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Media should abandon ‘objectivity’: ASU journalism professor

Objectivity was ‘dictated over decades by male editors in predominantly White newsrooms and reinforced their own view of the world’

The media currently is too neutral and values “objectivity” too highly, according to a journalism professor at Arizona State University.

Professor Leonard Downie, the former executive editor of The Washington Post, recently wrote that “newsrooms are debating whether traditional objectivity should still be the standard for news reporting.”

He wrote in the Washington Post that “increasingly” some journalists are abandoning objectivity.

Downie argued that this is a good change of pace.

He wrote:

But increasingly, reporters, editors and media critics argue that the concept of journalistic objectivity is a distortion of reality. They point out that the standard was dictated over decades by male editors in predominantly White newsrooms and reinforced their own view of the world. They believe that pursuing objectivity can lead to false balance or misleading “bothsidesism” in covering stories about race, the treatment of women, LGBTQ+ rights, income inequality, climate change and many other subjects. And, in today’s diversifying newsrooms, they feel it negates many of their own identities, life experiences and cultural contexts, keeping them from pursuing truth in their work.

In his own time at the paper, Downie said he never considered objectivity to be a “standard.”

“My goals for our journalism were instead accuracy, fairness, nonpartisanship, accountability and the pursuit of truth,” he wrote.

Times have changed, according to Downie.

He wrote:

Now, the mainstream news media is coping with economic and digital disruption, along with increasing competition from misinformation on cable television and the internet. Meanwhile, American society itself has been in upheaval over discrimination against and abuse of women; persistent racism and white nationalism; police brutality and killings; the treatment of LGBTQ+ people; income inequality and social problems; immigration and the treatment of immigrants; the causes and effects of climate change; voting rights and election inequality; and even the very survival of our democracy. Reporting reliably on all of this has critically challenged newsrooms, calling into question their diversity, values and credibility.

He shared the results of a survey he conducted which found that most news leaders agreed it was time to abandon neutrality.

“It’s objective by whose standard?” Kathleen Carroll, former Associated Press executive editor, told the ASU professor. “That standard seems to be White, educated, fairly wealthy. … And when people don’t feel like they find themselves in news coverage, it’s because they don’t fit that definition.”

Other legacy media outlets agreed that in the past there has been too much fairness and evenhandedness in their news. USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll “has no prohibitions against staff members working on stories involving their identities or life experiences unless they demonstrate a strong bias,” Downie wrote.

Downie concluded by saying that defending democracy must also be a goal for the country. “One essential value for all Americans is the survival of democratic institutions, which are under attack on multiple fronts,” he wrote.

“Trustworthy journalism by a new generation of journalists and newsroom leaders can ensure that the news media continues to do its part to protect democracy,” Downie concluded.

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IMAGE: Arizona State University

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Matt has previously worked at Students for Life of America, Students for Life Action and Turning Point USA. While in college, he wrote for The College Fix as well as his college newspaper, The Loyola Phoenix. He holds a B.A. from Loyola University-Chicago and an M.A. from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He lives in northwest Indiana with his family.