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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Category: HOMEPAGE FEATURE

Lack of industry guidance on ‘unpublishing’ practices leaves student journalists in the dark

Erin Gretzinger is a 2022-23 fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and an undergraduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

A lawyer who demanded we unpublish a crime story about his client’s criminal history.

A former writer, now on the job hunt, who wanted opinion pieces they wrote over a decade ago removed.

A student whose name had been engraved into a bathroom stall on campus only to see those derogatory comments show up years later in a column still searchable online.

These are just a few examples of requests to remove content that I received as the former editor-in-chief of The Badger Herald, a nonprofit, independent student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. But there were many more requests that kept me up at night. 

According to Unpublishing the News, “unpublishing” is a set of challenges that arise from requests to take down, obscure or change accurate information published by a news organization. 

During my year-long tenure as editor-in-chief, we received more requests to take down articles than I can remember. Some were clear-cut, but most of them had competing ethical implications that felt daunting to tackle as a junior studying journalism (who was just trying to keep our newsroom afloat). 

So I went looking for resources. I searched and searched but, as it turns out, I am far from alone when it comes to unanswered questions about unpublishing – in student and professional newsrooms. 

Deborah Dwyer, a researcher who has studied unpublishing since 2016, knows the issue of unpublishing well – and the media industry’s reluctance to publicly address it.

In a 2018 survey of journalists, Dwyer found nearly 90% of newsrooms had a policy about unpublishing. However, just over half of newsrooms said their policy was not written down or documented. About 18% of newsrooms had a documented policy, but it was only shared internally with staff members. Only a small fraction of newsrooms – 10% of respondents – actually shared their policy with the public. 

“It (unpublishing) was kind of a don’t ask, don’t tell, dirty little secret,” she said.

Conversely, concrete unpublishing policies are a strong desire among the general public. A 2020 survey by Dwyer of U.S. adults found over 80% thought news organizations should have guidelines about what information can be removed from their digital archives.

As most industry leaders grapple with the best ways to address unpublishing behind closed doors, many student journalists are left without a clear model of how to handle difficult unpublishing requests. To further complicate the issue, student newsrooms face additional challenges with unpublishing that professional newsrooms do not have to consider. 

“When it comes to unpublishing, I think the hardest thing is that there is no standard that an advisor or an enterprising student can go (to) online,” said Chris Evans, the former president of the College Media Association. “That’s not particularly helpful to a student journalist who is just learning the trade.

“Unpublishing is not just a journalistic challenge. It’s a leadership challenge – both in the moment and industry-wide.”

The “wicked problem” of unpublishing

The decision to take down or keep a story online can have serious implications for individuals making the requests and the newsrooms who receive them. Unpublishing requests can arise from a number of different concerns, such as privacy, connections to past controversies, threats to reputations or traumatic experiences. 

Dwyer calls unpublishing a “wicked problem” – meaning there are so many different and complex facets to the issue that it seems impossible to solve. 

In her early conversations with newsrooms, Dwyer said many editors thought of unpublishing as an “anathema” to journalism, in which many journalists view themselves as writing the “first draft of history.” But in the digital age, where news does not fade away with the daily paper and audiences have a growing influence over news production decisions, Dwyer said journalists have a responsibility and an imperative to address unpublishing questions.

“This is another way that external actors can influence editorial decisions, and that is uncomfortable for journalists,” Dwyer said. “And it ought to be uncomfortable for us too because if not handled appropriately, it can be a major problem.” 

A lack of guidance and transparency around unpublishing is what led Dwyer to found the Unpublishing the News project – a resource and forum for newsrooms to tackle the question of unpublishing and forge a path forward to creating comprehensive policies. 

Dwyer breaks down unpublishing into two parts: post-publication and pre-publication practices. Most commonly associated with unpublishing, post-production practices include actions such as removing an article, de-indexing a link in a search engine, anonymizing a name or updating content. 

It’s a lot easier for a student to go pull up a document that tells them definitively what to do. There’s a lot of reasons just based on culture, and the nature of student journalism that makes that likely to be the fallback position. But it is likely not the most appropriate when you consider that many unpublishing issues can arise in the type of reporting that happens when people are in school and potentially not thinking about the ramifications of this being out there forever.

Deborah Dwyer

Pre-publication practices refer to steps a news organization takes before an article is online. A large portion of pre-publication considerations focus on crime reporting, including questions about what crimes outlets choose to cover and how reporters follow up on crime stories. For example, the Associated Press announced last summer that they would no longer name suspects in minor crimes.

“It’s rethinking for the digital age some of these things that we have just pulled from the print era into the digital era without giving them a whole lot of thought,” Dwyer said. “Unpublishing requests run the gamut, but a lot of this is primarily focused around crime.”

In her recently published dissertation, Dwyer found college publications actually fare better than their professional counterparts in having unpublishing policies in place. However, college publications were also more likely to have a hardline stance on unpublishing – and the answer is often never.

“It’s a lot easier for a student to go pull up a document that tells them definitively what to do,” Dwyer said. “There’s a lot of reasons just based on culture, and the nature of student journalism that makes that likely to be the fallback position. But it is likely not the most appropriate when you consider that many unpublishing issues can arise in the type of reporting that happens when people are in school and potentially not thinking about the ramifications of this being out there forever.”

Since unpublishing remains a gray area in the professional industry, Dwyer said student journalists likely believe a black-and-white policy is the way professionals handle these questions. In turn, professional organizations – who tend to claim they never unpublish despite internal exceptions – may give students a “false expectation” that they never unpublish stories even though they do.

Student publications face unique unpublishing challenges

Like the professional industry, the pressures of unpublishing on student publications are constantly increasing. Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center, has seen inquiries about takedown requests from students increase every year.

“Every news media organization really needs to be prepared for it,” Hiestand said. “It’s just part of doing business these days.”

In addition to being less experienced and resourced than seasoned editors, certain unpublishing issues bubble up in student publications that professionals do not have to grapple with, said Evans, who has been a college newspaper adviser since 2004.  

For example, university and student government officials may attempt to interfere with students’ unpublishing decisions. In an anecdotal experiment that Evans has run with dozens of student journalists, he asks them if they would take down an article if the university president told them to. He estimates that about 80% say yes. 

This imaginary scenario has real-world consequences. Evans recounted one experience where student journalists wrote a negative story about a university employee who immediately launched a “pressure campaign” against the publication to take down the article. Evans said the students eventually removed the story because the employee’s stream of unrelenting emails hurt their recruitment efforts. 

