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Stop arguing about objectivity and start serving your audience

There’s been a recent flurry of papers and columns on objectivity. I’ve read them all. While there is clearly a generational shift underway in the standards of American journalism, is there really a debate?

Marty Baron, former Washington Post editor, started off this outpouring of philosophical waxing with a straightforward 3,200-word defense of journalism’s traditional ideal of objectivity. Wesley Lowery, a former Post reporter who went toe to toe with Baron during his time at the paper,  responded with a 4,200-word critique of the ham-handed way newsrooms have practiced objectivity. 

A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, tried to reframe the debate as a look at the threat to journalistic independence. 12,000 words. 

Meanwhile, independent of these dueling columns, another former Post editor, Leonard Downie, Jr., teamed up with the former president of CBS News, Andrew Heyward, to create a new 54-page playbook, titled, “Beyond Objectivity.” That document predates all of these by a couple weeks. 

I teach ethical decision-making to professional journalists and consult with newsrooms on their standards. I think about this stuff all the time, but I was having a hard time describing to non-journalists exactly what the controversy is and why it matters. So I rounded up three smart thinkers from three very different journalistic lineages and asked them to read the recent treatises. Then we talked.

Tom Rosenstiel came out of newspapers as a press critic. He wrote one of the most popular journalism textbooks of our time, ran the American Press Institute and is now a professor at the University of Maryland.

Keith Woods left his newspaper job to focus on diversity efforts in journalism, first here at Poynter and for the last 13 years at NPR.

Candice Fortman left a local public radio station in Detroit to join a news startup, Outlier, that focuses on partnering with the public to get Detroiters the critical information they need to live in their city.

These three journalists all said they felt that the essays were missing a key component: the voices of people who consume journalism and need it to be better. 

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. 

Clockwise from top left: Tom Rosenstiel of the University of Maryland, Candice Fortman of Outlier, Kelly McBride of Poynter and Keith Woods from NPR discuss the recent spate of articles from top journalism names about objectivity and independence. (Courtesy: Zoom)

Kelly McBride: What do you think this debate is really about? 

Tom Rosenstiel: We’re caught in a confusion. There are really three definitions of objectivity. There’s the dictionary definition of objectivity, which is about consciousness, that I am completely objective and have no point of view and bring nothing to the party. Then there’s this academic definition of objectivity, which is about process, that to overcome the inevitable prejudices and biases that we all have, academics developed first in the scientific method. And then in journalism we developed this third form of objectivity, which was objectivity of presentation: Sound completely neutral, never use the first person pronoun. Create the impression of objectivity through a style of presentation. 

And that dictionary definition is the one that we think, well, that’s impossible, no one meets that ideal. And we’ve moved away from that third definition of objectivity presentation. We use first person all the time now. It’s useful to know, it’s part of transparency. The combatants that you’re citing don’t really disagree over what’s good journalism. They disagree over terminology. And I think that Wes is right that the way newsrooms have defined objectivity as neutrality has created a default culture in a lot of newsrooms that is essentially white and male and older, and establishment. Many of the sins that he describes are accurate, but those can also be understood as a failure of objectivity, of method. 

So I don’t think that objectivity and diversity and deep understanding are at odds. I think a better term that gets closer to what most journalists believe in is open-minded inquiry. And if we could start there and lose the term objectivity altogether, we’d be in a better starting spot. 

Keith Woods: I appreciate the three-definition framing, Tom. And frankly, I think that the issue is that people don’t mean the same thing when they use the word — which, like any word that has that many different possibilities, is dysfunctional. Diversity would be another one of those words that’s dysfunctional. In some ways, Wes is arguing against what journalists often mean when they say objectivity, which is what in some ways Leonard Downie has been saying for a very long time, which is essentially “without opinion.” 

And once you believe that’s possible, you are a dangerous journalist in my view, when it comes to coverage of issues of inclusion and coverage of communities that are not your own, which is most communities for most of us. But there are people who are more thoughtful in general and are using that word. They’re more thoughtful about what they’re trying to achieve in journalism. And it’s not as simple as the “without viewpoint” or “without opinion” kind of definition. 

I don’t find that especially useful in the conversation where we’re yelling at one another, in this case about a terminology issue, when the problem is so much more profound. So you wind up spending all of your energy around that word and missing the underlying problem with objectivity. I’ve actually learned from a lot of the critics of the term over the last few years, especially. When you believe that it is to be without opinion, then the people who have the least to lose in an opinionless journalism are the ones who are also the greatest practitioners. And the people with the most to lose have the least voice. 

