When reporter Lewis Wallace was fired from the public radio business show Marketplace, public media’s simmering debate over the principle of journalistic objectivity came to a boil. (For those who don’t know, Wallace was fired for writing a blog post questioning the objectivity principle.)
The key question he raised is whether journalists must adhere to traditional rules about objectivity in an age of “alternative facts.” Do we have to sit on the sidelines of gatherings that aim to defend values and principles that many thought were settled in American society, issues that some see as questions of human rights, not political policy?
Some journalists are starting to say no. My answer is still yes.
Taking our fingers out of our ears
Our profession got things so wrong in the leadup to the election because we didn’t want to believe the “America First” values of the Trump movement could exist in 2017 America. Many of us find a lot of those values – especially those involving the status of women, immigrants, and minorities – to be morally repugnant, even dangerous. So we talked to Trump supporters, but we didn’t listen to them closely enough. We didn’t take them seriously.
Now, we have to take our collective fingers out of our ears. And we have to help the rest of the country do the same.
Just as we must help audiences understand the lives and struggles of immigrants and LGBT communities and racial minorities, we must also help them understand the white Trump voter in Middle America who feels marginalized by the influx of immigrants or by the growing acceptance of unfamiliar lifestyles.
Trust is paramount
To do this, we need that Middle America Trump voter to trust us with his story. We need to convince him that, despite what he’s been told over and over, we are open to truly hearing and respecting his experience.
How is that to happen if we decide it’s okay for us to publicly denounce his positions, to publicly protest a president (yes, the Women’s March was an anti-Trump protest) whom he believes to be the answer to his concerns?
We know we can put our personal feelings aside and listen to him honestly – of course we can, we’re professionals. But he doesn’t know that. Every day, he’s told by people he already trusts that journalists are despicable and dishonest and in collusion with the Other Side.
And here’s another thing:
If we can’t gain the trust of that Trump voter, all the investigative journalists in the world will reach no further than the proverbial preacher who’s preaching to the choir.
Don’t become “The Enemy”
There’s no doubt that this is an incredibly hard time to be a journalist. Our entire profession is maligned and attacked on a daily basis, and many of our personal values are too.
Some in our profession think the answer is to abandon objectivity as an outdated and inauthentic construct; on the contrary, I think it is more important now than ever.
We must not let ourselves be goaded into becoming the enemy the current administration is making us out to be.
Of course you can be a journalist and still be a human being with passionate opinions that you share with family and close friends. And you can even be an advocate – but be an advocate for truth and for facts, for unfettered access to unbiased information, for understanding of “The Other” in a deeply divided society.
Ultimately, I truly believe that will make a bigger difference than any protest ever could.