Editor’s note: This is a guest column from Andrew Heyward, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University.
In an essay for Esquire magazine in 1936, F. Scott Fitzgerald shared this now famous piece of wisdom: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
Well if that’s true, the first-rate intelligence of America’s newsroom leaders is getting quite a workout these days. Among the many contradictory ideas that they must somehow reconcile:
- Our democracy is under attack and needs fair, accurate, credible reporting in order to survive …
- Many readers and listeners and viewers don’t trust the news media to provide it.
- Most consumers say they want their news to be unbiased …
- The traditional standard of “objectivity” has lost its meaning for many up-and-coming journalists as well as for the communities they serve.
- Today’s news leaders encourage those up-and-coming journalists to bring “their full selves,” their identities and their “life experience” to work …
- Those same leaders struggle to create social media guidelines and policies on political activity and story assignments that won’t compromise the newsroom’s credibility.
Former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. and I have just completed a new report that attempts to address these challenges and more: Beyond Objectivity: Producing Trustworthy News in Today’s Newsrooms, published this week by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University with a grant from The Stanton Foundation. You can read the full report here.
Our work started as an examination of the concept of journalistic objectivity: how it originated, evolved, and eventually lost its relevance.
“The consensus among younger journalists is that we got it all wrong. We are the problem. Objectivity has got to go,” Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, editor-in-chief of The San Francisco Chronicle, told us.
Our research then expanded to reveal a profound cultural change transforming some of America’s most influential newsrooms — and led us to the conviction that the rest of them should follow suit. Fast.
Len Downie and I and our small Cronkite School research team interviewed more than 75 news leaders, working journalists, and other experts from print, broadcast and digital newsrooms.
Our conclusion? While a few still use the word “objectivity,” the strong consensus is that the term is a relic of the last century’s top-down, one-size-fits-all newsroom culture, usually dominated by a white male editor.
“It’s objective by whose standards? That standard seems to be white, educated, fairly wealthy guys. And when people don’t feel like they find themselves in news coverage, it’s because they don’t meet that definition,” said Kathleen Carroll, former executive editor of The Associated Press.
“I’m not arguing for subjectivity,” Pulitzer Prize winner Wesley Lowery said in an interview for our report. “I’m actually whole-heartedly endorsing objectivity as properly defined; the argument is that, in practice, that’s not what it is.”
“Objectivity was wrong, a failed concept,” said our Cronkite School colleague Julia Wallace, former editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It was a mistake to head down the path of dishonest objectivity. We pretended we were printing the truth when we were seeing the world through a certain lens. Now, it has to be about changing the culture.”
A key to changing that culture, we argue, is embracing diversity, not just as a statistical goal but as a driver of better news coverage.
“This is not just the right thing to do. It’s also the right thing to do for the business,” said Cesar Conde, chairman of the NBCUniversal News Group, whose “50% Challenge Initiative” for NBC News, MSNBC, and CNBC has set staff diversity goals of 50 percent women and 50 percent people of color. “This is going to help us be a more effective and trustworthy news organization.”
In the newsroom, culture change means creating an inclusive environment that empowers employees not just to speak up but to be heard — a newsroom in which difficult conversations about identity and life experience can lead to stronger journalism.
“We need to recognize that journalists are human beings with feelings, thoughts, and experiences that inform and inspire the way in which they share with the world, and how all of these things benefit the reporting and journalism they create — they add nuance, context and perspective to the work,” said Julia B. Chan, editor-in-chief of The 19th.
And on the street, culture change means responsive reporting that meets the diverse needs of the different communities journalists serve.
“I’m trying to reset the industry in my corner of the world,” CBS News and Stations co-president Wendy McMahon told us. “How do we go back to truly surfacing stories from the streets and from neighborhoods vs. from the newsroom and from the [police] scanner?”
Unlocking the full potential of a truly diverse and open newsroom is just one of the recommendations in our “playbook” for producing trustworthy news – guidelines that address how to move from accuracy to truth; how to strengthen enterprise reporting; how to set an equitable social media policy; how to foster transparency, and how to identify and express a newsroom’s core values.
The members of Local Media Association, with their deep, authentic connections to local audiences, are especially well suited to lead journalism on a transformative journey to restore trust and relevance. Len and I hope that our report helps show the way.
Read and download the full report: Beyond Objectivity: Producing Trustworthy News in Today’s Newsrooms
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