As I walked my dog down 21st Street in Center City Philadelphia the other night, a plaque on an otherwise undistinguished townhouse grabbed my eye. The place, it said, was the boyhood home of Richard Harding Davis, an exceptional fin de siecle author and journalist whose work would humble most modern reporters.
Davis covered six wars, including the Spanish-American War, the Boer War and World War I. Strains from his war correspondence may have contributed to a heart attack that killed him just shy of age 52, , according to the report of his death in 1916 in The New York Times, His adventures got him arrested a few times as he ventured to the British and French fronts, even though he backed the Allies.
By today’s standards, Davis would hardly be called an objective observer. His forte was Yellow Journalism, the sort that provoked anti-Spanish sentiments in the U.S., particularly with reporting about Cuba. Apparently happy with his sympathetic coverage, Col. Teddy Roosevelt regarded Davis as a close friend and had made him an honorary member of the Rough Riders, the regiment Roosevelt led in the Cuban campaign. Before his adventures covering various wars, in one of his earliest reporting jobs, Davis put on what the Times called “rough clothing” to gain the confidence of burglars in a saloon, proving to be instrumental in the arrests of several of them.
Much of the journalism of his day was opinionated and its practices would never fly today. And Davis also ventured into areas where opinion and points of view were the explicit stock-in-trade. He served as managing editor of Harper’s Weekly in the mid-1890s, for instance. Moving beyond fact-based work, he also wrote a bevy of books and plays, including a long list of pieces that were turned into movies.
Over the decades since, plenty of reporters have turned their hands to books, of course, including both fiction and nonfiction. Ernest Hemingway’s early days in newspapering shaped his later writing (coincidentally Hemingway developed an affection for Cuba, much as Davis did decades before). More recently, so-called New Journalism practitioners such as Joan Didion blended fiction and nonfiction to write revealingly about American culture. The New York Times recently shed light on some of Didion’s experiences and views in the polarized 1960s.
And former journalists, such as David Simon of The Wire fame, have used the skills they developed in newspapers to enormous advantage. TV has benefitted richly from him and his likes.
Despite the prominence today of such star journalists and former journalists, one wonders about the future. Will it include more of the distinguished work of the sort they’ve done or less; more such star writers or fewer? They forged their skills in news outlets now under siege by economics, the rise of social media, cable TV and distractions of all sorts. Where will tomorrow’s writers hone their skills?
It’s hard to be optimistic at a time of such ferment in media. Certainly, the output of today’s stars is impressive. And, no doubt, some of the stars of tomorrow are toiling away now in news operations that hang on all across the country. But how long we will get to enjoy them, and how brightly they will shine in coming years, is anyone’s guess.
Decades hence, plaques may be placed on the childhood homes of some of today’s stars. Will folks walking by such places have journalists then working, using similar talents, to think about?
Couples who have been married a long time repeat the same arguments again and again. Denied resolution, they bicker over a husband’s habit of putting keys and wallets on shelves meant for artwork. They fight over whether he listens enough to her. They scrap over whether she is too critical. The arguments grow so familiar that they should, perhaps, be numbered so a wife can say “No. 13,” instead of berating the husband over the wallet, or “No. 17” over the listening issue, perhaps “No. 3” over whether she criticizes too much.
Some publications have sought to be helpful in seeking a way out of the never-ending battles. See the Guardian on this.
Lately, we’ve seen a similar dynamic at work in the argument over journalistic objectivity. Journalists and some non-journalists have beaten this horse for decades and lately the argument is getting a fresh airing by a generation that, apparently, is discovering the debate anew.
The latest missile to fly comes from A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times, whose long discussion appears in the Columbia Journalism Review. To boil it down, he argues that objectivity should remain as a journalistic ideal. He argues: “I continue to believe that objectivity—or if the word is simply too much of a distraction, open-minded inquiry—remains a value worth striving for.”
But he avoids the term, mostly characterizing it as a hoary notion espoused by philosopher and journalist Walter Lippmann, who detailed the objectivity idea in the early decades of the last century. Indeed, Sulzberger prefers that media instead regard itself instead as “independent.” Sulzberger’s view: “But independence, the word we use inside the Times, better captures the full breadth of this journalistic approach and its promise to the public at large.”
By independent, he means reporting without fear or favor, as his great-great-grandfather put it, enshrining the ideal so much that it became the motto of The Times.
