Editorial: When journalists take sides

Journalism has enough image issues without unethical acts

While we normally don’t “talk shop” here, we found E.J. Dionne’s column on journalism, elsewhere on this page, quite poignant.

 

We were especially moved by his recollections of a late New York Times editor and World War II veteran, Shelly Binn, who was a shining example of tough but fair and, as much as possible, objective reporting.

Binn exhibited so much journalistic virtue that he once advised Dionne to hold off on a story accusing a politician of wrongdoing — noting that, even if the competition beat Dionne to the story, “Sometimes, it’s better to be second.”

The competition did run with it — and the story, as it turns out, was indeed off-base, Dionne recalled. Binn prevented an unfair account from being published.

That’s integrity.

All of us who have been in what we consider this time-honored profession for any amount of time can call to mind reporters, editors and publishers who — as one writer once put it — you’d climb mountains for.

Generally, young reporters go into journalism for all the “write” reasons — to seek truth, to question authority, to hold leaders accountable, to improve communities, and to arm a free people with the information they need to stay safe, to prosper and to self-govern. They do it with passion for a noble calling. And we’re proud to call them friends and colleagues.

All of which is why it troubles us so deeply when journalists and journalistic organizations go astray. It’s a disservice to readers and viewers, it misleads the public and it taints the profession.

And it’s nothing short of a crisis.

“Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history,” the polling firm reported last year, “with (only) 32 percent saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down eight percentage points from last year.”

In 2013, Pew Research Center reported that only about 3 in 10 Americans “say journalists contribute ‘a lot’ to society’s well-being, a 10-percentage-point drop from four years ago.”

In 2013, notes one report, Gallup noted that TV reporters, in particular, were just a little more popular than “advertising salespeople, state-level politicians, car salesmen, members of Congress, and lobbyists, with just 20 percent of respondents saying they had a favorable opinion. They were tied with lawyers.”

Perhaps owing to the fact that not all media are the same, Gallup said public confidence in newspapers actually rose this past year.

But that image takes a hit every time a story such as this appears: A Washington Post political reporter allegedly attended and spoke at a high-level national conference recently in California to plan how to advance a liberal agenda.

The reporter, Janell Ross, is said to have covered last year’s presidential election extensively — “but the majority of her stories appear to be anti-Trump in retrospect,” Fox News reported.

“One headline lumps President Trump into the same category as O.J. Simpson, while others touch on issues of race and gender discrimination.”

This is precisely where journalism gets into trouble — when it becomes a tool of advocacy, especially secretly.

Unless clearly labeled as opinion, journalists don’t take sides. When they do, they only hurt their side.

 

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