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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Author: Krista Eastman

Keynote address from Sewell Chan: “Can journalism bring about justice?”

On Friday, April 29, 2022, Sewell Chan, editor in chief at The Texas Tribune, provided the keynote address for our 13th annual journalism ethics conference, “Centering Equity: Journalism, Ethics & A Just Future.” What follows is a transcript of his address, “Can journalism bring about justice?”

Elijah Parish Lovejoy was the first American journalist to be murdered because of his work.  The son of a preacher and farmer, Lovejoy graduated from what is now Colby College, in Waterville, Maine. He moved West to find his fortune – having no money, he had to walk more than 1,200 miles to St. Louis. There, he established a school and became the editor of the St. Louis Observer, a Presbyterian weekly. He used his platform to condemn slavery and to call for gradual emancipation. Missouri was a slave state, and Lovejoy’s writing angered powerful men in town, who urged him to moderate the tone of his editorials. He refused. 

The threat of mob violence finally forced him to move his printing press across the Mississippi River to Alton, in the free state of Illinois. But there, too, Lovejoy’s writing angered white citizens, many of whom feared that abolitionist sentiments would make it harder to do business with the South and might make the town a haven for people escaping enslavement. On the night of November 7, 1837, a mob attacked the warehouse where Lovejoy had hidden his press. He  was shot to death. 

His martyrdom shook the North. It inspired abolitionists like John Brown. As Ken Ellingwood writes in “First to Fall,” a biography of Lovejoy published last year: “It took insistent journalists like Lovejoy—an obscure editor, working his press by hand, alone—to test the guarantees they were certain the Founders had intended. Lovejoy’s fight, and the heartening public response to it, drew us closer to a modern conception of journalism.”

And yet for every Lovejoy, there have been many more journalists and publishers who have been complacent or complicit in the face of injustice.  Last year, in a cover story in The Nation, Channing Joseph made a case for media reparations, noting that 19th century newspapers made profits by running advertisements for runaway slaves — and that some of those newspapers are still around today. Also last year, students with the University of Maryland’s Howard Center for Investigating Journalism published a series, “Printing Hate,” that documented how newspapers fanned racial resentment, incited massacres and lynchings, and overlooked or excused racist mob violence and terror across America between Reconstruction and the start of the Second World War. Just since 2018, publications like National Geographic, The Los Angeles Times, The Kansas City Star, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Baltimore Sun have reckoned with their histories of racism and published apologies to readers. 

I mention these examples because they demonstrate the range of what journalism can do, or fail to do. The news can be a vehicle for exposing injustice, uplifting the powerless, and amplifying voices that are ignored. The news can also titillate and sensationalize. It can stoke discord, grievances and resentments. It can get lost in trivialities and ignore painful truths.

Profound questions are being asked of journalists today: Do we align ourselves with the powerful, or the powerless? Does our work contribute to equity and justice, or to hierarchy and oppression? Should we focus on the injustices of our time, or do we just go with the flow, play it safe, pander to the crowd, confirm the prevailing prejudices and biases of our times? Should we act as though we are all above the fray, or recognize that we, too, are a pillar of democracy, and need to act like one? 

“Can journalism bring about justice?” is a deliberately provocative question. Clearly the answer isn’t a simple yes or no. To attempt an answer, first, I want to ask what we mean by journalism that promotes justice. Second, I want to discuss obstacles that are making it harder for journalists to report the truth — some of them self-inflicted, and some the result of external pressures. Third, I want to suggest reasons for optimism despite these obstacles.  

Defining Just Journalism

There are at least three broad definitions of justice. The first is legal and procedural: the adjudication of competing claims, the distribution of rewards and punishments, the administration of the law. The second is normative: fairness, impartiality, righteousness. The third is “conformity to truth, fact or reason” — as in, being correct, accurate, honest. 

All three definitions have implications for journalism. There is a close relationship between journalism and the law, just as there is between journalism and history. Like a judge or a juror, a journalist is expected to analyze evidence, take stock of competing narratives, and render judgment. Journalists are expected to be fair and impartial. Our first loyalty is to the truth, and the truth is made out of verified facts. We use reason and evidence to assess what is true, and we seek to do justice by our subjects, our sources and our readers. 

If the word is so simple, why is talking about justice so difficult? It’s difficult in part because there isn’t a universally accepted journalistic definition of justice. The definition I want to use is this: the ethical pursuit of truth in service to democracy. 

