Crisis in News Media

Objectivity: What Journalists Hate but the Public Still Craves

Peter Menzies
August 31, 2022
Democracy, Churchill once famously said, is the worst form of government – except for all the rest. Objectivity may have a similar relationship to journalism. It’s hard to achieve, bothersome, limiting, at-times disingenuous and often plain boring – but what are the alternatives? We are now seeing what happens when a discipline dominated by practitioners who reject the very idea of objective truth discard journalism’s formerly animating idea. Newspaper publishing veteran Peter Menzies links the traditional news media’s advanced state of decay to its willful abandonment of objectivity. Yet Menzies also finds glimmerings of a renewed commitment to objectivity in some unlikely places.
Crisis in News Media

Objectivity: What Journalists Hate but the Public Still Craves

Peter Menzies
August 31, 2022
Democracy, Churchill once famously said, is the worst form of government – except for all the rest. Objectivity may have a similar relationship to journalism. It’s hard to achieve, bothersome, limiting, at-times disingenuous and often plain boring – but what are the alternatives? We are now seeing what happens when a discipline dominated by practitioners who reject the very idea of objective truth discard journalism’s formerly animating idea. Newspaper publishing veteran Peter Menzies links the traditional news media’s advanced state of decay to its willful abandonment of objectivity. Yet Menzies also finds glimmerings of a renewed commitment to objectivity in some unlikely places.
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Long at the core of journalism, the imperative that reporters must be seen to conduct their work objectively is under siege. And it’s losing badly.

Consider a few telling examples. Bari Weiss had been recruited to help the New York Times try to reconnect its commentary with mainstream America. Weiss had been taught that “journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history,” i.e., were fundamentally reporters who needed to seek and tell the truth as accurately as they could. The Times news staff evidently had other ideas, for Weiss was systematically smeared as a bigot, racist and Nazi by members of her own newsroom, who succeeded in hounding her out of her job.

Here at home, when National Post opinion columnist Rex Murphy two years ago (at the height of the U.S. riots following the police murder of George Floyd) ventured the opinion that the vast majority of Canadians are horrified by racism and that Canada is not a fundamentally racist country, the paper’s news staff rebelled and demanded that Murphy – whose job it is to express his opinion – be fired. An email signed by more than half the newsroom denounced the publication of Murphy’s column as “lazy, ignorant, and dehumanizing to Black and Indigenous peoples.” Murphy kept his job, but at the price of a grovelling confession of error by the paper’s editor that remains atop the offending column to this day, along with links to columns about racism written by others and suggested by the editor as more suitable.

Then there’s the case of Wendy Mesley, formerly of the CBC and certainly not known for unfashionable views. Just over two years ago Mesley quoted an infamous book title containing a single bad word at two internal meetings of ostensibly hardened and detached professionals, only to discover she had offended the dignity of her fellow human beings and traumatized at least one with her insensitivity. This colleague ratted Mesley out to senior management, claiming she had been made “to feel unseen, unheard & unsafe.” And that was the end of Mesley’s 40-year broadcast career.

News staff across North America are increasingly fuelled by ideology and engaged in political activism – to the point of battling colleagues whose views they don’t like. Bottom left, the New York Times’ short-lived reformer Bari Weiss. Bottom middle, the National Post’s almost-ousted columnist Rex Murphy. Bottom right, Wendy Mesley, whose 40-year CBC career was ended for saying one bad word in an internal meeting. (Sources of photos: (bottom left) @bariweiss/Twitter; (bottom middle) @DeadRexMurphy/Twitter)

News organizations overflowing with agenda-driven employees intent on publicizing their own opinions while suppressing or ejecting anyone guilty, in Weiss’s words, of “Wrongthink,” have proliferated across North America. The Washington Post, for example, has had to battle its own reporters over their social media activism. Staff at National Public Radio, the U.S.’s federally funded, not-for-profit network, demanded and last year received the right to participate in demonstrations and voice political opinions in public.

And now, the establishment walls of the Toronto Globe & Mail have been officially breached as well. The Globe was perhaps Canada’s last major media outlet still attempting to restrain its reporters from expressing their personal opinions online, and it remained capable of generating some great news reports. But, as Globe Public Editor Sylvia Stead put it in her June 25 column: “These days, with the news media under attack, there are few things more important than a public statement of the democratic mission, principles and practices behind the work of journalists.”

