ERNEST OWENS Editors saying things to me like, you know, we have to be very careful about your reporting on this, and I would say, well, shouldn’t we be very careful with every story?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Standards for thee, others for me. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. On this week’s show, how journalism selectively judges objectivity and bias.
BRUCE SHAPIRO In my experience, no one has ever said, let's say to a combat veteran, you're too close to war, you can't be a war correspondent or you can't cover veterans.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Also, Joel Simon reflects on 25 years at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
JOEL SIMON You have a situation we're living with today in which all the data suggests that unfortunately, you know, this is one of the most dangerous and deadly times for journalists in history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The awful data, and what it means, after this.
[END OF INTRO]
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. It's the job of journalism to cover conflict. From competitive local elections to literal war zones. It can be fun. It can be very dangerous. There are natural hazards when journalists ply their craft in certain contexts, but there also are unnatural ones when they are the intentional targets of violence. Across the world, journalists are harassed, tortured, imprisoned and murdered by authoritarian governments, ruthless politicians and extremist groups who would prefer to work in the dark, out of the public eye. The Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, was founded in 1981 to defend journalists who become prey. It provides guidelines for travel and safety, puts a spotlight on jailed journalists and campaigns for their release, and fights for justice for those who have been killed on the job. After nearly 25 years of service with the CPJ, this year, Joel Simon is stepping down as executive director. And he says now could be the deadliest time to be a journalist he's ever seen. Joel, welcome back to the show.
JOEL SIMON Great to be with you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm curious what led you to CPJ?
JOEL SIMON So this was back in 1997. I was living in Mexico, I was kind of looking for the next thing. I always wanted to do journalism that had an impact and that was connected to some sort of broader purpose. And I had seen during my time as a journalist in Mexico that, you know, I had this incredible privilege, even as a freelancer, of being much safer than my colleagues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You covered the Guatemalan Civil War and, and the Zapatista uprising in southern Mexico.
JOEL SIMON I did. And both of those were stories that I could not have done without the support of local journalists. I had a very good friend who was an editor of a newspaper in Tijuana called "Zeta," his name was Jesús Blancornelas. We started trying to work together to organize a press freedom group for the first time in Mexico, and then he was ambushed by the members of the Tijuana drug cartel. His car was shot like 140 times. He survived, but it kind of reminded me of why the cause was so important, but it also had a big impact on my vision of what my role would be at CPJ.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Over the last 25 years, can you talk about what you saw, what you learned and how the landscape shifted globally for journalists?
JOEL SIMON Let's start with, with this attack on my colleague, Jesús Blancornelas, which he barely survived. You know, that was the onset of this emerging new threat of criminal groups and militant groups that would become a tremendous challenge for journalists and lead to sharp increases in murders and violent attacks in so many parts of the world. But then the other thing that happened was, of course, you had the 9/11 attacks and the onset of the war on terror and this new framework for repression which emerged from that which was anti-terror prosecutions. And there were a couple of other key moments in the course of the time that I've been at CPJ where I saw states dig in and double down in their strategies of repression because they were so threatened by independent information. First, the color revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Arab Spring when we saw this tremendous global crackdown on journalism and independent information. And then more recently under the Trump administration, we saw so many governments around the world resort to a new framework of prosecuting journalists for publishing fake news. That's the new framework for repression. You put all that together and you have a situation we're living with today in which all the data suggests that, unfortunately, this is one of the most dangerous and deadly times for journalists in history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why so much worse?
JOEL SIMON Of course, something that you've focused on, Brooke, is the complete transformation of the information environment. The kind of end of the information monopoly that journalists once held collectively, right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right. There was a reason for people to give journalists free passage. They needed them to tell their side of the story to the world. They don't need journalists to tell their stories anymore. They have YouTube.
JOEL SIMON Well, yeah. And let's be realistic here. Whether you're a celebrity with a big Instagram following or you're ISIS with your own media networks, you have other means of communicating. And so the power that journalists bring to the relationship is reduced.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do you see as CPJ'S Biggest accomplishments?