Over the past several years, a significant debate has emerged over the traditional journalistic norms of objectivity, impartiality and neutrality. These norms started to emerge in the late 19th century, partly as a reaction to the hyper-partisan press of the Early Republic and the yellow journalism of the industrial age, when newspapers and magazines were explicit about their political and economic agendas – usually, the naked agendas of their owners. In response to the complexity of the modern age, the political commentator Walter Lippmann proposed objectivity as a method of journalistic inquiry – a reliance on scientific and technocratic expertise and the weighing of empirical evidence to inform decision-makers. Lippmann described the public as “a bewildered herd,” steeped in ignorance, easily confused and manipulated. 

In contrast, the philosopher John Dewey agreed that the world had grown too complex to be easily understood by the average citizen, but argued that it was journalism’s job to try to educate the masses. Out of engagement and conversations among citizens, the populace would become better informed and more capable of self-governance. Dewey rejected Lippmann’s call for an expert elite class to manage democracy, placing his trust in ordinary people to choose their leaders and make the right call, most of the time.

The Lippmann-Dewey debate continues today, but in a slightly different form that I want to call the Lowery-Rosenstiel-Rosen debate, named for Wesley Lowery, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist; Tom Rosenstiel, former head of the American Press Institute and author of “The Elements of Journalism”; and Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU. 

In an influential 2020 essay, Lowery argued that objectivity is a myth. “No journalistic process is objective,” he wrote. “And no individual journalist is objective, because no human being is.” Objectivity, he wrote, has often been merely a fig leaf for the point of view of editors, most of them white men. Lowery argued that objectivity created a false illusion of fairness. “Conversations about objectivity, rather than happening in a virtuous vacuum, habitually focus on predicting whether a given sentence, opening paragraph or entire article will appear objective to a theoretical reader, who is invariably assumed to be white,” he wrote. In its place, Lowery suggested “moral clarity,” “telling hard truths” and presenting “plainly stated facts.” Stop the pussy-footing euphemisms, the mealy-mouthed hedging. Stop dancing around the truth. 

Lowery captures, I think, a deep frustration with journalism that is often directed, in particular, toward political journalists in Washington. These critics are tired of the he-said, she-said, style of reporting, finding it naive at best, and deeply cynical at worst. They are tired of “both sides” journalism, and of the “false equivalency” presented by writers who act as though there are only two sides, and that they are equally valid, and who ignore the problem of “asymmetric polarization” — an imbalance in which the extremism is greater on one side. This powerful critique has grown louder and louder, especially among media critics like Margaret Sullivan and Dan Froomkin, who have large Twitter followings.  

I’m sympathetic to these arguments, but I also worry that they are a bit advanced for typical audiences. If you ask ordinary news consumers what counts as quality news they will still often invoke words like objective and neutral. Rosenstiel thinks that the term objectivity can be resuscitated and defended — not as an abstract truth about the human condition, but as a way to describe a method —  a process of sifting evidence, testing hypotheses, guarding against propaganda and bias. Humans may not be objective, he concedes, but objectivity as a discipline and method are still useful. Moral clarity, in his view, is too vague to be meaningful — for example, both civil rights advocates and white supremacists believe they have moral clarity. 

In the newest edition of “The Elements of Journalism,”  Rosenstiel writes: “If we reduce objectivity to a stereotype and a strawman—and abandon the aspiration of deeply reported open-minded inquiry—then the points of view and explanations we arrive at in our highest attempts at journalism will be shallow and unhelpful and journalism will become simply another form of advocacy. If we mistake subjectivity for truth, we will have wounded an already weakened profession at a critical time. If we lose the ability to understand other points of view, we will have allowed our passions to overwhelm the purpose democracy requires of its press.”

My own view is that the two schools of thought are not as far apart as they might appear. Journalism is not a science, but it is a craft, with values, norms and standards; rigorous and empathetic reporting, of the kind Lowery has practiced, from Ferguson to Baltimore, is exactly what’s needed to write with earned confidence and authority. Rosenstiel is right to urge journalists to be organized, disciplined and methodical; Lowery is correct in rejecting the euphemisms and obfuscations that are too often used in lazy journalism. 

One practical example of how these approaches can be reconciled is with climate journalism. Twenty years ago, it was not uncommon for articles about the environment to quote climate-change deniers; today, it’s almost unheard of. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that the atmosphere is warming because human activities emit methane, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses. The relevant question isn’t whether this is happening, but rather what, if anything, can be done about it – and what are the tradeoffs involved. I wonder if someday, we will be able to talk about economic inequality and structural racism the same way — the facts are not in dispute, but what to do in response to these facts is not always clear. 