No question there. And no question that while there is a lot of “news” being posted these days that has as much in common with journalism as karaoke has with Pavarotti, the Globe has long considered itself, and in some respects is, a cut above the rest in Canada. If industry awards still mean anything, it’s worth mentioning that the paper won 10 out of 22 National Newspaper Awards (NNA) in this year’s competition, just as it did the year before. One of those went to a former Calgary Herald colleague, Grant Robertson, now at the Globe. It was his eighth NNA, and no one has more. The Globe has won a total of 207 NNAs over its history, 61 more than the Toronto Star and 152 more than La Presse, in third place. When it comes to mainstream journalism in Canada, at least as far as being officially recognized is concerned, The Globe & Mail owns the podium.

Rebranding for the 21st century: The Globe & Mail’s Public Editor Sylvia Stead says journalistic “principles and practices” no longer need to include objectivity, as long as there’s “fairness and transparency.” (Sources of photos: (left) The Globe & Mail; (right) dennizn/Shutterstock)

Yet now this celebrated newspaper with its 178-year history is officially and deliberately banishing journalistic objectivity from its “democratic mission, principles and practices,” as it describes it. “Expecting objectivity of individual journalists is not the right measure,” asserted Stead, noting she “was part of the committee of Globe editors and reporters who reviewed and recommended the changes to the Editorial Code of Conduct.” And, she continued, “While the principles are rarely changed, this time one reference to ‘objectivity’ was changed to ‘fairness and transparency.’”

With that stroke of a pen, there it was: gone. There were a couple of other tweaks. Globe staff were given more leeway to express opinions publicly and “anonymous” sources are now referred to as “confidential.”

The progressive view of impartiality: Chief Justice of Canada Richard Wagner (top left) labelled the 2022 Freedom Convoy protests “the beginning of anarchy where some people have decided…to take the law into their own hands, not to respect the mechanism.” Queen’s University law professor Bruce Pardy (top right) says such remarks “cannot easily be remedied.” (Sources of photos: (top left) Supreme Court of Canada Collection; (top right) One News Page; (bottom) Gary A Corcoran Arts/Shutterstock)

The traditional news media’s abandonment of objectivity en masse comes during a time when public trust in the media and other institutions has been eroding seriously. It coincides with and perhaps is part of a broader trend of elites and institutions increasingly doing what they please without regard to public opinion. The Globe’s shift occurred as another Canadian institution was taking a similarly dernière mode approach to maintaining public trust. Namely, the Supreme Court of Canada and the disturbing remarks by its Chief Justice concerning last winter’s Freedom Convoy protests in Ottawa. “What we have seen recently on Wellington Street here is the beginning of anarchy where some people have decided to take other citizens hostage, to take the law into their own hands, not to respect the mechanism,” Chief Justice Richard Wagner publicly concluded in a French-language interview in Montreal’s Le Devoir. “That, I find that, worrying.”

Complaints were filed and swiftly brushed aside by the Canadian Judicial Council – of which Wagner is chair. This, despite its own principles stating, “Judges should avoid using words or conduct, in and out of court, that might give rise to a reasonable perception of bias.” It is not inconceivable that one or more of the cases flowing from the protests and the Justin Trudeau government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act could end up on appeal before Wagner himself. The Chief Justice, however, remains unrepentant, perhaps because he can’t imagine a reasonable person disagreeing with him.

Bruce Pardy is a law professor at Queen’s University and one of the lawyers who complained about Wagner. He also advised some of the Freedom Convoy members last winter. While he believes the harm done by Wagner’s comments “cannot easily be remedied” he also has a theory on why the Chief Justice fails to see the issue.

Pardy is not the first to notice that, nowadays, the public conversation seems always to be driven in one direction – whether by the news media, academia, culture, government or, now, even our courts. Referencing the work of legal scholar Wanjiru Njoya in the Journal of Free Black Thought, Pardy suggests that “the range of what is considered reasonable has been narrowed to progressive ideals alone…Through a progressive lens, in other words, impartiality means having an open mind to all reasonable perspectives – but only progressive perspectives are reasonable.”

To those of us who have worked in newsrooms, this has a familiar ring. It may explain why increasing numbers of reporters are, like Wagner, fearlessly hanging their opinions out there. Rachel Gilmore of Global News has achieved celebrity in that regard. Very active on Twitter, she worked to uncover a link between last winter’s protests/border blockades and white nationalists. And when she discovered that Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre once walked with a guy who was interviewed by a guy who knew a guy who talked to a couple of guys with far from progressive views, Gilmore joined the dots and – “gobsmacked” – demanded an explanation.

Boy did she get one. “Unprofessional journalists like you try to set disingenuous traps to attack your opponents,” Team Poilievre replied. “No wonder trust in the media is at an all-time low…Your tactic seems to demand Mr. Poilievre answer for all the words and deeds of not just everyone he has ever met but everyone they have ever met. That amounts to guilt by multiple degrees of separation.”