Students also face legal pressure to take down articles. One of the key cases to land in court about unpublishing stemmed from a student publication. Evans said the intimidation alone can be enough to convince students to remove the article. 

The first thing we need to know is, was it lawful when it went up? Did you get the story right? And if that’s the case, we move from the legal side into the ethics side, into the editorial side.

Mike Hiestand

Students should know there is a silver lining on the legal side of this debate. As long as the content was accurate when it was published, Hiestand said there is not much legal standing for lawsuits related to libel or defamation. 

“The first thing we need to know is, was it lawful when it went up? Did you get the story right?” Hiestand said. “And if that’s the case, we move from the legal side into the ethics side, into the editorial side.”

Another quick trick to assuage legal concerns is to check when the article was published. In most states, Hiestand said defamation cases have a statute of limitations of one to three years. 

However, this does not make the ethical deliberations behind unpublishing any easier. 

This is exemplified in another unique challenge for student publications: getting requests from former writers themselves. Former student writers may request to remove an inflammatory opinion piece or story that is hurting their job prospects, or perhaps a now-professional journalist finds an article they wrote in college does not reflect their best work. 

Hiestand, Evans and Dwyer agree that requests from former writers carry complicated implications and questions for student newsrooms. Hiestand noted an additional unintended consequence of strict unpublishing policies: chilled speech among student writers. 

“I would hear students talk about how they were reluctant to write a piece about legalizing marijuana or something like that,” Hiestand said. “They might strongly believe in that, but there was some concern (of) how that might come back to bite them in the butt.”

Steps to take for students

While there are few clear-cut unpublishing decisions – and examples of policies in the professional world are scarce – there are some steps student publications can take to address the daunting issue of unpublishing in their newsrooms. Here is a guide compiled throughout the reporting of this story to help students handle individual requests and create comprehensive policies.

Unlike other journalistic industry standards, Dwyer doubts all newsrooms will come to agreement on unpublishing guidelines – but the key ingredient she thinks every policy needs is transparency. To obtain transparency in unpublishing, Dwyer said newsrooms should have written policies that are accessible to the public. Transparent policies should also explain who in the newsroom decides what content is unpublished and how content is updated or removed.

Dywer notes there are equity considerations with transparency. Without a public policy detailing the process behind unpublishing decisions, it is easy to exacerbate inequities between who does and does not get “digital redemption.”

“Without transparency, we don’t know that it’s only the white attorneys who were friends with the publisher who are getting their DUIs removed, and it’s not the kid who maybe is from the wrong side of the tracks who actually needs that leg-up more.”

Without transparency, we don’t know that it’s only the white attorneys who were friends with the publisher who are getting their DUIs removed, and it’s not the kid who maybe is from the wrong side of the tracks who actually needs that leg-up more.

Deborah Dwyer

Another consideration Dwyer and Hiestand proposed is for news organizations to consider front-end, pre-publication policies based on the news value of leaving certain content online forever. For instance, Dwyer said news organizations could determine that the value of reporting on minor crime is to inform the community and decide that type of content only needs to remain indexed for a year – meaning the article would remain online, but it would be obscured and harder to find based on personal identifiers, such as names.

“By making some of these decisions on the front end about life cycles of content, it allows you to do that to where it’s much more equitable, and you take a lot of the potential bias out of the process,” Dwyer said.  

Hiestand encourages student media to avoid a “one-size-fits-all” policy and weigh various editorial and ethical considerations in their unpublishing decisions. In his view, age is an especially important consideration for students to take into account. He suggests that young people shouldn’t be given a “free pass” for past behavior but perhaps some “breathing room.” 

“If a college kid is busted for underage drinking or something like that, and you put that in your news article, and that can be searched and pulled up 30 to 40 years years later or whatever, you know, how valuable is that? Is that really serving any sort of purpose?” he said.

Evans’ advice for students is to look at the unpublishing policies that already exist and talk with community members – especially those from marginalized groups – about what a good policy would be. 

Evans and Dwyer also recommend students look into how the European Union addresses some of these issues through “Right to Be Forgotten” legislation, which provides private citizens the ability to petition search engines like Google to deoptimize certain parts of their online presence.

Despite the challenges, unpublishing is an issue journalists – especially young ones – cannot shy away from. 

“It’s really thinking these things through on the front-end and being exposed to them, which is why discussion in the professional world and in classrooms is so important – so you have heard of these things before,” Dwyer said. “You didn’t get that first request as a student editor.”

Read and bookmark our guide to creating an unpublishing policy. 

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.

Post-Roe: Journalistic “objectivity” meets the heated issue of abortion

Photo of two plastic figurine doctors positioned to look as if they are walking in the same direction, on a stark white background.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Audrey Thibert is a 2022-23 fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and an undergraduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Like many journalists, NPR’s Sarah McCammon is navigating how to cover abortion in a post-Roe world. Abortion may be an old issue – one that has for a long time gathered a lot of heat – but it’s also one that exists in a new legal and social context. 

“I don’t use ‘baby killers’ and I don’t use ‘forced birth’ because those are both examples of terminology that people who use them feel very strongly about, but it’s not specific and it could be seen as inflammatory,” McCammon said.

The decades-long debate over what constitutes objective journalism is central to this coverage. To accurately set standards for what reporting on abortion should be, journalists must define what objectivity means in the context of the highly controversial and emotional issue of abortion. This will require attention to language use, as well as to the ethics of reporting on an issue that touches both public policy and medical care.  

The need for quality coverage of the issue is also growing. After Roe v. Wade was overturned in June 2022, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists received almost triple the volume of media requests — from about 80 requests per month to about 300. As media coverage increases, it’s crucial that the quality of that coverage does too.

The traditional definition of objective reporting emphasizes the use of neutral language and discourages the use of bias or feelings from the reporter. Often, this means “equal” coverage of both sides of an issue, sometimes resulting in a false equivalence. For Phoebe Petrovic, an investigative reporter at Wisconsin Watch, providing ethical coverage has meant trying to include everyone in the conversation, to achieve a broad spectrum of voices, without at the same time parroting misinformation. 

The Marquette Law School poll shows that, much like the rest of the U.S., the overwhelming majority of Wisconsinites (64%) are in favor of abortion rights. But there is still a 36% margin of people who are in favor of the overturn of Roe. These people, according to Petrovic, are people journalists need to acknowledge and report on.

It is not for me as a journalist to weigh in on what the policy should be. That’s where I absolutely draw the line. I am never gonna tell somebody what I think the policy should be because it’s really not important what I think. To me, that’s what fairness and objectivity is about.

