Ethical journalists “reflect the messy world as best they can” by reporting important facts and evidence.
People will sometimes refer to media as a single thing: “The media says this” or “The media says that.”
I try to remind them that media is a plural noun. Even one section of the media – the fact-based news media in America – is a vast, ever-changing mosaic of hundreds of organizations. They operate across various platforms – on social media, online, through videos and TV, pod-casts, print and radio. Every day, it seems, a new news medium launches in America and another closes. The “launches” are exciting, but the “closes” are scary because fact-based news media are an essential part of our democracy. Sadly, too many Americans get their “news” from advocacy media rather than fact-based news organizations.
That was not always true. In the second half of the 20th century, the vast majority of Americans got most of their news from fact-based news organizations. What changed since then were the financial incentives behind the news business and that’s what I will explore in this column. But first: Why is fact-based journalism worth saving?
Five Core Values
Aidan White, director of the Ethical Journalism Network, which is based in Europe, says there are about 400 codes of conduct for journalists worldwide. He does a great job of summing up the best of those rules and standards in five principles that are the foundation of ethical fact-based journalism – and reflect the values shared by Hawaii Business Magazine and its staff.
These five overall journalism principles are:
• Accuracy: Your work seeks to accurately report facts.
• Independence: You operate independently of government, any particular special interest or political party.
• Impartiality: You recognize there are different sides to controversial stories and that journalists should account for this.
• Humanity: You act with an awareness of the consequences of your work on people, White says, because journalism “is part of a humanitarian process.”
• Accountability: You engage with your audience and admit your mistakes.
White engagingly sums up these five principles in a three-minute video at tinyurl.com/5CoreValues. After spending 45 years trying to live up to those ideals – not always succeeding but always trying – I still review those principles and others periodically. They leave me renewed and on course.
Facts are crucial to a democracy. Citizens combine them with their values to make decisions: which politicians to vote for, what policies to support, what causes to stand behind.
Misinformation can lead citizens to make judgments that are contrary to their values. It can block our nation from building a consensus and can even lead to violence.
Misinformation flourishes because too many people have turned away from news organizations that emphasize journalistic principles. To explain a major reason why, I will start by stealing a line from one of the most famous movies about journalism, “All the President’s Men.” That line is: “Follow the money.”
“Follow the Money”
When I began working for news organizations in the late 1970s, a common joke among reporters and editors was that “the power of the press belongs to those who own one.” And most people who owned a newspaper press were wealthy because newspapers – plus radio and TV stations – were often highly profitable through most of the 20th century.
Most of those owners were conservative, many of them still are. And most American newspapers follow the crucial principle of impartiality on their news pages, but their editorial pages generally reflect the opinions of their owners. And one simple way to measure whether newspapers’ owners are liberal or conservative are their endorsements of presidential candidates.
A 1999 study in the academic journal Media History reported that the U.S. presidential elections of 1964 (Lyndon Johnson vs. Barry Goldwater), 1992 (Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot) and 1996 (Clinton vs. Bob Dole) were the only three in the 20th century in which the Democratic nominee received as many or more endorsements from the country’s largest 100 urban daily newspapers as the Republican nominee.
The 1972 election was a good example: Editor & Publisher magazine back then reported that 753 daily newspapers in America endorsed Republican Richard Nixon for president and only 56 supported Democrat George McGovern. Hardly a liberal media.
Mainstream News Media
In those days, just about everybody read or watched what is now sometimes derisively called the mainstream news media: the local daily newspapers and/or the evening news shows on one of the three national TV networks: CBS, NBC and ABC. All were for-profit news organizations dependent on advertisers, so they tried to appeal to as many people as possible.
Those newsrooms aimed for that crucial value of impartiality – yes, because it was the right thing to do, but also because it was the most profitable thing to do. The owners did not want their newsrooms to alienate readers or viewers by appearing too liberal or too conservative.
One change that happened was that cable TV channels like Fox and MSNBC – unable to amass the vast TV news audiences of the 1970s – sought niche audiences of conservatives or liberals rather than appealing to everyone. Besides, it’s a lot more profitable to pay a charismatic host and some guests to sit in a studio pontificating, speculating and plain making stuff up to an audience of millions who want their beliefs endorsed, not challenged.
But it wasn’t just the financial incentives that changed. There were always conservatives and liberals who did not trust the post-World War II news media and sought information from niche publications targeted at them. But when did so many more conservatives than liberals and moderates stop trusting the “mainstream” news media? Going so far as to call the news media “the enemy of the people.”
Vietnam and Watergate
The shift was gradual, over many decades, with certain key moments. Among those moments was the reporting from Vietnam in the 1960s that indicated the war was unwinnable, culminating in Walter Cronkite’s famous on-air editorial in 1968 saying exactly that.
The shift accelerated with Nixon and his first vice president, Spiro Agnew, who relentlessly attacked the news media. A few years later, many conservatives blamed the news media – not Nixon’s own criminal activity – for his downfall over the Watergate scandal.
