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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defining Just Journalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obstacles to Just Journalism 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reason for Optimism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because the stakes are so high: a Q&A with Gavin Rees on the Dart Center’s guidelines for covering sexual violence in conflict zones

Because the stakes are so high: A Q&A with Gavin Rees on the Dart Center's guidelines for covering sexual violence in conflict zones. (includes head shot image of Gavin Rees)

In May 2021, the Dart Center released new guidelines on covering sexual violence in conflict zones, with the goal of filling a critical gap in journalistic training: how to enter a conflict zone and create accurate reporting without furthering harm to survivors of sexual violence. 

Gavin Rees, Senior Advisor for Training and Innovation at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, worked with dozens of experienced journalists to help create the resource. The guidelines are currently available in seven languages – a Ukrainian translation was just released – and will soon be available in three more. 

The Center for Journalism Ethics connected with Rees over email about the need for more support and better training in this area, the high stakes for getting it right and the Center’s efforts to deepen the sea change in how people think about reporting on trauma.

What spurred you to create this guide? What are the harms that you see being perpetuated by journalists (and sometimes experienced by journalists) in the absence of a clear guidelines on how to report on sexual violence in conflict?

No journalist reporting on sexual violence wants to do a bad job or cause additional distress. But sadly, it is an area where unintentional mistakes do happen. Journalists are not always aware of the consequences that posing certain questions can have on the mental wellbeing of survivors. They may be the first ones to interview survivors of sexual violence in conflict, but they have rarely had any detailed training in how to do it. 

Mistakes in interviewing and reporting can leave survivors feeling invalidated and exploited and can expose sources and their families to shame and even, in some cases, to violent repercussions. The overwhelming nature of the material can also lead to poor choices in how people’s lives are depicted. Reporting can be one-dimensional, overly sensational or stigmatising in different ways. Again, I don’t think that is intentional in most cases, but perhaps more a product of an unfamiliarity with how to work appropriately in a context that can be so unfamiliar and disturbing.

It is hard to make good decisions without a fuller sense of what can go wrong. Take the current situation in Ukraine. Survivors may say they are fine for their picture to be used because they want to play their part in the war effort and bring maximum attention to the consequences of Russian aggression. But waiving anonymity might not be in their long-term interest. Many women made that choice in Bosnia in the 1990s and then regretted the decision

For these kinds of reasons, we noticed a strong need and interest from practitioners to receive practical guidance to assist them in their work. The guidelines are the result of a collective effort of dozens of filmmakers and journalists who all felt that reporters needed more tools and support.

Covering sexual violence is an ethically difficult and highly sensitive task. But this guide also takes into consideration the complication of this violence having taken place in a conflict zone. How does the “in conflict” part of this change the things the journalists need to consider?

Situations of conflict exacerbate existing patterns. For example, sexual violence often becomes more brutal and widespread; survivors are at greater risks of facing reprisals. Journalists also need to consider that in conflict, sexual violence is often employed as a tool or strategy. Conflict-related sexual violence is taking place within a bigger frame, and so it is important that journalists explain the broader dynamics and don’t reduce the story to just the sexual violence dimensions. 

And then there is the practical side. Journalists in conflict zones are often under intense time pressure with concerns for their own safety. This can cut across the need to give these sensitive conversations the full time they need. 

Unlike many guides offering practical solutions to doing difficult journalistic work, this one begins by asking journalists to first ask themselves three foundational questions, “Am I sufficiently prepared for this?” “Should we be interviewing this person, in this time, and in this place?” and “Does my interviewee fully understand what they are signing up for?” Why did you decide to begin there?

We start with these questions because the stakes for survivors can be so high. Stigmatisation, ostracization, and, in some cases, death are all possibilities. Even in situations where the context is less drastic, we should always be aware that an individual survivor’s story belongs to that person, not to the journalist, nor to the public. It is vital that somebody fully understands what they are getting into when they tell their story. They might not understand that even if they are talking to a foreign journalist, their picture or video could be accessible on the internet or even end up being clipped and broadcast by a local news channel. Due diligence means making sure that every survivor interviewed knows what they are getting into.  

Preparation, then, means doing enough research in advance into the security situation and local context to understand what the potential risks for interviews are. In some jurisdictions, for example, being a victim of rape can trigger prosecution for adultery. Journalists also need to understand the local power dynamics and the relationship between the interviewee and those who are acting as intermediaries, be they NGO representatives or community elders. Is there a danger, for example, that consent may not be entirely voluntary or that financial incentives play a role? 

Journalists need to take these different factors into account from the start and the questions are meant to guide them: if the answer is not fully ‘yes’, journalists should probably consider whether the interview should take place.

One of the points you make in the guide is that you might travel someplace at your own personal risk only to discover once there that you’ve landed in an unethical situation. What do we mean by an unethical situation? Can you elaborate on that with an example?

