Upholding the standards of truth and fairness in journalism
Both sides are not the only side during this deeply vexing presidential election cycle.
Journalism schools have educated students for generations that political objectivity starts with presenting equal information from every candidate. If a journalist quotes a Democrat on a particular topic, the journalist also should find out what the Republican has to say.
But the pursuit of that kind of objectivity has come under fire. Some see blind attempts at objectivity has a cop-out against critical thinking.
By simply giving each side a chance to comment — without considering the veracity of those words – journalists can abdicate their central role of presenting the truth.
Paul Krugman, who blogs at “The Conscience of a Liberal” for the New York Times , recently called out reporters for going to great lengths to provide equal coverage of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Journalists presented similar critiques of each candidate even when they were not warranted, he said.
Before that, the Columbia Journalism Review called the practice of he-said-she-said journalism “dangerous” in cases that give undue credence to conspiracy theories. In that instance, media critics questioned kid-gloved coverage of anti-vaccine activist Jenny McCarthy .
Speaking at Point Park University recently, Adam Shuck, author of the daily news email Eat That Read This , took a strong stand against this so-called “both-sides-ism.” He advocated for journalists to identify their biases so readers can better understand the reporter’s perspective.
“If I had to pick a side, I’m against that because everyone has a bias and everything gets framed by that bias,” Shuck said. “We entrust the practice of journalism to people who rigorously stick to these methods in order to do the best they can to objectively give us the truth. But there are always political forces at play with what stories are told and how they are told.”
Rather than worrying about picking sides, journalists should focus on asking tough, critical questions of all politicians, William Freivogel, director of the journalism school at Southern Illinois University, recently told me. A former reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he spent 12 years in the newspaper’s Washington bureau and covered the U.S. Supreme Court .
“It’s a really important job for the journalist to ask critical questions and not to be afraid,” Freivogel said. “Sometimes that may seem like they’re being rude or inserting their own views but it’s really important to ask the tough question.”
When reporters challenge a candidate, that person’s supporters often allege bias. But as long as journalists are consistent about raising questions of all public officials, they can hold power accountable and frame the debate for everyone.
Consider the questions Edward R. Murrow asked of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his anti-communist methods in the 1950s. The reporter’s pointed questioning about McCarthy’s facts and methods helped the public judge whether his practices were fair.
Journalists cannot be afraid of upholding standards of truth and fairness, Freivogel said. When they commit unfailingly to that practice, it automatically leads to objective reporting.
“Sometimes professional journalists are a little bit like, maybe we’re too polite and a little too restrained,” he said, “and not just willing to say, ‘How can you believe what you just said when there’s this, that and the other?’”
Andrew Conte is the director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University. His column appears monthly.