A harsher perspective is offered by Jay Rosen, who has consistently argued against what he calls The View From Nowhere, which positions the journalist as sitting between polarized extremes. It’s an attempted defense against charges of partisan bias. And it claims a legitimacy that those who stake out a position are seen as implicitly lacking. “American journalists have almost a lust for The View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance,“ Rosen writes.

Taken to its extreme, The View From Nowhere can be deeply cynical. It positions the reporter as caring only about the speech and the optics, not the rightness or truth of what is said. It puts political success over all other considerations, including legality, morality and ethics. This kind of journalism is especially entrenched in national political coverage and in my view it has left no one happy. The Left sees this style of reporting as emanating from privilege, detached from the lived experiences and hardships of ordinary people and communities. The Right sees this style of political journalism as a masquerade, asserting that most journalists are liberal but simply refuse to admit it and pretend to be objective when they aren’t. 

Some journalists like to say “If both sides are pissed off, I must be doing something right,” but Rosen and other critics say it’s possible that you’re simply all wrong. Rosen can come across as shrill and doctrinaire, but I think his critique is more or less sound. It’s easy to forget that some of the most cherished journalism of the 20th century had a point of view, even if it was a subtle one: the reporting on civil rights by those in the ’50s and ’60s; Walter Cronkite’s conclusion that the Vietnam War had become an unwinnable quagmire; the Watergate revelations by Woodward and Bernstein. Those journalists positioned themselves as truth-tellers – though it also must be said that their conclusions were hard earned and made sparingly. 

Rosen has deplored what he calls the worship of savvy. He writes: “In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane. … Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, ‘with it,’ and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are.”

If we’re being honest, most political journalists have at some point practiced this kind of journalism – following the horse race, the poll numbers, the latest attack ads, the juicy scuttlebutt, the off-the-record whispers, and more recently the crunching of poll and survey data the same way one might analyze baseball statistics. The result has been fairly disastrous: a trivialization of political news, an erosion of trust across the political spectrum, and a sense that politics is a game played by elite insiders. Journalism’s deeper mission — to uncover uncomfortable truths, to shine a light on injustice, to listen deeply and empathetically to ordinary people — gets obscured. 

As Margaret Sullivan wrote in a recent Washington Post column: “Adherence to the press’s true mission and highest calling demands journalism that discards the safety-seeking instinct for false equivalency. It demands journalism that relentlessly and boldly presents the truth.” I think she’s right. 

Obstacles to Just Journalism 

As if finding and presenting the truth weren’t hard enough, ethical journalism faces a mounting set of obstacles today, and that’s the second theme of this talk.  

The way I see it, American journalism is facing three distinct but overlapping crises: a crisis of mistrust, a crisis of unsustainability, and a crisis of misinformation.  

First, the crisis of trust. In June, the annual digital news report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that the United States ranked dead last — at 29% — in trust in the media in a survey of 45 nations plus Hong Kong. Americans trust their news even less than citizens of the Philippines, Turkey, Hungary and Poland (in which democratically elected strongmen have restricted press freedoms) and less than residents of Hong Kong (which has cracked down on the press, under the pretext of national security). Just as disturbing, the Pew Research Center in October detailed a widening partisan divide: 78% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said they had some or a lot of trust in news from national news organizations, compared with 35% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. That 43 percentage point gap is the largest observed since Pew began asking this question in 2016. 

It’s difficult to see how our democracy can recover if less than one-third of Americans trust the news. There are many reasons behind this lamentable situation — the most obvious are the bad-faith attacks on journalism as “fake news” and “the enemy of the people.” And these attacks aren’t merely rhetorical. The International Center for Journalists surveyed 714 female journalists worldwide; 73% reported that they had online violence, including threats, harassment, trolling, doxxing, cyberstalking. Editors today need to have detailed safety protocols in place, including processes for contacting law enforcement. The 2018 deadly attack on the newsroom of The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, was a reminder that violence against journalists doesn’t just happen overseas, in countries gripped by war or repression or authoritarianism. Mistrust can be deadly.

Mainstream journalism has not done enough to combat mistrust. We have not been explicit enough about our values, our methods, and our impact. We have not done enough to celebrate the work of investigative and accountability reporting — what Alex S. Jones, in his 2009 book “Losing the News, called the “iron core” of journalism. We have not been transparent enough about how we gather information. We have used anonymous sources too casually. We have too often assumed the trust of our audience without recognizing that that trust must be earned and jealously guarded, and never taken for granted. 