The focus of this conversation around objectivity needs to be a deeper understanding of what happens when you approach the craft without believing that you have the responsibility not just to be open-minded, Tom, but to pursue, actively pursue, what you don’t know and assume the existence of your ignorance in your journalism. 

Keith Woods, NPR

The focus of this conversation around objectivity needs to be a deeper understanding of what happens when you approach the craft without believing that you have the responsibility not just to be open-minded, but to pursue, actively pursue, what you don’t know and assume the existence of your ignorance in your journalism. 

— Keith Woods

Candice Fortman: I am coming at this, of course, from the local perspective. When I was thinking about this conversation earlier, all I could think of is how much time we waste talking about things that do not matter to the people who need our service most. And so I have to start by saying I hope what comes with this conversation is that it’s over and that we get back to the focus on process, rigor, accountability, transparency, which is the thing that our communities are asking us to do. 

For instance, at Outlier, we absolutely have an objective. Our objective is to see a healthier Detroit. And healthier, meaning that more people are able to pay their bills, people are housed, people are connected to one another, that this community is a safe place to raise your family and to be in community. And I don’t think that’s a problem that we come out and clearly state that. I don’t know if Sulzberger would agree with me, but I think that is a very normal way to exist as a citizen of a place. Our work in journalism, how we are focusing our time and our resources is about seeing a healthier place. And I think that when I read, for instance, The New York Times talk about Detroit, as a lifelong Detroiter, and when I have conversations about those articles, it is clear to anyone who lives here that the person who wrote that had an objective, and that they came from a place and an understanding of the world very different than the people who live here. 

I started my career in commercial radio, and while I had a lot of issues with commercial radio, one of the things that I really appreciated about it now is how honest it was about its purpose and what it was trying to achieve. They were bringing in ad dollars. Their mechanism for bringing in those ad dollars was through music and entertainment. And I wish that there was a more honest conversation in journalism about how the business model intrinsically impacts what ends up on the pages beyond even the journalists who are writing those things. It impacts how much journalism we produce. It impacts the quality of that journalism. And I think that for me is the most dangerous part of what is happening right now because we have already trained our audiences, our communities to be on this sort of cycle of news that is deeply unhealthy. We know that through lots of research and also from just existing in that system ourselves. But more than anything, we think that it’s objectivity that is doing the polarization when really there is so much information put into the atmosphere from all sorts of folks coming in, and they’re being inundated. They don’t know how to read, how to surface through all of that, who to trust, who not to trust. 

When we spend our time thinking about sort of these academic ventures, we put ourselves on a pedestal above the places that we are meant to serve, above the people we are meant to serve, when really they are down on the ground asking us just to do our jobs rigorously and with enough neutrality that they can make decisions for themselves. And so that is where I do agree that the people that we are serving, are smart enough to figure it out. But we have broken the systems that help them be able to do that job easily. 

Candice Fortman, Outlier Media

I have to start by saying I hope what comes with this conversation is that it’s over and that we get back to the focus on process, rigor, accountability, transparency, which is the thing that our communities are asking us to do.

— Candice Fortman

McBride: Candice, I wanted you here specifically to talk about the local application. Because I 100% agree with everything you just said. I want to restate this in a different way to see if you and I are on the same page. The objective of local journalism often is to fulfill a failing business model and as a result, the content that is created doesn’t necessarily serve the needs of the audience. 

Fortman: There are a lot of reasons people start local news organizations, and some of them are because there is a breakdown of the business model. There are two daily newspapers still operating in Detroit, four TV stations, two NPR stations can be heard in Detroit and a number of other digital startups producing news for Detroiters. So it really makes no sense to come and do what we do in Detroit unless there was a different issue to address. 

And the issue that we’re trying to address is: Those news organizations were serving the outer ring suburbs, but not the city itself, because that’s not where its business model sits. Subscribers are in the suburbs, so the news production is really centered on what suburban consumers need to know about the city. And that’s going to be very different from what the majority Black residents of Detroit need to know in order to survive in the city. And so we set up Outlier to be a sort of a partner to traditional models of journalism. And we had this wild idea that if we stayed really focused on information needs of Detroiters, we would push our colleagues in those other places that were much more well-resourced than us to follow those same lines as they saw audiences moving towards that kind of journalism. And it has been true. For instance, we have a collaborative newsletter with the Detroit Free Press, the ABC affiliate, both public radio stations and a number of other smaller local nonprofits around public safety. Five years ago, that wouldn’t have existed. 

