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Testing Journalism Values

Testing Journalism Values

By Steven A. Smith

Journalism is a values-driven profession.

Real journalism, that is, not the truly fake stuff as practiced by organizations at the political fringes.

In 2021 expect those values to be challenged in new and frustrating ways.

Let’s start with a bit of journalism history, vastly oversimplified in a few paragraphs.

In the beginning, post Revolution, American newspapers were owned and operated by the political parties. Partisan rhetoric was fundamental to the craft and the vitriol aimed at the opposition makes today’s political climate seem tame.

In the 1830s, the ownership model changed. The “penny press” era saw the rise of mass-market newspapers supported by advertising. Even though they remained partisan the poison was somewhat reduced. Still, through the 19th Century, journalists were viewed as societal pariahs, somewhat better than petty crooks, but not much.

That changed in the early 20th Century. The reform movement that affected so much of society had an impact on journalism, too. Journalists were “professionalized.” Universities took on the task of educating future reporters and editors. The first media code of ethics was adopted in the mid-1920s, developed by Sigma Delta Chi (a journalism honorary society, later renamed the Society of Professional Journalists) and the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

At the core of the new profession were values based on the notion of objectivity, truth telling, and public service. Newspapers, and later radio and television news programs, could express a point of view in segregated opinion sections or segments. But reporting of the news was to be objective, neutral, news as reported from 10,000 feet.

That value set remained stable and mostly in place through the 20th Century and into the first years of the 21st.

But we all know true objectivity is impossible for any of us, including journalists. No one can bleed themselves of their values, experiences, hopes, dreams, and points of view. The myth of objectivity, as journalists now view it, was at the heart of declines in news media credibility experienced over the last 30 or 40 years as news consumers saw their unrealistic expectations frustrated.

Now, journalism values are built on notions of fairness in reporting – fair language (avoiding loaded, politicized terminology), fair presentation (meaning balanced headlines, appropriate photos, and illustrations) and most importantly, fairness to the facts.

Balance, one old measure of fairness, is no longer viewed as valid because balance is a measurable metric and so can lead to false equivalence, as in giving equal space and time to opposing views even if one view is absurd. Consider the flat Earth movement. When journalists write about geography or astronomy, a commitment to balance would suggest equal space or time be given to those who insist the earth is flat. Absurd. But especially in political reporting, too many journalists and news organizations equate fairness to balance and so perpetuate false equivalence.

In addition to fairness, contemporary journalism values include an obligation to serve the information needs of citizens and the need to tell the truth of things insofar as truth can ever be known.

That last point has become especially problematic as a good percentage of Americans, up to 40 percent by some polls, believe in what Kellyanne Conway once called “alternative facts.” That absurdity fuels the insane conspiracy theories of QAnon and the only slightly less insane charges that the 2020 election was stolen for Joe Biden.

From 2016 through the 2020 election cycle, legitimate American journalists have attempted to stay true to their professional values, but not always successfully.

Remnant notions of objectivity – as well as the obvious desire for ratings and circulation – led too many news organizations (particularly cable news) to devote endless coverage to Trump’s outrageous statements and Twitter stunts, giving the presidential candidate and then president coverage space and time far in excess of that given all his opponents – combined.

Assuming Congress does its job and Trump fails to mount a threatened military coup, his presidency will be declared over, officially, on Wednesday when Electoral College votes are tallied and last-minute objections from Trump die-hards rejected.

Then what?

Trump will not go away. For as long as he continues to crave attention and political validation, he will flood Twitter with outrageous statements and claims. He will stage wild political rallies. He will raise money for a 2024 campaign that likely will not happen. He will try to maintain the press attention he has had through his candidacy and presidency.

This is the values challenge that will confront American journalism.

Will Trump get the press attention he craves, or will he get the attention he deserves.

Being fair to the facts suggests journalists should simply ignore the former president’s baseless claims and outright lies. That might have been difficult to do when Trump was president and his every word, no matter how outrageous, carried some weight. Post presidency that will not be the case and legitimate, professional journalists should ignore him when he tries to promote false information and lies. That is not being unfair to Trump. That is being fair to the facts.

Journalism’s other fundamental value: Journalism exists to help citizens exercise their citizenship.

That value also will be challenged in Trump’s post-presidential period. In his statements, rallies, press conferences and even social media feeds, the former president should earn coverage only when he says or does something that contributes to meaningful political discourse and provides information citizens need to exercise their citizenship.

Name calling, inflammatory gender and racial rhetoric might earn headlines in the right-wing press but do not deserve a place in the mainstream news media.

Holding true to these values will be extraordinarily difficult for American journalism. A large percentage of Americans will join Trump in accusing the press of politically motivated maliciousness.  And because Joe Biden will be a boring president in comparison, there will be motivation to give Trump the attention he craves because it will drive ratings and readership.

In many ways, the post-presidency of Donald Trump will pose a significantly greater test of journalistic values than presented during the actual presidency.

Will journalists pass or will they cave?

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