JOEL SIMON It's really hard to think of wholesale successes. I can think of instances in which we've gotten journalists out of prison or even where there's been a political transition and situation's improved. But even where that happens, for example, in Ethiopia, where you had a political transition and you had a moment of press freedom, things have regressed terribly, or in Myanmar where we saw something similar under Aung San Suu Kyi. Certainly the situation there was far from ideal, but it doesn't compare with what we're seeing today or a place like Egypt where we saw a political transition and we saw some improvements in the press freedom climate. But that's not the case today. Or even Turkey, where Turkey was the world's leading jailer of journalists for a time and no longer is because the government has become more sophisticated in its strategies of repression. Or Russia, where we saw waves of intense violence committed against journalists and journalists being murdered. That doesn't happen with the same regularity in Russia these days, but that's probably because the press is more controlled and less independent. But I think the thing that I am most proud of is the success that we've had in winning the release of journalists from prison around the world. You know, of all the things that make me the proudest of all the things that I find most rewarding. It's meeting with those journalists when they are released from prison and seeing them recognize that they're part of a community, that when they are in these most dire and difficult circumstances, there are organizations and colleagues and journalists that stand with them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Can you give me a case, or a couple, that really stick with you with a sense of frustration or sadness?
JOEL SIMON For some reason, I don't know why I did this, I kind of looked at how many journalists have been killed in the nearly 25 years that have been at CPJ. And that number is something like 1200. We have a database. And then I said, well, how many of them have been murdered? And that number was around 700. And then I thought, how many of them came to me and told me that they might be killed and yet went on with their work knowing how this might end? You know, and I could come up with a couple that I remembered meeting before they were killed, Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian investigative journalist who was murdered in 2007 in Moscow. I remember we met in my office. I think this was the year before, and she knew the kind of risks that she was taking, and yet she went back and kept recording.
BROOKE GLADSTONE She was a towering figure.
JOEL SIMON She was absolutely, you know, another would be Javier Valdez, the Mexican reporter who CPJ honored with an international press freedom award. He knew that he was under threat from the cartels in Sinaloa where he was reporting, and that he might be killed. We actually tried to convince him to leave and to go into hiding, but he felt so compelled to continue with his work that he really couldn't accept or acknowledge the risk that he was under and he was eventually killed. And I think that in my experience, that is the most humbling thing for journalists like me and maybe like you, Brooke, and maybe others who are listening at a time when our profession is devalued and degraded and we're called all sorts of names and the public doesn't necessarily trust us or whatever challenges we face or we see the industry in crisis. You know that there are still journalists around the world who believe so strongly and so passionately in what journalism represents and what it's capable of that they are literally willing to give their lives. You know, it's painful, but it's also deeply humbling and a very personal way to know that journalism matters, and we at CPJ are standing shoulder to shoulder with those who are willing to give their lives for the truth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You know, sometimes over the years I've likened CPJ to supervising physicians in an emergency room. Finding that they're losing way too many of their patients. And I wonder whether it's been really hard all these years.
JOEL SIMON I have to acknowledge that it's taken an emotional toll and that there are far too many colleagues that we see imprisoned or killed or forced to leave the profession. But here's the thing, I don't feel pessimistic. I do feel quite fervently that we can and we have made a difference. And I also, despite the evidence, am optimistic about the long term future of journalism. I feel like we're living through a terrible and prolonged crisis. But I also believe that at the root, it is kind of a very essential human need, which is to be informed and to have the information we need to make sense of our lives and that those impulses will somehow in some way overcome all the obstacles, the violence, the repression and the challenges to the industry. I do believe that, that that's the future, but I don't know quite when that future will arrive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what bit of wisdom derived from your experience would you most want to pass on to the next executive director?
JOEL SIMON You know, you're part of a movement in which the challenges have only grown. So I think that you have to be emotionally prepared and I think you have to have the ability to stay focused on the horizon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE While dealing with the cases at hand?
JOEL SIMON Yeah, while dealing with the cases at hand. And you can never lose your personal relationship to the work, because ultimately it is about people. It's about the journalists who we defend. It's about the people who make up the organization. And you have to take satisfaction and pride in the shared struggle. It's the only way to approach the work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What are you doing next?
JOEL SIMON Don't know yet. That's part of the fun, but whatever I do next will be supporting press freedom and doing all I can to ensure that information is somehow distributed more equitably, more fairly, and those who stand in the way, who use violence and censorship and repression to thwart that are challenged at every step.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Joel, thank you very much. I really mean that.