In my own career, which started in 1995, I’ve observed substantial failures to address at least two sets of audiences, who don’t see themselves reflected in mainstream media. One set are historically disadvantaged communities, including communities of color. The Kerner Commission, established to analyze the civil disorders that swept American cities in the 1960s, concluded in 1968: “The journalistic profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training, and promoting Negroes. … If the media are to report with understanding, wisdom and sympathy on the problems of the cities and the problems of the black man—for the two are increasingly intertwined—they must employ, promote and listen to Negro journalists.”

Fifty-four years later, these findings remain depressingly relevant. In 1978, a full decade after the Kerner Commission report, the American Society of Newspaper Editors set out the goal that newsroom employment should match the diversity of the American population by the year 2000. In 1998, when it became clear that goal wouldn’t be met, the goalpost was moved to 2025. The News Leaders Association, the successor organization to  ASNE, recently announced that just 303 news organizations responded to its most recent annual diversity survey — down from 429 in 2019, and barely over the 293 that responded in 2018, which saw the fewest responses ever. Last week, a group of journalism organizations, including the associations representing Black, Hispanic, Asian American and Native American journalists, wrote an open letter to the board of the Pulitzer Prizes, urging that newsrooms be required to provide diversity statistics in order to enter the prizes, starting in 2024. (Kudos goes to the American Society of Magazine Editors, which already has this policy in place for the National Magazine Awards.)  

Nikole-Hannah Jones co-founded the Ida B. Wells Society in 2017 to train a new generation of journalists of color to do investigative reporting. She said in an interview: “Newsrooms reflect the same racial hierarchies as the rest of society. The more prestigious a job is, the more skills it requires, the less likely people of color are to get the mentoring, training and opportunities to take on those jobs. Why does this glaring whiteness in investigative reporting matter? Because it means that stories of abuse, neglect and wrongdoing that impact millions of Americans are simply not getting covered. Diversity matters not for some politically correct, feel-good reason, but because diverse newsrooms unearth more stories and have access to more communities.”

The other large set of audiences that mainstream media has failed to reach are working-class people. The majority of Americans don’t have college degrees, and they are the ones who have been hit hardest by the rising inequality and wage stagnation that have persisted in the United States since the 1970s. Many of them are also people of color. Many don’t live in large cities. Many are people of faith, and have veterans or service members in their family. They don’t see their values, beliefs and ways of life reflected in the mainstream news. The journalism scholar Nikki Usher, who is speaking at this conference, published a very important book last year, titled “News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism.” The book shows how newsrooms remain largely white institutions, many of them increasingly elite ones, that increasingly appeal to global, cosmopolitan “placeless” readers, and not to audiences rooted in rural areas, small towns or mid-sized cities. 

Over the last 40 years newsrooms have lost the working-class identity they once had, as journalism has become more professionalized, more credentialized, more competitive. In a 2018 study of the professionalization of journalism, the communication scholar Daniel Kreiss wrote: “Ironically, even as the economic fortunes of the news media have declined precipitously, as a social group the status of journalists has increased.” Remember, most Americans are unaware that the news industry is in trouble: A 2019 Pew study found that 70% of Americans believed that local news was doing somewhat or very well financially — only 14% reported subscribing to or donating to a local news outlet. We in the news media have failed to engage vast segments of the public — that has got to change for our businesses to survive.

The second crisis I want to discuss is that of unsustainability. The typical American journalist is not a network correspondent and doesn’t work for a global or national newsroom; the typical journalist works at a legacy local newspaper, or for a wire service, or for public radio or TV or a nonprofit newsroom. These journalists are often covering beats where they are the only ones monitoring a statehouse or a city council or an agency. They are strapped for time. They work for modest pay. They often lack job security or a pathway for career  advancement. 

As an industry, journalism has too often treated its employees poorly. Newsrooms cannot produce great work that promotes justice if they are not just places to work. The NewsGuild — whose president is Jon Schleuss, a speaker at this conference — has had some of its fastest growth in recent years, as more and more newsroom employees are organizing labor unions, fighting for fair pay, equity in the workplace, and sustainable working conditions. The  precariousness of journalism jobs has driven this trend, as more and more newspapers are owned by private equity funds and hedge funds that care little about journalism’s public service mission. Unions help ensure a baseline of fairness, particularly in companies that are shrinking and buying out or laying off employees. They have raised the wage floor, ending practices that exploited freelancers and contractors. 