Our job in this industry, in this ecosystem, in Detroit, is to challenge our colleagues to think more thoughtfully about how we serve Detroiters and what Detroiters are actually asking. So I think that the Free Press and News would probably think that Detroiters want to know more about gun violence. Because when we think about safety in Detroit, often what we would assume is that there’s a conversation about gun violence because that is the narrative that it has been painted.  Instead, what we are hearing from the residents that we work with, from our listening work, is that safety means more than policing. It means, are the sidewalks level enough that my wheelchair can roll down a street? Are the bus stops lit up enough that if I have to get on a bus at 5 a.m. in the middle of the winter, that I feel safe and comfortable? Are my children able to play in a street without cars racing down and maybe hitting one of them? Our job in this ecosystem is to be the challenger to our mainstream colleagues. 

The Free Press might feel much more like Sulzburger feels, but really what is happening is that there are organizations like Outlier, City Bureau, MLK50, who are really pushing the news organizations in their communities to think more thoughtfully about how we serve people and then even more thoughtfully about how we even determine what the beats of reporting need to be in order for people to exist in place. 

McBride: I believe that newsrooms have evolved in their understanding of inclusion around making decisions in the news. But in between the lines of both what A.G. wrote and what Marty wrote in The Washington Post was, “We’ve gone far enough. Stop criticizing us. You’re undermining our ability to have credibility with the audience.” Do you hear that dismissal in their words also, or is that something that I’m just projecting on them and certainly Wes is projecting on them? 

Rosenstiel: It’s hard to separate the words from the speaker, right? So if the publisher of The New York Times says something, he represents The New York Times. And if the president whispers, it’s not a whisper, right? It’s a big microphone. My suspicion is that Marty and A.G. — and I shouldn’t speak for them — are worried that journalism will walk away from the idea of finding out what happened and will move closer to “here’s my personal truth.”

So they’re hearing an echo that may not actually be there in what Wes is saying, and Wes is hearing an echo that may not be what Marty intends, which is part of why I think Candice’s point — Can we stop this conversation and move on to other things? — is so potent. 

Two things I wanted to react to — the first step we need to take as journalists, regardless of what term you use, is to recognize the limits of our own perception. There’s even a book written by a philosopher at NYU called “The View from Nowhere.” It’s actually a defense of objectivity. And Jay Rosen adopted the term in an opposite way, but he says that the goal of understanding the world is you start with your initial view and you understand the limits of your initial view. And that’s the first step to trying to understand other people’s points of view. And this is where Wes really gets it right. Of course, if there’s a default culture, if there’s a presumption of neutrality, if there’s a presumption that because I want to be fair, I am fair, that’s terrible. That’s where your first step is already in a ditch. 

The second most important step is the one that Candice mentioned, which is to recognize journalism is not valueless. We have a goal. What is that goal? What is the purpose of our journalism, and what are the values that we bring to it? There are all kinds of values that journalists have. We believe in facts. We believe in empiricism. We believe in equal rights under the law. We’re engaged in an act of informing rather than persuasion (usually, most journalists). I mean, Candice actually introduced a fourth definition of objective, which is the goal. What’s our objective? We need to be very clear-headed about that. We’re not simply passing things along. It’s storytelling with a purpose, and we need to know what that purpose is. 

The two things I think are really critical are to recognize who you are and what you don’t understand, and recognize why you’re engaged in this in the first place. If you don’t do those two things, you’re going to fail. 

Tom Rosenstiel, University of Maryland

The two things I think are really critical are to recognize who you are and what you don’t understand, and recognize why you’re engaged in this in the first place. If you don’t do those two things, you’re going to fail. 

— Tom Rosenstiel

McBride: Under-resourced newsrooms actually have trouble doing those things sometimes. And it’s a number of things. It’s a lack of leadership. It’s a lack of time and energy. 

Rosenstiel: Yes. But Outlier began with very few resources and said, “We’re not going to presume to know what people need. We’re going to find out what people need, and we’re going to use technology to do it.” And even their decisions about how to spend those resources are based on something and usually based on something empirical, which is a really powerful way of beginning. 

Fortman: And it hasn’t changed as our budget has changed. Like when I walked in the door, there was $72,000 in that bank account and we didn’t know where the next dollar was going to come from. And we eventually got to that last dollar. But this year, our budget is $1.8 million. Our methodology has not shifted an inch. All we do is provide more within the realms of that because that means that even if our budget shrinks, even if one day we lose money and our budget is back to $72,000, we still know that we’re able to provide a high-quality product because we’re really thinking about what is the process for how we get news out of the door at Outlier and not about what the dollar sign looks like in the bank account. 