JOEL SIMON Thank you, Brooke. It's been a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Joel Simon is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists and the author of We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnaping, Hostages and Ransom. Coming up, what yields better reporting: proximity to the community you cover or distance? Who gets to decide? This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Now we revisit a topic we explored earlier this year about who gets to speak and who doesn't. Case in point, Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez. This week she sued the Post as well as former executive editor Marty Baron and other top editors for discrimination. From 2018 to this past March, she says she was barred on and off from covering stories about sexual assault because her manager said she herself was a sexual assault survivor. The lawsuit says that she suffered, quote, economic loss, humiliation, embarrassment, mental and emotional distress, and the deprivation of her rights to equal employment opportunities due to the coverage bans. The first big stories she missed was Brett Kavanaugh, a Supreme Court nominee alleged to have committed a sexual assault in high school. Then she missed many more, including the #Metoo movement. Tension with her editors mounted again when Kobe Bryant died in 2020, and she tweeted a link to a story about a rape charge Bryant had settled out of court. She was slammed with a barrage of rape and death threats, forcing a brief move to a hotel. And she also was suspended for, quote, poor judgment. After hundreds of her colleagues rallied to her defense, she was reinstated, but the ban remained in place until Monday, March 19th, when The Washington Post rescinded it after Politico ran a story. The argument over who is and who isn't objective enough or strong enough to report on subjects they know too well, like rape or racism, still roils newsrooms. And since those in power determine who is best fit to report a story, the marginalized are most often silenced. Women, people who are nonwhite, LGBTQ or otherwise vulnerable. Trauma can also disqualify you, but the thing is, exposure to trauma inducing events is an occupational hazard. Anyone who covers the hard stories, the ugly ones, no matter who they are, will be at risk.
BRUCE SHAPIRO Journalism is a trauma facing profession. A lot of what counts as news are the worst experiences that happens to people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Bruce Shapiro is executive director of The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of Columbia Journalism School. We spoke back in March.
BRUCE SHAPIRO You know, we think, pretty obviously about the stuff that reporters may witness on the front line. Whether it's the front lines of conflict or covering a disaster or civil unrest, the insurrection on January 6th, that's one kind of traumatic event, but the reality is that journalists spend a huge amount of time also listening to, engaging with, absorbing the stories of people describing the most difficult experiences of abuse and loss that they've had in their lives. Every study that's been done of journalists in the last 20 years says that over the course of their career, between 85 and 100 percent of all journalists will contend with major trauma exposure in the course of their work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Meaning a potential for trauma, that they see bad things?
BRUCE SHAPIRO There's the slow drip, drip, drip. The accumulation of crime scene after crime scene, murder trial after murder trial, which a lot of research now shows can have a profound effect. Of course, if people then bring to that biographical experiences of trauma, whether it's experiences of family violence as a child, of bad things that have happened to them as adults, sexual assault, all of those things accumulate and eventually your sort of personal levy can be overtopped. And what's more, a lot of research says that when we cover events with which we have a close identity, whether that's because of race or gender or sexuality, parents of small children covering school shootings, those kinds of traumatic events are more likely to have a big impact on us and turn into a risk factor for PTSD or other psychological injury.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But obviously, the choice of who to disqualify from reporting is never neutral because what is impartial is determined by people who also have, consciously or not, a particular worldview.
BRUCE SHAPIRO Look, in my experience, no one has ever said, let's say to a combat veteran: "oh, you're too close to war, you can't be a war correspondent," or "you can't cover veterans." No one's ever said to someone who became a reporter after being a law enforcement officer, and I know several people in that category, you can't cover cops. This only comes up when it's about people who are part of communities who have been left out of the traditional news equation or whose communities are at the center of national debates over injustice. It comes up with women, it comes up with trans folx, and gay and lesbian communities. It comes up, in recent weeks, with Asian-American journalists. It never comes up with the kinds of groups who traditionally have dominated the editorial power structures in newsrooms and for whom the news agenda is so often built.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Shapiro says that discriminatory or merely oblivious workplaces can heighten the risk of trauma. As in the case of Sonmez, who tweeted that the ban and having to explain to editors again and again why she had to turn down an assignment prompted the same debilitating symptoms she had when she first came forward about her assault 3 years ago. She didn't respond to our request for comment. More broadly, though, screening out for trauma makes little sense, given that all journalists are likely to encounter trauma inducing material in their personal lives and at work, if not both. So how can newsrooms operate with that information in mind?