But there is another dimension to the labor organizing push: News workers want more of a say in how decisions are made. They want to ensure that diverse candidates are interviewed for every open position. They want assurance that their voices will be heard if management makes unfair or unethical decisions. They want a say in decisions about returning to the office, more than two years into the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Importantly, it’s not just journalists and business side employees who are organizing; in March, some 600 members of the New York Times Tech Guild, representing employees in  engineering, data, design, product and project management, voted to unionize. They are now the largest union of tech workers in America. Media workers increasingly see themselves as part of a movement. 

A more just journalism industry would look quite different from the industry today. It will require benevolent local owners, for whom news is a public good that meets the information needs of a community, not a depreciating asset to be squeezed and then sold for parts. It will require more and larger nonprofit newsrooms, filling the gaps created by the withering of legacy local news. It will require wise managers, who invest in employees at all stages of their careers, recognizing that recruitment and hiring of diverse employees won’t do much good if those employees are not supported, developed, empowered, and given opportunities to grow — and to lead. 

The third crisis I want to discuss is that of misinformation. In a report published this month, PEN America, which advocates for free expression, found that 81 percent of journalists believe disinformation to be a serious problem for journalism; 61 percent say they deal with disinformation each week, and 15 percent on all or most days; 65 percent report facing public hostility as a result of misinformation; 48 percent say they feel frustrated and overwhelmed by disinformation. One in three journalists reports feeling overwhelmed by the level of fact-checking required to complete stories, and 17 percent say they have avoided doing stories because they fear a backlash seeking to discredit their reporting. Three of five journalists say they have received harassing emails, phone calls or letters; been harassed in person while working; been doxxed, trolled or catfished; or have needed to add security precautions to their routines. Most journalists say their outlets are not taking enough steps to protect them. 

I consider the tsunami of misinformation to be an existential threat to the craft of journalism. As the information ecosystem has fragmented, the traditional signals of quality, reliability and verification have been weakened or broken. Pay-to-play websites are proliferating, purporting to offer reporting but in fact disseminating hyperpartisan messaging on behalf of right-wing operatives and PR consultants. We are in a Golden Era of hoaxes and frauds, conspiracy theories, shameless deceit and all sorts of other Bullshit.  Big Tech has mostly been feckless or passive in the face of these threats, because their business model is built around the volume of engagement and not the quality of engagement. The more extreme the content, the more attention we give it. I believe that social media has, in the aggregate, been bad for journalism; it devoured the digital advertising revenue we needed to innovate and grow, while offering little in return beyond exhausted, overwhelmed and displaced news workers. To be sure, social media has democratized how information is consumed, distributed and shared, but it has made us “uniquely stupid,” as the psychologist Jonathan Haidt says in his new cover story for The Atlantic, and devalued high-quality regional, state, local and community news — the journalism that has the best chance of being trusted by, and defusing the tensions of, a highly diverse and polarized society. 

These trends have borne terrible fruit in the weaponization of misinformation; the ease with which falsehoods and conspiracies are disseminated to marginalized and unsophisticated audiences; the radicalization and even violence that have resulted; the sowing of mistrust in all sources of information. They have eviscerated the sense we once had that while we may disagree about values and tradeoffs, we base our debates on a commonly understood set of facts. It is not an exaggeration, or a partisan statement, to observe that there are leaders today who want to spew so many lies, at such a rapid pace, as to overwhelm voters and leave them feeling doubtful, uncertain and numb about everything – every institution, every scientist, every expert, every journalist. “Flood the zone with shit,” Steve Bannon said. For these folks, mistrust is the business model and the political strategy. We know how this erosion of democracy and rise of authoritarianism will end … will we have the courage to stop these trends? 

Reason for Optimism

Having laid out a pretty dire picture of the threats to good journalism, I want to lay out reasons for hope.

First, I draw sustenance from the past: the courage of publishers like Elijah Parish Lovejoy, even in the face of death; the revelatory reporting of Ida B. Wells, who exposed the horrors of lynching; the muck-raking of writers like Lincoln Steffens, Jacob Riis, Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbel; the work of newspeople, Black and White, who brought the civil rights movement into living rooms and onto kitchen tables across all of America; the Vietnam reporting by Gloria Emerson, David Halberstam, Sy Hersh, Sydney Schanberg and other correspondents with the courage to defy the U.S. military. I am inspired by my narrative nonfiction heroes — by books like Ted Conover’s “Newjack,” Nina Bernstein’s “The Lost Children of Wilder,” Katherine Boo’s “Beyond the Beautiful Forevers,” Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed,” Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost,” Patrick Radden Keefe’s “Empire of Pain,” Alex Kotlowitz’s “There Are No Children Here,” Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s “Random Family,” Ron Suskind’s “A Hope in the Unseen,” Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns.” The tradition of American investigative journalism is robust, and its masterpieces are bulwarks in these troubled times, reminding us that the best work is enduring and timeless.

