Talking TV: Welcoming The End Of News Objectivity

Andrew Heyward, a research professor at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School and co-author of a new report, Beyond Objectivity, explains the problems with aiming for “objective” news and what alternate goals newsrooms would do better to pursue. A full transcript of the conversation is included.

As Andrew Heyward posits it, objectivity in news is out. Context and fairness are in.

Heyward, a research professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication — and a past president of CBS News — is author of a new report, with colleague Len Downie Jr., called Beyond Objectivity: Producing Trustworthy News in Today’s Newsrooms. In all, some 75 experts across the news worlds of television, newspapers and digital pureplays were consulted, and the results frame up the status-quo reenforcing problems with objectivity and urge for greater diversity and open newsroom dialogue to push towards less misleading and more trustworthy ends.

In this Talking TV conversation, Heyward parses the problems with objectivity, the complications of social media interweaving with journalism and how station groups have been wrestling with evolving towards post-objectivity goals.

Episode transcript below, edited for clarity.

Michael Depp: For decades, objectivity has been the gold standard for most newsrooms. But many newsroom reformers today say it’s a deeply problematic, fundamentally flawed idea. What’s more, it’s an unattainable and misleading goal. Andrew Heyward, former president of CBS News, now a research professor at the Walter Cronkite School at Arizona State University, is the co-author, along with Leonard Downie Jr., of a new report that confronts head on the cracks in objectivity’s facade. That report is called Beyond Objectivity: Producing Trustworthy News in Today’s Newsrooms.

I’m Michael Depp, editor of TVNewsCheck, and this is Talking TV. Today, I’ll be talking about the problems with objectivity and the qualities that this study posits newsrooms should be oriented towards instead. We’ll be right back with that conversation.


Welcome, Andrew, to Talking TV.

Andrew Heyward: Thanks so much for having me, Michael.

Well, this is long overdue. I’m very happy to have you on today and to be talking about this report which has just come out, a report which begins with the premises that objectivity is outmoded and problematic. Why?

Well, your introduction began with the same premise, I think, as you said, a lot of people have come to that conclusion. By the way, it’s important to state that fairness and accuracy are more important than ever. What the report argues is that it’s the standard of objectivity as a proxy for those that’s become problematic. And that’s because increasingly people are seeing it as a the too-narrow lens with which to approach journalism, as though there’s only one way to look at the world.

And for many decades that was the way of the establishment that ran journalistic organizations and an increasingly diverse newsroom serving an increasingly aware and diverse population that one way of looking at the world no longer seems credible.

We may think that we’re doing a great job being objective, but the public obviously doesn’t agree. Given that trust in journalism has been declining, what we try to do in the report is lay out some contemporary, credible standards that achieve trustworthiness without relying on a word that we think is no longer believed either in the newsroom or on the street.

You argue that our common notion of objectivity that we’ve had just reinforces the status quo, which, as you said, largely skews to the vantage point of older, straight white males. How is that working?

How did that work? You mean?

Can you explain that dynamic?

I think, certainly in the newsrooms where I was trained, you had a very hierarchical, top-down structure where the editor, who was usually, to your point, a white male, really determined what was news and what wasn’t, what the tone of the news was, what we covered and how we covered it, and everybody hewed to that model.

There were some attempts to diversify the newsroom, but when people who were different were recruited, they were then, in my view, sanded down to fit the preconceived notion of what the culture demanded, kind of an ironic consequence of attempting diversity, but failing because it’s not diverse. If everybody’s the same, even if they are of different genders, races, sexual orientations, and so on.

And so, you posit that newsroom diversification across multiple criteria — gender, race, sexuality, religion, educational, background, regionalism — all of that figures as very important towards transcending objectivity and replacing it with something more relevant and important. So, what exactly is that thing?

First of all, you made a great point in your question, which I don’t think we emphasize as strongly as we should have in the report, which is we’re defining diversity broadly exactly as you say, not just race, gender, but religious background, educational background, income, geography. And you’re starting to see our newsrooms adopt that same approach.

And the reason it’s important is it creates a conversation in the newsroom, assuming that the culture is a healthy one, that allows for these conversations that really reflect the population you’re trying to serve and allows you to connect with a more diverse set of consumers.

