Nothing is normal right now, so it makes perfect sense that journalists should reconsider what objectivity means in 2017. Facts are now up for debate, the president is treating the media as “the opposition,” and readers are looking for both trusted news and better information on how they can get involved in the political process.
My Facebook feed is now a running stream of “action items” and congressional phone numbers posted by friends, imploring everyone to make their voices heard on cabinet nominees and executive orders. I wonder if news organizations are missing a big opportunity to serve their readers in this same way, as opposed to the traditional hands-off “we give you the news and you figure out what to do about it” stance.
The #PressOn campaign this week — in which people on Twitter shared their magazine and news subscriptions as a show of support — demonstrated the importance, for both readers and media companies, of direct reader funding and the accountability that comes with it. As those numbers become an bigger piece of the business, we might expect to see more explicit reader services that offer action on top of journalism. It’s not only possible, but critical, for a news organizations to be both objective and, when the circumstances call for it, outraged and an advocate for change.
Kathleen Kingsbury, the managing editor for digital at The Boston Globe, spoke this week about what happened when the Globe did exactly that: A front page following the Orlando nightclub shooting that said, “Make It Stop”:
Some of our colleagues distanced themselves from this project on social media. And a week later, I was asked to be on a panel at the Poynter Institute. I thought I was going to be talking about gun control that day. Instead, I was grilled for almost an hour about why I thought it was okay to do this — why the Globe thought it was okay to cross these lines.
Those were questions that were hard to answer, that day and since. I’ve thought a lot about them. Because you’re taught in Journalism 101 some fundamental tenets: Be accurate; be fair; don’t make yourself the story. By these measures, maybe Make It Stop had crossed some lines, had gone too far. Maybe.
But there are other responsibilities that we as journalists hold dear: Be a voice for the voiceless. Tell essential truths. Hold the powerful accountable.
Marty Kaiser, the former editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, often talks about how, at the end of the day, even journalism organizations must have thresholds to allow for moral outrage. For the Boston Globe, that threshold was a group of young people at a nightclub, enjoying themselves, being mowed down in cold blood.