On the Role of Journalism: a Postscript

In a note this past February, I stated, “I entirely reject the notion that the standard of [journalistic] objectivity for collection and dissemination of facts should in any way vary according to a reporter’s gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, or other attribute.  … [W]hat is vital is that journalists, as [New York Times Columnist Bret] Stephens puts it, ‘provid[e] the public with the raw materials it needs to shape intelligent opinion and effective policy.’  That’s all, and that’s enough.  After journalists have fulfilled their responsibility – a sacred one in a democracy – it is thereafter up to our people, for good or ill, to form their own conclusions.”

On May 15th, New York Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger published an essay in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), entitled, “Journalism’s Essential Value,” in which he addresses the philosophical debate regarding the concept of objectivity currently occurring in some quarters of professional journalism.  Mr. Sulzberger – whose forebears established the Times as we know it and have maintained its standing for over a century – states in part:

“Independence is the increasingly contested journalistic commitment to following facts wherever they lead. It places the truth—and the search for it with an open yet skeptical mind—above all else. … [I]n this hyperpolarized era, independent journalism and the sometimes counterintuitive values that animate it have become a radical pursuit.

Independence asks reporters to adopt a posture of searching, rather than knowing. It demands that we reflect the world as it is, not the world as we may wish it to be. It requires journalists to be willing to exonerate someone deemed a villain or interrogate someone regarded as a hero. It insists on sharing what we learn—fully and fairly—regardless of whom it may upset or what the political consequences might be. Independence calls for plainly stating the facts, even if they appear to favor one side of a dispute. And it calls for carefully conveying ambiguity and debate in the more frequent cases where the facts are unclear or their interpretation is under reasonable dispute, letting readers grasp and process the uncertainty for themselves.

This approach, tacking as it does against the with-us-or-against-us certainty of this polarized moment, requires a steadfast, sometimes uncomfortable commitment to journalistic process over personal conviction. Independent journalism elevates values grounded in humility—fairness, impartiality, and (to use perhaps the most fraught and argued-over word in journalism) objectivity—as ideals to be pursued, even if they can never be perfectly achieved. And crucially, independent journalism roots itself to an underlying confidence in the public; it trusts that people deserve to know the full truth and ultimately can be relied upon to use it wisely.”

Although his piece is not short (even compared to my more than occasional long-windedness  😉 ), I would submit that it is well worth your time.  I tried to add a link here, but either due to CJR’s web protections or my technological ineptitude — almost certainly the latter — I couldn’t get the link to embed. Since I could access the essay although I do not subscribe to the CJR, I am hopeful that by entering the search, “Sulzberger” and “Columbia Journalism Review,” you will be able to reach it as well.

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