One of the most interesting problems that we have in the news business is all the people who aren’t watching or aren’t reading. Well, there’s a reason for that. And I think a better community connection fostered by a newsroom that’s more aware of the diverse needs of the community is one way to attract the people who aren’t attracted now.

None of that is to say, and we’re not arguing for subjective journalism or advocacy journalism. The idea is that you have this robust conversation in the newsroom that helps inform story selection, how stories are done. But at the same time, when you go out the door, you’re still committed to accuracy, context and fairness.

So those are the key things: accuracy, context, fairness? That’s what’s replacing objectivity?

Yeah. And what we’re replacing, I think, we hope to replace is the word to the extent that to your point, the word has come to represent a kind of monochromatic, single narrow lens through which the world is seen. We’re not replacing the idea that you owe your news consumers fair, accurate, responsive, contextual reporting. We just believe that a different kind of newsroom culture is the way to achieve it.

You also raised the word empathy in the report. Is that one of the goals as well?

Yes. We interviewed more than 75 experts for the report. I did use that word. We were struck by it at first, but I started thinking about it more to the degree that it means identifying with the people you cover. I think there’s value. I don’t want to overstate it because it could slip over into pandering or into a kind of, you know, bias. But empathy in the sense that you are seeking multiple perspectives in your reporting and understanding multiple points of view, which doesn’t mean that you have to reflect all of them in the final product.

There’s still going to be journalistic judgment and editors that end up honing a report to what you believe is to use the Bernstein/Woodward formulation, that best available version of the truth. So, empathy is just one tool. I like the word responsiveness. Responsive to a multiplicity of sources, as opposed to going out with a preconceived point of view and reinforcing the status quo in your reporting.

Yeah, because empathy struck me as a troubling kind of … I mean, it’s a great human characteristic, but it does kind of immediately start going down subjective pathways.

And I think you have to be careful about that. I agree that empathy, you know, might not be the right word and should certainly be used sparingly. I think it was used in the report by Joe Kahn, the executive editor of The New York Times. So, again, I’d like to make a distinction between the conversations in the newsroom, which traditionally in the newsrooms that I’ve worked in don’t happen very much, and the reporting process and the editing process.

Now, to be fair, you can’t have a debating society around every story. You still have to go out the door and bring stories back, fill the newscast, or whatever your medium might be. So, we don’t want to create a kind of, you know, Montessori school where everybody’s weighing in on every story. But the notion of a newsroom where people can speak truth to power, including the power within the newsroom, as well as speaking truth to power when you’re holding the powerful accountable, we think it’s a healthy change.

Just to come back to something you said a couple of minutes ago, I’m glad you brought this up. I think you said about 75 different experts were consulted for this report. It really is well-sourced. I mean, you did a number of interviews, I think, of people we’ve interviewed in this publication before many times. And you’ve got a great diversity of people who are weighing in on this subject as part of that report, which is very important.

I wonder, how do you thread the needle of bringing your lived experiences, your subjective identity, to a story and maintaining fairness? I mean, I guess what I’m asking here is about the idea of bringing one’s full self to reporting, which comes up explicitly several times in the report, while tempering the biases or the predispositions that we all have?

It’s certainly a needle that one has to thread. I don’t think we have to stick a camel through the needles eye, but it is something that newsroom leaders have to be aware of. In the report, a couple of news leaders have commented on this very well. Scott Livingston of Sinclair or Sean McLaughlin of Scripps both made the point that it’s tricky. In Scott’s case, he wants a very, very lively conversation in the newsroom, where people do bring their identity, their full selves to that discussion. And the way he put it is you leave your bias at the door when you leave to go out on the street.

In the case of Sean, he acknowledged that there is an intellectual and creative tension there, that we want people to bring their expertise, the expertise that’s informed by their own lives and their own backgrounds to the journalistic process, but not result in bias. That’s why I don’t think editors are going to go out of business any time soon. I think the awareness that this is both a power but also a potential problem if it bleeds over into advocacy reporting, is something that newsrooms have to confront.

Well, it seems like having internal committees, councils and affinity groups is an essential part of building the apparatus for a post-objectivity-oriented newsroom. But, you know, as you said, that can kind of devolve into a Montessori, distributed approach. And it might just be it might impair you on the day-to-day needs of a newsroom. How in the process of compiling this report did you see that applied to best effect?