McBride: Keith, you said the problem is so much more profound but then you didn’t say what the problem was. 

Woods: In this context, it’s misrepresenting, poorly representing, underrepresenting points of view and communities. Because the easy example that Candice offered a little while ago, if your narrative beginning on something is an acceptance of a point of view that you are not going to challenge about a community, then of the decisions that follow that — logical though they may seem from the objective point of view — they’re already built upon something deeply flawed. 

We are asking something almost transcendent of being human of the people that do this work. We’re saying when you get out there, as a journalist, we want people who are incredibly reflective, self-reflective. They have deep self-knowledge, they have the ability to tap into their thinking in the moment, account for that and then compensate for it in the journalism. Over the years I think that when we have hidden behind the shield of objectivity as journalists, it has most often been to shield our inability to do those things. 

And when we are talking now about these profoundly course-shifting events that are happening in this country right now, the end of Roe, for example, Target’s decision to pull down its Pride merchandise, when we see the shift that this is representing, when the governor of Florida, the governor of Ohio, the governor of Texas make it illegal to talk about equity and inclusion, when you see these book-banning movements going on around the country, we have to be able to talk about the actual harm of that. And the minute you don’t have the ability to reflect on how you view those things, the standing narrative wins and people lose. This is not a matter of the difference between your semantics and mine. Things are happening, and we ought to be able to talk about those things in real terms. You should have the ability, in the journalism, to describe the flaw in what someone is saying and end the conversation at that. And that’s where objectivity, whatever that word is, collides with journalism. 

I believe that a lot of this discussion today — and this is going to be an old man thing and I apologize ahead of time for it — but a lot of this discussion about “my personal truth” in journalism scares me as much as objectivity does. Because neither of them suggest the kind of rigor of self-examination that’s necessary to do this work really well. And there are people who are arguing for something that I couldn’t possibly stand by as a journalist. I won’t use objectivity as the defense against it, but I do think it’s not rigorous journalism and it is equally dangerous. Equally dangerous, not equally harmful, because one of them is actually happening and the other is just a theory. 

A lot of this discussion about “my personal truth” in journalism scares me as much as objectivity does. Because neither of them suggest the kind of rigor of self-examination that’s necessary to do this work really well.

— Keith Woods

Rosenstiel: I agree with what Keith said. In some ways, we’re the beneficiaries of Trump. He made us better because he lied so incessantly that we had to become more philosophical and epistemological, to use a fancy word, about how we present facts, and when is it inadequate to simply present two sides or even two sides? What does context mean and how do we describe something that is so patently false? Going back to Candice’s point, if we made our goal to try and figure out what impact these laws and these debates are having on people, we will focus more on the harm and not simply who’s right or wrong. And that is an empirical matter. And that requires actually more reporting, because now we have to leave the Capitol and go to people’s homes and the street and not talk about what’s in the bill, but what was the impact of similar bills elsewhere. That goal, journalistically, forces us to do more reporting and be more helpful and get out of the hallway and into the street.  

Fortman: And it’d be slower. That’s harder to do, and it’s not fun and it’s not entertaining, and people might not want to talk about it at a dinner party on Saturday, but it is deeply necessary. And I also think we talk about audience retention, and how do you bring in audiences that have left us or have never been on the boat with us? This is part of how you do that. You make the journalism impactful for their lives. I think that also, in some ways, the answer to the polarization question is that if you make journalism useful for people, they’re less concerned about who wrote it and what their beliefs are and if they go to church or don’t go to church or whatever. If what the journalists wrote actually helped me to get a housing voucher. It helped me to find mental health services for my loved one, or it helped me to figure out how to get my check from the state. 

In A.G.’s piece, one of the things that was very striking to me is that he makes this declaration that he understands he is probably not the best person to be making this argument, as a white man with a lot of privilege and a lot of money, whose family has owned the most powerful paper in the world for generations. And I could not agree more. But what I think he stopped just short of is talking about why those things actually matter. But for A.G., he kind of got to walk away from that statement without any real self-reflection about what it means to have generational power at that level and to have money at that level and a name that sort of follows you all around the world. And I often am having to answer for being from Detroit and reporting on Detroit or being a woman and reporting on Roe v. Wade in a way that I think that the folks who hold the power in newsrooms often do not have to do themselves.