“It means Independence is the increasingly contested journalistic commitment to following facts wherever they lead. It places the truth—and the search for it with an open yet skeptical mind—above all else,” Sulzberger writes. “Independence asks reporters to adopt a posture of searching, rather than knowing. It demands that we reflect the world as it is, not the world as we may wish it to be. It requires journalists to be willing to exonerate someone deemed a villain or interrogate someone regarded as a hero. It insists on sharing what we learn—fully and fairly—regardless of whom it may upset or what the political consequences might be.”
This eloquent round of the argument was preceded by similar thoughts from Martin Baron, a former Washington Post executive editor. In late March, he weighed in with a straightforward – if similarly nuanced — defense of objectivity, relying on the rhetorical device of comparing journalists to professional of various sorts. The public demands objectivity in judgments by judges, police officers, government regulators and, perhaps most persuasively, by doctors, he argued.
“We want doctors to be objective in their diagnoses of the medical conditions of their patients,” Baron wrote. “We don’t want them recommending treatments based on hunches or superficial, subjective judgments about their patients. We want doctors to make a fair, honest, honorable, accurate, rigorous, impartial, open-minded evaluation of the clinical evidence.”
Neither Baron nor Sulzberger were naïve in their contentions, though. They acknowledged the arguments that reporters’ backgrounds shaped their viewpoints and their familiarity or unfamiliarity with communities they write about would be important. They recognized the problems posed by bias.
Still, Baron suggested that certain practices, well-honed by earlier generations of journalists, can elevate one above the limits. Also citing Lippman, Baron wrote: “Our job as journalists, as he saw it, was to determine the facts and place them in context. The goal should be to have our work be as scientific as we could make it. Our research would be conscientious and careful. We would be guided by what the evidence showed. That meant we had to be generous listeners and eager learners, especially conscious of our own suppositions, prejudices, preexisting opinions and limited knowledge.”
And Baron defined objectivity in negative terms, arguing: “Objectivity is not neutrality. It is not on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand journalism. It is not false balance or both-sidesism. It is not giving equal weight to opposing arguments when the evidence points overwhelmingly in one direction. It does not suggest that we as journalists should engage in meticulous, thorough research only to surrender to cowardice by failing to report the facts we’ve worked so hard to discover.”
“The goal is not to avoid criticism, pander to partisans or appease the public. The aim is not to win affection from readers and viewers. It does not require us to fall back on euphemisms when we should be speaking plainly. It does not mean we as a profession labor without moral conviction about right and wrong.”
Putting the ideas positively, Baron echoed what journalism teachers have taught for years. “The idea is to be open-minded when we begin our research and to do that work as conscientiously as possible,” he held. “It demands a willingness to listen, an eagernessto learn — and an awareness that there is much for us to know. We don’t start with the answers. We go seeking them, first with the already formidable challenge of asking the right questions and finally with the arduous task of verification.”
These spirited and much-detailed arguments were all kickstarted anew in January by Leonard Downie Jr. His view, distilled, goes like this: we all are prisoners of our racial, gender, socio-economic and political backgrounds and thus cannot hope to report objectively on anything, so why bother trying? Instead, just own up to the biases and, indeed, own them.
Downie, another former executive editor at The Washington Post who now is a professor at Arizona State University, argued in a Washington Post piece that objectivity is obsolete. He and a colleague quizzed newspeople and concluded: “What we found has convinced us that truth-seeking news media must move beyond whatever ‘objectivity’ once meant to produce more trustworthy news. We interviewed more than 75 news leaders, journalists and other experts in mainstream print, broadcast and digital news media, many of whom also advocate such a change. This appears to be the beginning of another generational shift in American journalism.”
He suggested that one’s biases can’t be readily shelved and that identity is central.
“But increasingly, reporters, editors and media critics argue that the concept of journalistic objectivity is a distortion of reality,” Downie wrote. “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.”
Indeed, newsrooms need to “move beyond” objectivity, he argued, though just how that would look seemed a bit gauzy.
“We urge news organizations to, first, strive not just for accuracy based on verifiable facts but also for truth — what Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward have called ‘the best obtainable version of the truth.’ This means original journalism that includes investigating and reporting on all aspects of American life.”
These debates, including the question of whether to deep-six the term “objectivity,” remind me of the contention of my former editor at BusinessWeek, Stephen Shepard. Because BW was a magazine – a venue in which readers expected a point of view in coverage – Shepard maintained that fairness was really the attainable goal. Our reporters were not akin to cameras, unblinkingly recording reality, but rather we were making judgments constantly. But our judgments and arguments had to be fact-based and fair to all views involved.
Demonstrating a few years earlier just how old this argument is, I wrote about this all in an academic piece published in 2015 in Journalism and Mass Communication Educator. The piece detailed the development of the objectivity ideal –- which is really only about a century old — and the arguments that have raged about it. The debate, as I say, is hardly new.
