With the country in turmoil over racial injustice, a public-health crisis and devastating job losses, it should be no surprise that journalists are caught up in the tumult.
Still, the extent of that upheaval is remarkable.
Consider just a slice of what’s happened in recent days:
Numerous New York Times journalists publicly denounced their editorial-page management for publishing a commentary article by a U.S. senator — headlined “Send in the Troops” — that advocated deploying the military to quell protests in American cities. [Opinion editor James Bennet resigned Sunday.]
Dozens of Philadelphia Inquirer journalists called in “sick and to equate property with the loss of black lives. [Top editor Stan Wischnowski resigned Saturday.]
Hundreds of journalists have been attacked or harassed as they tried to do their jobs covering the protests over George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police. A photographer was permanently blinded in one eye. Others were bloodied, tear-gassed and pushed around by police.
Not to mention thousands of journalists have been laid off or had their pay deeply cut by news organizations reeling from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 epidemic in the past few weeks.
It’s a mess.
But it’s the kind of mess that American journalism could come out of stronger and better if it — and the American people it serves — grapple with some difficult questions.
The core question is this: In this polarized, dangerous moment, what are journalists supposed to be?
Pose that question to most members of the public, and you might get an answer something like this: “Just tell me the bare facts. Leave your interpretation out of it. And don’t be on anyone’s side.”
That’s an appealing idea at first blush.
It’s also one that doesn’t always work, especially right now.
Every piece of reporting — written or spoken, told in text or in images — is the product of choices. Every article approaches its subject from somebody’s perspective. Every digital home page, every printed front page, every 30-minute newscast, every one of the news alerts blowing up your phone, every radio talk show is the product of decision-making.
We choose what to focus on, what to amplify, what to investigate and examine.
That’s why the simplistic “just the unadorned facts” can be such a canard. And that’s why the notion to “represent all points of view equally” is absurd and sometimes wrongheaded.
“Journalism is not stenography” is a refrain from an astute editor I know.
The real answer is to make better, wiser choices — ones that best serve our important mission to find and tell the truth.
Let’s take The New York Times example. Plenty of well-respected media people are saying that the much-discussed opinion piece by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., absolutely should have been published.
“We need to hear all points of view, especially those we disagree with,” is their reasoning. And some even argue that those who object to the piece on the grounds that it is incendiary and factually flawed are a mob of coddled activists masquerading as objective journalists.
That argument can be dismantled in a nanosecond. Should the denialist views of, say, Alex Jones of Infowars on the Sandy Hook massacre be given a prestigious platform, too? But Cotton is a prominent political figure, you say? By that logic, the lies of White House adviser Kellyanne Conway should be welcomed on news-discussion shows daily because she’s close to the president.
Perhaps a more useful way to think about many of these tough issues is to consider the role of journalism in democratic society: to dig out and present the information that helps citizens hold their elected officials accountable.
What if we framed coverage with this question at the forefront: What journalism best serves the real interests of American citizens?
Make decisions with that in mind, and at least some of the knotty problems get smoothed out.
Using that lens, Cotton’s views should be known, but not amplified and normalized within the prized real estate that is the op-ed page of The New York Times. Rather than present it as stamped with the imprimatur of The Times opinion pages, why not examine it in a news story that can provide context and can interrogate the facts he advances?
And what about these journalists whom so many want to criticize as taking on the role of activists?
I am enough of a traditionalist that I don’t like to see mainstream reporters acting like partisans — for example, by working on political campaigns.
But it’s more than acceptable that they should stand up for civil rights — for press rights, for racial justice, for gender equity, and against economic inequality.
Yes, it gets tricky in the moment.
In the Business Insider newsroom last week, a top editor initially told editorial staffers they shouldn’t contribute to bail funds to spring protesters out of jail. It could hurt their credibility as they cover the story. (President Donald Trump, as The Daily Beast noted in its reporting on the newsroom controversy, knocked Joe Biden campaign staffers who made such contributions as “working to get the anarchists out of jail.”)
The newsroom staff pushed back and the advice was softened to something more like “use good judgment.”
Trust in the news media (as in many American institutions) is low, which is one reason police can get away with attacking — even arresting — reporters who are doing their jobs.
Some propose to fix this by neutering journalists’ best instincts, the same admirable impulses to improve society that drew them into a line of work that is rarely lucrative and often dangerous — especially right now.
Others are intent on placating their political critics.
But none of that is the answer.
As these difficult moments continue to arise — and they will — journalists and their newsroom bosses shouldn’t be trying to make their work inoffensive. They should concentrate on how they can best serve their mission.
And let the decision-making flow from there.