Journalists Are Questioning the Idea of Objectivity. What’s Philanthropy’s Role in the Conversation?

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Arguably the biggest finding from our white paper on the state of journalism and public media funding was grantmakers’ desire to restore trust in the media. Given this fact, funding leaders may have felt a little despondent last October when Gallup found that only 34% of Americans had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the media. “The current level of public trust in the media’s full, fair and accurate reporting of the news is the second lowest on record,” Gallup said.

While I don’t want to put words in Gallup’s mouth, this sort of takeaway tends to hinge on the assumption that “full, fair and accurate reporting” equals “objective” reporting, and that objective reporting yields trust. If only the media would produce objective journalism, the thinking goes, then trust could be restored. 

The logic seems reasonable, but journalism funders understand it’s a bit too simplistic. Most Americans get their news from for-profit outlets, and as the New Yorker’s Louis Menand observed in an extensive piece on consumers’ plummeting trust in the media, “it is hard to be ‘objective’ and sell news at the same time.” The Craig Newmarks and the Knight Foundations of the world realize they can’t compel Rupert Murdoch’s outlets, Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta, MSNBC or a newspaper owner to produce or share objective news that engenders trust.

But what if our conception of objectivity itself isn’t just outdated, but counterproductive? What if objectivity isn’t, in fact, a necessary ingredient for trust in media? That’s the provocative question posed by the New York City-based Stanton Foundation, which awarded a $150,000 grant to the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication to “research the concept of journalistic objectivity in today’s newsrooms.” The resulting report, Beyond Objectivity,” encourages newsrooms to “reconcile the core principles of fact-based journalism with the values of younger journalists and modern newsrooms to better serve today’s diverse audiences.”

The idea that “the core principles of fact-based journalism” should be reconciled with anything at all will strike some readers as dubious, if not dangerous. But the report puts forward an argument that traditional notions of objectivity provide cover for the elevation of certain points of view — that they aren’t, in fact, objective. Instead, audiences will trust reporting that is honest about where it’s coming from and reflects lived experience.

Philanthropic funders appear to agree. While many for-profit mass media outlets continue to wrestle with these questions, nonprofit newsrooms backed by private dollars have been producing work attuned to readers’ perspectives for years — and building trust in the process.

Beyond objectivity

The Stanton Foundation dates back to 1991, when longtime CBS News President Frank Stanton and his wife Ruth established the Ruth and Frank Stanton Fund. Ruth passed away a year later, later followed by Frank in 2006. By 2009, the fund had changed its name to the Stanton Foundation. The foundation has three priority areas — canine welfare, international and nuclear security, and creating a more informed citizenry. According to its Form 990 for the fiscal year ending December 2020, the foundation had $135 million in total assets and allocated $31 million in charitable disbursements.

As to why a foundation committed to cultivating a “more informed citizenry” is questioning the philosophical bedrock of the journalism profession, we turn to “Beyond Objectivity” co-author Leonard Downie.

Writing in the Washington Post, Downie argues that journalistic objectivity was dictated “over decades by male editors in predominantly white newsrooms and reinforced their own view of the world.” Now, however, “more and more journalists of color and younger white reporters, including LGBTQ+ people, in increasingly diverse newsrooms believe that the concept of objectivity has prevented truly accurate reporting informed by their own backgrounds, experiences and points of view.”

The Stanton Foundation isn’t the first funder to wade into this debate. In 2021, Walter Hussman Jr., donor and publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, infamously lobbied to deny tenure to Pulitzer-winning journalist and historian Nikole Hannah-Jones at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, citing a lack of objectivity in her much-talked-about “1691 Project.

Speaking to NPR’s 1A, Hannah-Jones argued that “objectivity” is in the eye of the beholder. “When white Americans say to me, ‘I just want factual reporting,’ what they’re saying to me is they want reporting from a white perspective… with a white normative view, and that simply has never been objective,” she said. 

In a similar vein, “Beyond Objectivity” contends that readers are more likely to trust the news if it’s presented in a way that reflects their lived experience. Examples cited in the report include a “Latina reporter’s story about the low vaccination rate in her community, and a gay police reporter’s story about his own marriage and a potential U.S. Supreme Court threat to the legality of gay marriages.”