The bottom line, I believe, is that objectivity is a myth and an ideal. It is as unattainable as the beauty of a Greek god or goddess — but that doesn’t mean we can’t keep trying, striving to reach the grandeur of a David or the loveliness of an Athena.
We owe it to readers to report the facts thoroughly and fairly, acknowledging differing views. We need to pursue the truth as best we can determine it, quoting responsible voices on all sides of the issues we write about. That doesn’t mean showcasing “alternative facts,” or failing to call out misstatements or untruths (indeed, Trump coverage is a sorry example of the need to make such callouts). And it does mean reporting on things that might go against one’s own views and doing so well and with appropriate distance.
But we also can’t forget that it is often outrage at or discomfort with things we cover that drive us. We get angry at injustice. We are stirred to write about wrongdoing. Why? Because we judge that it’s wrong. And it may be that who we are informs our passion or judgment about what is right and wrong. That is hardly objective, but it can make for great journalism.
There is much wisdom in the pieces by Sulzberger and Baron and, it must be admitted, in the Downie piece — even if one disagrees with his conclusions. Reflecting the journalistic traditions these three were reared in, the arguments they make are balanced, thorough and smart. They are worth pondering.
Looking for ways to make business journalism come alive for students? How about creating scavenger hunts for juicy tidbits in corporate government filings? What about mock press conferences that play PR and journalism students against one another? Then there are some sure bets – awarding $50 gift cards to local bars for mock stock-portfolio performances and showing students how to find the homes and salaries of university officials and other professors – including yourself — on the Net.
These were among the ideas savvy veteran instructors offered at the Business Journalism Professors Seminar last week at Arizona State University. The program, offered by the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, brought together as fellows 15 profs from such universities as Columbia, Kansas State, Duquesne and Troy, as well as a couple schools in Beijing, the Central University of Finance & Economics and the University of International Business and Economics. I was privileged to be among those talented folks for the week.
We bandied about ideas for getting 20-year-olds (as well as fellow faculty and deans) excited about business journalism in the first place. The main answer was, of course, jobs. If they’d like good careers in journalism that pay well, offer lots of room to grow and that can be as challenging at age 45 as at 20, there really are few spots in the field to match. These days, with so much contraction in the field, business and economic coverage is one of the few bright spots, with opportunity rich at places such as Reuters, Bloomberg News, Dow Jones and the many Net places popping up.
The key, of course, is to persuade kids crazy for sports and entertainment that biz-econ coverage can be fun. The challenge is that many of them likely have never picked up the Wall Street Journal or done more than pass over the local rag’s biz page. The best counsel, offered by folks such as UNC Prof. Chris Roush, Ohio University’s Mark W. Tatge, Washington & Lee’s Pamela K. Luecke and Reynolds Center president Andrew Leckey, was to make the classes engaging, involve students through smart classroom techniques and thus build a following. Some folks, such as the University of Kansas’ James K. Gentry, even suggest sneaking economics and (shudder) math in by building in novel exercises with balance sheets and income statements.
Once you have the kids, these folks offered some cool ideas for keeping their interest:
— discuss stories on people the students can relate to, such as the recent Time cover on Mark Zuckerberg or the May 2003 piece in Fortune on Sheryl Crow and Steve Jobs, and make sure to flash them on the screen (at the risk of offending the more conservative kids, I might add the seminude photo BW ran of Richard Branson in 1998)
— scavenger hunts. Find nuggets of intriguing stuff in 10Ks or quarterly filings by local companies or familiar outfits such as Apple, Google, Coca-Cola, Buffalo Wild Wings, Hot Topic, The Buckle, Kellogg, etc., and craft a quiz of 20 or so questions to which the students must find the answers
— run contests in class to see who can guess a forthcoming unemployment rate, corporate quarterly EPS figure or inflation rate
— compare a local CEO’s pay with that of university professors, presidents or coaches, using proxy statements and Guidestar filings to find figures
— conduct field trips to local brokerage firm offices, businesses or, if possible, Fed facilities
— have student invest in mock stock portfolios and present a valuable prize at the end, such as a gift certificate or a subscription to The Economist (a bar gift card might be a bit more exciting to undergrads, I’d wager)
— have students interview regular working people about their lives on the job
— discuss ethical problems that concern business reporters, using transgressors such as R. Foster Winans as examples. Other topics for ethical discussions might include questions about taking a thank-you bouquet of flowers from a CEO or traveling on company-paid trips, as well dating sources or questions about who pays for lunch
— discuss business journalism celebs, such as Lou Dobbs and Dan Dorfman
— use films such as “The Insider,” “Wall Street,” and “Social Network” to discuss business issues
— use short clips from various films to foster discussions of how businesses operate. Good example: “The Corporation”
— team up with PR instructors to stage a mock news conference competition pitting company execs in a crisis against journalism students. Great opportunity for both sides to strut their stuff.
