparency and a daily dedication to neither deceiving the audience nor adding to what they report. They don’t cheat by plagiarizing the work of others and maintain their independence as  journalists first; where they work comes second.

As Kovach and Rosenstiel explain in their book, The Elements of Journalism, a journalists work primarily for the public, not whoever writes their paychecks each month. So theoretically, any journalist should be able to establish credibility apart from the organization that employs them.

It is true though that some news organizations exert great pressure to fall in line with the outlet’s politics, whether right or left. Past reporters at Fox News, for instance, claim to have faced threats of suspension or other forms of rebuke if they didn’t report the news exactly as their managing editors asked (see the 2004 documentary Outfoxed). But Shepard Smith, who resigned from Fox News earlier this month after 23 years, was known for his uncompromising journalistic integrity and often went against the grain at the network, even as other Fox News shows cast President Trump in a consistently positive light.

It may well be that Smith was simply so good at his job that even the management of Fox News felt he was beyond reproach. Or, it’s possible that the credibility he brought to Fox helped to protect it from charges of political bias.

Left-leaning outlets have also been known to create a culture of ideological conformity, if only through confirmation bias. In other words, staffers at a magazine like Mother Jones would likely be ostracized if they voiced conservative views and rewarded for sharing the views of their colleagues. But at the same time, anyone with conservative views would probably not want to work for a magazine like Mother Jones.

This does not mean that magazines like Mother Jones are bad. On the contrary, Mother Jones produces solid journalism even though it is not considered a neutral outlet. Journalistic integrity does not necessarily occlude political ideology. But this gets into knottier territory, where we should distinguish between reporters and writers. The former implies a neutral adherence to the facts; the latter allows for greater creativity and even a degree of subjectivity.

But that’s a discussion for another day.