This solicited a predictable (by today’s standards) response from the Coalition for Women in Journalism, which condemned “these tactics to silence journalists,” while Stephen Wentzel on Rabble opined that, “Poilievre may not outright say ‘the press are the enemy of the people’ like Donald Trump, but he doesn’t have to. He has a base of supporters to do the work for him.” Of course he does – a basketful. So then: using dodgy logic and dubious reasoning to attack a politician whose views the journalist doesn’t share is all in a legitimate day’s work, but defending oneself against such attacks is a “tactic” intended to “silence” journalist.

A “gobsmacking” find: Global News reporter Rachel Gilmore (left) accused Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre of associating with white nationalists. Poilievre’s retort was denounced by the Coalition for Women in Journalism as a “tactic” intended “to silence journalists.” (Sources of images: (top left) YouTube/Global News; (top right) @PierrePoilievre/Twitter)

The outcome of all this, or rather of the iceberg of cases from across North America that lurk beneath the examples cited above? The public, having no idea what or who to believe, has decided to believe no one. “Around two thirds of Canadians believe journalists and reporters (61%) and business leaders (60%) are purposely trying to mislead them, with government not far behind (58%),” states the 2022 Trust Barometer for Canada by Edelman, an international communications company that studies and reports annually on public trust around the world.

The mistrust level for reporters, Edelman found, was up by 12 points year-over-year, as it was for the “leaders in government” category. Government leadership, according to Edelman, is considered to be chiefly divisive by 45 percent of Canadians. The media, at 44 percent, are rated as having an equally fractious impact. Not a good look for an industry that is willfully abandoning time-tested standards. South of the border, the situation is even more dire. There, according to Gallup, a mere 16 percent of Americans trust their newspapers, while a shockingly low 11 percent have high confidence in TV news. These are the lowest levels on record.

The public is clearly not getting what it wants from the traditional news media. And what it still wants more than anything, according to a report from the American Press Institute, is accuracy and objectivity. In fact, it isn’t even close: 87 percent want the media to “verify and get the facts right,” 78 percent want it to be “fair to all sides,” 68 percent want it to be “neutral,” and 61 percent want it to “provide diverse points of view.”

When asked about the proper role of journalism, the public prefers verified and accurate facts, as well as fairness and neutrality. But the public widely believes that the “news” as presented falls far short of those standards. (Source of graph: Media Insight Project/American Press Institute)

How crazy is that? And why don’t new-age journalists and media organizations want to give it to them? Why do they increasingly practice agenda-driven activism that openly promotes one side and its causes while portraying the opposing side and its ideas as mendacious, threatening or racist? One wonders whether news editors are unaware of what the public expects of the news media, or whether they know perfectly well but are so absorbed in their own virtue that they just don’t care.

News consumers don’t expect reporters to be bereft of personal beliefs. They just don’t want to hear them or have them distort the news, no matter how much journalists feel the need to put themselves at centre stage, often in heroic poses. And pretty much everyone in newsrooms seems to have forgotten that the concept of objectivity was not intended to insist or pretend that individual journalists be without biases. Quite the opposite: it was developed and imposed in recognition of the fact that they are unavoidably riddled with them.

It was a 42-page study by Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz, entitled A Test of the News and published in the New Republic in 1920, that formed the foundation for the push for objectivity. They undertook this work – and this might sound familiar – because, “There is today a widespread and a growing doubt whether there exists such an access to the news about contentious affairs. This doubt ranges from accusations of unconscious bias to downright charges of corruption, from the belief that the news is coloured to the belief that the news is poisoned. On so grave a matter evidence is needed.”

Reviewing the New York Times’ coverage of the Russian Revolution, Lippmann and Merz’s study concluded that the reporting was often not remotely based on facts but “determined by the hopes of the men who made up the news organizations.” The study critiqued factual errors, naïveté and misrepresentation of the anti-Bolshevik “White” Russian forces. The Times’ biases would eventually become more notorious, but not until years after reporter Walter Duranty had worked actively and effectively to suppress news of Stalin’s instigation of the Ukrainian Holodomor, which took at least 4 million lives.

Restraining all-too-human failings: Using the New York Times’ biased coverage of the 1917 Russian Revolution (bottom) as its prime example, the 1920 report by Walter Lippmann (top left; seated at middle) and Charles Merz (top left; seated at left) found that news reporting in their time was often driven “by the hopes of the men who made up the news organizations.” Their solution was the doctrine of objectivity. (Sources of photos: (top left) Spartacus Educational; (top right image) Internet Archive, licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0)

“The main censor and the main propagandist,” concluded Lippmann and Merz in their study, “Was the hope and fear in the minds of reporters and editors.” And so did Lippmann begin his quest for systems and disciplines which would help a journalist produce work that was “clear and free of his irrational, his unexamined, his unacknowledged prejudgments in observing, understanding and presenting the news.” The doctrine of objectivity, in other words, became a mechanism to restrain the all-too human traits of bias and corruptibility.