I think it’s early, Michael, to say how it’s applied, and I agree that’s a potential problem, although if you think about it, most newsrooms do have institutional moments when people can talk about the news and how they’re going to cover it. Even though what I’ve written about, you know, the morning meeting at a TV station, not necessarily as being something that might to some degree need to be modified. There still are editorial sessions.

And to the degree that you give you a reporters and other journalists, a voice in the newsroom without creating chaos or, you know, such an emphasis on consensus that you end up not being able to produce a newspaper or a digital news site or a TV show, this will fail.

I think there’s a burden on leadership here, and I think we are going to need either a new kind of news leader or a news leader who embraces these ideas and sets a tone where it’s appropriate to say what’s on your mind. It’s appropriate to bring your full self to the office. But at the same time, there’s a shared mission that we have to get a fair, accurate, contextual, responsive news product produced.

Wendy McMahon, who’s the co-president of CBS News Stations, talked about creating a safe space in the newsroom. I like that idea. And she speaks in the report about people who actually have to wrestle with these ideas. And I think we sent mixed signals because we do say, you know, bring yourselves to work. And then we say, but whatever you do, don’t give the viewer or listener reader the impression that we’re biased. I think embracing these contradictions and tensions is an important part of leadership.

Without necessarily reconciling them, because it’s sort of a scrum that’s always going on in inches.

I think they have to be reconciled to the degree that you have to have a product at the end of the day. And I also think, there’s breaking news. There are critical issues in the community that need to be covered. I think it would be a shame. And you didn’t ask this directly, so forgive me if I’m wandering from the track.

I think it would be a tragedy if a new rigid orthodoxy replaced the old rigid orthodoxy, or suddenly this became, you know, an excuse for only a new way of seeing the news, but only that one new way. You know, there’s a danger that people will say, oh, well, here they go. They say news has to be woke. Or, you know, the only way to define diversity is by more people of color, LGBTQ+ and so on.

As I said before, a broad definition of diversity is what makes diversity a superpower. And we don’t recommend — we even have a line in the report about this substituting what we thought was a rigid orthodoxy of yesterday for a new orthodoxy of tomorrow.

Right. You just mentioned a few different groups: Sinclair, E.W., Scripps, CBS News and Stations. Are there any other standouts that you have identified so far that are wrestling with particular rigor with this and maybe making some significant inroads around more inclusive reporting and editing?

I actually I think every group is doing it. I don’t mean to give a mealy-mouthed answer to a perfect question but having been a reporter on local TV news for several years as part of the Cronkite News Lab, I’ve gotten to know all the groups, and I don’t think there’s anybody who isn’t wrestling with these issues.

We also have interviews from Tegna. We have interviews from NBC on the network side. We try to represent a broad array of television and newspaper editors. Len Downie, former executive editor of The Washington Post, the co-writer of this, interviewed many of the most prominent newspaper editors, and we interviewed heads of digital news sites as well.

I think everyone is wrestling with it. What we tried to do at the end of the report is codify these findings into a set of really brief, simple recommendations, which we hope taken in concert will help newsrooms move in the direction that we’re recommending.

Yeah, let’s touch on that in a second. But first, social media has complicated everything, and many newsrooms have struggled to develop and maintain effective policies with regards to journalists in their expression of personal beliefs. So, there’s obviously a spectrum here, but it’s very complex and fluid. What are you finding as some of the best practices there, and what are your own recommendations around expression of the individual, of the full self of the journalist on social?

Well, complex and fluid are two perfect adjectives for this, and you’ll see multiple news leaders in the report saying pretty much the same thing. We certainly do not have a firm point of view on what social media policy ought to be. Len and I are conservatives — small C — on this issue. And we say so in the report. We are in agreement with some of the news leaders we spoke to who believe that social media is not a place where journalists should be allowed to express their personal opinions and that there’s no separation between their personal accounts and their news accounts. They still represent the organization and that can impair the ability of the news organization to seem fair to its consumers.

So, that said, there are other news organizations, especially some of the digital startups now, and nonprofits that actually were organized around particular missions or particular areas of focus. And if they choose to reflect those missions and areas of focus in their social media policy, we leave that up to the individual newsroom.