The authors then list a series of recommendations for outlets that include moving “beyond accuracy to truth;” unlocking the “real power of diversity, inclusion and identity”; creating a credible policy for journalists’ social media and political activities; focusing on original reporting; and developing “a set of core values for the newsroom to live by.”

A potentially disruptive pivot

These recommendations reflect a real need to interrogate deeply rooted power imbalances in the newsroom. But they also carry a lot of potential for controversy, disruption and backlash. The traditional notion of objectivity implies that the journalist isn’t trying to push a certain stance or position. While the contention here is that traditional objectivity does, in fact, favor certain points of view, that idea still carries a lot of weight with the American public.

A few years back, John Sands, the Knight Foundation’s senior director of media and democracy, looked at a Gallup poll on the trust issue and concluded that “Americans’ hope for an objective media is all but lost.” Instead, Sands wrote, “they see an increasing partisan slant in the news, and a media eager to push an agenda,” noting that when it came to news sources that respondents distrust, 74% said those outlets “are trying to persuade people to adopt a certain opinion.”

I realize there are a lot of mitigating factors behind this data point, such as a certain ex-president’s relentless demonization of the press, but it does suggest that outlets seeking to move past objectivity will need to carefully navigate the line between reporting through the lens of personal experience and full-throated advocacy. 

Redefining objectivity can also create disruption within the newsroom. “Beyond Objectivity” quoted St. Louis Post-Dispatch Sports Editor Erik Hall, who said, “I think there is an age divide growing. I think more veteran journalists think ‘objective’ means ‘tell both sides.’ And I think a younger generation is coming up feeling strongly that, on some issues, there is a fair way to tell it, and telling both sides isn’t the fair, or fairest, way to tell a story.” 

Last but not least, we need to remember that while these considerations apply to all kinds of news organizations, for-profit newsrooms still need to make money. While the authors encourage outlets to “avoid lazy or mindless ‘balance’ or “both-sides-ism,” a segment of those outlets’ readership may appreciate that approach. Things could get sticky if abandoning conventional objectivity ends up eating away at the bottom line.

Ahead of the curve?

So where does this leave civic-minded funders committed to restoring trust in the media? To answer this question, we must return to the distinction between for-profit and nonprofit outlets. “Beyond Objectivity” is primarily geared toward the former — large, multigenerational newsrooms where change can be disruptive and whose leaders always have one eye on the bottom line.

In contrast, smaller, nimbler and more racially diverse nonprofit local outlets have been evolving for years, thanks in part to philanthropic support for many of the report’s recommendations, such as funding local news outlets serving communities of color, building a pipeline of journalists of color, and making grants earmarked for investigative reporting. In this way of thinking, funders don’t need to foist a revised opinion of objectivity on outlets as much as empower reporters to approach their work through the lens of lived experience so that their coverage can resonate with like-minded audiences.

Moreover, much of this philanthropic support involves backing reporting with a clear editorial agenda pertaining to topics like climate change, religion, health, education and science. When critics question this model, their concerns are less about the objectivity of the reporting and more about the extent to which funders may dictate the agenda. In other words, when a media outlet makes its positioning known and denies that it must always present “both sides” of an issue on equal footing, objectivity concerns can melt away: Audiences know where all parties stand. Honesty in that regard can engender trust, possibly even from those whose positions differ from that of the outlet.

Interestingly, the public seems to place a similar trust premium on local news over national news — possibly because, again, they feel they know where local outlets stand. According to the findings of another 2022 poll from Gallup and the Knight Foundation, 6 in 10 Americans say they had more trust in local news (which includes television) than national news to give them information they can use in their daily life. “Compared with other sources of local information,” wrote Knight’s Sarah Fioroni, “Americans also say local news does the best job of keeping them informed, holding leaders accountable and amplifying stories in their communities versus social media, community-based apps and word of mouth.”

What all of this seems to suggest is that trust is relative to who is providing the coverage and how they articulate their editorial missions, which explains why funders have been all-in on supporting local news and nonprofit media outlets with clearly defined values and points of view. I expect funders to keep this support flowing, let grantees hash out what it means to be “objective,” and wisely avoid the temptation to somehow reshape the national discourse, because that ship sailed a long time ago.