By the 1980s and 1990s, many conservative leaders were calling news organizations their enemies. To this day, they say fact-based news media organizations tend to have a liberal bias. Are they right? The answer is complicated because, remember, news media is a vast complicated mosaic of hundreds of organizations, and each of them is populated by unique individuals with varying worldviews.
Yes, individuals have their personal biases and news organizations can mirror those biases. But the best reporting – based on the five core principles – mitigates biases by forcing outlets to report multiple sides of an issue fairly, to focus on facts and remain independent.
Liberal or conservative slants in fact-based news coverage largely arise based on the issues that news organizations choose to cover: economic inequality vs. the dynamism of America’s economy; the plight of refugees and the contribution of immigrants to our economy vs. the burdens that immigrants bring to border communities and the crimes they commit. Ideally, news organizations should cover all of those stories, but no one has unlimited resources, so editors and news directors pick and choose which stories to cover for their audiences.
The best solution to the problem of personal biases is strict adherence to journalistic principles like the five values, plus more fact-based media with different focuses, each fairly covering lots of issues from many angles.
The New York Times & Wall Street Journal
Liberals often read The New York Times and conservatives like to read The Wall Street Journal. I like to read both. Each is an excellent fact-based news organization, and each has an editorial/opinion section that’s separate from its news department.
I could not find exact numbers, but their news staffs are each close to 2,000, and both have successfully transitioned from traditional newspapers into digital-first news platforms with millions of readers worldwide. There are differences: WSJ emphasizes business coverage, NYT has more lifestyle and New York City reporting, for instance, but both cover traditional news topics extensively.
Interestingly, their reporters often cover the same big news stories in similar fashions. And there is plenty of evidence that reporters at both papers – and at other fact-based news media – are allowed to follow the facts wherever they may lead.
On a single day in October 2020, just before the presidential election, WSJ’s editorial page covered a fresh allegation involving Joe Biden, his son Hunter, and the son’s alleged business dealings in China, while deriding the news media for ignoring the story.
That same day, Journal news reporters had a different take when reporting on the allegations of Anthony Bobulinski, who claimed Joe Biden was involved in a meeting regarding his son’s Chinese business venture. The news story reported that no deal ever occurred and that “Corporate records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show no role for Joe Biden.” The reporters also quoted a partner in the venture saying that he was “unaware of any involvement at any time of the former vice president.”
Hillary Clinton’s Defeat
Consider a 2017 report by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University called “Partisanship, Propaganda, and Disinformation: Online Media and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.”
The report counted sentences that appeared in mainstream media sources such as The New York Times, Washington Post and CNN – all considered by conservatives as card-carrying members of the liberal news media – that described scandals or policy issues related to either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
The various Clinton-related email scandals – her use of a private email server while secretary of state, as well as the DNC and John Podesta hacks – accounted for more sentences than all of Trump’s many scandals combined (65,000 vs. 40,000) and more than twice as many sentences as were devoted to all of Clinton’s policy positions.
That’s one sign that it wasn’t conservative media that defeated Clinton in 2016 – it was reporting led by mainstream media that helped undermine trust in Clinton among many voters and led to her defeat.
Additionally, I found it interesting that coverage of Joe Biden keeping classified documents from his days as vice president has led the NYT webpage at least four times – more often than I’ve noticed it led the WSJ webpage.
The world is messy. The reality is that some important facts reported by news media will support conservative positions on issues and some will support centrist positions or liberal ones. And some facts support nobody’s position but are just reality. The job of news organizations is to reflect the messy world as best they can by reporting important facts and evidence.
Fact-Based News Media Are Not Your Enemy
Thank goodness the wealthy owners of the WSJ and NYT, Rupert Murdoch and the Ochs-Sulzberger family, respectively, are backing fact-based newspapers. Locally, Pierre Omidyar did the same; in 2010, he funded the launch of Honolulu Civil Beat, which is gaining more and more public support for its reporting along the NPR fundraising model.
Conservative donors initially supported Hawaii Reporter after the online news platform launched in February 2002, but editor and president Malia Zimmerman moved to a job in Los Angeles in 2015, and the site now mostly publishes opinion pieces. The financial support for independent reporting did not last.
Wealthy Americans have often preferred funding advocacy media and advocacy organizations – they are more reliable partners for their viewpoints – while at the same time denigrating fact-based news media.
Fact-based news is not always profitable. It’s expensive to pay eight reporters for a week or a month to uncover the facts on a single important issue. It is more profitable and politically advantageous to assemble your “facts” in advance and share them with a loyal audience.
News organizations that follow the five core principles are not anyone’s enemy. But neither are they anyone’s friend. News coverage is not supposed to be a reliable partner to anyone’s partisan positions. Their loyalty is to their readers and, ultimately, democracy and civil society.