But I think the trap is to be murky about it or to be hypocritical, except to say to journalists, we want people to get to know you and know all about you, and then, oh, be careful. Make sure they don’t have any idea how you feel about things.

Acknowledging the complexity of that and working with your individual journalists in the newsroom to work your way through that rather than having really strict rules is probably where we need to end up. But I do think there’s a danger that unfettered opinion-making on social media is not going to be good for creating trustworthy news. That seems almost obvious to me.

The related issue is identity. We certainly don’t believe that people should be precluded from covering stories because their background might somehow overlap with the sources or characters in the story, but obviously it’s between them and the editor to make sure that that doesn’t translate into bias. So again, they may be even more qualified to understand a particular story because of their background. That doesn’t give them the right to be biased or to express an opinion about it.

It seems like you can have a whole separate report just drilling into this issue.

If the world clamors for a sequel, we’ll see what we can do.

Well, you end the report, as you mentioned, with a six-point playbook for trustworthy news. One of the points is transparency. So how can and should TV reporters pragmatically and responsibly show their work?

You’re starting to see newsrooms experiment with this. And this is where I think digital media is a huge opportunity, not just a website, but, you know, TikTok, YouTube. There’s a way for the reporter to share what she’s doing and explain what it takes to get a story. You can bring some of that into your on-air product and you sometimes see that.

But reporting is hard and it’s often frustrating. And for too many years we actually did the opposite, Michael. Television was made to seem like magic. It just kind of appears. And we’ve conditioned the viewers to believe that the extraordinary technology that allows for us to be live anywhere, for example, is now taken for granted. And yes, it’s a lot easier than it used to be. But the I think transparency about where a story came from, what the difficulties were in getting it, why a certain person might not have it, might not have been interviewed or might not have agreed to be interviewed.

I think we’ll just increase trustworthiness and we’ll let the viewers, users, listeners understand more about the process. And it’s kind of it’s the opposite of The Wizard of Oz. It’s do pay attention to the man behind the curtain because I think the process itself sheds light on why news stories come out the way they do. And it’s healthy to have that light shine in the newsroom.

Just to just to drill a little bit further into that. I mean, if you do that on the air, you’re going to have to crack open the length of a story. It doesn’t seem like there’s any other way around that. And then what would that look like, you know, on air and then on the other side, online. I suppose maybe you could have like an annotated version of the story. I mean, what would be pragmatically some of the ways that that might look like? I’m thinking of Tegna’s Verify as an on-air example of how this is going on now. But do you have other thoughts?

Well, Verify is an excellent example. And as you know, that’s been an expanding franchise for Tegna, a very successful one. So, I think everything you suggested is a good idea. I think on the air we’ll come back to cracking open the story, which I’d love to see. But as I said a minute ago, you know, digital media is much more forgiving in terms of the length of time. You can have not just an annotated version of a story, you could publish when appropriate interview transcripts. You could also use, as I said, YouTube or TikTok to for the reporter to speak directly to people who are interested about how the story was done.

You could very simply and with very simple production values, have explainers about the genesis of a particular piece. I think cracking open stories would be great. I don’t see why everything has to be a minute 15 or minute 30. We’re starting to see some change there. But as we know from the television world, stations are being asked to do more and more with fewer and fewer resources, more and more newscasts. I think the viewers would stay for longer stories if they’re interesting and shedding light on how the story was done. Again, not in a narcissistic, self-absorbed way, but in a way that actually helps explain the journalism involved could be very compelling if done properly.

What I would suggest to, you know, my friends in the different station groups is try some experiments. You know, try some. You can certainly experiment like crazy on the digital side but try some on your broadcasts and see what happens. And you’re starting to see this a little bit around the country. And I think you’re going to see more.

It does seem, when I talk to people all the way up to the C-suite and news management at station levels, there’s a greater tolerance for the idea that you’re not hemmed into a minute 30 anymore and that if the story warrants that there is some wiggle room there. So, perhaps we will see more of that. 

You know one of our points, one of our recommendations, which may seem sort of obvious, is I remember a New Yorker cartoon where the catcher goes out to the pitcher and says, strike him out. So, maybe this is in that same category. But one of the recommendations is to do more original and enterprise reporting. So much of television news is focused, in my view, on immediacy rather than importance, recency rather than relevance.

