John Carroll

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

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.

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Los Angeles Times' reborn Column One misses the mark on brave abortion doctor story

Los Angeles Times' reborn Column One misses the mark on brave abortion doctor story

You do have to wonder at the tone deafness of folks at major newspapers.

Last Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reintroduced its Column One feature, a “showcase for medium-form journalism,” and the piece is on a valiant doctor who flies to Texas to do 50 abortions in 60 hours.

If you had to pick a piece that seemed to have been created in order to anger a respectable share of the population, this was it. Why not a puff piece on Louis Farrakhan? A feel-good piece about workers at the Diablo Canyon (nuclear) Power Plant? Oh, no, that would offend people.

It’s not unusual for the MSM to glamorize abortionists and this feature is a gripping story. But it goes out of its way to portray Texas as some kind of theocratic Republic of Gilead out of The Handmaid’s Tale being serviced by the enlightened medics from the Golden State.

I’ll get to the actual piece in a moment but I had to first point out the LAT’s unusual history in abortion coverage. Please look at this May 23, 2003, memo by then Editor John Carroll that excoriates his staff for allowing in a biased piece about Texas abortionists being mandated to warn their patients about a possible link of abortion to breast cancer.

(One does wonder why the Times has this fixation with Texas being this medieval place with back-alley abortion laws, but I digress). The Carroll memo says, in part:

The apparent bias of the writer and/or the desk reveals itself in the third paragraph, which characterizes such bills in Texas and elsewhere as requiring "so-called counseling of patients." I don't think people on the anti-abortion side would consider it "so-called," a phrase that is loaded with derision.

The story makes a strong case that the link between abortion and breast cancer is widely discounted among researchers, but I wondered as I read it whether somewhere there might exist some credible scientist who believes in it.

Such a person makes no appearance in the story's lengthy passage about the scientific issue. We do quote one of the sponsors of the bill, noting that he "has a professional background in property management." Seldom will you read a cheaper shot than this. Why, if this is germane, wouldn't we point to legislators on the other side who are similarly bereft of scientific credentials?

It is not until the last three paragraphs of the story that we finally surface a professor of biology and endocrinology who believes the abortion/cancer connection is valid. But do we quote him as to why he believes this? No. We quote his political views.

Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don't need to waste our readers' time with it.

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Azusa Pacific, doctrine and sex, again: Los Angeles Times acts as cheerleader for one side

Azusa Pacific, doctrine and sex, again: Los Angeles Times acts as cheerleader for one side

After 15 years of work here at GetReligion, it’s easy to describe the question that I hear more than any other when I get into discussions with readers of the blog.

The question: Do you ever get frustrated having to write posts about the same issues in mainstream news, over and over, criticizing the same errors — noting the same holes, the same biases, the same “religion ghosts”?

The answer: Yes, it’s frustrating. However, when we see problems over and over, that means we have to write about them. The repetition shows that the problem is real and is not going away.

That brings me to a new Los Angeles Times story about the ongoing LGBTQ debates at Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical college in greater LA. Our own Julia Duin wrote about some of the early coverage in post the other day. Please check that out.

The new Times piece is the same song, all over again. Frankly, this is one of the most slanted stories I have seen in a mainstream publication in a long time. So here we go — again.

The liberal evangelical side of this equation is covered in depth, as it should be. But if you are looking for student voices, faculty voices, trustee voices on the traditional side of this doctrinal debate, you need to look somewhere else. Let’s walk through the overture of the piece.

On a recent fall day, a group of protesters gathered in a university courtyard, many holding rainbow flags. About 100 students and faculty members were fighting for LGBTQ rights on campus.

With a crowd this size, it might have been possible to get a specific figure. However, let me note that APU has about 5,600 students.

This does not mean that a small crowd of this kind is not important. It takes guts to protest your own school when it is a private school that, when you enrolled, you were told upfront the doctrinal standards that would frame campus life. We are talking about a voluntary association, a private school that no one has to attend. People choose to study there, work there, teach there.

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Poynter think piece proclaims: No need for 'balance' in abortion news reporting

Poynter think piece proclaims: No need for 'balance' in abortion news reporting

I've been thinking about this weekend think piece for quite some time.

The key to this post, according to journalists with whom I have discussed the topic, is that the think piece in question -- "New study shows why it's so hard to get abortion coverage right" -- was:

(a) Published on the Poynter.org website (a crucial brand name in mainstream journalism).

(b) However, it was written by a professional from an advocacy think tank on the issue being discussed, a fact clearly noted in the author bio at the end of the essay.

Thus, readers face a crucial question: To what degree do the contents of the essay speak for Poynter.org and its team? Perhaps this is the first half of a debate, with another piece -- representing the other side -- coming in the future? Then again, perhaps this piece is an endorsed statement (thinking of the newsroom policy ethics and style guide at BuzzFeed) that abortion is now a public debate that, for journalists, has only one side that needs to be covered?

I do not know. Because of my respect for the Poynter Institute and its work, I have been rather puzzled. And cautious.

I will point readers to the new Poynter piece -- in a moment.

First, I want to mention a symbolic statement on this topic from an earlier era. I am referring to the much discussed 2003 memo to Los Angeles Times section editors by John Carroll, the newspaper's executive editor at that time. The memo's subject line was: "Subject: Credibility/abortion." Readers really need to click and see the whole memo (it isn't long) for context. However, here is how it ends.

Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don't need to waste our readers' time with it. 

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. 

So what does the article published by Poynter say?

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RIP John S. Carroll: Author of classic memo defending old-school, balanced journalism

RIP John S. Carroll: Author of classic memo defending old-school, balanced journalism

The late John S. Carroll was known, among American journalists, as a strong advocate of investigative journalism, a famous Vietnam War correspondent, a White House beat reporter, a great headline writer and, in the end, a man who was willing to be shown the exit door at The Los Angeles Times rather than obey a Tribune Co. order to radically cut his staff.

Carroll was an old-school American journalist, by all accounts, who led The Baltimore Sun before heading to Los Angeles. He also spent time as the metro editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, among his many jobs in the top ranks of his craft.

The Sun began its obituary like this:

John S. Carroll, former editor of The Baltimore Sun and The Los Angeles Times who became a seminal figure in American journalism and operated on the principle that no detail was too small when it came to producing a great newspaper, died Sunday at his Lexington, Ky., home of a rare, non-treatable disease. Mr. Carroll was 73.

Here at GetReligion, however, Carroll is remembered for another reason -- one that I should have mentioned 11 years ago in our "What we do, why we do it" overture on Day 1. It was Carroll who, in 2003, wrote a memo to his staff about media bias that inspired me to start thinking about creating a site about the mainstream press and its struggle to, well, "get religion."

The memo -- dated May 22, 2003 -- focused on the editor's concerns about media bias in a Los Angeles Times story focusing on debates about alleged links between induced abortions and breast cancer. Carroll sent the memo to his section editors, but the full text soon surfaced in The LA Observer. Here is the heart of the letter.

The apparent bias of the writer and/or the desk reveals itself in the third paragraph, which characterizes such bills in Texas and elsewhere as requiring "so-called counseling of patients." I don't think people on the anti-abortion side would consider it "so-called," a phrase that is loaded with derision. 

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