That sort of solid, thorough, objective reporting is hard. “Many fancy opinion writing over reporting, which can be grubby, exhausting and thankless,” Holly Doan, Publisher of Ottawa-based Blacklock’s Reporter and a woman with 40 years’ experience in journalism including as CTV News’ Beijing correspondent, noted in a recent Tweet. “Leaving the air conditioned trailer for a TV panel appearance is much more pleasant.” Even more fun, one assumes, is building a high-profile social media “following” that will drive clicks to your employer’s website and, as Lippmann and Merz noted in an earlier era, fulfill the hopes of the men and women who run the news organizations.

This is a critical time for news organizations in Canada. Their cornerstones – the once vast 200-plus-member newsrooms of the Calgary Herald, Montreal Gazette, Toronto Star and, yes, the Globe – no longer have business models that work. Canadian broadcasters (unlike the big U.S. TV networks) rarely had the resources that the leading newspapers could bring to the game, a deficiency that has only gotten worse.

“Many fancy opinion writing over reporting, which can be grubby, exhausting and thankless,” says Holly Doan, publisher of online news site Blacklock’s Reporter. The craft has indeed changed a lot; shown at right is a scene from the 1974 movie The Front Page, starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. (Source of left photo: @hollyanndoan/Twitter)

Too many journalists in all categories fall into the very predictable and all too obvious folly of using only sources whom they know will view the world as “reasonably” as they do. “Journalists who select sources to express what is really their own point of view, and then use the neutral voice to make it seem objective, are engaged in a form of deception,” writes Walter Dean, former executive director of the American Press Institute. “This damages the credibility of the craft by making it seem unprincipled, dishonest, and biased.”

It’s remarkable that so many in the industry think the public doesn’t notice these routine deceptions. Sure, the news business has always suffered from a certain insularity, too often introspective and unaware that the rest of us are right here in the room with them these days. And, unlike the good old days when reader/listener complaints could be carefully managed, these days everyone basically has a printing press in their pocket. So, conduct yourself accordingly.

The Globe’s Stead is bang on when she says news media are “under attack” – but not necessarily the way that she means. The threats that editors should be worried about are not only those coming from outside the fortress through social media’s most unsavoury characters but also from within the walls by those who rage against rather than defend free expression of views that they have, from their high moral perch, deemed unreasonable.

The intriguing evolution of certain non-traditional media outlets suggests there is still a market for real news. Most online sites began essentially as vehicles for their founders to vent their own opinions. And as they grew they often morphed into barely concealed activism – as I discussed in this C2C article that included a look at B.C.’s Narwhal and its habit of “embedding” its writers with hard-left activist groups, whose agenda they then advance.

Yet a funny thing has been quietly happening on the right-leaning side of the online space: some sites are toning down opinion and replacing (or at least complementing) it with genuine reporting. The Western Standard, which started as a pretty rough-looking and -sounding operation devoted largely to pugnaciously pro-Alberta, just-say-no-to-Commies columns, has not only grown more sophisticated but is hiring paid news reporters – including some savvy 30-40-year veterans who had been pushed out of desperately downsizing mainstream newspapers.

Like their print and broadcast forebears, many online media outlets also choose activism over objectivity, “embedding” journalists with causes whose ideology they share (top). But some sites are discovering that objectivity is actually good business, and a few (bottom left) are even returning to the old newspaper practice of clearly separating news stories from opinion pieces.

The Standard also recently made a move that might shock activist reporters building their social media profiles: it has explicitly and visibly separated news from opinion. And keep in mind that the Standard and similar sites like True North are for-profit operations that, unlike most news organizations these days, eschew government subsidy. If there was no business case for straight news reporting – i.e., demand from consumers – it’s unlikely these publications would invest in changing their content balance from (generally cheap) opinion to (almost-always-expensive) news.

Traditional news media are under siege largely because the public has lost faith in their ability to be good at the objective practice of their craft and see them as putting their own wants, needs, beliefs and crusades ahead of the public interest. They are diminished because too many of their names are better known than their work. And they are increasingly distrusted because while so many of their employers cozy up to politicians for subsidies and legislative legs up, they don’t have the courage to seriously report on it. Or, maybe, they are under attack because too many have forgotten that journalism isn’t about them, the pursuit of their causes and what they think. It’s about us. And we are right here. Watching.

Peter Menzies is a National Newspaper Award-winning journalist, Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, past editor-in-chief of the Calgary Herald and former vice-chair of the CRTC.

Source of main image: Sandor Szmutko/Shutterstock.

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