I often am having to answer for being from Detroit and reporting on Detroit or being a woman and reporting on Roe v. Wade in a way that I think that the folks who hold the power in newsrooms often do not have to do themselves.

— Candice Fortman

McBride: I wonder if you could finish that sentence for him. 

Woods: It’s not a sentence. I guess it’s a chapter, right? 

Fortman: It is the thing, right? We were sitting in a meeting once, with Sarah Alvarez, who was our founder. A person looked over at her — this is someone who ran a news organization at the time — he looked over at her and he said, “Are you even a capitalist?” And he wasn’t joking. That wasn’t a joke. It wasn’t tongue in cheek. He was confused by the way we were thinking about the world in such a way that he was like, are you even a capitalist? And I think that if I was sitting in certain conversations — I’m not saying that A.G. would say this in any way — but I’m saying that the reality of capitalism, the way that people think about money and power, is very real. 

The way I think about money and power, different from where I grew up, has changed. I couldn’t go back to the neighborhood that I was raised in and feel like I was the person who should be objectively reporting for that place. I have changed wildly since that time. 

Rosenstiel: I do think that you talked about local journalism versus national, and I think it’s worth revisiting that for a second. The economics of national journalism now are quite different from the economics of local journalism. And you can see this even at Fox. Fox News … if they get 3 million viewers, that’s a 2% share of adults in the United States and that’s their most popular show. If one of the local stations that Fox owns got 2% of the market in Oakland, in the Bay Area, they’d be dead. So Fox’s local TV stations, they’re going for 20, 30, 40%. They need to understand and reach and have empathy for a lot more people in the community. The economics of national journalism today may pull you towards a more partisan, a more political, a more ideological kind of journalism than you’re even willing to recognize. And you can’t do that at the local level. The other thing that happens at the local level is you run into the people that you’re writing for. 

Woods: That might have been true for local journalism a few years back. I don’t know if it’s so true today. A lot of us are reporting from our living rooms today from our suburban homes and not likely to run into the people that we’re reporting about if they’re not in the suburbs. I think that the argument about who you are and how that fits into this notion of objectivity, especially across race and ethnicity, I find sometimes it gets so oversimplified in a discussion, it starts to create another piece of harm. I think this was in the piece on objectivity from Leonard Downie Jr. The idea that news organizations are bringing in people of color to get their perspectives. 

We have rendered people of color in that conversation a utility to the organization. It’s not a fairness question anymore. We’re not doing justice by correcting the discrimination and exclusion of decades in the history of journalism and all of the obstacles that continue to sit in the profession now. No, this is all about bringing these folks in to correct the problem we created. And that sense of utility skews your understanding both of what that person is actually bringing when they come and what they wanted to bring when you hired them. I don’t know how many people of color who are hired saw in the job description, “and as a Black person, we expect you to be Black while you’re on the job.” And I think that’s a deal made without anybody ever agreeing to it. And that then frames the view of those folks that is shared by other people in the newsroom or other people in the news industry. Well, we do want to diversify because we do want those perspectives, and therefore, that’s what Keith is bringing when he comes to work every day. Forget any interest he might have beyond that. 

The idea that news organizations are bringing in people of color to get their perspectives — We have rendered people of color in that conversation a utility to the organization.

— Keith Woods

Rosenstiel: That’s the other side of the default culture, you know? I mean, there was a time when I heard from reporters of color, “I was hired here, and they expect me to be like everybody else. Don’t bring anything to this.” And now we flip to the other side where it’s the sort of ethnic utility concept that Keith is talking about. 

Woods: The reality is that it is all of those things, having just said what I said, that I might not still be in journalism such as I am today, 45 years after I started, if not for some goals I have had for my impact on the profession. So I am that. But I am also the person who has a thousand other interests and wants to do lots of things. And if that today is not serving your need to attract black audiences, sorry. Not my responsibility ever, not any day of any year of any time is that the responsibility of the people that you hire because they happen to have a particular tint to their skin. 

Rosenstiel: Which is why, again, to go back to what’s so interesting about Outlier is they began by saying, “If we wanted to serve an audience that has not been served and we don’t even know how to reach them, how would we do that?” They started with that question rather than, “Here’s what people need” or, “This is what we do, how can we tweak it to get some other people who we don’t understand?” They had the benefit of starting from scratch, but they started with questions that existing newsrooms tend not to even ask. Journalism is in trouble for a lot of reasons, but only some of them are because the Internet came along and took away our advertising. A lot of them have to do with the fact that the product is flawed and the digital disruption is more a symptom than a cause, a symptom of that flaw in the product. 