This can happen in many ways. Perhaps, a journalist doesn’t have enough time to do an in-depth interview in a way that is sensitive and contained, but fears that the editor needs that level of detail. Maybe there are people hanging around the interview location that really shouldn’t be listening in. There have been countless situations where NGOs have lined up a single survivor to talk to a whole line of visiting reporters. Having to tell one’s story again and again in an unsafe and invalidating way is one of the things that many survivors describe as being a cause of significant continuing harm. 

For the journalist who finds themselves in that situation, do you have any advice on how to manage the expectations of their news organization, or how to create a new plan under time pressure?

This is tricky because we are often talking about freelancers who may not have such strong relationships with editors. I think there is a big responsibility on the latter to create space to game plan these issues before an assignment. What are we going to do if we don’t have enough time, or the venue doesn’t feel right? There is usually a plan B, a different way of covering things or switching focus. But one has to be open to many parameters and possibilities. This is about awareness of editors just as much as reporters. It makes a huge difference when there is sufficient trust in place to have an open conversation and a willingness to solve these problems collaboratively. If that trust is not there then the dynamics can lead to corners being cut, and it can also have a knock-on effect on the quality of the reporting too, leading to work that is not fully honest, not fully present in the realities of the situation. 

An interview should never take place because a news organisation has commissioned a particular story and the journalist feels pressured to deliver it. This is not painting by numbers. 

How important is it that these guidelines become a shared code of conduct, as opposed to being the responsibility of one diligent reporter? And how could we get there?

I am a great believer in the snowball effect, we all need to do our bit. In the last 15 years, there have already been major changes in awareness about trauma and what it takes to report sensitively and effectively on it. And that passing on of better practice has happened by collective effort, through colleague-to-colleague connection. Clearly more needs to be done, hence these guidelines and their detailed focus on conflict-related sexual violence. 

At the Dart Center we are working with individual journalists, but also with editors, trainers, NGOs, and many others to make the document more than guidelines for individuals but to stimulate the discussion and inform policies. Various media training organizations have included the guidelines in their courses, journalism networks have posted them in the resource silos, senior reporters and producers in news organisations are talking about them. If every journalist who finds these guidelines useful passes them onto two colleagues, saying, you really should read this, then that alone can lead to real change. 

Find the guidelines here.

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is a resource center and global network of journalists, journalism educators and health professionals dedicated to improving media coverage of trauma, conflict and tragedy. It is a project of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, with international satellite offices in London and Melbourne.

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.

Redefining engagement: How newsrooms can pair quantitative and qualitative data to better serve their communities 

Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

Emily Knepple is a 2021-2022 student fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and a senior at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

When Ryan Thomas, an associate professor of journalism studies at the University of Missouri, asked a room full of digital news editors what it means for a story to “do well,” few gave him the answer he hoped for. 

Most said that a story does well when they see a certain number of shares, likes, retweets or comments on social media. The response left Thomas feeling troubled.  

“So few people in response said that a story does well in our newsroom if it brings to light corruption in city hall, or if it’s a story that addresses something around public concern, or it leads to tangible policy change,” Thomas said. 

While the use of engagement metrics in newsrooms has become a mainstay of the industry in the past decade, “engagement” itself can be a polarizing word and its definition blurry. 

Andrew DeVigal, the current director of the Agora Center for Journalism at the University of Oregon, says engagement is best understood in two ways: transactional and relational. 

“The distinction between transactional engagement and relational is that transactional is purely data, a numbers game,” DeVigal said. “The other kind of engagement is focused on the quality; asking the questions to track and measure the effectiveness of your engagement.” 

Many newsrooms focus on transactional engagement but, according to Thomas, this kind of data cannot stand alone.

“Engagement metrics are useful when supplemented with journalistic judgment,” Thomas said. 

Thomas notes that the public interestand what the public are interested in, are two different things. Public interest means treating the public as a social entity. Gauging what the public is interested in tends to treat the audience as a consumer.

Jeremy Lipschultz, the Peter Kiewit Distinguished Professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, finds that “people have a desire to be entertained, it dwarfs everything else that is in this noisy media space.” Because of this, “it’s challenging to get those serious stories that really impact people’s lives through that gatekeeping process,” Lipschultz said. 

So what should the role of engagement be in guiding a newsroom? 

Carrie Brown, the Director of the Engagement Journalism program in the Craig Newmark Graduate school of Journalism at CUNY, said developments in technology have meant that journalists no longer have a choice whether to focus on engagement. 

“In the early days of the internet, the idea of whether you even knew if people were reading your story at all was kind of revolutionary,” Brown said. Now, technology tells newsrooms more than just who is reading their work, but also where, how and when. 

But at first, “newsrooms had to just go through the period of realizing that paying attention to the audience at all was important and even though that was a small thing, in some ways it was good,” Brown said. 

Engagement metrics began as an exciting, novel concept for newsrooms, Brown said, but over time, most newsrooms have become over-reliant on this data, and this overreliance can affect the quality of news. 