Sarah McGammon, NPR

“I need the people at Wisconsin Right to Life and pro-life Wisconsin to talk to me,” Petrovic said. “But I also need to stand firm and [say], what you’re saying is not true.”

For example, Petrovic said she must discredit claims from groups that assert there’s never a situation in which an abortion is a life-saving procedure – a claim that is medically inaccurate.

For Kate Connors, director of communications & public affairs at ACOG and a former reporter, many attempts at objectivity have often led to issues of false equivalency – giving equal merit to both sides of an argument when one side relies on factual evidence and the other does not.

“One of our experts at ACOG will be quoted in an article representing one side, and then the other side will be someone from, for example, a state Right to Life organization,” Connors said. “Someone who’s not a doctor, not medically trained, has never treated a patient, has never talked to someone in need of an abortion and only has one goal and one goal only and that’s to ban abortion. They’re quoted as equivalent experts, and they’re simply not.”

But it is still crucial to reach and report on all sides of the issue to understand the nuances of the division.

With this responsibility comes the difficult decisions of what voices to broadcast. Over 600 organizations signed a letter drafted by the Physicians for Reproductive Health to “stop giving airtime to anti-abortion extremists.” 

But in an August blog post, American author and lawyer Jill Filipovic wrote about why this “de-platforming” is not good journalism. She argues that while abortion is a medical and legal issue, there is no escaping that abortion is also a political issue, with very real moral arguments.

“The job of the journalist is not to write the world as it should be. The job of the journalist is to write the world as it is,” Filipovic wrote.

McCammon, too, said it is her goal to portray the world as it is. For her, this means covering abortion as a question of public policy — a system of laws, regulations, actions and funding priorities regarding a topic widely known by a governmental entity or its representatives.

Rather than trying to shape attitudes of public policy, McCammon said journalists should instead provide all the information they can for people to make their own decisions about what the policy should be.

“It is not for me as a journalist to weigh in on what the policy should be,” McCammon said. “That’s where I absolutely draw the line. I am never gonna tell somebody what I think the policy should be because it’s really not important what I think. To me, that’s what fairness and objectivity is about.”

Howard Schweber, professor of political science and legal studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said he thinks there’s plenty of room in objective reporting to point out when people are lying or playing games.

“I do think reporters attempt to report objectively,” Schweber said. “But reporting objectively does not mean parroting what you’re given by partisans. Reporting objectively includes saying this thing the court is doing is radical.”

Key to achieving a high level of fairness, objectivity and truth is the language journalists choose to use.

Seasoned journalists such as McCammon are always cognizant of the language they use in their work. She believes that journalists should opt to use medical language. This approach removes journalists from the emotion of the issue and benefits the audience by spreading factual information.

Connors said the biased language in journalism and throughout society is so internalized that people often don’t even know where it’s coming from, or that they are using biased language.

For example, a common terms such as “late-term abortion” were created to make abortion sound cruel, and is not a medical term, according to Connors.

Many prominent medical organizations, including ACOG, have created language guides for journalists reporting on abortion. These help journalists report accurately and understand the complexities of abortion.

Reporting isn’t the same anymore as it used to be. It’s not just a regurgitation of facts. Reporting is telling stories and helping people make decisions and helping people understand all the things that go into these complex topics. I think if we all were able to apply empathy to the work that we do, the way that reporters have an opportunity to, we’d probably all be better off.

Kate Connors, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

Similarly, ACOG, NPR and other organizations do not characterize people as “pro-life” or “pro-choice” because it is a construct. The term “pro-life” implies that the other side is anti-life, and implies both that the other side is anti-life and that fetuses are babies. Instead, ACOG uses “anti-choice.”

Language is just one consideration. For McCammon, there are many other facets of providing the public with information, including research and explanation of differing points of view. This includes painting a picture of consequences and results of certain policies and telling people’s real-life stories.

The overturn of Roe prompted many women to speak about their experiences with abortion. 

Real-life stories can help journalists humanize issues like abortion. While it’s not ethical to try to persuade an audience, Connors sees room for human interest stories in today’s news to help cultivate rationale for the policies.

“Reporting isn’t the same anymore as it used to be,” Connors said. “It’s not just a regurgitation of facts. Reporting is telling stories and helping people make decisions and helping people understand all the things that go into these complex topics. I think if we all were able to apply empathy to the work that we do, the way that reporters have an opportunity to, we’d probably all be better off.”

The legal and social ramifications of sharing these stories, though, have led to increased requests from sources for anonymity.

“We feel it’s important to be able to hear those voices and hear those patient stories firsthand, not have them just talked about in the abstract,” McCammon said. “But we also recognize that in order to do that, sometimes people need to be granted some level of anonymity. I talk to the person about it, about their situation, about why they might or might not want to share their last name.”

McCammon, who has written using different levels of anonymity, always tells interviewees that the more information they are willing to disclose, the more credibility they garner from readers and listeners.

According to a 2020 Pew study, 67% of U.S. adults say the use of anonymous sourcing should only be used in special cases, and 18% say it should never be used. But McCammon and other reporters have to strike a balance between safety and credibility.

“Danger can take a number of different forms,” McCammon said. “Depending on where people live, they could face a variety of repercussions for talking about those experiences.”

And every time anonymity is granted, there must be an editorial conversation to accompany it. NPR always provides a reason for anonymity. For example, in McCammon’s in-depth piece on a woman who got an abortion, the subject was identified as “Elaine, who wants to be identified by her middle name because she fears her family could face backlash.”

This transparency is critical for readers to grasp the gravity of what sharing her story means.

Transparency is also key to the legal language surrounding abortion, as it can be difficult to understand. Instead of trying to guess or interpret the laws incorrectly, journalists should outline what they do and do not know about the legality of abortion, particularly as laws are not uniform across the United States.

As it stands, abortions are banned in at least 13 states, including Wisconsin. Eight of these states do not have exceptions for rape or incest. Ten states including California, Washington and Oregon have state laws that protect abortion. Other states have limited abortion access or are in legal limbo. 

While it might feel like journalists are stuck within the confusing and politicized turmoil of the abortion issue, they do not have to be. By being aware of language and balancing fairness with truth, journalists can lean into the educational function of journalism. Schweber thinks that the post-Roe world can be an opportunity for journalists to step forward and remind the public of journalism’s purpose.

The solution to balancing fairness with truth in writing about abortion might be one that’s applicable to many complex issues: allow discourse, provide transparency and tell the whole story. 

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.

