Soul-searching by reporters and editors, on a grand scale

WASHINGTON — On Saturday, editors and writers from nearly every major news outlet — including the Washington Post — are slated to gather for a three-day summit in Washington. Called “Journalism Now,” the summit is projected to draw over 4,500 representatives of the news industry. The event was originally slated for June of this year, but the advisory board organizing the event moved up the date in light of the president’s sudden departure.

In a New York Times editorial published online this morning, Executive Editor Dean Baquet wrote,

It’s time for a proper reckoning. On the day that Americans went to the polls in 2016, we published a headline stating, ‘Hillary Clinton has an 85% chance to win.’ Instead, Donald Trump became the president. Now, we find ourselves in the position of publishing news that a president we did not anticipate winning has fled office — news that surprised us, but did not seem to surprise many Americans. It is time to admit that, on a fundamental level, we have become disconnected from the realities on the ground. We must understand how we — and every other major news outlet — have gone astray. It’s vital to our responsibility to the American people, and it’s vital to the future of our democracy. This will be our main purpose at ‘Journalism Now.’

Many other media outlets have followed suit, posting mea culpa-type statements online and vowing to examine core policies in their newsrooms. Based on the themes that appeared throughout editorial statements from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and here at The Post, news organizations appear to be examining a handful of issues most closely, as they consider updating their newsroom policies. These include: more clearly defining “objectivity” in reporting; revisiting the recent uptick in restrictions on reporters’ rights to attend protests or otherwise engage in “political” activity in their personal lives; training reporters to avoid “fairness bias” — giving equal voice to opposing perspectives, even when one is less valid or categorically false; and focusing on strategies to responsibly cover leaders with autocratic tendencies in a way that does not normalize their policies or behavior.

“Look, I’ve closely covered three different presidencies, and experienced the challenges of trying to use a business-as-usual approach to cover administrations that flout the law or outright undermine democracy,” said Letitia Romero, recipient of 1996 and 2014 Pulitzer Prizes for investigative reporting. “From carefully concealed lies and deception, to thinly veiled efforts to mislead the American people, we finally arrived at a presidency that brazenly told out-and-out lies to reporters and the American public. Even when confronted, they expressed zero accountability.” Romero, who retired right before the 2016 presidential election, says she’s hopeful that this moment can serve as a tipping point.

Here at the Washington Post, editors are particularly concerned with how our reporters missed the gathering storm. This may be due in large part to “status quo bias” — the tendency to report in a way that simply reflects and reinforces the political system. During the presidential campaign of 2016, most news outlets — including this one—spent the vast majority of time reporting on Democratic and Republican campaigns themselves rather than what the majority of Americans wanted from their elected representatives. Issues like affordable healthcare and education as well as other now “common-sense” initiatives that are integral to the Bundle were not reflected in either Democratic or Republican party platforms. This failure to have a finger on the popular pulse has contributed not just to missteps around the election but to other oversights throughout the Trump presidency.

In an op-ed published in the Washington Post last week, media critic Yu-Yin Ang noted that, “despite constant coverage of Trump and his administration—its many ups and downs and machinations—we have missed the overarching story of what actually drove politics over the past two and a half years: the American people.” Ang argued that the Green New Deal popularized by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last December was a perfect case study. While journalists often described it using adjectives such as “pie-in-the-sky,” “unrealistic,” or “patently fringe,” polls showed that 81 percent of registered voters supported its goals—including the majority of those who identified as Democrats, Independents, and even conservative Republicans. The legislative package went on to become a lodestar to a movement that found itself pushing not only for Trump’s departure but also for passage of the Bundle.

“When the majority of news outlets are letting establishment politics dictate what is important or worth covering, it’s inevitable that you’re going to be out of touch,” says Aida Chavez, founder of an online publication called Ground Up. Launched just one month ago, Ground Up aggregates political coverage from cities across the country featuring on-the-ground reporting that highlights community perspectives, responses, and initiatives. Despite being new, “Ground Up” has reached nearly 20 million readers already. Of particular interest to Chavez are articles written by reporters who are attending protests, speaking to directly to those Americans who are on the frontlines, making their voices heard.

“Over the past few years, in the interest of adhering to vague definitions of ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity, publications have been cracking down on reporters attending protests themselves,” says Chavez. Instead, reporters relied on YouTube, Twitter, and other citizen journalism to cover what led to what can now arguably be called one of the most important moments in American political history. “Throughout history,” says Chavez, “mainstream publications have been notoriously bad at covering protests and activism—often framing them as ‘ineffectual’ or ‘fringe’ by default.” That, she says, is a huge part of why most publications failed to see how effective grassroots groups would be in ousting Trump.

Not all outlets have been as enthusiastic about this shift towards self-examination. The Wall Street Journal published an editorial today that referred to the flurry of statements and focus on the upcoming “Journalism Now” summit as “what amounts to outsized liberal hand-wringing in a new—and dangerous—atmosphere of witch-hunting.”

Some reporters—particularly freelancers—have also expressed caution and frustration. “I’ve been on the damn ground this whole time,” says Nicoletta Singh. “So many of us have.” Singh’s coverage of recent large-scale protests against Twitter was published on her own website and was frequently quoted or otherwise used as a major resource for reporters at major outlets. “This whole time,” says Singh, “we’ve been working for little to no money in an atmosphere in which the president called us the enemy of the people.” She made her frustration known in an article she posted on her website this morning. “Let them wring their hands,” Singh wrote of the major publications who are now calling for self-examination. “What they need to do is actually hire reporters like us who have been doing the hard work all along.”

While it remains to be seen what will come out of this moment of reflection, many in the industry remain cautiously optimistic.

“It’s refreshing,” says media critic Gwendolyn King. “For too long, media outlets have defended biased or woefully inadequate reporting by behaving as though they are merely conduits, reporting what is happening with ‘objectivity’ when, in reality, they are often perpetuating the entrenched biases of the day.” King, who founded the Objectivity Institute at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, is on the advisory board for “Journalism Now,” and is responsible for coordinating many of the panels.

“I’m hopeful,” she says, “that this summit will be the beginning of a much-needed self-examination, and a new set of actionable guidelines to ensure that news outlets recognize their vital role as a pillar of our democracy, the power of the narratives they choose to highlight, and the importance of reporting on issues that concern everyday Americans.

susan.patel@wapo-se.com