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Lost in the Debate: Reporters' Focus Must Remain on Objectivity and Facts

by on September 21, 2017 4:00 AM

Throughout 2016 and most of 2017 there has been a bitter back and forth about the media, journalism and the role of these institutions and professions in our society. In a media industry of unprecedented competition and fueled by the easy access to voicing opinions on social media, we’ve seen a number of controversies flare up. 

Some journalists have put their own views about people and issues they cover on social media, undercutting their status as unbiased reporters. In other cases the bar for reporting has been lowered as some reporters assign factual status to any and every statement that is “confirmed” by a second source.

Over the years through hundreds of interactions with journalists, reporters and editors, I’ve found the vast majority of them were fair, showing an understanding of the ethics that should be the foundation for how they do their jobs.

Lost in the firestorm about tweets by ESPN’s Jemele Hill accusing the president of being a white supremacist, there was a more important debate to be had. That debate is the role of reporters and journalism in American society in the age of social media. The issue is the line between a journalist reporting the facts versus pushing out agenda-driven personal views.

This is not specific to just this issue or personal as it relates to Jemele Hill. This example is just illustrative. What is vital in being a journalist is an understanding that their job is to report the stories while doing everything to avoid becoming a story. Social media makes it too easy to cross that line.

But personal brand presence and name recognition have become currency in a crowded media market. When Jamele Hill, intentionally or not, sparked a controversy, her name recognition skyrocketed after the White House press secretary talked about her. For the White House, pushing back on another member of the #FakeNews is more red meat for their base.

What this saga represents is the larger debate about journalism ethics. Certainly we all believe in free speech and a free press, but for journalists those rights come with responsibilities. Maintaining unbiased credibility includes a tradeoff requiring you to give up the desire to put your personal views on display for all.

At the same time in our country, we have some journalists who purport to be fair arbiters but instead in their reporting they confer credibility to one person over another. If assigning credibility is vitally important to a story, a person's integrity should be more important than whether their words fit a reporter's agenda.

We saw this in the Rolling Stone story about an alleged rape at a University of Virginia fraternity that we now know never happened. Just two weeks ago, CNN posted another of the still-lingering stories from the Sandusky scandal that was nothing more than an advocacy piece.

Sara Ganim presented sworn testimony from a man with a six-decade professional and personal reputation for integrity and honesty. She countered that with background from anonymous sources and someone whose statements have been inconsistent at best. Despite a lack of any evidence, she crossed the line with her writing to prop up unproven statements in an attempt to discredit sworn testimony that ran counter to her agenda.

That is not reporting and it is not journalism. It is not #FakeNews but rather it is #GossipNews. It is a breach of journalism ethics for the sake of a gossipy agenda piece to boost the clicks that are the lifeblood of for-profit media. It’s nothing more than a modern-day whisper campaign.

On social media and in “news stories,” reporters are now crossing the line from facts into opinion. There is nothing wrong with writing opinion pieces, but they should be presented as such -- making it clear the intent of the piece is to influence thought.

In our hyper-charged world of daily political controversy, all members of the media would do well to step back and think once again about the basics. What is my role? Am I presenting unbiased facts or stating my opinion? Is what I am writing or stating fair? Am I either consciously or subconsciously assigning credibility to one statement or another because of my outcome-based agenda?

Each time a reporter crosses that line it adds to the wall of distrust. It keeps feeding the #FakeNews narrative to many, and only confirms the belief in bias that fuels the resentment we see all around us.

The health of this nation depends upon factual and meaningful discourse in the public squares of society. Everyone in the media would do well to better serve our country by going back to the basics. The bedrock foundations of responsible free speech and free press were the core of a profession that at its best helped inspire the passions of America to ignite lasting and meaningful changes for the betterment of all.

 



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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