NBC News’ Pete Williams to discuss journalism ethics and covering the U.S. Supreme Court

Breaking Precedent: Journalism Ethics & the US Supreme Court: a conversation with Pete Williams, December 7 @ 6:30 PM, go.wisc.edu/williams

The Center for Journalism Ethics will host a public event –  “Breaking Precedent: Journalism Ethics & Covering the US Supreme Court” – at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 7, at the Memorial Union Play Circle on the UW–Madison campus. In conversation with Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics, NBC News’ Pete Williams will engage in a public discussion of media ethics and the challenges of covering the U.S. Supreme Court in turbulent times. 

This event is free. To attend virtually, please watch our livestream.

  • Pete Williams covered the U.S. Supreme Court and the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security for NBC News for 29 years. Among the stories he covered were the Oklahoma City, Olympic Park and Boston Marathon bombings, as well as the federal government’s massive investigation following the 9/11 terror hijackings. He is the recipient of four national news Emmy awards, as well as two Edward R. Murrow Awards and the John F. Hogan Award from the Radio Television Digital News Association. 
  • Kathleen Bartzen Culver is the James E. Burgess Chair in Journalism Ethics, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics and an associate professor in the UW–Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication. Culver is interested in the implications of digital media on journalism and public interest communication and focuses on the ethical dimensions of social tools, technological advances and networked information. She combines these interests with a background in law and free expression. 

“We’re talking about the Supreme Court more now than at any point in my lifetime,” Culver said.  “With political polarization influencing  perceptions of news coverage, I can think of no better time to sit down with Pete Williams, who brings an entire career of experience and integrity to our urgent questions.” 

Williams will be visiting the Center for Journalism Ethics the week of Dec. 5 as part of the Center’s journalist in residence program, an initiative now in its seventh year. The program brings renowned journalists to campus to promote engagement with UW–Madison students and the public. 

The Center for Journalism Ethics, housed in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW-Madison, provides an international hub for the examination of 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. 

How journalists can better sound the alarm on climate change

Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash

A Q&A on climate change coverage w/ Oxford Climate Journalism Network co-founder Wolfgang Blau

Wolfgang Blau, the co-founder of Oxford Climate Journalism Network (OCJN), started his career as a radio news presenter and news editor in Germany. After working for different German news media, he became a reporter in Silicon Valley, the editor-in-chief of Zeit Online, the executive director of digital strategy at The Guardian for the UK, US and Australia, chief digital officer of the global media company Condé Nast and then global chief operating officer and president international of Condé Nast. Since last year, he has also served as an advisor to the United Nations climate change division.      

Throughout his career, Blau has been passionate about the environment and concerned about climate change. His extensive newsroom experience has also led him to an important but troubling observation: For various operational and cultural reasons, most newsrooms are struggling to integrate aspects of the climate crisis into their day-to-day reporting and do not realize that climate change will soon become journalism’s greatest challenge. 

Blau began interviewing news organizations around the world about their climate journalism, hoping to detect patterns that could then lead to new ways of supporting the news media. Based on this research, he then developed and co-founded the Oxford Climate Journalism Network together with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. The network’s mission is to help journalists and editors develop their coverage of climate change. 

We spoke with Blau about why climate change is so often not considered “news,” how climate coverage needs to be a part of all beats, about charges of activism in journalism and much more.   

This interview has been edited for clarity and concision. 

How did your experience in the newsroom lead you to creating the Oxford Climate Journalism Network?

The first phenomenon that intrigued me was how covering the environment and climate change was always considered an add-on, a supplement to the main publication and not an integral part of it. Second, in my experience, a lot of what is called climate journalism does not find great audiences by standard audience metrics. My third experience was at Condé Nast, where I was able to create roles for sustainability editors for various brands. I found it surprisingly difficult then to recruit journalists with the qualifications we needed. All these experiences led me to really want to understand why it is so difficult for the news media to cover climate change appropriately, given the importance and urgency of the climate crisis.

Then I started interviewing dozens of news organizations around the world and asking them the ever-same questions: Are you planning to expand your coverage of climate change? What are your challenges? Do you give special training to your staff? Are accusations against your team of being activists an issue? How did you organize your newsroom? Do you rely on your science desk or do you start a separate climate desk? Do you encourage all of your teams from sports to culture to cover climate change or only your climate specialists? 

From these interviews and a structured survey, a pattern emerged of what was missing and how we could support the news industry.

Two working assumptions are driving us now at the Oxford Climate Journalism Network. One is that while you do need climate experts, meteorologists and climate scientists working within a news organization, you also need to raise the average climate literacy across all teams. This is similar to how newsrooms once had to increase their digital literacy across all teams. The second is that the climate crisis is not a topic that you can squeeze only into a science desk, politics or occasionally the business desk. The climate crisis is not just about science, politics or business but also changes the world of sport, food, travel, gardening, real estate and personal finance, to mention a few. It changes everything. We want all journalists to be able to competently and accurately add the climate dimension to the stories they are already covering, where that is relevant. Today, that climate dimension is still mostly missing from stories that really should have included it. 

What are the biggest challenges climate journalists face?

If you speak with the climate journalists that are currently part of a science desk or dedicated climate desk, a key challenge for them is that they’re often being told there are other, more important topics to pay attention to than climate change. More often, it is the news desk that decides against giving their story premium placement during prime time. 

This has to do with what is called the news value criteria. A news desk editor – I’ve been one myself for many years – tends to be flooded with potential topics and so they need a kind of mental filter or set of criteria for selecting the few stories they run and for rejecting all others. If you interview experienced news editors about what their news value criteria are, you often hear a combination of these filters or criteria: First, the story needs to be new. After all, it’s called ‘the news’ for a reason. To which you could say, well, climate change, isn’t really news. Climate change has been around yesterday and last year, and it will be around next year, so why run the story today? In many newsrooms, your story also has a better chance of making it into the news list if it describes something that happened in close geographic vicinity to where your audience lives. This proximity news value is why an accident in your neighborhood is more likely to make it into the news than a very similar accident in another country. Apply this to the climate crisis and you will notice how it is mostly regional extreme weather events that help the climate crisis make it into the news, while these extreme weather events are only the ‘breaking news surface’ of something much bigger. News topics also shouldn’t be so complicated that you need additional explainer pieces or explainer pages just so that your audience can even make sense of that one news story. Climate change is not a simple topic, though, nor a mono-causal story; it is fairly complex. 

Many news organizations also have a preference for news stories with an event angle on a topic or a personalization angle on it. But again, with climate change there aren’t that many event angles, apart, of course, from the growing number of extreme weather events and the occasional climate summit or release of an IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report. This focus on events can have absurd consequences, though: Sometimes, when a big sheet of Antarctic ice breaks off, this event or incident becomes news, also because there are images to publish. But the more important event of a major scientific study being published about the Western Antarctic possibly reaching a tipping point barely makes it into the news because there’s no event attached to it. So, apart from extreme weather events and the occasional climate summit, climate stories often miss the event angle or the personalization angle, another helpful route for a topic to make it into the news list. 

