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Journalists Examine Objectivity, Fairness during 'Must See Mondays' Discussions

October 7, 2020

Journalists need to reexamine the idea of objectivity and pivot more towards accuracy and fairness in their coverage, especially in diverse communities, according to veteran journalists and news executives who spoke to students during the Cronkite School’s “Must See Mondays” last month.

The speakers described how more diverse newsrooms will improve the coverage of underserved communities and suggested ways for reporters to integrate social media into their coverage.

Maria Hinojosa president and founder of Futuro Media and anchor and executive producer for Latino USA, along with Keith Woods, the chief diversity officer at NPR, spoke with Cronkite Professor Venita Hawthorne James for the “Reporting on Diverse Communities” discussion on Sept. 14.

This was followed by the “Objectivity, Trust and the Future of Journalism” conversation on Sept. 21 with Fernanda Santos, Southwest Borderlands Initiative Professor at the Cronkite School, Manny Garcia, senior editor for the ProPublica-Texas Tribune Investigative Initiative, and Cronkite’s Senior Associate Dean Rebecca Blatt, who moderated this discussion.

Both groups argued that encouraging multiple voices and experiences, and accepting that there are differences, is the first step towards increasing fairness and diversity in newsrooms.

“If we can reject the idea that any one of us contains the objective truth, if we can reject the idea that there is any such thing as human impartiality, then we can get closer to fair as long as those two notions continue to exist,” Woods said. “I hope nobody's teaching you those ideas of objectivity right now in your classrooms, but I would say go in there tomorrow and reject it straight up. The idea is that you want fair and complete contextually accurate journalism and you get those things by the exercising of hard questions.”

Hinojosa said to understand objectivity, conversations must first dismantle the white perspectives that have dominated newsrooms for years. The sooner white men understand that everyone has different perspectives, and do not claim that objectivity has one definition, Hinojosa said, the sooner newsrooms can start to have broader conversations.

During the Sept. 21 conversation, Santos said the traditional definition of objectivity is not the way to achieve fairness.

“The idea of objectivity was always communicated as leave your feelings, your emotions, your opinions behind. Just bring yourself, an empty slate, and face everything, deal with everything, with no influence by where you stand,” Santos said. “I think that that's very dangerous because the most important thing in my opinion is to acknowledge your biases to them, be able to police them as you report.”

Both discussions also focused on the responsibilities journalists have to the communities they report on.

Santos argued that reporting on underserved communities means that journalists have to be good listeners and give multiple perspectives. Woods encouraged student journalists to be open and understanding of other cultures.

“A young person needs to come ready to demonstrate that they understand the issues of cultural competence and that we will treat it as a qualification to work there,” he said.

Santos and Garcia also discussed how to interact with different and underserved communities and critics. By listening and establishing yourself in a community, both Santos and Garcia said journalists can then deliver impactful and accurate stories.

Garcia, like Hinojosa, also spoke on changes in news and newsrooms.

“The newsrooms that are much more diverse are the ones that are really succeeding and they're the ones who are going to grow market share and ultimately take over,” he said.

The conversations also addressed social media. Although Woods agreed that social media as a distribution platform is a great way to reach an audience, Hinojosa said it is not the way people should find stories and sources because people don’t live on social media.

Garcia said he tells journalists, especially students, to be careful what they are posting on social media. Students don’t need to be automatons, he said, but they should be mindful that what they post affects their credibility and their brand.

Must See Mondays will continue to address diversity in reporting for the pandemic, the upcoming presidential election and more, throughout the semester. Access for the Zoom discussions can be found on the school’s event page.