We also heard helpful suggestions from employers, particularly Jodi Schneider of Bloomberg News and Ilana Lowery of the Phoenix Business Journal, along with handy ideas from Leckey and Reynolds executive director Linda Austin, a former business editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. My biggest takeaway: run some mock job interviews with students and teach them to send handwritten thank-you notes.
And we were treated to some smart presentations by journalists Diana B. Henriques of the New York Times about the art of investigative work (look for her new Madoff book), the University of Nevada’s Alan Deutschman about the peculiar psychologies of CEOs (narcissists and psychopaths are not uncommon), the University of Missouri’s Randall Smith’s view of the future for business journalists (it’s raining everywhere but less on business areas). We got some fresh takes on computer-aided reporting, too, by Steve Doig of the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication as well as on social media by the Reynolds Center’s Robin J. Phillips.
For anyone interested in journalism, especially biz journalism, it was a great week. As I take the lessons from ASU to heart, my students will be better off. My thanks to the folks there.
For folks in finance, change is nothing new. They’ve long watched technology race ahead and markets shift, long been subject to tectonic changes that left stock exchanges and investment banks to adjust or die. Their world is littered with such relics as stock-quote tapes and Quotron devices, along with fading memories of once-titanic names (remember E.F. Hutton and Paine Webber). Wall Streeters have learned to roll with the punches.
But for those in the media business, change is surprisingly difficult. Newspapers, magazines and even TV networks become “venerable” after a few decades, and they are thought to be immortal, at least by others in the biz. Most of the scribblers who people the offices of the leading media outfits believed – until recently at least – that their institutions would far outlast them. Storied names, such as Newsweek or BusinessWeek, would never go away.
As the Washington Post Co.’s move to put Newsweek on the block shows, however, nothing in any business really lasts forever. Creative destruction is the way of capitalism, whether on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange or in the offices of a weekly news magazine. Newsweek has been eclipsed by the Net, just as the historic role of specialists has been made all but irrelevant by electronic trading. The weekly could easily go the way of Life and Look magazines, pubs done in by TV and the popularization of cameras.
Will Newsweek survive under a new owner? Maybe. Surely, some wealthy character eager to burnish his or her global rep will snap it up for the power and influence it still commands – at least for now. It will likely become a plaything for some mogul, perhaps a Chinese or Middle Eastern potentate, who wants the access to political leaders the media still brings. Almost surely, it will have to be someone who doesn’t mind losing a lot of money on the mag as a tradeoff for the benefits that come along with a big media property.
But will the product be the same? And will it endure? Certainly, a new owner would make a mark on the magazine, for good or ill. In Newsweek’s case I fear that it will be for ill, since the folks there now have a pretty good idea of how to produce a quality newsweekly. Adding to what they already do well – or, more likely, cutting – could be problematic. The people there now are pros and tinkering with their approaches seems doomed to come to grief.
Of course, it all depends on the owner. Bloomberg bought BusinessWeek last fall and, so far, has managed to make some notable improvements. The editors, by reaching into BW’s past and adding some nifty contemporary touches, are turning out a product that boasts of lots of promise again. It’s a far better book than the thin glossies that have marked the last few years. Editorially, Bloomberg’s market-savvy journalists add value, and the parent’s financial backing may just see the pub through until advertisers want in again. However, it’s an open question whether BW’s cachet and exposure to 4.5 million readers – taking the Bloomberg name to more places than the outfit reaches through its 300,000 terminals – will need to be underwritten forever.
Newsweek is a tougher case. So many news organizations are so hard-pressed that it’s tough to see which could be a natural buyer. The synergy issue is crucial. And non-news owners – the moguls – may tire of their toy quickly, especially if they add no real value. Worse, its readership could fast erode, as the Net’s inexorable march proceeds. Yes, the staff will produce versions for the iPad, Kindle or Nook that readers can buy. But will the public want the book even then? While BW does add value for a specialized audience – folks in the capital markets can attest to that – Newsweek by definition serves a broad audience. The mass market seems far less interested in its kind of journalism anymore. Instead, it prizes immediacy and multi-media approaches.