Second, I am heartened by the proliferation of new newsrooms. Nonprofit news is not new  — NPR (1970), Chicago Reporter (1972), Mother Jones (1974), City Limits (1976) and the Center for Investigative Reporting (1977) were all established in the 1970s. But nonprofit journalism has had  explosive growth since the Great Recession: ProPublica, founded in 2007, touched off a wave of newsroom births: The Marshall Project (2014), The Trace (2015), The Markup (2018), The 19th* (2020),  The Institute for Nonprofit News reported that 2020 saw the fastest growth in nonprofit news media since the 2008 financial crisis. INN now counts 360 newsrooms among its members, an all-time high. The American Journalism Project has raised more than $80 million to support local journalism and launched three newsrooms, with more to come.  I am inspired by the growing number of local and community newsrooms like Sahan Journal, which covers immigrants and communities of color in Minnesota; City Bureau, which trains ordinary people to cover local issues in Chicago; Documented, which covers New York City’s immigrant communities; and Outlier Media, which uses text messages to reach underserved communities in Detroit. I am inspired by The Emancipator, a collaboration between The Boston Globe’s opinion section and Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research, which launched on Monday of this week. It is named after, and seeks to reimagine, America’s first abolitionist newspaper. I’m so proud to be on its advisory board.

Third, I am awed by the increasing complexity, collaboration and sophistication of accountability journalism today. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the Global Investigative Journalism Network and other collaborations have brought together reporters working across borders, tracing human trafficking and illicit flows of labor and capital, uncovering injustice perpetrated by individuals, corporations, and even nations. Their projects bring together journalists who speak different languages, and write in different coding languages; who are experts in their nations’ public records and open government laws; and who work in a wide variety of formats: data visualization; interactive graphics; immersive audio and video documentaries; social media call-outs; narrative writing; and visual investigations. It is tremendously exciting stuff. 

To conclude: Journalism is facing challenges more profound than in any period since at least the 1960s —  another decade in which political polarization, social upheaval, and struggles for justice prompted journalists to interrogate their practices and traditions. These times seem unprecedented, but very little is truly new under the sun. Ancient philosophers and playwrights were all too familiar with corrupt rulers, erosion of morality, rampant deception, and the exploitation of gullible citizens. They also knew the power of storytelling, and the power of narrative to bring people together in search of a common good.  

In the face of mistrust, hostility, disinformation, broken business models, rapacious owners, unsuspecting audiences and government repression, journalists worldwide are under more pressure than ever. In December, in her speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, the journalist Maria Ressa said that we are at an “existential point for democracy.” She added: “We are standing on the rubble of the world that was, and we must have the foresight and courage to imagine what might happen if we don’t act now, and instead, create the world as it should be – more compassionate, more equal, more sustainable.”

Can journalism bring about justice? Maybe, sometimes. We must press forward to make it happen.  We need innovation and collaboration. We need to take risks. We need to be skeptical, but never cynical. We need to argue loudly for journalism’s value, while also being transparent about our methods and, yes, our mistakes. We should align ourselves with and advocate for those who have the least power in society and don’t see themselves in the news — serving those who feel left out, disregarded, neglected, ignored. We should wake each day with a sense of possibility, approach each assignment with curiosity and humility. The truth is not easily revealed during a day, a month, a week, or even a year of reporting — producing journalism in service to justice and democracy is the work of generations. Thank you for listening.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

Washington Post report on child sex trafficking wins 2022 Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics

Graphic showing head shot of Jessica Contrera along with text: The Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics: Jessica Contrera, 2022 winner"

May 17 award ceremony to feature moderated conversation with NBC Nightly News Anchor Lester Holt

Jessica Contrera, a reporter at The Washington Post, has won the 2022 Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics from the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison for her stories on child sex trafficking in the U.S. 

Contrera will accept the award May 17 in a ceremony at the University Club in New York City.

The event will also feature a moderated conversation on journalism ethics with NBC Nightly News Anchor Lester Holt and award-winning journalist and author David Maraniss.

Registration for the ceremony is now open. 

Named for UW–Madison alumnus and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Anthony Shadid, the award honors the difficult ethical decisions journalists make when telling high-impact stories. Shadid, who died in 2012 while on assignment covering Syria, was a member of the Center for Journalism Ethics advisory board and worked to encourage integrity in reporting. 

