ONO Newsletter September 2020

It’s on! Mark it in your diaries…



I’m delighted to confirm that ONO will be holding its next “shop talk” discussion for members on October 8th via Zoom, and we will be joined for the discussion by the American author, journalist, press critic and Executive Director of the American Press Institute, Tom Rosenstiel.

Tom is one of the most distinguished, experienced and insightful writers and thinkers on journalism today.

As well as being a former media critic for the Los Angeles Times and a chief congressional correspondent for Newsweek, Tom has written a number of important and influential books about the practice and the ethics of journalism. Among them are The Elements of Journalism with Bill Kovach, which has been described as a ‘modern classic’ and ‘one of the five best’ books about journalism ever published, and The New Ethics of Journalism edited with ONO member Kelly McBride, which contains a new code of ethics for journalists and contributions from 14 different writers on journalism.

We have asked Tom to join us and share his thoughts because the topic for this shop talk will be IMPARTIALITY and its ongoing relevance and practical application in editorial standards.

The importance of impartiality in journalism has been strongly debated recently following a number of developments around the world, but particularly in the US. The Black Lives Matter protests, the running of a controversial op-ed in the New York Times and a range of other issues has led to many journalists – particularly younger ones, challenging what impartiality is and whether it is important or necessary.

One of the strongest and most challenging pieces came in this article in the New York Times by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Wesley Lowery.

One of the most interesting responses to that article came via a series of tweets from Tom Rosenstiel, which I have reproduced in full below.

Tom both reinforced the central and crucial importance of objectivity while at the same time identifying some of the challenges to our thinking about it.

All of which makes him an ideal person to join our conversation and contribute a few thoughts.

At the same time, I am sure many of you will have your own experiences and thoughts to contribute to this vital discussion, so we are looking forward to a lively and worthwhile discussion.

As was the case last time, Bjarne Schilling will be sharing a Zoom link on the day with you all, but for now please enter the time and date in your diaries.

It would be helpful to confirm your plans to join in by emailing Alan Sunderland at newsombudsmenorg@gmail.com and also let us know if you have some particular thoughts or examples you would like to share.

Look forward to seeing and hearing from you all soon.

Bjarne Schilling                                                                           Alan Sunderland ONO President                                                                ONO Executive Director


Tom Rosenstiel Twitter comments

I’m not avid on Twitter, but at others’ urging I want to offer a thread in response to @wesleylowery’s powerful essay in the @nytimes on objectivity, which I liked. But the call for “moral clarity” I believe could use more clarity.

When the concept of objectivity migrated to journalism in the ‘20s, it was not intended to suggest journalists were without bias. Actually it was just the opposite.

The idea migrated from the sciences to journalism as a sophisticated response to the discovery of unconscious bias in reporting (in particular of Russia).

The idea was that journalists needed to employ objective, observable, repeatable methods of verification in their reporting–precisely because they could never be personally objective. Their methods of reporting had to be objective because they never could be.

That meaning is so misunderstood by journalists it has almost been turned on its head. That is a residue of many sins, the field’s stubborn anti-intellectualism and resistance to theory and a journalism education system built too much around the apprenticeship model.

To understand objectivity’s true meaning, think of transparency of method and discipline of verification. Objectivity is not neutrality or disinterestedness. Those notions invite unconscious bias–the very problem the objective method or process was meant to combat.

Lippman talked about “a more scientific spirit” in journalism. Bylines and datelines were early examples of objectivity. Objectivity replaced “realism” as the dominant concept, which was if you made it seem real people would believe it. It invited pure fiction.

This notion of objectivity never was meant to (be as) simplistic as balance, or “he said he said” reporting. Journalism was always aimed at truth–not mere accuracy. The Hutchins Commission 1947 warned against accounts that were “factually accurate but substantially untrue.”

It cited stories that failed to cover minority communities (as) lacking context, noting race gratuitously and reinforcing stereotypes. “It is no longer enough to report the fact truthfully. It is now necessary to report the truth about the fact.” (This was) 70 years ago.

For generations the best journalists like David Halberstam, Homer Bigart, George Orwell and many more were warning about the difference between political stenography and journalism and the risk of being a mouthpiece for establishment authorities.

Passionate independent inquiry does not mean mindlessly giving both sides equal treatment, thinking there are just two sides to a story, or using balance as an excuse for not doing the work of finding the truth.

Far from denying personal background, this kind of inquiry recognizes that people’s background always enriches their journalism, be it WASP or Buddhist, White, Black, Jew, Latina or Latino, male or female. This is the way to recognize bias and avoid unconscious slant.

There can be no default culture in journalism. That is a terrible, alienating, unconscious bias. These ideas have thrived and battled in journalism for as long as journalists have tried to rise above mere partisanship.

 I loved Wes’ essay and thanks for the mention of the book Elements, where Bill Kovach and I make these points. But I fear a new misunderstanding is taking root in newsrooms today, one (that) could destroy the already weakened system of journalism on which democracy depends. That misunderstanding is the idea that if we adopt subjectivity to replace a misunderstood concept of objectivity, we will have magically arrived at truth–that anything I am passionate about and believe deeply is a kind of real truth.

Wes suggested the term moral clarity as a guiding principle. If that invites people to think that simply opining is some kind of truer or more moral form of reporting, they would be wrong and the effect would be tragic.

If journalists replace a flawed understanding of objectivity by taking refuge in subjectivity and think their opinions have more moral integrity than genuine inquiry, journalism will be lost.

Point of view journalism is the highest form of work. But as one alternative newspaper editor put it long ago, no reporter should assume a point of view until they have tried to understand all the other points of view. And let those advocates to make their best case.

If we reduce objectivity to a stereotype and a strawman—and abandon the aspiration of deeply reported open minded inquiry—then the points of view we arrive at as journalists will be shallow and unhelpful and just another form of advocacy.

If we mistake subjectivity for truth, we will have wounded an already weakened profession at a critical time. If we lose the ability to understand other points of view we will have allowed our passions to overwhelm the purpose democratic society requires of its press. I don’t believe this was Wes’ intention. But if his fine essay is not clearly understood, it could be an unintended effect.

Tom Rosenstiel

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