Can a journalist be trustworthy without being 'objective'?

New report from ASU Cronkite School analyzes accuracy, reliability in the modern newsroom

Four broadcast  journalists stand around a news desk talking

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At a time when trustworthy news is more important than ever, and when most people say they want news that is unbiased, the traditional notion of journalistic objectivity is under attack from journalists and news consumers alike.

A new report by two veteran journalists charts a path forward for newsrooms to produce fair, accurate and reliable news in the evolving culture of the modern newsroom.

Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post, and Andrew Heyward, former president of CBS News, now faculty members at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, have co-authored a report called “Beyond Objectivity: Producing Trustworthy News in Today’s Newsrooms.” Cronkite School doctoral students Rian Bosse, Stephen Kilar and Kristina Vera-Phillips and undergraduate student Autriya Maneshni also contributed to the report.

The report examines some of the factors that have eroded trust in the news media, including newsroom downsizing, cable news blurring news and opinion, politicians accusing mainstream media of producing fake news, and an increase in misinformation and disinformation exacerbated by social media. It also explains why many journalists today reject the traditional notion of “objective” news reporting. Heyward and Downie argue that, while the term may have lost its relevance, newsrooms can restore trust in their reporting by following a “playbook” of recommendations in the report.

“For the general public, this is a critical time in terms of what kind of information you get, and where you’re getting it from and how it’s being produced. It’s hard for people to know what to believe,” said Downie, Weil Family Professor of Journalism at the Cronkite School. “We have concluded that it’s very important for mainstream news media to evolve in the ways we recommend to produce the best possible trustworthy news for the public.”

Downie and Heyward and their team interviewed more than 75 news leaders, journalists and other experts before developing a set of six guidelines for producing trustworthy news.

Beyond Objectivity” offers the following guiding principles: move beyond accuracy to truth; unlock the real power of diversity, inclusion and identity; create a credible policy for journalists’ social media and political activities; focus on essential original reporting; show your work as an integral part of the journalism process; and develop a set of core values for the newsroom to live by.

“If we’ve done our job, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. If a newsroom does all of these things, it’s transformative,” said Heyward, senior research professor at the Cronkite School. “Even if it’s not a revolution, it’s a significant evolution. It’s going to require a new generation of leadership that embraces these principles.”

Some newsrooms are already focusing on diversifying their staffs and the communities they cover, but Heyward says more can be done.

“There’s a focus on diversity. We’re recommending a greater, sharper, more intense focus, which actually treats diversity not just as a statistical or moral imperative, even though it’s both of those things, but as a way to unlock new riches from your own team,” Heyward said. “The idea is not to bring a bunch of people in and sand them down, so they all fit a preconceived mold, but rather bring them in and use their diverse talents and perspectives to enrich your journalism and service to a more diverse public.”

The report will be distributed to journalism schools, news organizations and journalism associations, and it will be available on the Knight-Cronkite News Lab website as a resource.

The Cronkite School will also create a series of workshops that will apply the report’s findings to the work and culture of individual newsrooms — part of what the authors hope becomes a continuing conversation about journalism’s core values that helps preserve and strengthen the public’s trust in reliable reporting.

The report may become a living document that is updated periodically to address issues that arise in the media, Heyward said, citing as an example the debate that sprang up in newsrooms over how to cover the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

The Stanton Foundation awarded the Cronkite School a $150,000 grant to research the concept of journalistic objectivity in today’s newsrooms. Frank Stanton is widely regarded as one of the television industry’s founding fathers and served as president of CBS for nearly 30 years. The Stanton Foundation played no role in the development or dissemination of the report, and the contents are entirely an independent product of ASU.

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