I think the stories again, in all these recommendations are meant to tie together into a holistic plan for a newsroom. And in this case, going out and exploiting the community connection that a more diverse newsroom allows exploiting in the good sense of the word, having more contextual reporting, more responsive reporting, making sure that you at least are aware of multiple perspectives, even though, as I said earlier, they’re not all going to be reflected in the given report.

Then having some transparency about the reporting that you did and how you made the decisions that you made for the final story, I think could all be very compelling and to the degree that we get away from. Wendy McMahon says there are fewer stories from the police scanner and more from the street.

I think that’s a very good way to think about it, and it’s kind of more of a bottom up rather than a top down, rather than the editor saying, Oh, I heard that on the scanner. Go. It’s the reporter comes in off the street and says, here’s what’s really going on in that neighborhood. And the beat system, which again, some stations are starting to bring back, is another key ingredient of this.

Most stations don’t have the resources to have full time beats across multiple areas. So, I’m advocating hybrid beats where you’re a beat reporter, you’re a general assignment with a specialty and beat reporting leads to more enterprise reporting and all the other things we’re talking about.

You just mentioned CBS a couple of times. Wendy McMahon. I know they do that community-based reporting at a number of their stations and Detroit, which just launched, is heavily community-based.

Yes. And ABC also has been really a pioneer in community-based reporting, including young community-based reporters who are based in neighborhoods, just the way people might have been, you know, based at the Pentagon.

Right. Well, the report is called Beyond Objectivity: Producing Trustworthy News in Today’s Newsrooms from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Andrew Heyward is one of its authors. Thanks for talking with me today.

Great pleasure to be here. Thanks so much for inviting me.

And you can find a link to the report with this post. You can watch past episodes of Talking TV on and on our YouTube channel. We are back most Fridays with the new episode. See you next time.

Comments (3)

Leave a Reply

Cosmo says:

February 17, 2023 at 3:12 pm

Sounds like he’s trying to justify bias in newsrooms, which tend to overwhelmingly favor one side.

AIMTV says:

February 17, 2023 at 7:16 pm

Who is Cosmo? The world wants to know! Cosmo, why hide behind such a veil of anonymity? Own your opinion. If you can’t do that, it’s probably not an opinion worth having. Facts are not a political party. Facts… are… just… facts. Case in point, see today’s Fox News Channel article where even folks spouting “opinions” that are blatantly biased don’t even believe the misleading information they told their viewers and are using THAT as a defense against defamation. I’ll bet the farm that’s not the “side” you think is so biased. They hide under the “veil” of opinion, and you hide under the “veil” of anonymity. But I digress.

Now back to the video’s actual content – Excellent interview and great, timely subject matter. I would only counter that journalists should NOT be afraid of showing empathy. Journalists are humans, which means, yes, imperfections and bias. But whether reporting on war crimes in Ukraine, the tragic earthquake in Turkey/Syria, or a fatal fire or car accident in one’s local community, I think viewers want to know that journalists are human. And being human means being empathetic. I don’t think it’s a bad word in journalism, nor do I see it compromising one’s commitment to fairness and accuracy. As journalists are attacked worldwide at levels unseen in decades, some are literally “dying” in some countries to tell the truth or, as in this case here, subject to relentless brain-dead trolling by anonymous folks like the brave “Cosmo.” IMHO, journalists should re-claim their humanity. I think it’s one reason local journalists are still pretty much trusted: they are seen as “human” and relatable to the viewers in their community.

FULL DISCLOSURE: These are two cents for what it’s worth from a guy who’s made empathy in storytelling his mission. So, perhaps I’m biased, but I always try to be fair, accurate, and honest in all my dealings (including putting my name on my opinions – Cosmo – final dig, I promise), and I truly never felt that empathy clouded my ability to do so. If anything, it enhanced it. – Robert Rose / AIM TV Group

Project Truth says:

March 13, 2023 at 1:18 pm

What a farce. Because doing due diligence is too hard we get propaganda. Government/corporate funded stooges too lazy and corrupt to report real news. Overwhelming biased garbage debunked time and again by real reporting. Now justified away by even lazier and stupider opinion pieces disguised as news.