BRUCE SHAPIRO There are still too many managers, I think, who believe that trauma is not an issue the newsroom can deal with or who are so afraid of it that they then begin taking perfectly able reporters and pulling them off of beats because they're worried, oh, you're too close to this, it'll freak you out. There's no evidence to support that. And in fact, it's quite destructive. All the research says that the single most important factor associated with journalists’ resilience is their strength of collegial relationships. The strength of their social relationships. I think we need a broader awareness within the profession of journalism that a little bit of self-care, our own attention to how we're doing, getting help when we need it and being good colleagues to others actually strengthens our capacity to report. Being aware of the occupational mental health risk of trauma exposure is as central to the reporter's toolkit as how to do an interview.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Shapiro says that it's the responsibility both of managers and reporters to be aware and prepared.
BRUCE SHAPIRO I can think back to Hurricane Katrina. I spent some time in New Orleans after the storm and there was this one reporter at the Times-Picayune who was responsible for covering FEMA and the agencies. And I would go out for drinks with this friend, and he would periodically go on these f-bomb laced rants about FEMA and Bush and the Army Corps of Engineers and the huge damage to his beautiful city. And at one point I said to him: "you know, you seem pretty angry, how are you managing to cover these agencies?" and he sat up straight, I'll never forget this, and said, "Oh, you better believe I'm angry, but because I know it and can acknowledge it, I know I need to lean over backwards to be clear and rigorous with myself and the story. The problem would be if I didn't acknowledge this and didn't say, what does this require of me as a journalist?"
BROOKE GLADSTONE Bruce Shapiro is executive director of The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of Columbia Journalism School where he also teaches ethics.
On May 31st last year, after days of protest over the police killing of George Floyd, and some destruction of property, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Alexis Johnson tweeted out four photos of trash and debris with the caption, horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish looters who don't care about this city. Oh, wait, sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. Whoops.
ERNEST OWENS It's always race that ends up revealing the biggest double standards, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ernest Owens is a journalist and the president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists.
ERNEST OWENS Think about Philadelphia, when the Eagles won the Super Bowl, finally, they tore down City Hall. The Ritz Carlton sign was torn down. People were climbing up the poles. People were pretty much passive about that. But then when the protesters were out during the 2020 racial uprisings, all of a sudden people are being tear gassed. So, there's always been a double standard in how people have addressed black outrage compared to white people who express similar types of action and behavior.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It was this double standard that Alexis Johnson lampooned and one that she confronted herself the next day.
JOHNSON I was taken off of coverage of the protests following the death of George Floyd because of a tweet that I thought was funny. [CHUCKLES] I thought it was clever, I thought it was food for thought. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Alexis Johnson, who declined our request for comment, spoke to the press on June 8th.
JOHNSON I was told that I violated our social media policy, which in fact doesn't exist. They're just a set of guidelines that the guild never agreed to. I argued, I pushed back. I felt like my voice was being silenced. I asked how that tweet showed any opinion or bias, and I never really got a clear answer. But I think based off where we are today, I think we kind of know what that answer is. [END CLIP]
ERNEST OWENS It doesn't surprise me that a white senior editor or a white publisher would go hard on a person of color talking about racism. It would not surprise me that a cis-het man would be critical of a woman talking about rape or sexual assault. There's a pattern here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How would the paper benefit by sidelining Alexis Johnson?
ERNEST OWENS You have to think about the other external interests that shape the publication. Even though they won't admit it out loud, some of these local publications do struggle with trying to maintain access to political figures, to private interests. And so I wonder how people like Alexis, who are doing coverage that would challenge the status quo, that would buck against institutions, would not pose a threat. I mean, people have to remember journalism is a public service, but it's still a business. How these publications are being supported might bleed into how they cover the news we read and watch every day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So when you see the experience of Alexis Johnson, it reminds you of other experiences you've heard.
ERNEST OWENS So Alexis's situation was very drastic. We don't really hear of these types of reports where people are completely taken off a beat. Like I haven't been told I couldn't write a story, but I will say that in my earlier years when I was covering racism in the LGBTQ community in Philadelphia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You're a black man, you're also a gay man.
ERNEST OWENS Yes. I was remembering editors that I was working with that were saying things to me like, you know, we have to be very careful about your reporting on this. And I would say, well, shouldn't we be very careful with every story? I have had young black journalists who are coming to business that said, you know, I've been turned off from covering race because I feel like it's going to be an uphill battle with my editors to pitch to them or convince them that I can take on the story without them double downing on every single word, syntax, quote I use. When I'm having these conversations with newsrooms, I'm not just only talking about hiring practices and pay equity and all those matters, but I'm also talking about how black journalists should be given the agency and the respect to be able to cover race without feeling surveilled and intimidated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What was the impact on you?
