The ‘objectivity’ v. ‘fairness’ debate

Since this post from a reporter for Marketplace appeared this week, a number of people online have asked me for my opinion.

No, thank you. For obvious reasons, including the fact I don’t know anything about the details.

The story has been picked up by the usual journalism sites including Poynter, Washington Post, and Current, the public radio newspaper, which today considers the question of objectivity on its podcast.

I can weigh in on that but there’s no reason to say much new since I’ve said it before. I can only refer you to the Policy and a Pint conversation in which I got to debate my old boss, Chris Worthington, who’s a pretty smart guy when it comes to allowing journalists to walk right up to the edge of “the line” without going over. And he should know. He created NewsCut.

It was a fun evening and I miss participating in those discussions.

Where is the “happy medium” of these sorts of things?

As I wrote in this post in April 2012:

There’s no question that many journalists have political leanings of one kind or another. But having them and actively participating in political activities are two different ethical standards.

No less a journalism god that Edward R. Murrow, however, staked out journalism’s role in calling out politicians. With facts.

But the reality is there are certain things one gives up when one chooses the profession. The freedom to actively participate in the political process is one of them.

There’s an argument to be had whether that’s fair, just as there has been over the question of how NPR characterizes some of the words from President Trump.

The argument, contrary to what we may think, is not new. Nor is the fine line clearly defined. At its foundation, however, is the presence of facts, not beliefs or worries or suppositions used as a pre-emptive challenge. That’s not journalism.

From the first week and a half of the new administration, the Murrow-like journalists will have plenty of facts.

[Update to add]

I meant to add this fine essay, in the form of a staff memorandum yesterday from Reuter’s editor-in-chief Steve Adler.

In his essay on how to cover Trump “the Reuters way”, he says reporters don’t need access, they need sources.

The first 12 days of the Trump presidency (yes, that’s all it’s been!) have been memorable for all – and especially challenging for us in the news business. It’s not every day that a U.S. president calls journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth” or that his chief strategist dubs the media “the opposition party.” It’s hardly surprising that the air is thick with questions and theories about how to cover the new Administration.

So what is the Reuters answer? To oppose the administration? To appease it? To boycott its briefings? To use our platform to rally support for the media? All these ideas are out there, and they may be right for some news operations, but they don’t make sense for Reuters. We already know what to do because we do it every day, and we do it all over the world.

To state the obvious, Reuters is a global news organization that reports independently and fairly in more than 100 countries, including many in which the media is unwelcome and frequently under attack. I am perpetually proud of our work in places such as Turkey, the Philippines, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Thailand, China, Zimbabwe, and Russia, nations in which we sometimes encounter some combination of censorship, legal prosecution, visa denials, and even physical threats to our journalists. We respond to all of these by doing our best to protect our journalists, by recommitting ourselves to reporting fairly and honestly, by doggedly gathering hard-to-get information – and by remaining impartial. We write very rarely about ourselves and our troubles and very often about the issues that will make a difference in the businesses and lives of our readers and viewers.

We don’t know yet how sharp the Trump administration’s attacks will be over time or to what extent those attacks will be accompanied by legal restrictions on our news-gathering. But we do know that we must follow the same rules that govern our work anywhere, namely:


–Cover what matters in people’s lives and provide them the facts they need to make better decisions.

–Become ever-more resourceful: If one door to information closes, open another one.

–Give up on hand-outs and worry less about official access. They were never all that valuable anyway. Our coverage of Iran has been outstanding, and we have virtually no official access. What we have are sources.

–Get out into the country and learn more about how people live, what they think, what helps and hurts them, and how the government and its actions appear to them, not to us.

–Keep the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles close at hand, remembering that “the integrity, independence and freedom from bias of Reuters shall at all times be fully preserved.”


–Never be intimidated, but:

–Don’t pick unnecessary fights or make the story about us. We may care about the inside baseball but the public generally doesn’t and might not be on our side even if it did.

–Don’t vent publicly about what might be understandable day-to-day frustration. In countless other countries, we keep our own counsel so we can do our reporting without being suspected of personal animus. We need to do that in the U.S., too.

–Don’t take too dark a view of the reporting environment: It’s an opportunity for us to practice the skills we’ve learned in much tougher places around the world and to lead by example – and therefore to provide the freshest, most useful, and most illuminating information and insight of any news organization anywhere.

This is our mission, in the U.S. and everywhere. We make a difference in the world because we practice professional journalism that is both intrepid and unbiased. When we make mistakes, which we do, we correct them quickly and fully. When we don’t know something, we say so. When we hear rumors, we track them down and report them only when we are confident that they are factual. We value speed but not haste: When something needs more checking, we take the time to check it. We try to avoid “permanent exclusives” – first but wrong. We operate with calm integrity not just because it’s in our rulebook but because – over 165 years – it has enabled us to do the best work and the most good.

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