Journalism is too opaque and misunderstood. Chills gives a behind-the-scenes look at how dangerous investigative journalism gets made.
Ever since I was fired from The New York Times at the end of January, no matter what I publish or say about journalism online, angry people come out of their hidey-holes to yell at me. They say that I’m biased (usually “a biased piece of crap”), that journalists are all crooked, and that I’m a perfect example of why no one can believe anything we in the media say.
So I’d like to talk a little about this idea of bias — and its implied opposite, objectivity — in journalism. They are inextricably linked.
When I was starting out, a professor at Columbia Journalism School told my magazine writing class that being a features or narrative writer means that you’re allowed to have a point of view. (He also told us that the only way to make money in journalism was to write a book that becomes a movie, or … well, marry rich.)
Now, here’s the reason I wanted to discuss why it’s okay for some kinds of journalism to have a point of view. Because editing and reporting hard news means not having one, and this was what I was hired to do last year at The Times. It was my first time working in the straight news arena.
“Having a point of view does not mean that you don’t follow the facts where they lead. It just means that you are up front about the perspective you are bringing to the story.”
Very few Americans, however, seem to understand the distinction between different types of stories, even though it’s not subtle. In news, your opinion stays out of it. Your bias stays hidden — especially in political reporting. You are as objective as you can be — you are, in fact, not “you,” but the paper itself — and there is an entire system in place to make sure that your final copy achieves this.
Having a point of view does not mean that you don’t follow the facts where they lead. It just means that you are up front about the perspective you are bringing to the story — it means you can tell a story subjectively, which both brings emotion into a piece and draws a reader in. Sometimes you may even want to use your own experience as part of the narrative.
My job as a journalist, as I see it, is to gather information, translate it for my audience and communicate it clearly and effectively. Sometimes that is best done by giving your own perspective along with your sources’. And often, the most powerful way of doing that is by writing in first person.
As journalists, we can all use what appears to be a “neutral voice,” but that doesn’t mean our implicit bias isn’t guiding our choice of sources, or even what stories we decide to cover.
Pretending that we’re all able to be constantly and utterly objective just feels absurd to me. Instead, I’ve always believed it is better to be open about my views on the issues I cover, which for a long time have been war and international human rights. And yes, I often do write with an agenda — with an eye toward creating change.
In fact, I would describe the mission of my work the way ProPublica describes theirs: “To expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.”
So yes, I am biased, and consciously so when it comes to certain subjects — especially when I’m reporting on criminality. But I don’t see that as a bad thing.
When I was writing a lot about sexualized violence in war zones, I used to joke with friends, “What? Am I supposed to not say rape is bad? I should get the opposing point of view in there? The ‘pro-rape’ voice?” That's not to say that I don’t try to talk to the alleged perpetrators. But when I do, it’s not always in pursuit of “balance,” but often rather a means of getting to the truth, of giving readers insight into the minds of the (usually) men committing these crimes. We have to keep trying to understand awful things if we’re ever going to fix them.
As we’ve seen in the past few years, the media’s relentless need to find objective balance in stories has actually led to dangerous imbalance — with outlets too often giving as much space to lies as to facts.
“Objectivity and journalism — over the last century, these two words have become inextricably linked, writes Gina Baleria, a media studies professor at Sonoma University, for Poynter. “But striving for objectivity has actually hindered us from adequately covering truth, giving context and achieving equity.”
The kind of journalism I’ve always tried to do, the kind that exposes wrongdoing, sometimes means that I become personally invested in a story — or (gasp!) even part of it.
“Verboten!” I hear people shouting. But here’s why I say it’s not.
When you are working closely with sources and become invested in an outcome, you may find yourself becoming a figure in the story, as happened when my work prompted the arrest of a gang of child rapists. I was up front about what I was trying to achieve, and once I felt I’d gone over the invisible line of being in the story, I wrote about that.
“Transparency trumps pretending we’re not humans with opinions and emotions like everyone else.”
My actions as a journalist had effected change, which became part of the story I was telling. Continuing to report without mentioning this would have been impossible, and I couldn’t simply stop covering what was happening to these little girls.