You are then left with another news values criteria, which is the public interest. Sometimes, a news story does not fulfill the most common news value criteria and – in the case, for instance, of election results – isn’t even news anymore but still makes it into the news list, simply because the story is considered vital to the public interest. Several chief editors believe that the public interest in climate journalism is much greater than what we thought in the past. There are a few news organizations, notably Agence France Presse, who are beginning to adjust to the climate reality and acknowledge in their news selection just how much coverage of the climate crisis is in the public interest.        

It helps to understand here that the climate crisis isn’t just a topic but something more fundamental or systemic, if you prefer that word, in how it affects and changes every area of our lives, our economies and cultures. In that way, the climate crisis also affects or provides journalistic opportunities to every desk or vertical of a typical news organization, from news to culture to sport. Take real estate journalism, for instance. There are regions in the United States where it is getting difficult or prohibitively expensive to get insurance for the new house you want to buy because of the climate-related risks of sea-level rise, floods or fires.  

So, instead of reading a story about climate change from the science desk, you could be reading a real-estate story, but – if done right – that story could include an informative, journalistically relevant component of climate journalism. To competently add such climate dimensions to your sports, health, real estate or travel journalism, your editors and reporters need to collaborate very closely with the climate experts in your newsroom. Often this higher degree of collaboration depends on the leadership skills of a newsroom’s managing editor or chief editor.

The second big challenge is the lack of climate literacy in most newsrooms. We expect a sports journalists, certainly the leader of a sports desk, to know the basic rules of how their country’s election system works. Just like you’d expect a political journalist to not be completely ignorant of your country’s most popular sports. In newsrooms, these things are considered general education. Typically, though, we don’t view climate literacy as general education yet. And I really mean the basics: What is the natural greenhouse effect and how does it work in broad terms? What are the main sources of CO2 and what does it do to the climate? What is the world’s remaining approximate carbon budget to keep global warming under 1.5 or 2 degrees? This kind of basic climate literacy needs to be established across all teams of a news organization so that a news desk editor or other editors across any desk can understand the relevance of a specific climate story or of a climate aspect within their own subject matter area.           

Next, there are the organizational questions in a newsroom: should we set up a climate desk or should we just expand the existing science desk? Or should we pursue a ‘virtual hub’ approach where editors from all teams meet once or twice a week to discuss their longer-term story plans and potential climate aspects they may want to add to these stories. 

These are all operational questions, as they either require budget increases or more management attention or both. 

In many regions of the world, there is also the issue of missing data or a lack of access to relevant scientists who can help journalists make sense of climate research or climate-data. 

Another very typical complaint, especially among younger climate journalists, is that they are often being accused of activism and of violating journalistic norms if they want to cover the climate crises more frequently than before. 

Newsrooms typically know how to navigate ethical conflicts. A familiar question in many news organizations is how to detect and deal with potential conflicts of interests. As an example: What do you do as a journalist when you are being asked to write about a company that your spouse is working for or may own shares of? Especially the large news organizations have created editorial codes of ethics to help them deal with these day-to-day conflicts. Not many news organizations, though, have dealt with the question of how to delineate their journalism from activism, nor are they very transparent about their news value criteria, i.e. the criteria by which any given topic is deemed newsworthy or not.

How do you think news organizations need to deal with journalism/activism binary concerning climate journalism? 

An important first step for news organizations would be to include the question of how to delineate between journalism and activism into their existing codes of ethics or codes of practice. An editorial code of ethics is a bit like a legal text in that it needs to have a high degree of abstraction and thus can’t possibly define or anticipate every possible real-life conflict that comes up. What such a code can give you, though, is a basic framework and a shared language to discuss practical conflicts as they come up. Just the process alone of drafting such an added paragraph on the delineation between journalism and activism can already help a newsroom become more aware of the issues, including the harm that can be caused by needlessly accusing climate journalists of being activists simply because they’ve expressed a high degree of urgency or concern about climate change     

Also, when looking at how to delineate activism from journalism, a more instructive starting point is not to try to define what journalism looks like that is free from any element of activism – an almost impossible task – but to approach the question from the other end and to ask what the typical elements of activism are. This approach will allow you then to identify potential activism in your newsrooms journalistic output more easily: Activism is very monothematic and often focused on achieving one single thing, such as the change of a law or of a specific product. It is the nature of journalism in contrast to present a multitude of possible approaches to a given problem. Activism also needs to be highly repetitive in its messaging so that a campaign can reach its one defined target or milestone. Journalism in contrast can’t afford to be that repetitive. 

Activism often tends to have a tonality of ‘us versus them’ and can be based on clearly defined group identities. Good journalism, in contrast, needs to be as inclusive as possible. It also comes with the nature of activism that an activist campaign is not keen on revealing logical contradictions or unknowns in its own line of arguments or demands, whereas good journalism ideally is transparent about what is yet unknown or contradictory in anyone’s proposals. Activism also tends to speak from a position of moral superiority, which journalism does as well at times, but shouldn’t. 

Having said that, there is something else I must emphasize: While journalism and activism play different roles in society and should be kept separate, they are both needed and important. Journalism owes a lot to activism and journalists should not speak pejoratively of activism. Without the work of activists of past generations, we would have no freedom of speech, no right to vote and no freedom of the press. Activism and journalism are both valuable. They are just not the same. The fact that journalism itself often struggles to remain impartial does not mean then that we may just as well give up on the idea of impartiality and objectivity at all. The very act of striving for maximum objectivity, fairness, accuracy and transparency already creates a different culture and journalistic product compared to journalism that has given up on or disregards these ideals. With all our personal biases, different formative life experiences and backgrounds, we will never achieve being objective or fair, but the very act and practice of trying to do so every day is still the best we have got and is also what our audiences in many countries clearly prefer. 

Solution journalism is often offered for making climate change news more popular. What do you think about that?

Yes, there is quite a lot of research available that shows how humans prefer to engage with threatening information if there is also a perspective provided on what could be done to address a danger or problem. Journalism’s primary duty, of course, is to report on the world as it is. But if this means to only report on problems, threats and risks without also reporting on what could be done to address these, then journalism is not doing its job either. Several institutions, such as the Solutions Journalism Network in New York, the Constructive Institute in Denmark and Germany’s Bonn Institute for Journalism and Constructive Dialogue all offer training for journalists on how to add constructive perspectives to their work.