Fortman: I see it as a wild privilege to be able to build from scratch. But I do think that we are seeing organizations much older than us, like the Free Press and the News, really think more thoughtfully about how they engage in this city and what it means for their bottom line. Because this is also a business model problem. If we cannot solve this, we will never solve a business model issue. If you can’t get your customer base to understand the product, to like the product, to advocate for the product, then you’ve got a problem. If this was happening for Coke and Pepsi, they would be addressing this aggressively. And I think the moral good thing that happens in journalism around the product removes us from addressing it as a business problem or sometimes only thinking about it as a business problem. 

We’re always at polar opposite ends of the problem when really the solution sits somewhere in the middle. So it looks like Outlier, but it also looks like ProPublica, which is why (ProPublica founding general manager) Dick Tofel is on our board. Because while I would love to think that we could just go out and do great journalism and that would be all that matters, there was also a business problem that we had to solve for and we needed folks who thought about that to be a part of our team. 

But I also think that if I came into this work thinking that just because I am a lifelong Black Detroiter, that I know the problems of Detroiters, that would be wildly foolish. I grew up in a very particular part of Detroit with a very particular family, going to a very particular type of church.And when I am working and talking to community members about the work of Outlier, I am learning things about the city I never knew. We’re doing a whole line of investigation about the Detroit Housing Commission and how vouchers are given out. That’s a world I’ve never had to exist in. And so I’m understanding how the world works for Detroiters who I don’t have an everyday relationship with. 

We have all of these resources. We’re sitting here with an AI notetaker on this call right now. We are in this place where we have this tremendous amount of resources and also diverse ways of thinking about the world. Our newsrooms should be on fire right now. This should be one of the best times in the world to work in newsrooms. And instead we are muddying up the waters with conversations about objectivity. 

McBride: Tom, you teach a course on the changing standards of journalism. What would you say are the main changes in the standards of journalism, especially as they apply to this conversation?

Rosenstiel: One of them actually is this idea that you bring values and you bring self to the work, a recognition that that dictionary definition of objectivity is absurd as a starting point. One of the most interesting classes that I have each semester is where I ask people to write down all their identities and then say, how do those inform and improve your journalism? And in what ways are they potentially an impediment? Those conversations become very candid and really open. People talk about stuff that, when I started the class, I didn’t even think about. I’m the product of divorced parents, and my view of family really influences the way I think about people and interact with them. And wow, this goes deeper than I even imagined when I was plotting out this class. 

Another one is what can journalists say in social media? So we’re talking about 22-year-olds who grew up in social media. And I say, you’re the editor, pick a news organization. I think the students come up with better social media policies than I have seen from The Washington Post, The New York Times, or virtually any other place. One of the things they’re very focused on is mental health for reporters, particularly women, women of color, especially. 

But they really do struggle with this question of what is it you can say about politics? They’re pretty free about almost everything else, but they struggle a little bit with … they believe that for the most part, that you can march, that you can say what your social values are but they don’t want you to endorse candidates. They don’t want you to have signs on your lawn. They’ve thought it through from the beginning as digital natives, but they end up in a place that, while more liberal or permissive than traditional news organizations, you stop short of saying, well, you can actually be a political advocate. 

Woods: We went through this process at NPR a couple of years ago, we were having one of those traditional objectivity discussions, and somebody said, “Well, the audience needs this, and the audience needs to know this, and the audience …” somebody kept saying, making that argument. And then one of the newer people to the conversation said, which audience? And it was just a moment when once you allowed that question to really sort of sink in, the next question that followed was even more pointed. It was the audience you have or the one you want? And when you get to the question about the one you want, part of the truth of that audience is that they want the opposite. Maybe what they want I don’t want to give them. They want the polar opposite of what we are saying we are supposed to be delivering to this current audience, which is essentially saying, lie to me on this side, right? Shield me from some of those harsh truths, that when I say that I think this, I want you to shield me from the reality that was actually a racist thing that I said, that’s one end of the continuum. And now over here, they’re saying, tell me what you think about this thing that you’re reporting, and your truth is powerful, so just speak your truth. And I don’t want to do that either. I want to do something that sits not necessarily in the middle of them, but away from the extremes of them. These generational differences are important along with the racial/ethnic differences that live in those audiences that we’re talking about. And the younger audience across all racial/ethnic demographics wants more candor than the older audience does. So if you’re going for the younger audience, they want something different. And I think that if that was your argument all along, that we’re just giving the audience what the audience wants, that wasn’t objectivity either. 