In the end, imagination and technology will dictate the future for people in finance and media alike. The adjustment can be brutal – just ask the scores of talented people BW and Newsweek have lost in the last couple years. Or ask all those bright folks who once populated the mighty investment banks that no longer stride the earth, gone the way of the dinosaurs. Standing outside the process, it becomes clear that the public is better served after the system’s creative destruction has reshaped things. But, now, in the middle of it, it’s hard to see little but rough road ahead for a while. To the good folks of Newsweek, godspeed.
For years, journalism school for undergrads seemed like a bad idea to me. Better to study English or History, if you were inclined toward the liberal arts, or Science or Business, if your rod bent that way. Journalism, after all, is a trade, not a discipline with a body of content, it seemed. You could pick up any needed skills by working on the school paper or, if you wanted the union card, by going to grad school in journalism at Columbia or Missouri or somesuch.
Now, with jobs in media disappearing by the thousands, the arguments against J-School are taking on a new force. Some critics even say it’s immoral that we teach students journalism when the field is shriveling. There will be no jobs for our grads, they say. A lawyer friend argues that J-School teachers ought to be sued for their perfidy (of course, as a lawyer he would say that).
After four months of teaching at Nebraska, however, it’s clear to me that J-School is every bit as worthwhile as any other academic pursuit and more useful than many. First, there is the content. I teach magazine-writing, for instance. Writing for mags is a particular skill that demands the ability to report thoroughly, using interviewing and documentary research techniques, as well as a talent for structuring a piece well. Do History instructors or even English teachers school students in how to develop ledes, nut grafs and kickers? None I ever had did so. Students who master such abilities will have an edge.
Then there are crucial writing elements that one learns only by repeated practice and through criticism. Focus, for instance. In each of my three classes, I’ve seen that students struggle to focus their writing. What is this story about? How can they boil it down to a nut graf that is both on point and moves the reader along? When I and other students edit the work, and discuss it in class, these budding writers learn just what focus means. It is through the criticism/self-criticism approach that they see what they need to do to put a piece on target, to nail down the dramatic tension.
Other disciplines rarely dwell on such writing skills. And they are useful whether students wind up in journalism or not. Must a lawyer focus and write clearly? Do physicians need to know how to identify problems and investigate alternatives to solve them? If we, by teaching sound writing skills, can help students think broadly and question thoroughly, are we not preparing them for just about any field? Is not journalism as useful a pursuit in school as English? (Indeed, since students are limited to a modest percentage of journalism classes and must take many outside the college, they do get rich exposure to other fields.)
“So is journalism school practical or just a nice bit of training for other things?” Well, it’s both. Despite the old-media meltdown, we see continuing demand for interns by news organizations. They show up to recruit our students on campus. They need the talent, especially young talent hip to the Net. Yes, jobs are disappearing in this transition to the new media, but others are being created. Our students are being recruited for them.
This raises another point. One of the skills we are teaching is multi-media journalism. We pair print and broadcast veterans to team-teach a major required course aimed at the delivery of news by the Net. I help my students write in the “light, tight and right” style needed on the Net. My broadcast partner teaches them how to do video and slide-shows to accompany the print pieces. They learn how to post material on a web site — NewsNetNebraska.org — as well as how to operate cameras, organize video and written presentations and appear on camera. They develop smart, technically competent pieces that new media demands.
Talk about skills. I have learned an enormous amount about such multi-media presentations in the last few months. These skills were simply not taught until the Net required them. The old-media outfits now demand such skills and rarely teach them to their old hands. Our kids will be experts in these needed skills.
There is still more content that our students get that is tough to come by in other fields. For instance, a colleague teaches science-writing. Students learn how to cover disparate fields, from medicine to alternative energy. They learn how to question sources well enough to develop a point of view on complex issues, how not to be intimidated by arcane areas that use their own peculiar lingo. Next year, I’ll teach a new course in business and economic journalism which similarly will equip students to write about how the economy and corporations function.
Could students get such skills by studying Science or Business? Yes, but they would also move into the weeds in such fields in ways that might be less useful to them. They will need some accounting, for instance, but may not need as much as the B-School provides. And if they focus on, say, biology, will they develop skills useful for other scientific fields? It won’t hurt them to study such things, of course, but with a more applied journalistic approach, they’ll get the broad sweep.
So, is journalism school worthwhile? As you can tell, I’m now sold on it. Indeed, as the media world changes, smart journalism education that changes with it will prove more necessary than ever. Times of tumult yield opportunities for those quick enough to grab for them. Our goal is to help our students see those openings and be ready to pursue them.