Unfortunately, though, many journalists falsely assume that constructive journalism means to somehow sugarcoat reality. I think this is a misunderstanding and that we should make a greater effort to report on potential solutions and answers to the climate crisis. From the most recent Reuters Digital News Report, we know also that news avoidance is a growing phenomenon which has to do with people feeling demoralized and disempowered by a steady stream of news that doesn’t also include reports on positive changes that are already taking place, whether these are positive changes at a political, corporate, cultural, scientific or personal level. 

It probably was a mistake to speak of ‘constructive journalism’ or ‘solutions journalism’ as if these were separate types of journalism or movements. Journalists don’t like to join movements. We should rather view the tools these organizations have developed as methods than can help make journalism more successful and useful.

Is there a first domino that needs to fall for climate coverage to do what it needs to do? If so, what is that domino in your opinion?

As we saw with both the Black Lives Matter movement and the MeToo movement, there certainly were tipping points of public perception after which you could see widespread changes in societal norms and behaviors, including a change in how mainstream news organizations reported on these issues. The question then is: has the issue of climate change seen such a tipping point in public perception already?  I think the answer to that very much depends on the region of the world you are in and how much your respective country has already been affected by climate change. Similarly to the Black Lives Matter or the MeToo Movement though, it is difficult, if not impossible to predict what that tipping point or trigger event might be for a country and why one catastrophe may have that galvanizing effect and another doesn’t. 

Going back to your question about whether there is a domino that needs to fall: I don’t think so. The dominoes are already falling. From the work of neuroscientists such as Prof. Kris de Meyer at London’s Kings College, we know that seeing other people change their climate-relevant behaviors can have a greater effect on our own positive behavioral and attitudinal changes than reading or seeing reports about climate catastrophes. In that sense, I try to balance my worry about scientific climate tipping points with my hope for positive social tipping points. These positive tipping points are probably more about multiple self-amplifying network effects than about linear rows of dominoes. 

The subject of climate change is very politicized, especially in the US. How should journalists work on such a politicized subject?

I keep hearing that climate change has become very politicized but shouldn’t be politicized. I am not sure I agree with that. Yes, of course, the question of whether we respect the science of human-made climate change must not depend on our respective political orientations. Climate science should not be political. 

The consequences, though, of climate change and the questions of how to mitigate further climate change and how to adapt to the unavoidable climate change are all deeply political questions. They are also questions of distributing costs, tax burdens and profits. To shift from a fossil-fuel-based economy to renewables, to redesign our agricultures, our steel, cement, textile and chemical industries and the transportation sector will all have tremendous political consequences. We are looking at a massive redistribution of power and wealth at a national and global level. Of course, this is political and it should be! Societies will have to make hard choices on what to prioritize and on the sequencing of their climate action. These decisions very much belong in the political sphere so that we can ensure transparency, societal cohesion and, ideally, good decision-making. It is only climate science itself that is not for politicians to decide over. Not because they shouldn’t, but because they can’t. We have options for how to address climate change. But the fact of climate change itself is no longer optional. 

Are there any lessons from covering COVID-19 to help newsrooms to be more ethical in covering climate change?  

Yes, many. If you and I would have been daydreaming just three years ago about the idea that people across a wide range of industries would transition to working from home with no more than a few days notice, we both wouldn’t have believed such massive and sudden change was possible. The pandemic taught us that societies can make very sudden, large-scale behavioral changes, which is encouraging. We have also witnessed the scientific breakthrough of new vaccines in record time. As for journalism, there were two major lessons: one is about newsroom collaboration, the other about the value of metrics. In my research, many newsrooms confirmed to me that covering the pandemic has dramatically increased all their teams’ collaboration with their science editors, something that will also be critical for better covering the climate crisis. You also saw business editors or political editors realize they had to become ‘covid-literate’ and acquire that basic scientific knowledge within days. 

Another useful development of covering COVID-19 has been the emergence of a small set of key metrics to measure the current status of the pandemic: infection rates, hospitalization rates, vaccination rates as well as death rates. Over time, this small set of metrics provided readers, viewers and listeners with the necessary minimum context to understand whether the situation was currently getting worse or improving. We are still lacking a similarly concise set of metrics for the climate crisis but there are various groups of journalists and academics working towards one. So, greater newsroom collaboration, a greater appreciation for basic scientific literacy and a better understanding of how important metrics are for conveying complex stories are all lessons learned during these first years of the pandemic that are now valuable for covering climate change. 

The Oxford Climate Journalism Network (OCJN) is a new program at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. Its mission is to help journalists and editors develop their coverage of climate change, and support leaders in identifying the issues involved in reporting on the climate crisis. The network is free to join and is open to working journalists, employed or freelance, covering any beat, not just environment and climate.

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.

The awkward truth: fair pay and salary transparency in newsrooms

Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Lydia Slattery was a 2021-22 fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and is a graduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Many journalists routinely face stress. But an increase in newsroom unionizations across the country is showing that some journalists are using this fraught moment to demand more from their employers, especially around issues of fair pay and salary transparency. 

Jon Schleuss, who serves as president of the NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America, advocates for better wages and working conditions for journalists. Before being elected president in 2019, he led the successful unionization effort of the Los Angeles Times, where he worked as a data reporter. 

“One of the things that’s been really important in the wave of unionizations in newsrooms is to turn our ethical lens back on our company,” Schleuss said. 

Although pay can be a sensitive issue to talk about, collecting data on people’s salaries can help shine a light on pay equity (or inequity), Schluess said. This data can show if people are being paid less based on their race or gender. 

According to Schleuss, newsrooms violate their ethical obligation when they pay certain people less, create workplace divisions and take advantage of people. 

“We shouldn’t pay women or people of color less for doing the same when they have the same amount of experience,” Schleuss said. 

Creating a culture of transparency and honesty in newsrooms can lead to better wages and working benefits, and it can also help diversify the industry’s ranks.   

Women and people of color are paid less

Studies in newsrooms find that women and people of color are paid less than their white male colleagues in similar jobs and experience levels, an unethical practice that is not unique to journalism. 

Eve Mefferd serves as a research assistant at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, where she advocates for policy change that will lead to pay equity in all fields. 

In 1963, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and Pay Equity Act, which ensured fair pay for women and people of color, Mefferd said. 

“We haven’t seen a federal policy that addresses equal pay specifically since then,” she said. 

There have been bills at local and state levels, such as a recently passed New York City bill that requires employers to list minimum and maximum salaries in job listings. 

