The Black Lives Matter movement has reignited a long-running debate over the principle of objectivity in journalism. If you work in the field, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re a close friend or family member of a journalist, you’ve probably heard more than your share of existential angst about it over the past month.
If you’re not in either of those categories, you should still care because you are a consumer of journalism, whether you like it or not. So here are the basics of the debate:
Most professional journalists and newsrooms operate under a strict code of ethics, which includes the principle of objective reporting. This means a journalist reports the facts of the story and all relevant context and perspectives without regard to the reporter’s personal opinions or any other outside influence. Journalists are expected to recuse themselves from stories they are unable to report in this way. In addition, to avoid the perception of bias, journalists are generally required to refrain from publicly expressing their personal opinions on potentially controversial issues and from participating in or contributing to political campaigns or causes.
These principles – objective reporting and perceived lack of bias – are distinct but closely related. They are frequent subjects of passionate debate, particularly as American society has grown more and more polarized since the rise of social media and the election of President Trump. The current national discourse on race has raised the stakes and the emotional pitch of the debate even further, with the suggestion that the traditional journalism ethics code may be yet another societal institution created and enforced by white men and deserves to be, if not entirely tossed out, significantly revamped.
Ironically, I cannot write about this issue objectively. Like many journalists, my professional ethics have become deeply entwined with my own personal moral code, much like I imagine doctors might feel about the Hippocratic Oath. Seeing this debate play out over the past month has been gut-wrenching on a deeply personal level, for me and for many other journalists. I have been listening, reading, and thinking about these issues, trying to remain as open as possible to new ideas and perspectives. I am to the point where the only way I can process my thoughts is to write them down – a symptom of the profession, I suppose. I offer them here for anyone else who may be struggling, for interested bystanders, and for anyone in between.