Many journalists try to be objective in their work, which means they don’t take sides or show bias. But there are renewed calls for journalists to stand up for what they believe is right rather than report from a position of neutrality.
The publisher of The New York Times, A.G. Sulzberger, recently spoke to CUNY students and faculty about journalism independence**, a term he prefers to objectivity. “It is better to redouble our commitment to independence than to abandon it,” he said at the Craig Newmark School of Journalism on Aug. 30.
But first, let’s take a step back.
The idea that journalists don’t take sides may sound great, but there have been many examples in recent years where objectivity has fallen short. When the former president of the United States was routinely making blatantly false statements, many mainstream journalists would point out the inaccuracies without explicitly calling him a liar because doing so would seem like they were taking sides with his opponents.
Another example was when journalists gave too much credence to official police accounts in cases of brutality by officers. The results were articles that didn’t accurately convey what was happening to victims of police brutality and their communities.
Some journalists have even been fired for stating their opinions on social media because their editors said it meant they couldn’t be objective in their reporting.
In fact, no person can be free of bias, as the term objectivity would suggest, so in journalism we usually mean that the process is objective, not the person.
Sulzberger said he doesn’t like the term objectivity, in part because people argue about the meaning of the word so much.
“Journalism is valuable. It helps people make decisions, and it should be valuable for everyone.”A. G. Sulzberger
Instead, he talks of journalistic independence, which he explained as “plainly stating the facts even if they appear to favor one side.”
Sulzberger said journalism independence is a rigorous process that involves tracking down multiple sources, fact-checking information, and often complicating stories with details that make the narrative less tidy but more accurate. He also said that newsroom diversity is crucial to achieving this kind of journalistic independence.
Journalism is now contested by both the right – who call journalists the “enemy of the people” and their work “fake news” – and the left, who accuse journalists of hiding behind objectivity when they are actually defending the elite and status quo.
Sulzberger said that readers of the New York Times repeatedly say they want the paper to remain independent “in a world where they are increasingly told what they want to hear.”
That said, he believes there is a role for advocacy journalism in the larger journalism ecosystem. But with the proliferation of publishers online, “There’s a huge overabundance of opinion coverage and a huge underabundance of independent coverage.”
As for calling former President Donald Trump a liar, Sulzberger admitted that news outlets, including his own, were not plainspoken enough, which led to accusations that they were committing both performative neutrality and both-sides-ism (the practice of giving two sides equal weight even when one is demonstrably false).
Even an independent process, he said, is not going to get perfect results all of the time. But that’s not a reason to give up on the ideal or the discipline.
“Journalism is valuable,” Sulzberger said. “It helps people make decisions, and it should be valuable for everyone.”
**Note that Sulzberger is using the term “independence” differently than we do when we are talking about the I in VIA. In that case, we have a more narrow definition of the news outlet not having a relationship to a company or political party.