Congress regularly proposes the Paycheck Fairness Act, but has failed to pass it for decades, Mefferd said. While Title IX helped reduce pay inequality by protecting women’s rights to study careers like law or medicine, it didn’t specifically address pay inequality, she said. 

“Comparing 1995 to now, we’ve barely moved,” Mefferd said. 

Equal pay projections show that at the current rate, it would take more than a century for Black and Latina women to earn what a white man makes, Mefferd said. 

A study by The Washington Post union found that women and people of color are paid less than their while male counterparts, even when controlling for job title and experience. Women of color on average are paid $30,000 less than white men. 

A 2021 study of 14 unionized Gannett newsrooms, including the Arizona Republic and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, showed that women and people of color make much less than the white men in their newsrooms. 

Increased demands for pay transparency in journalism and subsequent policy changes could help close these gaps, even in the absence of federal or state laws. But the message about the importance of pay equity might also be shared early and often with journalism students.

Beginning in college, professors should discuss pay inequity and how to advocate for a fair salary, Schleuss said.

When young journalists are coming out of their universities, some think they should be grateful for unpaid internships or to have a job in the field at all. Schleuss remembers feeling this way, which is why he thinks it’s important to instill in young journalists that they deserve fair pay. 

One journalist fought for years for fair pay

Another major concern around journalist pay? Unpaid overtime.

Journalists at the Arizona Republic reported working hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime. One reporter, Rebekah Sanders, shared her experience on Twitter.

Sanders was unsurprised at how many reporters had similar experiences of working unpaid hours in an effort to move up within newsrooms. 

“It struck a chord with so many journalists, not just at the Arizona Republic, but across the country,” said Sanders, who works as the consumer protection reporter at the Republic.

Journalists work many hours without proper compensation, Sanders said, and the expectation of people putting in that kind of time can be toxic, unethical and sometimes illegal.  

Sanders also had to fight to get a fair salary when she was promoted. 

In 2014, after six years at the Republic, Sanders applied for a new position at the paper, covering politics. The job listed the salary but when Sanders got the job, she was making $30,000 less than what had been advertised. 

The company said they were giving Sanders a raise, which was true, but they were underpaying her for the position and gave her excuses as to why they couldn’t pay her the full amount. 

“Pay transparency was one of two major factors that drove us to unionize,” Sanders said. 

After several years, she finally got up to the starting salary for the politics position. 

“It’s important to create a culture around the fact that paying women less for doing the same job is unethical, and in some places illegal,” Schluess said. “It should be illegal across the country, but in places like California, it’s a state law.” 

What can journalists do? 

The burden to ensure fair pay shouldn’t just fall on employees, Sanders said. Companies have the power to pay their employees fair wages and shouldn’t make it difficult for workers to receive fair pay, she said. 

But unionization is also providing newsrooms with a strong mechanism for demanding fair pay.

After unionizing, members have the right and the responsibility to request information around salary and benefits, Schleuss said. Doing studies can help lead to understanding where to correct mistakes. There are also formal measures employees can take to ensure fair treatment, such as filing a grievance.

Unions can also advocate for a newsroom that reflects the diversity of the area they cover, Schleuss said.

The Philadelphia Inquirer union filed a grievance in February, stating that the company was paying less experienced white reporters more than an experienced Black employee and that the company refused to correct the mistake. 

In places such as California and New York, employees can also file a lawsuit for discrimination and in fact employees for the L.A. Times filed a $3 million class action lawsuit on pay disparity against the company, Schleuss said. 

And in a sign that unionization efforts are in fact increasing, The New York Times tech workers recently overwhelmingly voted to unionize. And Gizmodo Media Group reporters also just won a contract as part of their union contract with the company. 

Part of the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics includes minimizing harm when publishing stories, Schluess said, and being a professional working journalist means thinking about how publishing people’s stories will impact them.

But for Schleuss, that ethical code applies to the workplace, as well. “We also have an obligation to minimize harm among our colleagues,” he said. 

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.

Amidst a national racial reckoning, newsrooms re-examine journalist participation in protests

Photo by Alex Radelich on Unsplash

Erin McGroarty was a 2021-22 fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and is a graduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. 

Over the last year, a number of prominent newsrooms have begun adjusting their policies outlining whether – and how – journalists are allowed to participate in protests, NPR being the most notable. 

Kelly McBride, public editor for NPR, said she lost count of how many conversations she had with conflicted reporters who were wrestling with their limitations as a working journalist and their desire to join the movement for racial justice. 

“That was a very difficult moment for many journalists everywhere, but particularly for Black journalists,” McBride said. 

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, and numerous other police killings of Black Americans, Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations swept the nation in the summer of 2020. 

With a national racial reckoning at the forefront of news coverage, newsrooms began discussing whether larger policies barring journalists from participating in protests as citizens should be expanded or altered. 

McBride, who also serves as senior vice president and chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute, noted that these discussions with conflicted reporters were happening in newsrooms across the country.

“I talked to many, many journalists – both at NPR and other newsrooms – and they truly felt torn because they wanted to be out there,” McBride said. “Their children were out there, their spouses were out there, their parents were out there and their friends were out there, and they felt a true conflict between who they wanted to be as a human being and their job.”

For most of them, they were prevented by a policy that said they couldn’t participate in a protest or any demonstration that could be construed as political by readers or listeners.

Up until last summer, NPR had such a policy. 

In 2010, the NPR News Code of Ethics included a simple and direct rule regarding journalists’ expectations on attending marches and rallies. It read, in whole: “NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers, nor should they sign petitions or otherwise lend their name to such causes, or contribute money to them.”

“NPR was facing this crisis internally because people really felt like policies like that were part of the diversity problem,” McBride said. “And they didn’t want their employees to feel like they could not bring their entire selves to work.”

As it currently stands, the updated NPR ethics handbook recognizes that “the line between standing up for human rights and being ‘political’ is a fine one that looks different from different perspectives.” 

“A march for racial equality may be non-political in principle, for instance, but that may not hold true if the march is for a specific piece of legislation or where organizers or speakers include politicians aligned only with one party,” the policy continues. “The fact that others may attempt to politicize social issues or the way people live their lives does not mean that journalists are engaging in political activity.”

“NPR editorial staff may express support for democratic, civic values that are core to NPR’s work, such as, but not limited to: the freedom and dignity of human beings, the rights of a free and independent press, the right to thrive in society without facing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, disability, or religion.”

For example, a journalist can advocate for racial justice as a social goal and larger concept, but not if that journalist is lobbying for or against a specific piece of legislation pertaining to police funding.  

‘They added some very common sense language that opened the door a teeny, teeny bit,” McBride said.  