The Shadid Award judging committee lauded the extraordinary thoughtfulness and care Contrera demonstrated in working with survivors of sex trafficking and showing how highly touted anti-trafficking laws are not being enforced.

Lucas Graves, associate professor in the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication and chair of the committee, said this year’s winner edged out a strong pool of finalists.

“The care and nuance the Post exemplified in bringing out the stories of sex trafficking survivors stood out even among our exceptional group of finalists this year,” Graves said. “The result was a project that challenges the categories our criminal justice system takes for granted, and the reporting is already building momentum for reform.”

Graves also praised the other three finalists for the award: 

  • Ali Fowle, Drew Ambrose, Aun Qi Koh, Andy Mees, David Boyle, Jenni Henderson, Nick Olle, Liz Gooch and Sharon Roobol, Al Jazeera (101 East). Al Jazeera’s team produced the first longform report about the protests in Myanmar after the military took control in February 2021. 
  • A.J. Lagoe, Brandon Stahl, Steve Eckert, Gary Knox, KARE 11. In their investigative series, “The Gap: Failure to Treat, Failure to Protect,” the KARE 11 team uncovered that criminal suspects deemed too mentally ill to stand trial in Minnesota are often released without adequate treatment. 
  • Jesse Eisinger, Jeff Ernsthausen, Paul Kiel, Justin Elliott, James Bandler, Patricia Callahan, Robert Faturechi, Ellis Simani, Doris Burke, Agnes Chang and Lucas Waldron, ProPublica. In their reporting on a massive collection of IRS data, “The Secret IRS Files,” ProPublica reporters revealed the systemic unfairness in the U.S. tax system.

“I am so proud we are able to honor all these outstanding journalists for the careful and thoughtful approach they take in informing the public,” said Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics. “It has been 10 years since we lost Anthony, and it’s meaningful to everyone associated with the Center to pay tribute to him by celebrating the best of journalism done with integrity.”

Contrera, a reporter for the Post’s local enterprise team, covers people and the issues and events that affect them. A native of Akron, Ohio, she joined the Post as a features writer in 2014 after graduating from Indiana University.

Holt is the anchor of “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt” and “Dateline NBC” and leads NBC News’ special reports, breaking news and primetime political coverage. Conversation moderator David Maraniss is a New York Times bestselling author and associate editor at the Post. He is a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and won a Pulitzer for National Reporting in 1992.

Registration for the ceremony is now open. 

The Center for Journalism Ethics, housed in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW-Madison, provides an international hub to examine the role of professional and personal ethics in the pursuit of fair, accurate and principled journalism. Founded in 2008, the Center offers resources for journalists, educators, students and the public, including internationally recognized annual conferences exploring key issues in journalism.

For information, contact Krista Eastman, Center for Journalism Ethics administrator, at krista.eastman@wisc.edu.

Pulitzer-winner Wesley Lowery’s take on journalism in extraordinary times

Screenshot of Director Kathleen Bartzen Culver, student Tamia Fowlkes and 2020 journalist-in-residence Wesley Lowery during an October 7 discussion of “journalism in extraordinary times.”

By Dana Brandt and Elizabeth Marie Lang Oreamuno

On Wednesday, October 7, Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. journalist and CBS News correspondent Wesley Lowery was the virtual “journalist-in-residence” and guest speaker for a question-and-answer session hosted by the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. 

Lowery was the first prominent journalist to appear in a three-event series organized by UW–Madison and focused on “journalism in extraordinary times.” Moderated by Center for Journalism Ethics Director Kathleen Bartzen Culver and journalism undergraduate student Tamia Fowlkes, Lowery answered questions on the ethics of reporting on racial justice and law enforcement and discussed objectivity in journalism, a topic he covered in an opinion piece for the New York Times this summer. 

In answering an initial round of questions on newsroom diversity, Lowery stressed the importance of having journalists from different communities and experiences so that news organizations do not miss out on vital stories and angles. 

Image of live tweet from the Q and A session: "A newsroom that's attempting to tell the most accurate coverage of a complex, diverse world needs reporters. 'If you don't have different types of people in the room, you're going to miss out on all types of stories and angles." @WesleyLowery on diversity in journalism

“One of the things we have to remember is that mainstream news media organizations have only been integrated for a handful of decades,” Lowery said. “It wasn’t until the ‘70s that there were any efforts in earnest in having Black reporters, and much less brown reporters in American newsrooms.”

“I believe [newsroom diversity] is a journalistic imperative: We cover a complex, complicated diverse world and we cover it by access to information. We traffic in information,” Lowery said.

