What Do Our News Values Mean Now?

Thinking anew about neutrality, objectivity, nonpartisanship-- and simple fairness

Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (especially its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.

A lot feels up for grabs in society right now, not least the values that guide the news. I thought it might be useful this week to take a look at a few news values that were once thought to be widely understood and shared[1], and now are the subjects of roiling debate.

Neutrality

Journalists have not often described themselves as neutrals (except perhaps in covering wars between countries not including their own), but this is a term I hear “civilians” use frequently as something to which they believe reporters should aspire. “Neutrality” may be an especially attractive value if you view public life as an endless series of fights between two sides distinguishable most importantly by the primary colors of their uniforms.

But the caricature reveals the flaw: public life is far more complicated than that. Many debates have more than two reasonable sides; some only have one. The contenders in those debates on whom we should be focusing are those communities most deeply affected and those most knowledgeable, not the same partisans every time. And one of the critical roles of contemporary journalism is to reveal and explore the connective tissue that transforms groups of ideas into ideologies, getting beyond the primary colors to the deeper affinities, prejudices and aspirations.

Climate change offers an important example. The debates on whether it is happening, or is, at least in significant part, caused by human activity, should be regarded as concluded; they are not a subject for neutrality. But a host of genuine questions remain: How much time do we have before a particular consequence becomes intolerably irreversible? What mitigation, adaptation or resilience efforts are feasible, or wise? What future changes are already nearly certain?

Moreover, while “neutrality” is frequently an appropriate pose for the uninformed, as reporters will often be at the outset of their inquiries, it more rarely makes sense once you have learned the facts—that is, done your reporting. This, of course, is the critical distinction between journalism and advocacy: journalism begins with questions, advocacy with answers. But once your questions have been answered, the balance on any of them is unlikely to remain in equipoise.

Once reporting, for instance, has established that a particular societal problem, such as the lack of affordable housing in many cities, is importantly linked to the vast gap in median family wealth between Black and Hispanic Americans and other groups, you cannot un-ring the bell of that finding and revert to “neutrality” about either the consequences or whether steps should be taken to ameliorate the problem.

Objectivity

The problem with “objectivity” leaps out from the dictionary definitions of the term. Webster’s says its meanings include “lack of bias;” Oxford says they include “not being influenced by personal feelings or opinions.” Humans, increasingly, know better: no one lacks bias, no one is fully capable of putting aside their own emotions or views.

When we try to do this—to do the impossible—what happens is that we take unconscious refuge in the contours of the world as we ourselves perceive it. That is, in seeking to overcome the prejudices of which we’re aware, we trap ourselves in the biases so deep-seated we do not ourselves recognize them.

This was the underlying point, as I see it, in an influential essay on journalistic objectivity last year by Wesley Lowery. As Lowery points out, his critique was not new[2], but it does feel more urgent today. Lowery importantly focuses on the racial aspects of this problem, particularly in light of the white-dominated history of mainstream news outlets, but the point is even broader: anyone aspiring to objectivity in their reporting is likely to end up just fooling themselves.

Nonpartisanship

In the narrowest sense, nonpartisanship is and should be easy. Yet, not since the late 18th Century battles between proxies for Jefferson and Hamilton—more than two hundred years-- has leading journalism in the country been so closely identified with political parties. The cable news networks have returned us to those bad old days of journalism, led by Fox, and most appallingly still practiced by it, but with large swaths of CNN and MSNBC, presumably drawn by Fox’s hefty profits, following its model even as they decry its product.

The challenge to the rest of the press, especially digital media, is to avoid being drawn to the flame of a similar partisanship by the imperatives of their own subscription models.

This is why the fashionable decrying of “bothsidesism” seems a mixed blessing to me. To be sure, many supposedly “even handed” approaches to reporting represent a failure of courage, or just muddled thinking. But if, for instance, the filibuster is intrinsically wrong, then it was wrong when it obstructed much of the Trump agenda in 2017-18 as well, and if partisan gerrymandering is anti-democratic (which I deeply believe it is), then it was just as evil when practiced by Democrats a decade ago in California, and will be as troublesome in the year or two ahead in New York as in Texas or Florida. To conclude from evidence that one party is behaving less responsibly than another should be far different in practice from giving the more responsible party a pass.

What Remains?

If neutrality fades as we report, objectivity is an illusion and nonpartisanship is under increasing threat, what values remain? Foremost among them is simple fairness.

In employing fairness, in insisting on it in journalism, we need to bear in mind what we have learned as other values have proven more elusive. If objectivity is impossible, then we need to be especially careful to be fair to those against whom we may feel bias, even the bias of simply disagreeing with them, but especially biases that may arise from differences between a reporter’s and a subject’s race, class, gender or politics.

Where neutrality has faded once reporting has been done, we need still to confront those about whom we are writing with a fulsome opportunity to respond, and both to weigh again and to share with our readers their differing perspective. In a nation deeply polarized by increasing partisanship, we need to be vigilant in applying the same standards of accountability to all those who wield power.

While others may morph or fade, this value of fairness endures.

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[1]News Values by the late Jack Fuller of the Chicago Tribune has long seemed to me a particularly elegant and sophisticated statement of what now might be termed the previous consensus.

[2] Lowery noted the importance of Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism to this debate. A new fourth edition of that classic, the first in seven years, is coming in August.