I’ll be honest: there are a lot of things I learned in journalism school that feel antiquated in today’s high-speed, whiplash-inducing news environment. How to eyeball what a story might look like on the page once it goes to layout, for instance. Or how to create a personal web log (yes, that would be the outdated way of saying “blog”) with scrappy coding skills. Or, you know, how to prioritize objectivity over telling the truth.
Let me explain. These days, the role that journalists play in our societal scaffolding rests somewhere between doctor with a diagnosis and long-form fact-checker: given the rate at which the general public expects to be informed, there often isn’t enough time or aren’t enough resources to do more than that. A recent survey reveals that six percent of surveyed journalists reported newsroom closures, 21 percent reported that their salaries had been cut, and another 12 percent have been either furloughed or laid off altogether since the pandemic hit. Given the instability of being in the journalism industry in better times, these numbers reveal just what a precarious position most newsrooms are in these days.
To generate enough interest in the news to satisfy a fast-disappearing bottom line, then, there is an overwhelming reliance on clicks and eyeballs and other metrics that necessitate a certain level of chasing. What is the world buzzing about already? Which news stories will get readers interested enough to hang around for the next barrage of unfortunate events?
I mention all this to paint a picture of what our esteemed Fourth Estate currently looks like, and to address the aforementioned quip about objectivity over truth. In short, the “objective” truth doesn’t matter anymore. Or rather, it doesn’t exist, because the truth has become politicized to the point that trying to tell it has resulted in outcries of bias, agenda or our current president’s favorite phrase: “Fake News!” The public’s trust in the media is at an all-time low. And so, in a scramble to prove their neutrality and trustworthiness, reporters are resorting to journalistic tenets like objectivity that worked in “normal” times, but feel anachronistic and even harmful in the abnormal times we find ourselves in today.
To clarify: Journalism is meant to be based on the facts. Facts are what make up our shared reality. But this seemingly straightforward task is difficult, if not impossible, when newsmakers choose to warp the facts deliberately in a bid to turn the press into their personal mouthpieces. This is of course nothing new, but the Trump administration has proven that they have a special knack for “alternative facts,” as Kellyanne Conway so memorably called it back in January 2017. Take, for instance, Thursday night’s presidential debate. President Trump repeated early on in the evening his false claim that the medications he took after being diagnosed with COVID-19 are what “some people” would call “a cure,” and that he’s now immune from further infection.
The word “cure” is a loaded one given the dire straits so many folks are in these days as a result of the coronavirus—losing loved ones, losing their jobs, losing hope—so it shouldn’t be used lightly. And most especially not by someone whose word can actually impact global markets and consumer behavior (remember when Trump touted bleach and sunshine as a possible “cure” for COVID?). An objective take on this damning statement would be to report it. It makes for a good headline, and it is factually accurate to say that Trump said those words. But what is the actual truth here, and will reporting his blatant lie cause harm? Is choosing not to make much of his statement a biased decision? Yes and yes, on both counts. But the takeaway here shouldn’t be that the media has an agenda so much as it is that it is respecting its duty to the American people: to go beyond objective facts to figure out what’s really going on.
Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute, put it this way in a recent interview with Vox: “What I’m trying to stress is that as news is increasingly everywhere and people can get the facts on their own or from wherever they want, journalism’s responsibility goes deeper. It involves sense-making, it involves providing more context. This is what we have to do now more than ever. Remaining ‘neutral’ is not the goal.”
“Neutral” is no longer the goal. Objectivity is no longer serving the people. And it is the media’s job to not just act as a vessel through which lies can be amplified, but one wherein lies can be course-corrected for the truth because that is its responsibility to the public. If journalists don’t do the very human, subjective job of sifting through the noise out there, what is the actual point of having a supposedly independent institution that will keep policy makers in check? The truth will not feel “fair” to every party involved in a story, which is something Trump likes to harp on—how “unfairly” he’s being treated by the press—because the truth isn’t meant to be neutral. This obsession with objectivity confuses the role of the media, and is what keeps us in this sticky state in the first place: fairness is not the same as “playing nice” to everyone involved. That’s the job of publicists, not reporters.
“Fairness” and covering Trump as though he were just another candidate in a political race is what got us here in the first place. I should know—four years ago, I was working at Us Weekly and tasked with covering Trump’s childish, headline-making antics. His incendiary tweets. His quippy, racist one-liners. As though I were but a megaphone helping to spread his words without filter or opinion or bias. It sickened me then and it sickens me now, four years later, when it doesn’t feel as though much has changed in how the media continues to cover Trump in the name of “objectivity.” I worry about how sustainable an industry can be if it is reliant on reporting the ravings of a madman in order to pay its employees’ salaries and put food on their families’ tables. This is how democracy dies: manipulated at the hands of those in power so that the truth—much like science—becomes a politicized entity rather than a provable fact.
As we edge closer to election day, and an increasingly anxious America watches, reads and listens raptly for news updates, journalists need to reconsider what it means to be responsible, informative and timely in their coverage of what will unfold in coming days. Because sometimes, the truth will not be objective or “fair,” and that’s okay. People have and will continue to lose their lives and livelihood because of journalists’ insistence on doing business as usual while the office is all aflame. So if there is any saving the Fourth Estate, and the democracy it’s been tasked to protect, the changes have to happen now. And that’s a fact.