Rosenstiel: So I may be foolishly optimistic about this, and I’m curious what Candice thinks, but I do think that if we see part of our goal as creating understanding among diverse audiences where they can have more empathy for each other, that there’s a way to navigate that. I hope. But if we think we’re in the affirmation business, which is exactly where Fox found itself trapped in the Dominion case, then we’ve sort of brought this on ourselves. You have to be willing to alienate some of your audience to expand your audience. Candice, you guys have created a new audience. What do you think? Am I being foolishly optimistic? 

Fortman: I’m always down the middle on optimism/pessimism. But I’ll say this, I don’t know if we can help create empathy. I mean, that is such an internal job. And I also think that there are so many things happening at the same time as what is happening in journalism that is also impacting that, including people not being able to live a quality of life that really helps them to be at a level of stress that is normal. There are too many people with high levels of stress and high levels of worry about how they’re going to exist in society that all of these things are impacted by that. 

But I’ll say this, one of the most incredible pieces of journalism I think I’ve read all year came out this week by Kat Stafford from the AP and also a Detroiter. She did this incredible yearlong investigation looking at health outcomes for Black Americans. It goes from babies, so high infant mortality rates, to the elderly, looking at the high rates of Alzheimer’s that have links to racism in elderly Black people, looking at the rate of high blood pressure and how that impacted the high rate of deaths during COVID. The great thing that the AP did here by giving her the space to do this story is that while national journalism can outperform us on every time on this sort of mass investigation, it also becomes a part of the public record. So when we are trying to disseminate that down to the local level, we don’t have to do the big research project. She’s done it for us. And not only that, but setting the record for a moment in time is incredibly valuable. So 20 years from now when hopefully this has been solved for but because of my pessimism, it has not been solved, Kat’s journalism sits in the public record. 

I can go back to the Ida B. Wells work and still use it as a part of the public record in our conversations about race in this country today. That is problematic as hell, by the way. But here we all are. I’ll just say that what I am most optimistic about is that if we continue to create a record, if we actually think about journalism as utility and as a way to solve for particularly larger local systemic issues, then we can get to empathy. But we can never get there if people are still struggling en masse. Because if I were making $3 an hour working at Applebee’s and living off tips, my empathy button would be real hard to find. 

Woods: Yeah, that’s such an important way of understanding how to get there. And I guess I was reacting at the same time to maybe a more pragmatic, practical version of the same problem, which is, one hand, you have people who aren’t even looking for the AP story. They don’t have a vehicle right now to deliver it to them in their lives. On a day-to-day basis, finding  the journalism that might instill that kind of empathy is getting harder and harder. 

Fortman: It’s behind a paywall.

Woods: Well, behind a paywall, but also behind your own walls, right? Your own decisions about what you’re going to consume and not consume. And then at the same time I don’t know where we’re going to be a year from now in this conversation, but if we were to continue in the direction that we’re going right now, you also have the absolute erasure of history. So you might not be able to find Ida B. Wells’ research at some point. Give us time, and we’ll figure out a way to block it from your internet at this rate. So I think that’s a whole other issue when we’re talking about how people consume and process information. 

McBride: Part of the reason that A.G .and Marty Baron are concerned about this isn’t because of the outside pressure, it’s because of the pressure from within their news organizations, which they find increasingly difficult to stabilize. And whenever there is a specific piece of journalism that people within a news organization get upset about, I notice two things. One is their questions are about the tone and the proportion in the journalism. And the follow up question is who was at the table when the decisions were made about this? My question is what is your advice to newsroom leaders who may be feeling pressure from within.   

Rosenstiel: Well, I don’t work in the news organization, although I have advised many over the years and so I’m probably the least qualified to (address this). I do think that two ideas which are to some extent in opposition are worth keeping in mind. One is that every generation recreates or creates a new journalism. And I learned that from Bill Kovach, who’s 90 years old and came into journalism in the ’50s and through the ’60s and saw journalism be revolutionized by his generation in a lot of ways more than it was by mine. It needs to change. It needs to evolve. It is a living thing, and if it’s not, it won’t reflect the society that it’s trying to report on. 

Every generation recreates or creates a new journalism. It needs to change. It needs to evolve. It is a living thing, and if it’s not, it won’t reflect the society that it’s trying to report on.

