Marty Baron.

News organizations must strive to strengthen public confidence in the media, Marty Baron told the Kennedy School audience.

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Nation & World

Warning for journalists: You’re more ignorant than you realize

Marty Baron favors digging for truth over ‘moral clarity’

4 min read

In the debate over whether objectivity helps or obstructs journalism’s truth-telling mission, Marty Baron comes down on the side of history.

During a talk on Thursday sponsored by the Institute of Politics and the Shorenstein Center at Harvard Kennedy School, Baron, former top editor at The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, argued that misunderstandings over objectivity stem from the incorrect belief that it amounts to neutrality.

“That’s not what objectivity actually calls for,” said Baron, author of the memoir “Collision of Power,” in a conversation with Nancy Gibbs, the Lombard Director of the Shorenstein Center and the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice of Press, Politics, and Public Policy. “That wasn’t the original concept going back 100 years, and it shouldn’t be the concept today.”

“There are people who think they know the answers before they embark on the reporting, and I think that’s a problem for our profession.”

Marty Baron

In the early 20th century, prominent journalists like Walter Lippmann popularized the idea of objectivity in journalism by urging reporters to set aside their unconscious biases and concentrate on objective truths to better inform the public. Lippmann’s message is more relevant than ever, said Baron.

“There are people who think they know the answers before they embark on the reporting, and I think that’s a problem for our profession,” said Baron, who led newsrooms that won 17 Pulitzer Prizes. “We do need to go into stories with an open mind with a recognition that we don’t know everything. In fact, we don’t know all that much, and we may not even know what we think we know.”

Objectivity is not “on-the-one-hand and on-the-other-hand journalism,” said Baron. But the perception that it is has prompted some in and outside the profession to argue that “moral clarity” should replace objectivity as journalists’ goal. This framework poses a serious challenge in part because any side could claim moral authority on any issue, from abortion to the Middle East conflict, Baron argued. “The Crusaders thought they had moral clarity, for God’s sake, and they were invoking the name of God,” he said. 

Instead, journalists should focus on being fair, open-minded, rigorous, and independent when reporting the news, said Baron. “I very much liked what Sebastian Junger, the author of ‘The Perfect Storm,’ wrote recently — that a genuine journalist is someone who is willing to destroy his own opinion with facts,” he said.

Journalists must oppose violence and abuses of power and should advocate for democracy, norms of civic discourse, tolerance, and equal opportunity for all, said Baron.

“We have to stand for democracy, and we have to be opposed to people who are undermining democracy,” he said. “The reality is that we’re not going to have a free and independent press unless we have a democracy, and by the way, we’re not going to have a democracy unless we have a free and independent press. They are inseparable.”

News organizations must strive to strengthen public confidence in the media in the face of campaigns describing journalists as “the enemy of the people,” he said. This task is made more difficult by deep polarization and the proliferation of media outlets that function as echo chambers. “Education, experience, expertise, and evidence,” Baron said. “Those are the things that have been devalued, one after the next, and those are the things we’ve used to establish that something is a fact.”

Still, reporters need to take seriously the grievances of Americans who feel ignored by lawmakers and the media and left out of national conversations, Baron said, again looking to history as a guide.

“I say that our biggest failure was to not anticipate that there would be a candidate like Donald Trump, and the reason is because we didn’t understand the country well enough,” said Baron. “We didn’t get out into the country and talk to enough people in enough communities to understand the level of grievance, the level of resentment, the feeling that so many people felt of being held in contempt, of being condescended to. They felt that the elites, and especially the press, didn’t care about them.

“We should be asking ourselves, ‘Are we doing an adequate job today of understanding why the American public thinks the way it does?’ So many people here today may be thinking, ‘I just cannot figure out how anybody could possibly support Donald Trump.’ Maybe we should go find out why they do. We should dedicate ourselves to finding out why they do.”