Podcast thinking about our future: Does anyone still believe in old-school, 'objective' journalism?

Anyone who knows anything about human nature knows that everyone — journalists included — have biases that influence how they see the world. Everyone has some kind of lens, or worldview, through which they view life.

Honest people know this. Thus, lots of news consumers tend to chuckle whenever they hear journalists say that “objectivity” is at the heart of their reporting and editing.

Far too many people, when they hear the word “objectivity,” immediately start thinking in philosophical, not professional, terms. They hear journalists saying: Behold. I am a journalist. My super power is that I can be totally neutral and unbiased, even when covering issues that one would need to be brain dead, if the goal is to avoid having beliefs and convictions.

Hang in there with me, please. I am working my way around to issues discussed during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), which focused on my recent post about some of the challenges facing GetReligion and, thus, affecting this website’s evolution in the future.

Truth be told, no one in journalism ever seriously believed that news professionals were supposed to be blank slates when doing their work. No, the word “objectivity” used to point to what has been called a “journalism of verification,” a core of professional standards that reporters and editors would sincerely strive (no one is perfect) to follow.

With that in mind, let me quote the end of that famous 2003 memo that former Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll wrote to his staff, after a very slated, even snarky, story appeared in the paper about a complex issue (.pdf here) linked to induced abortions. This passage talks about “bias.” When reading it, pay special attention to the journalistic virtues that Carroll is trying to promote.

The reason I'm sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times.

I'm no expert on abortion, but I know enough to believe that it presents a profound philosophical, religious and scientific question, and I respect people on both sides of the debate. A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same.

My one comment: If we are talking about a questioned rooted in philosophy, religion and science, why say that the goal is to eliminate “political” bias? Isn’t there more to life, and thus journalism, than politics?

So what kind of journalism is this candid editor promoting? Note the use of terms such as “intelligent” and “fair-minded.” Obviously, he assumes a commitment to accuracy. The other key word there is “respect” as in the need for journalists to show respect for the beliefs and convictions of people on both sides of hot-button, divisive issues. When the “stockholders” in a tough issue read news coverage of their beliefs and ideas in the news, do they recognizes their views as their own?

This old-school approach to journalism is what has driven your GetReligionistas since Day 1 — Feb. 1, 2004. The writers here are, as a rule, very honest — blunt even — about our own religious and cultural convictions, since this is an opinion site that dedicated to media praise and criticism. But we are also attempting to defend what historians often call the American Model of the Press.

The question journalists face today is, for some of us, quite painful: Do true believers in our bitterly divided culture still want this kind of news?

What do many, many readers — left and right — want today?

Back in 2006, I covered an address by then New York Times editor Bill Keller to the spring meeting of the National College Media Convention, which is always held in mid-town Manhattan. Here is the top of my “On Religion” column about what he had to say, working from his written text (which Keller was kind enough to email to me):

NEW YORK — The New York Times has for generations printed its credo on Page 1 to inspire the faithful: "All the News That's Fit to Print."

But times changed and the high church of journalism was challenged by radio and television news, which was followed by a tsunami of news, rumors, opinions and criticism on 24-7 cable news networks and the Internet. The result has been a subtle change in doctrine at the Times, although the Gray Lady's motto has stayed the same.

Around-the-clock competition has "caused us to shift our emphasis from information as a commodity and play to different strengths — emphasizing less the breaking facts than the news behind the news, writing more analytically," said executive editor Bill Keller. …

"We long ago moved from 'All the News That's Fit to Print,' to 'All the News You Need to Know, and What It Means.' "

What does it mean to tell readers what the news actually “means”? Who gets to make the call on that the news “means,” when covering debates rooted in philosophy, religion and science, debates often framed in centuries and centuries of history?

A few years later, of course, Keller would go a bit further, shortly after he stepped down as editor. When asked, during a 2011 appearance in Austin, Texas, if his newspaper slanted the news to the left, he candidly responded: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don't think that it does." Earlier he had called the great Gray Lady an “urban,” “tolerant,” “socially liberal” newspaper.

So what does that make people who consistently clash with the “worldview” of the Times that is visible to lots of folks — including some of its own readers’ representatives?

Well, there is the possibility that leaders at the world’s most powerful newspaper and, of course, in many other newsrooms, may have decided that — on some issues, often linked to religion — that those non-Times people just don’t get it.

Consider one section of a fascinating new column by Times opinion columnist David Leonhardt — “The Six Forms of Media Bias” — in which he responds to a Washington Post essay by media critic Margaret Sullivan that attacks a “bias toward centrism” in media today.

This podcast post is getting long, so let’s end with this:

Centrist bias. In her column, Sullivan inveighs against the bias toward political centrism and notes that it often crowds out thought-provoking political views on both the left and right. She also calls out a related problem, bothsidesism: blaming the parties equally, even when they don't deserve equal blame.

Brian Fallon, the Democratic strategist, recently had a pointed description of bothsidesism. He described it as a “a performative effort to triangulate so as to present the journalist as more deserving of the public’s trust than their elected leaders. It’s a political act, and shows just as much bias as picking a side.”

Well now. What does this mean, in terms of striving for journalism that is accurate, “intelligent,” “fair-minded” and driven by a desire to show “respect” for people on both sides of important debates? In his famous essay, was Carroll calling for “bothsidesism” in the news pages of The Los Angeles Times? Is “bothsidesism” a new name for the American Model of the Press?

Just asking. Enjoy the podcast.

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