Transparency trumps pretending we’re not humans with opinions and emotions like everyone else.
As the Online News Association put it, POV journalism “holds that journalists may have and express a point of view, and seek to inspire action or change. With that in mind, they must be transparent with the reader about what they believe and why, and disclose links they may have to organizations and individuals with similar points of view.”
When The New York Times hired me, I asked them about the decade of political tweets I had on my timeline, including critical ones about Trump and other prominent Republicans. The man who hired me told me that it was no problem, as long as I stopped right then.
“Political views are a kind of journalistic Schrödinger’s cat: If a reporter’s opinions are locked in a box, they exist in a quantum state of both conservative and liberal.”
I thought that was weird. Not that I should stop, but that my previous tweets could be allowed to remain in the ether. I also had written op-eds that were anti-Trump for major outlets like CNN.
I never hid my political views. But okay, stop now, and I guess I’m good? If I don’t tweet or publish my thoughts anymore, my opinions will somehow be a mystery?
It’s as if I could only have biased views if I published them again, and, during the period that I was not actively re-making them public, they were a kind of journalistic Schrödinger’s cat: If a reporter’s opinions are locked in a box, they exist in a quantum state of both conservative and liberal.
Aside, I was also told that if I wanted advice on moving forward on social media, I should speak to a woman they had just hired for exactly this purpose. I reached out to her. Three times. She never got back to me. And then she was the one who called to tell me to immediately take down my “chills” tweet, and that I’d be losing my job because of it. (BTW, I had chills because we’d just been through an insurrection and weeks of lies about a stolen election, and our democracy was functioning again.) Good times.
In any case, the reason I was concerned about my previous work and social media was because I’d never done straight news reporting or editing, and NYT hired me to do both. Initially, I was editing and reporting the paper’s live Covid coverage, with occasional stints on the Metro desk. But when the paper began a live election blog, I started working on that too on its first day.
In my time at the paper, I never saw an instance in which a journalist did not put aside their own feelings about a political issue. It is insulting to think that we were all manipulating coverage to impose our personal views on our audience. We were and are professionals, and we know what our jobs entail and how to do them well.
I’m not saying there is no implicit bias at the The Times or at other newspapers, but most journalists at the top of their field are damn good at keeping it out of their news reporting. Of course, some will always seep in, but that’s not necessarily going to make the coverage misleading or inaccurate.
Again, journalists are still humans.
“Too many people seem to think that being a journalist means that everything you write is purposely biased, in service of a secret agenda, even when you ‘pretend’ to be neutral. It’s belittling.”
One of my biggest worries about how negatively Americans view journalism these days because of all this is that so many people seem not to understand the difference between a cable pundit and a news reporter. Or an editorial writer from a news writer. (Or that we non-TV types work on a very different pay scale from the millionaire pundits.)
At most major outlets, there is a church-and-state kind of separation between the newsroom and the editorial desk. There is no cross-pollination, which few people outside the profession seem to know, or believe.
But my equally large concern is that too many people seem to think that being a journalist means that everything you write is purposely biased, in service of a secret agenda, even when you “pretend” to be neutral. It’s belittling to those of us who work extremely hard at bringing the truth to the public, and it’s just incorrect.
Some have even called for the death of American media. Those people, I’m pretty sure, have no idea how lucky we are to have the Fourth Estate, and what it would truly mean to live without a free and diverse press, as much of the world does.
So please, haters, go ahead and call me a “piece of crap” — my ego isn’t that easily bruised. But hopefully now you know a little more about how different kinds of journalism work and will stop trying to insult me with the word “biased.”
Yes, I am biased. But when my work calls for me not to be, I work very hard to create unbiased journalism — that’s what a professional does.
On Chills, there are no ads, and no outside influences because of it. This is a subscriber-supported space that gives a behind-the-scenes look at how risky investigative journalism gets made, from a journalist with 20 years of experience. Read Chills for free, or subscribe for bonus content like this. You can sign up here. Thank you for supporting independent journalism.