Lowery also spoke about the challenges journalists of color face in predominantly white newsrooms, such as different standards of conduct and tokenization. 

“We have to understand where journalists of color in these newsrooms are coming from now because they are very often the only ones,” Lowery said. “They are very often tokenized because they are very often asked to stand in for large representative groups of people.”

He referred to the coverage of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor as a challenge for Black journalists in the newsrooms.

“George Floyd happens or Breona Taylor happens and a whole room of white journalists turn to the only Black woman at the end of the table and ask: What are people saying about this? What should we do about this?” Lowery said. “That is a fundamentally impossible position to be in.”

Image of tweet recapping a question for Wesley Lowery: "Tell us what you think journalists of color are seeing, hearing and feeling in newsrooms today." - Katy Culver

Lowery then advised young journalists of color to join groups such as the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) and others as well as remembering to speak up for yourself and your work. 

“Journalism is a field that is a profession in which you have to operate on your own ethical compass,” Lowery said. “[That] means that you have to be willing to stand up to your bosses when they want you to do things that you think you should not do or you believe that you should not do.” 

He also said journalists should walk away from things they can’t abide as a means of looking after themselves.

“You are the only one who is protecting your byline, your reputation and your name,” Lowery said.

As for the journalism industry as a whole, Lowery said journalists need to examine their processes to ensure that the methods being used have the intended consequences. Reporters can’t just rely on practices that worked in previous years, since journalism is constantly evolving, he said.

“We can’t be on autopilot. We can’t conduct journalism in 2020 based on a rulebook written in 1980. Why? Because the players have changed, the actors have changed, the dynamics have changed,” Lowery said.

He provided the example of news organizations publishing mugshots — a practice that used to serve the purpose of informing only the local community, but which now result in mugshot photos being available forever on the internet.

“Something that was about informing a community in the short term actually ends up being something that harms an individual in the long term,” Lowey said. “You have a collateral consequence that was not intended because we were following rules that worked at some point, that might be incorrect right now because of the internet.”

Along with this, he pointed out that the idea of “objectivity” wasn’t originally meant to apply to individual reporters but instead to the method of reporting — precisely because no individual is perfectly objective, without preconceptions and beliefs about issues. 

Objectivity initially served as an acknowledgement that reporters have political beliefs, Lowery said, but recently focus has shifted onto individuals becoming “objective journalists” whose work can be discredited when others uncover evidence of political leanings. 

This new definition of objectivity has also earned new synonyms for the term, such as “balance” and “fairness,” Lowery said, which do not mean the same thing. Some reporters then take this idea of “objectivity” to levels where it becomes performative.

“It is cases where it’s a performative objectivity,” Lowey said, providing a hypothetical scenario. “You’re writing pieces on climate change and you’re going out of your way to find a climate denier or scientist so that no one can argue that you did not have that voice included even if there is no factual basis to include them.”

Image of live tweet: "What journalists can do better, according to Wesley Lowery: Break reliance on speed and commit to follow-up reporting. When you're the last person to publish the story, you write the best one!"

Lowery also wants the journalism industry to break its reliance on speed to allow reporters the time to get the full story, put it in context and spell it out when you don’t know something.

This is also true of stories on police violence, a topic Lowery addressed in his piece for the New York Times. Reporters should examine the way they write about police, he said, and ask themselves if they’re advancing the truth with each story and holding powerful people accountable. 

“A police officer is the most powerful person most Americans will encounter in their lives. Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, they can’t pull out a gun and shoot you in the chest,” Lowery said. 

“Every single sworn police officer in the country can do that. That’s an extreme amount of power,” Lowery said. “Power can require skepticism. It requires accountability and the press is supposed to play that role.”

Journalists can write about the facts of what happened without using laudatory language, Lowery said, such as “in the line of duty” — a phrase that isn’t applied to other public servants like garbage workers or city council members. The framing of words like “armed” and “unarmed” aren’t neutral, Lowery said, and signal to an audience how they should feel about a story.

Live tweet from Natalie Yahr during Q and A session highlighting Wesley's comments on holding the most powerful people accountable in the stories covered.

And lastly, Lowery talked about the media’s coverage of Senator Kamala Harris as being a prominent person of color in the midst of the 2020 elections.

“The media has had a real trouble understanding the complexity of Kamala Harris’s identity being the daughter of a Black Jamaican man and an Indian woman,” Lowery said. “In Black communities that’s not particularly complex because Black communities have always been diverse in this way.”

To watch the entire session with Lowery, navigate here.

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