— Tom Rosenstiel

The second opposing idea is as a leader you have to stand for certain values. How do you live up to those values in this era with these journalists? I’m going to repeat things that you would expect from me. Those values are telling the truth. Those values are serving the audience. Those values involve providing information so people can live in a self-governing society. Those values are being independent. Even if you have an opinion, it is your opinion, it’s authentically yours. You’re not on the team secretly. There are these fundamental values. But I think how we live up to them can and has to adapt. So at the beginning of the internet, we had a culture war between people who saw the possibilities of the internet and people who worried about how they would erode values. That war is pretty much over with. And now we’re having a war that doesn’t need to be a war because in fact, I think just as we began this conversation, Wes and A.G. don’t really disagree as much as they think they might. 

Fortman: I’ll speak very specifically for Outlier. We have an understanding that people show up as they are. They show up as whole human beings with whole lived experiences that happened before they got here and will exist once they leave our newsroom. And so we don’t ask people to put their lived experiences on pause because of the work that they’re doing. We ask them to be thoughtful about how they show up in this community. We ask them to be respectful of how they show up in this community. And that means that, for instance, we adjust the schedule of our staff members who observe Ramadan, for instance. For us, that is how we ensure that our two Muslim colleagues are able to show up and do their jobs well. But it also means that we are learning through that process. So we show up in our community when we are serving our Muslim residents much differently. The policies are much more about how we personally would love to have been treated in other newsrooms that we came out of. We get to build them from the beginning, so we are being thoughtful.

I would shoot back at the folks at NPR, sorry, Keith and also New York Times, Washington Post and others and say, is there a lack of trust happening between you and the staff and how you think that they can show up for themselves and also show up for their jobs? 

McBride: An example: Gay and trans journalists are really upset with The New York Times right now and they feel like there’s a couple of pieces that were done without a stakeholder at the table making decisions and as a result those pieces caused more harm than they needed to. That was the case with the Tom Cotton editorial, right? It was Black journalists who said, “This is dangerous. You put out something that’s going to hurt us.” And what A.G. is saying is, “You’re attacking our independence when you do this, fellow journalists.” 

Woods: But you easily could substitute objectivity in that. 

McBride: Well, that’s what he’s trying to do. That’s why he’s saying independence is a better word than objectivity. 

Woods: Yeah, but it’s the same argument. Just because you used a different word doesn’t mean that you’re believing something different in the process. First of all, we have a very old and very useful way of thinking about ethical journalism that describes the need to consider the stakeholders and stories and their inclusion in your decision making. But I think again that sometimes this conversation gets reduced almost to symbolism. I don’t think it gets all the way there. How many trans journalists needed to have been in the room at The New York Times when they made that decision? How many Black journalists needed to have been in the room on a Tom Cotton? And which Black journalists, by the way, should it have been who were there? The issue in both of those cases was that there was a vulnerable population whose points of views needed to be considered and the organization needed to find a way to do that. Does that mean going and grabbing a Black person out of the corridor and bringing them in the room? Well, one hopes not. But if you’re thinking about it from the journalistic rigor point of view, then the answer essentially is the same answer as any other good piece of reporting. Report until you know, and then you go with the piece. And if you find one brilliant Wes Lowery to bring into the room and he’s got it all, you’re done. But you might need five, you might need seven. I don’t know. 

And I think that’s why when people say there were no Black people in the room, it’s a low standard, and it’s an insulting standard for people to reduce it to those kinds of conversations. So, I think that’s the part of this that we have to be able to dig deeper into. And really and I believe I’ve said this many times, journalism has always had some of the answers to these problems in its practice, if we just did it.

Rosenstiel: By the way, to go to Candice’s point, nobody was in any room when the Tom Cotton piece got published. Everyone was in their house. So it would have been very easy to use technology to widen that sphere.

McBride: What I’m really trying to do is, for the rest of us, advance the conversation, because I think a lot of journalists are asking, what the hell does this have to do with me? What I want to do is give them the top points that you need to know if you get dragged into this conversation and as you’re thinking about your own organization, here are some ways of assessing where your organization is in this evolution. 

Rosenstiel: One thing that’s really interesting, in the same class, we were talking about one of the assignments after they’ve talked about how do you get at the truth and things like that, and I asked them to write a learning journal on where you come down on objectivity. They all blow that one. Like, they don’t know where they come down because it’s not really the point. It’s a strange thing. It’s like, well, wouldn’t this be one of the most important assignments? And it turns out to be kind of irrelevant to them. They know about telling the truth, and this term doesn’t really concern them nearly as much as I thought it would.

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