The profession of journalism is in something of a pickle these days. Its practitioners are covering news and ferreting out and disseminating facts that are deeply connected to questions of morality. Back in February, a young reporter named Lewis Wallace started shining some light on this relationship, and even suggested that the profession start rethinking the way it does its work. He scared up a fair amount of journalistic angst. When New York Times or Washington Post reporters write columns, they can express their thoughts about the morality of myriad complex issues: the president’s decision to ban individuals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States; the ramifications of a wall on vulnerable individuals who cross the border illegally, the immorality of denying health care to poor people. On the op-ed page reporters can question the decency of legislation that stands between a poor child and his or her right to a free breakfast.
That model, though—news is news and opinion is opinion (requisitely well supported opinion) has served journalism well for over a century and is due for some fine-tuning. Its in this muddy area of morality that the profession ought to do some adjusting. Journalists work with facts; facts allow reporters to shape stories that make credible truth claims. Recently, Kelly Anne Conway, counselor to the president, introduced the term “alternative facts” into the mainstream vernacular and in doing so refused to conform to moral standards related to truth-telling. Her alternative facts are lies made pretty by a turn of phrase.
I’m a fan of facts, those bits of information that are indisputably accurate. I’m a fan of objectivity, the ability to be fair- and open-minded, to be capable of approaching a story without bias determining its content. But I also think it’s time we allowed for a more expansive definition of the word “fact.”
I wonder: Is it not a fact that white supremacy is immoral? For thousands of years humans have thought deeply about the nature of humanity. One must ask: Have we really traveled so small a distance that we are yet either unable or unwilling to answer that question? Can one only assert the immorality of that perspective on the op-ed page? And why? Because it’s not a fact?
On Wednesday, January 25, Lewis Wallace, then a radio journalist for Marketplace, published a post on his personal blog under the headline “Objectivity is dead, and I’m okay with it.” In his post, Wallace asked if people of color could be “expected to give credence to ‘both sides’ of a dispute with a white supremacist, a person who holds unscientific and morally reprehensible views on the very nature of being human.” He noted that he, a transgender man, could not be expected to maintain neutrality in the face of hostility toward transgender people. Wallace asked a lot of questions that deserve consideration and even answers.
Obligated to be objective, the reporter cannot mix morality into the journalistic equation for a story objectivity written. Marketplace told Wallace his post violated the organization’s code of ethics, suspended him from the air, and asked him to take down the post. Initially, Wallace took down the post, as per his employer’s instructions, and then, having decided he should be true to himself, he reposted it. Marketplace fired him. Certainly Marketplace must hold its writers to high standards, objectivity among them. But Lewis Wallace didn’t actually throw any shade on the journalistic aversion to bias or even throw objectivity under the bus. He simply pondered questions related to the relationship between journalism and objectivity in a post-fact era that has left citizens in this country and around the world bewildered beyond belief. Though Wallace’s headline was rather dramatic, his actual post didn’t warrant Marketplace’s unsparing response. Wallace used his post to tell readers that journalists need to fight back against the purveyors of fake news and the haters of facts.
We live today with realities that one cannot and should not naively deny. Our political leaders are in the midst of making decisions replete with moral implications and commensurate moral ramifications. Donald Trump’s administration has found routes to denying citizens access to scientific information (which it would have us replace with alternative facts); his administration has assailed the fact-based media, calling it the opposition and the crooked media; the president himself, who ought to believe himself obligated as a leader to treat others with respect, has instead marginalized, stereotyped and denigrated our Mexican neighbors (bad hombres!), Muslim people of faith, and our GLBTQ, female, Jewish, and disabled (for starters) friends and neighbors (close and remote).
In this fraught environment objectivity has become difficult to understand and practice. The profession needs to re-evaluate and redefine its methods and values and reassess the way in which journalists bring to their work their intellectual, spiritual, and emotional resources.
If reporting as usual means writing a balanced story that ultimately shelters discriminatory and racist perspectives, if it means journalists don’t get to distinguish between right and wrong, between what is acceptable and what is not, then new rules need to be imagined. In news stories, not just in columns, journalists should, through their choices, make clear that white supremacy is wrong, that discriminating against the civil rights of LGBTQ people is wrong, that rejecting the refugee is inhumane, and that people are equal in their humanity. How is the institution to do this and retain its status as unbiased? That’s not a question easily answered. That’s why Wallace suggested the profession start asking questions. Through a process of reflective interrogation, journalism just might find new direction and clarity. But the profession and its practitioners can’t fear the questions. That way lies stagnation.