Journalists have never been able to keep our opinions and biases out of our work. Nor should we.
Our job is to report the important, interesting and relevant news of the nation, the world or our communities. And, if we’re honest, we have to admit that important, interesting and relevant are matters of opinion.
We work hard to find and report the facts. But finding and reporting those facts requires an endless series of decisions: Which tips to pursue and which to ignore; when we have enough verification to confirm a fact; how reliable a source is; which facts to include in a story and which to leave out; which facts come first and which come last; which stories lead the newscast or run on Page One ; which stories to keep following and which are worth one shot. Each of these decisions reflects an opinion. Only we don’t call them opinions; we call them news judgments.
As the ethics of journalism have evolved, journalists and our critics have debated the proper place for opinion. When the First Amendment was written, protecting freedom of the press, newspapers in our newly independent country were vigorously partisan, freely spouting opinions about the events and issues of the day.
More recently, we have tried to separate our opinions from our factual reporting. Opinions are OK in editorials or columns, but news stories are supposed to be all fact, completely “objective.” And journalists who don’t write editorials or columns are supposed to keep our opinions to ourselves, or even to pretend we don’t have them.
For much of my career, the ethics of journalism have called on us to practice what many journalists call objectivity or neutrality. We make the judgments I described above based on what we think will be most important or interesting to the reader. We try to establish objective criteria by which to make the decisions, such as whether something is local or how recently it happened. But even in applying objective criteria, many judgments come down to a matter of opinion.
For a long time, I have felt that journalists have gone too far in elevating objectivity as a supreme journalism value, especially when objectivity became to some synonymous with “fair and balanced.” I was growing increasingly doubtful of that view even before the most partisan TV news network adopted that phrase as its tongue-in-cheek slogan.
Equating balance with fairness and objectivity too often results in a false balance that produces inaccurate stories. At some extremes we know that, understanding that there is nothing fair or accurate about balancing a story about the Holocaust with the opinions of anti-Semites who deny historic fact. But too often, we “balance” stories about the scientific facts of climate change with quotes from politicians who deny scientific fact. That’s not objective, it’s inaccurate.
The words “objective” and “objectivity” never actually appear in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. The first major point of the code is “Seek truth and report it.” Sometimes the truth is not balanced.
The Washington Post last month issued social media guidelines for its staff that, among, other things, forbid staff members from stating opinions or exposing biases in statements on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
In two blog posts last weekend, I criticized the Post guidelines. I won’t repeat those points here, but my criticism mostly skirted the issue of opinion, which was a heavy emphasis of the guidelines. I did note that Post journalists frequently state opinions on television and that David Broder’s opinion columns have not kept him from being a respected and credible political reporter. I said the Post shouldn’t be more restrictive in social media.
Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander, who disclosed the guidelines in his blog Sept. 25, wrote about the controversy over them for his Sunday column. Alexander interviewed me before writing the column and quoted my blog.
The column focused heavily on the issue of expressing opinions. “It’s been consistently shown in our readership [surveys] that people value us for our independence,” Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said in Alexander’s column. “We shouldn’t lean in one direction or another direction. Our central tenet is that we don’t let our personal views influence or guide our presentation of information or coverage of the issues.”
Alexander agreed, saying he hears far more complaints from readers about bias than any other topic: “They often measure partiality against their own point of view, of course. Still, they typically demand coverage that is unfailingly neutral.”
I respect that point of view and have maintained neutrality for much of my career (though I always voted). I covered the issue of abortion for several years for the Omaha World-Herald. I never stated an opinion about abortion to any source on either side of the issue or to a colleague in the newsroom.
People at both extremes of that issue generally don’t trust the press. Opponents of abortion tend to regard the press as liberal. Defenders of abortion tend to think that press coverage of abortion protests encourages the protests. Abortion providers tend not to want any press coverage, thinking that just invites more protests and possibly even danger.
I know my neutrality on the issue was critical to achieving detailed and candid interviews with people on both extremes. One of the best stories of my career profiled six women, three on each side of the issue, who had been pregnant under unhappy circumstances. Four of them had abortions; two decided to give birth.
My neutrality on the issue was critical to gaining the trust of activists on both extremes, who helped me arrange the interviews. And my neutrality was essential to gaining the trust of the women, who eventually agreed to go on the record and be quoted by name, five of them with photographs.
I respect journalists who maintain their neutrality and I have firsthand experience with its value.
On the other hand, I view objectivity as a myth. Journalists are people, not objects. My humanity helped me win the trust of those women and to tell their stories and stories of hundreds of other people I have written about.
As I have written before, I faced a similar situation to Broder when I was religion reporter for the Des Moines Register – writing straight news stories as well as opinion columns. And when sources asked me about my faith – as they often did – I told them about my personal experiences and affiliations. I turned the conversations back quickly to the stories I was pursuing, but I knew I was covering a topic where neutrality doesn’t exist. I decided transparency was more important.
I heard from people of different faiths and perspectives that my disclosures in columns and in personal interviews strengthened my credibility. And I didn’t hear any more criticism of bias from readers than I did covering abortion or politics or any of the other topics I’ve covered through the years as an editor and a reporter.
I’m not suggesting that we should abandon efforts to maintain neutrality as journalists. But I am saying that neutrality is not sacred and not the only way for ethical journalists to operate.
Neutrality is not infallible.
However much Post journalists try to be neutral, they exercised their opinions when they wrote more stories lending credibility to reports that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction than they wrote about people in the intelligence community who saw serious flaws in those reports. They exercised their opinions again when they played the stories on Page One that supported the Bush administration’s position and buried the stories about flawed intelligence.
Post journalists showed better judgment when they acted on their opinion that tips about poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital deserved investigation and when they decided that their outstanding reporting on the hospital deserved lots of space and Page-One play.
Dan Gillmor, now director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, wrote in 2005: “Maybe it’s time to say a fond farewell to an old canon of journalism: objectivity. But it will never be time to kiss off the values and principles that undergird the idea.”
Gillmor (who worked for me as a reporter for the Kansas City Times in the 1980s) suggested that the combination of thoroughness, fairness, accuracy and transparency would ensure credibility better than trying to achieve and maintain objectivity.
That approach is worth consideration. If we are thorough in examination of an issue, fair in considering all points of view, diligent in reporting facts accurately and transparent about what we know, what we don’t know and about our opinions, will our reporting be more believable?
An excellent example of how journalism is changing is PolitiFact, the fact-checking database of the St. Petersburg Times. PolitiFact doesn’t pursue neutrality or false balance. It checks facts. It examines political statements and examines the facts in great detail. Then the journalists of PolitiFact reach a conclusion. Is that an opinion? No more so than deciding whom to interview for a story or whom to quote or what goes in the story. But the conclusions are based on thorough analysis of the facts.
As communication and society change, we must consider how journalism should change. Two other major points of the SPJ Code of Ethics come into play here: “Act independently” and “Be accountable.”
We can have opinions; all people do, even those who pretend not to. But we should remain independent of all groups that we might cover and independent of advertisers. As with the conclusions in PolitiFact, our opinions should be based in facts, not affiliations or ideology. And we can be more accountable if we are more transparent, even about our opinions.
While I am critical of the Post’s social media guidelines on many counts, I do respect the sincere desire to protect the credibility of an important and outstanding journalism organization.
Good, ethical journalists can disagree about how to handle opinions and how to maintain and protect our credibility. Alexander reported that the Post will be discussing these issues at length. That’s a discussion that should be repeated in many newsrooms, conferences, blogs and columns and throughout our profession.