The response from reporters to change in policy was divided.

“I talked to a lot of people who thought it was unnecessary, and that the policy didn’t make it more permissible, just more confusing,” McBride said. “It puts a lot of weight on the individual to figure out what’s best for the individual and for NPR.”

Decisions on participation will be made on a case by case basis. NPR’s editorial leadership will maintain a standing committee of journalists to “regularly review and advise on questions regarding social media and other activity.”

THE PROCESS BEHIND THE DECISION

For those on the committee that considered this change, the issue remains complicated. 

Leah Donnella has been with NPR for more than six years and hosts the podcast “Code Switch,” a weekly show that examines the topic of race and identity in America, specifically looking at how race affects our understanding of news, our personal lives and historical events. 

She also sat on the committee that ultimately decided to open up NPR’s policy on journalists participating in protests. 

“There was a discussion happening around that time about what kind of language we could use on social media, what kind of events we could be involved in and more broadly, how that could affect our ability to report different stories,” Donella said. “Our previous policy wasn’t entirely clear.”

Donella’s goal wasn’t necessarily to expand the policy so much as to add clarity. 

“I was advocating for a more consistent justification for a policy,” Donella said.

It becomes ethically concerning, she noted, when you have a group deciding that one issue is “ok” or important enough to allow a journalist to participate in, but another issue isn’t. 

For Donella, the issue is wide reaching and remains somewhat vague in nature. The expanded policy may have opened conversations, but specific guidance still remains unclear. 

She isn’t the only one to feel this way. 

Stephen Solomon is the founding editor of First Amendment Watch, a site that provides news, commentary, and legal and historical context for the many free speech conflicts in the United States. He is also Marjorie Deane Professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, where he teaches First Amendment law.

For him, the language of the policy leaves too much up to interpretation. 

“I don’t know how this policy would be implemented,” Solomon said. “It’s so vague.” 

Solomon isn’t necessarily against the expanded policy. He, like many others, seeks clarity. 

“It was sort of a given for many, many years that the policy was not to participate,” Solomon said. “That said, it’s worth thinking about whether changes are needed so I think I generally applaud going back to reconsidering policies.” 

WEIGHING PERSONAL CHOICES

Objectivity in journalism has come up again most recently in response to attacks on journalism in the United States in part as a result of the Trump administration’s crusade against so-called “fake news.” 

“I think, unfortunately, the media is not well-regarded right now already,” Solomon said. “So does this further erode the credibility of the media in the eyes of readers?” 

Ultimately, the decision whether to participate in protests – while requiring approval by newsroom leadership on a case by case basis – must be made by the journalist with the understanding that any public display on an issue that could be construed as political could affect their ability to do their job down the road.

Is participation in the protest worth the possible loss of source cooperation in the future? There is no right answer. 

In a 2020 panel discussion with the Center for Journalism ethics, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and 2020 UW-Madison journalist-in-residence Wesley Lowery noted the current understanding of what “objectivity” means in the newsroom hasn’t always been the same. 

The concept of “objectivity” wasn’t initially understood to apply to individual reporters but rather the approach to the reporting itself, Lowery said. It was understood that no individual is truly objective and each has their own beliefs about issues, “political” or otherwise. 

The idea of journalistic objectivity originally operated as an acknowledgment of just that – that journalists are people who have inherent belief systems. But a recent shift in newsroom culture – and how news organizations are viewed by the public – has shifted the meaning of the term to mean the journalists themselves must be objective and if they’re not, their work can be questioned or discredited by others who discover those personal beliefs. 

Newsrooms have implemented other phrases along the same lines – “balance” and “fairness,” Lowery said during the panel. This becomes problematic when a search for “balance” takes away from a story by “both sidesing” an issue that may not, in fact, need both sides. 

“It is cases where it’s a performative objectivity,” Lowery 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.”

When reporting on protests, for example, if there are 500 protesters and 50 counter protesters, those two groups do not carry the same weight of importance in terms of who is  quoted. 

WHAT ABOUT LOCAL NEWS? 

For smaller, local dailies, it may not be so simple and dismantling a long held quest for pure “objectivity” is far more complicated.

National news organizations such as NPR and Axios – which has also opened up its policy regarding protest – have more flexibility in a business model to adjust policy with the understanding that they may lose a small percentage of listeners or readership. But, the burden is much higher for local newsrooms. 

“You need them to trust you,” McBride said of local news readership. “They’re not going to consume or support you if they don’t trust you.” 

“It is way harder to maintain credibility as a local news outlet,” she said. “Your consumers see the choices you make personally, what church you go to, what leagues you join, where you spend your entertainment dollars.”

For this exact reason, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a strong policy against any public political activity, according to editor George Stanley. 

The key element of this policy is the emphasis placed on discussing potential political expression beforehand. 

“Our ethics have always been to avoid all [political] participation, outside of voting,” Stanley said. “We are expected to be independent in coverage.” 

The current policy to discuss all potentially political expressions ahead of time began more than 20 years ago in the early 2000s, when a number of staffers at the Journal Sentinel signed a recall petition for a Milwaukee county official without realizing such petitions are public. What followed was a conversation with editors, a one-day suspension without pay for the reporters who signed the petition and the clear outlining of guidelines warning against all public political participation. 

“We made it very clear then that what we need to do is talk about these things in advance,” Stanley said. “We try to avoid the problems before they happen by having discussions and having reporters come talk to us first.”

Stanley agrees that the interaction on the community level between local reporters and readership plays a critical role in the necessity to maintain political independence.

“[Readers] are your neighbors, and you know that your neighbors have a lot of different opinions, not everyone is on the same side and it’s complicated,” Stanley said. “The world is complicated and people are complicated, and we’re just trying to do our best to describe what the hell is going on as truthfully and honestly as you can without getting involved.”

IMPORTANT CONVERSATIONS

If the policy shifts in newsrooms like NPR and Axios affirm anything, it is that journalists are also humans with personal positions and ideologies and the narrative about how those ideologies can manifest themselves may be shifting. 

These conversations within newsrooms and between editors and reporters are important. Newsrooms should be discussing what it means to be a journalist and a person with beliefs and when those two may overlap. 

Ultimately, is the problem that journalists have beliefs or is it that readers now know about these beliefs and allow that knowledge to taint what may very well be responsible journalism? Is it on the journalist to remain silent on all topics of political or social relevance or is it on the reader to be able to take the journalism itself at face value without letting the human element of the journalist cloud what could otherwise be quality reporting? 

These are the questions being raised and these are the questions that must be addressed in newsrooms. 

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.

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.

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