Margaret Sullivan

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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New York Times: Climate change is personal in Australian pastor's drought story

New York Times: Climate change is personal in Australian pastor's drought story

Did the recent United Nations report on climate change leave you alarmed but also bewildered?

If so, my bet is you're one among many. Given the situation’s described magnitude, it’s extraordinarily difficult to make sense of the report’s predicted dire consequences.

What's an ordinary citizen supposed to do about it? (Hint: Recycling your jars, can and papers isn’t enough.)

Making it more difficult, I believe, is that some key world leaders either reject the scientific consensus on climate change or prefer to ignore it in favor of shortsighted and immediate economic gains they believe are more likely to attract materially oriented voters. 

No, I’m not just leveling a dig at President Donald Trump. Click here to read a Washington Post story about other important leaders who reject the political steps necessary to stimulate broad public understanding and global action to slow climate disaster, to the degree that’s still possible.

What about journalists? 

Given the depth of climate change’s predicted and irreversible societal upheaval, is climate change the most important story of our time? Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan seems to think so.

But that still begs the question: How can this mind-boggling issue be covered in a way that makes it more comprehensible to the ordinary reader?

Allow me to suggest journalism 101’s time-honored formula: explain the macro by focusing on the micro — which is to say tell the story by highlighting one person’s experience at a time.

The New York Times did just that with this piece that ran as a sidebar to its main story on the UN report. Moreover, GetReligion readers, the piece has a strong, and valid, religion component.

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Can I get an 'Amen'? For the press, that was the White House correspondents' dinner from hell

Can I get an 'Amen'? For the press, that was the White House correspondents' dinner from hell

Pardon me for a moment, because I would like us to pause for a second and think about the &%^ @#$ %*&^@#$ 2018 edition of the White House correspondents' dinner.

Wait a minute. What's the religion-news angle of this story?

Well, on one level there isn't one. However, I'd be willing to bet the farm (that's a common expression out here in flyover country) that the moral, cultural and religious views of people who laughed at what happened last night are completely different than those of people who were appalled by it.

Please note that I did not say "political" views. This really wasn't about politics. It was about culture.

Look, Donald Trump was and is a target-rich environment for lots of valid reasons. Anyone who has read GetReligion at all during the past 24 months or so knows that I was 100 percent #AntiTrump (and #AntiHillary too) and I still am. I think that Trump was unqualified to be president and, if evidence gained through testimony under oath (as opposed to waves of ink from anonymous sources) led to his impeachment, I would think that was a sobering, but positive, event for our nation.

This disaster in the public square was not about Trump. Play close attention to the nasty, personal attacks last night on several key members of this administration and their families -- in some cases because of their religious beliefs.

Again, this is not political for me. I am mad and sad today because this hellish event (a) helped Trump with his most loyal fans, (b) did further damage to American public discourse (obviously the Tweeter In Chief deserves blame too) and, most of all, (c) undercut efforts to defend journalism's First Amendment role in American life among news consumers in zip codes inside the two coasts. As a journalist, I am furious.

With all that in mind, let's turn to a new Axios bullet-list think piece by D.C. scribe Mike Allen, focusing on the #WHCD disaster. The headline:

Media hands Trump big, embarrassing win.

Amen, I say.

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Your weekend think piece: Muslim readers offended by news-you-can-use info bites

Your weekend think piece: Muslim readers offended by news-you-can-use info bites

So you are the New York Times public editor. 

You receive the following in a communication from a reader named Rachel Hall, who is responding -- in part -- to a Times online feature built on a list of violent acts carried out by self-proclaimed Islamic believers, almost always people who go out of their way to link their actions to their faith. You have also received letters from other Muslims protesting the same feature.

Hall writes:

In the article, the author has cherry-picked select cases from across North America, Europe and Australia that have no common threads except that they were planned or perpetrated by a person claiming to be a member of a Muslim community. In today’s world where we are constantly bombarded with a negative narrative about Islam, this kind of reporting only serves to demonize a faith of 1.6 billion people and fuels hate and prejudice against all Muslims who abide not only in North America but around the globe.
The people who perpetrate these acts do not represent me or my faith. They do not represent everyday Muslims, but in reading your article it would be easy to see how someone could be confused and think that all Muslims are terrorists. These extremists have hijacked my faith and yet we don’t hear this reported from news outlets such as yours. Instead, the media perpetually fuels fires of hate by not taking care to differentiate between the actions of a small band of crazy people and billions of average everyday individuals who just want to live their lives in peace.

So you are Margaret Sullivan. Looking at this as a journalism issue, how do your respond? 

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