Objectivity and Truth

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Whenever I made the mistake of starting to answer a question by saying, “I think,” the tough editor at the old City News Bureau of Chicago cut me off by saying: “Don’t tell me what you think, chum, tell me what you know.”

City News, once called the Devil’s Island of Journalism, is long gone, another victim of bean-counters and the bottom line. But it managed to train thousands of young journalists who went on to win Pulitzer Prizes and top jobs in journalism.

I thought about that tough editor when the Poynter Institute released a study of 167 journalists and their views about objectivity and truth-telling. It’s a small sample that included professional reporters and editors, student journalists and journalism professors.

“Two distinct mind-sets emerged,” said Poynter. “A traditionalist group that favors neutrality and a second group that shows more concern for the impact of journalism on their sources and desires more engagement in political discourse.” Some want more freedom on social media.

You can read the Poynter study here. It appears that those who want “more engagement in political discourse” want to tell you what they think. That would have offended that City News editor, especially if you are just starting out in journalism. He might have said you have to learn to gather facts accurately before you get to pontificate. He would have said personal views do not belong in news reports. Editorials or think-pieces do that. And some magazines , radio stations or television channels are dedicated to a political or social point of view.

Objectivity will be a stretch for those who believe it is not worth the effort to try.

Diversity might play a role in this. Young journalists of various races, ethnic groups or genders are recruited specifically because they bring their own sets of values and experiences to the job, and look like the people they are covering. All good. Does that mean they should be campaigners for causes? There should be a place for that. Have we figured out how best journalists should do that? How best to present what diversity has to offer?

The Poynter report touched on a significant point by quoting a New York Times media columnist who pointed out that most of the 3,400 Americans polled agreed that journalists should keep their political opinions private. In other words: Give us the facts and we’ll arrive at our own opinions. That’s a journalist’s top job, serving the public interest.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

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