“We need to be doing qualitative work to understand what kind of impact our journalism is having and whether or not it’s creating real-world outcomes and/or helping people do the things that they need to do,” Brown said. 

Both Thomas and Lipschultz suggest that engagement metrics can be a strong starting point for newsrooms, that data can push newsrooms to build stories that both intrigue their audience and provide critical information. 

“If we can apply ethics and use that data to do unique, high-value journalism around themes we know readers want, we all win.” 

Josh Awtry, Vice President of Content Strategy at the USA TODAY network

Josh Awtry, Vice President of Content Strategy at the USA TODAY network, has seen firsthand how engagement metrics can shift the landscape of a newsroom.

In his first editor role for Gannett in Fort Collins, Colorado, in 2012, Awtry and his team began studying “audience trends, page views and later, engaged time.” They used these statistics alongside “real-world forums” to pair a qualitative approach with quantitative data. 

“If audience data tells us readers love coverage of ‘hot homes in the market,’ what can we do to add depth to the conversation? Can we tell enterprise stories about the high barrier to entry for today’s prospective homeowners? Look into the practices of shady landlords?” Awtry said. 

Awtry eventually moved to the Gannett corporate headquarters and worked “at the junction of shoe leather journalism and mountains of audience data to figure out how to best apply all of the audience signals to improve our journalism.” There, he helped create a team that tackles these issues and aims to help journalists better understand who is reading their work. 

“If we can apply ethics and use that data to do unique, high-value journalism around themes we know readers want, we all win,” Awtry said. 

Julia Haslanger, newsroom analytics lead at The Philadelphia Inquirer, has spent her career working with applied data and engagement metrics. Before joining the Inquirer, Haslanger offered freelance consulting on “data and engagement needs.”

Throughout her time in the industry, Haslanger has helped newsrooms answer strategy questions, conversations that, she said, analytics can be helpful in. 

 “It’s about having curiosity about the assumptions you have for different stories and whether those bear out to be true,” Haslanger said. 

“If you understand your metrics and you’re also building relationships, you’re letting them participate more in the news process. All of those things together, if you do it carefully and intentionally, they can combine to make something pretty powerful.” 

Carrie Brown, Director of the Engagement Journalism program in the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY

According to Brown, good engagement combines two different modes: audience engagement and community engagement. The former refers to things such as metrics, growth and social media, while the latter focuses on building relationships with the community and listening to them in a different way. 

“If you understand your metrics and you’re also building relationships, you’re letting them participate more in the news process,” said Brown. “All of those things together, if you do it carefully and intentionally, they can combine to make something pretty powerful.” 

But Brown also said in many newsrooms, audience engagement is getting practiced a lot more, and news organizations are falling short on serving and engaging with their communities. Newsrooms need leaders who embrace these concepts and allocate resources. “We are seeing that more than we used to, but there’s still some resistance,” Brown said. 

DeVigal also said most engagement tracking has been transactional (likes, clicks, etc.) but the other side of engagement, what he calls the relational factor, focuses on  “deepening your engagement with communities that you are covering.” 

DeVigal pointed to two areas he thinks newsrooms should be paying attention to when engaging with the communities they cover: social infrastructure (i.e., how deep is your relationship with that community?) and your long-term objective (i.e., is the work you’re doing with these communities a novelty or a commitment for longevity?).

To help news media professionals who are looking to better understand and produce engagement journalism, DeVigal and Eric Gordon of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College helped create the online tool Meetr. 

Meetr allows journalists and newsrooms to track their progress with the community by providing a wide variety of questions and activities. DeVigal emphasizes that this tool breeds dialogue, which is essential for community-building. 

While most newsrooms do not provide the time or resources to support this kind of engagement model, DeVigal said, “More and more, we are seeing the role of community engagement director. There’s more and more of those positions in the newsroom.” 

As industry leaders try to find the space for this type of journalism, there are also more resources to help them. 

Gather, a platform to support community-minded journalists, is a collaborative project led by the Agora Journalism Center. Its mission is to “make journalism more responsive to the public’s needs and more inclusive of the public’s voices and diversity, by helping journalists, educators and students who share these values find each other, find resources and best practices, and find support and mentorship.” 

Gather has brought engagement journalism into the bigger conversation through a dedicated award, listed resources and committed professionals who encourage curiosity about community engagement. 

Brown, who serves on the board of Gather, said, “Having a space with these similar interests and needs has been just so valuable. Otherwise, it can be kind of isolating.” 

As engagement journalists and leaders find one another, they are shifting the industry conversation toward one that recognizes engagement as a complex, multi-faceted tool, one that can help newsrooms better fulfill their obligations to the public. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Registration for the ceremony is now open. 

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

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

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

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

Graves also praised the other three finalists for the award: 

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

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

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

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

Registration for the ceremony is now open. 

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

For information, contact Krista Eastman, Center for Journalism Ethics administrator, at