Below is the winning essay for the fall 2013 essay contest sponsored by the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. It was the first winning essay in the contest’s history to be written by a student majoring in journalism. The prize was a scholarship worth one semester’s tuition. Read the press release here.
Why Journalists Should Not “Throw Out All the Old Rules”
It is clear that the debate in the story “Is Glenn Greenwald the Future of News?” is over not only the question of subjectivity in journalism but also the direction in which news reporting will go in the next several years. It is possible that Pierre Omidyar’s venture with Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill among others may usher in a new era of the American press (McBride). However, I am an aspiring news reporter myself, and I have realized that the era that comes after these journalists will be determined by people like me. This debate directly affects me, not only as a news consumer but as a future news reporter. Therefore, I must say that while I found some of Mr. Greenwald’s arguments quite compelling, I ultimately agree more with Mr. Keller: “impartiality is a worthwhile aspiration in journalism.”
I approve of the agreement on both sides that true objectivity in journalism can never be accomplished. As Carl Bernstein said in a lecture presented by the Center for News Literacy, “The most subjective of acts is to decide what is news.” Reporters and editors must use their opinions to determine what is important or interesting enough to be reported to the public. I also agree, to an extent, with Mr. Greenwald on his commentary on the difference between balance and fairness in journalism, particularly went he stated that what is true does not necessarily mean “here’s-what-both-sides-say.”
However, I feel as though we must distinguish between the “activist” journalism that Mr. Greenwald describes and being fair to the evidence. Journalism that is fair to the evidence can start conversations on important issues outside of partisan debates. Examples include The Boston Globe’s coverage of the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal and The Los Angeles Times’ exposure of conditions in the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center (“Church allowed abuse by priest for years”; Weber). However, when Mr. Greenwald wrote about how journalists should be able to “disclose their…political values,” this presented the problem of advocacy based solely on political ideology. I believe that journalists should follow the code of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists, which tells them to “distinguish between advocacy and news reporting.”
Mr. Greenwald wrote that the model of journalism that is advocated by Mr. Keller can, at times be, a “cowardly and unhelpful ‘here’s-what-both-sides-says-and-I-won’t-resolve-the-conflicts’ formulation.” As I stated before, I agree that balance is not equal to fairness in the news if one side of the story is factually incorrect. But I also say that, in stories that require balance, it is not a journalist’s job to “resolve the conflicts.” The purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to determine how to resolve the conflicts themselves. If journalists were to “resolve the conflicts” without the say of their audiences, then they would adopting the “voice-of-god, view-from-nowhere tone” that Mr. Greenwald claimed was a feature of Mr. Keller’s model of journalism.
Speaking of which, Mr. Greenwald chose to end his argument by criticizing this “voice-of-god, view-from-nowhere tone,” but these views do not come from nowhere. They come from evidence, and journalists must be transparent about where they get their evidence. Transparency is an important and necessary feature of reliable and credible news stories. Journalists must tell to their readers and audiences why they do not know whatever answers to key questions are left out of the news stories that they produce. They must be transparent about how they know what they do know. They must explain why anonymous sources are unnamed.
But how can a journalist be transparent about biases in their stories and, as Mr. Greenwald put it, “honestly disclose their subjective assumptions and political values?” Must the journalists write a statement in each story that outlines these “subjective values” or disclose these values to their editors the same way they disclose conflicts of interest? I believe that this is one of the reasons for the existence of the opinion ‘quarantine’ of “the pages clearly identified as the home of opinion,” as Mr. Keller put it. It is in editorials and columns that journalists can use language clues like dramatic descriptions, first-person point-of-view, hyperbole and irony to be honest about “subjective perspectives” while still using the verification, independence and accountability that should be expected in any type of journalism.
Additionally, I do not think that journalists being honest about their opinions will not protect news consumers from the negative effects of confirmation bias. When faced with the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, we humans often look for information that supports our biases. Just because the journalists would be more honest about their biases, it does not mean that news consumers will be equally as honest with themselves about their own biases. The audience would have to be open-minded enough to consider new insights despite old assumptions.
Furthermore, Mr. Greenwald made generalizations that would be difficult to prove about the American press’s “allegiance to protecting the interests and policies of the U.S. government.” In fact, a study by the Pew Research Center has found that 68 percent of respondents in its media attitudes survey said that the press’ watchdog role keeps politicians from doing things that they should not be doing.
Although Mr. Greenwald mentioned two cases in which the news media might have displayed a special allegiance to the U.S. government concerning the use of the word ‘torture’ and the events leading up to the war in Iraq, the news media still acts as a ‘fourth estate’ that is independent of the government. It is as Justice Potter Stewart wrote regarding the 1971 case New York Times Co. v. United States: “In the absence of the governmental checks and balances…the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power…may lie in an enlightened citizenry…For this reason, it is perhaps here that a press that is alert, aware, and free most vitally serves the basic purpose of the First Amendment.”
In several of the messages to Mr. Keller, Mr. Greenwald seemed to be trying to call out mainstream news media on pretending to be impartial while actually advancing the agenda of the U.S. government. However, Mr. Greenwald also wrote: “But I don’t give added weight to the lives of innocent Americans as compared to the lives of innocent non-Americans, nor would I feel any special fealty to the U.S. government as opposed to other governments when deciding what to publish.” By asserting independence from the U.S. government, Greenwald is actually revealing that he is making an attempt to be impartial. We, as journalists, want to separate our preconceived notions from news stories in order to find the truth, even if we are not perfect at doing this.
This is not to say that I completely agree with all of Mr. Keller’s points. I do agree with Mr. Greenwald on his argument about the false “distinction…between Snowden and more traditional sources.” Mr. Keller himself has written about building relationships with less traditional sources regarding The New York Times’ publishing of the War Logs with the help of Julian Assange. Surely Mr. Greenwald had to work on building a relationship with Snowden for his coverage of the NSA disclosures. Whether a source is traditional or not, a journalist must use sense to determine if the source is reliable. However, if Omidyar’s news venture is going to “throw out all the old rules,” then I hope that throwing out all the rules does not mean allowing bias to alienate and mislead news consumers; that version of the future of journalism would not benefit anyone.
“Amid Criticism, Support for Media’s ‘Watchdog’ Role Stands Out.” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Pew Research Center, 8 Aug. 2013. Web. 25. Nov. 2013.
Bernstein, Carl. “My Life as…Carl Bernstein.” Center for News Literacy. Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY. 15 Oct. 2013. Lecture.
“Church allowed abuse by priest for years.” The Boston Globe. Globe Newspaper Company, 6 Jan. 2002. Web. 27 Nov. 2013.
Greenwald, Glenn, et al. “Revealed: how US and UK spy agencies defeat internet privacy and security.” Guardian Weekly. Guardian News and Media Limited, 5 Sept. 2013. Web. 26. Nov. 2013
Keller, Bill. “Dealing with Assange and the WikiLeaks Secrets.” The New York Times Magazine. 26 Jan. 2011: MM32. Print.
McBride, Sarah. “Ebay founder to launch independent mass-market news venture.”Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 16 Oct. 2013. Web. 27 Nov. 2013.
Weber, Tracy, et al. “Deadly errors and politics betray a hospital’s promise.” The Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 5 Dec. 2004. Web. 27 Nov. 2013.