ERNEST OWENS When I started doing this work, this was 6 years ago, so I was like 23, I was wondering to myself, like, is this going to be the norm? Every time I do a story that involves a community that I am connected to? Let's be clear, race and identity are the headlines of our time. So, the fact that we're sidelining journalists of color when they cover race, or LGBT journalists when they cover things that impact their community? Who else is left except white people, straight people? So basically, you're reinforcing the same discriminatory policies and practices that we have been claiming to want to eradicate, especially given what has happened last year.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But things are changing, aren't they?
ERNEST OWENS As a black queer person, I'm saying the progress is just glacial. I'm not seeing the structural changes. I'm not seeing enough diverse individuals in positions of power and influence. I want to get to the point where I have to stop relying on the same people that have been a part of the problem to be a part of the solution as well. I mean, the fact that we're touting the Rooney Rule of: we're going to guarantee at least one person of color will be interviewed. So what does that mean? Are you suggesting that black and brown people aren't already qualified for these positions, and that you're doing us a favor by giving them an interview?
BROOKE GLADSTONE When will you feel that there has been progress?
ERNEST OWENS Progress to me looks like women being paid at the same rate as men, that black and brown people are being paid equitably and being given opportunities and promotions at the same fast rate as their white counterparts. That LGBTQ journalists do not have to only be the spokespeople for their community but get to cover various issues because those issues impact them beyond their sexual orientation and gender identity. Where we don't treat diversity, equity, inclusion as a chore, but as something that we can fully embrace that will save this industry rather than to put it in controversy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I should add here that the paper did ultimately permit Alexis Johnson to cover Black Lives Matter protests, but two months after her initial tweet and one month after she sued her now former employer for discrimination. Reinstating her to do what she wanted to do was ultimately not enough to keep her at the paper. What's the lesson learned? Or should have been the lesson learned for the Post Gazette?
ERNEST OWENS There was an opportunity for someone like Alexis to tell the stories that matter. She's now at Vice News. She's really killing the game right now, I must say. They lost talent, they lost credibility. I don't know that many black journalists in the region that are interested in working for them. The overall publication's reputation has been soiled and their hiring decisions since then has doubled down the notion that this is not a safe place to work. I mean, this is an organization that has been recognized and noted by the Pulitzer Prizes. And now look where they are today, and it's just a shame.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much.
ERNEST OWENS No, thank you. I just really hope that listeners understand that there are countless local black journalism associations across the country created to help make newsrooms and the media ecosystems in their communities better. So, lean on them, you know, have these conversations. And I think that needs to happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ernest Owens is a journalist and the president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists.
So it seems journalists are people too, who face conflict, stereotyping and trauma. But unlike most jobs, theirs sometimes puts them in the strange position of covering themselves and their communities while being unknown to the audience and also maybe not entirely known to themselves.
Steve Friess is an editor for Hour Detroit and a contributor to Newsweek. In 2015, he reflected in a piece about his coverage of cases related to gay marriage the previous year. It was a kind of self-examination. When we spoke a few months ago, I asked him about a story in which he described how in the summer of 2014, he found himself sitting next to a friend and colleague he hadn't seen in 14 years. She saw the gold band on his hand and asked, "Are you married now?" And lowering his voice, he answered, "That depends on what happens in this courtroom today."
STEVE FRIESS So the case in Michigan became a big deal. It was an actual trial with witnesses which we had not seen since the Prop 8 case in California. And then it went up to the appeals court and eventually the Supreme Court. And it was one of the four cases that ultimately reversed all of the gay marriage bans across the country. So, as this was happening, I was also a person, a human being, a gay person with a partner I wanted to legally marry. We had plans for a child, which we now have. But I didn't see any reason why I couldn't cover these cases.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Did anybody else suggest that you were too close to the material you would be covering?
STEVE FRIESS No. One irony of it is that I had been trying so hard to stay out of the gay politics arena as a journalist that I didn't want to get married until it was just legal in my state. I was in Nevada and then I was in Virginia and then I was in Michigan. And every time I left the state, the state before me would make it legal. But I didn't have the right to do that in the state I was in. And to my mind, it seemed like a political act for me to go to another state to get married when that marriage license wouldn't have any force of law in my state. So, I was actually trying really hard to take advantage of laws as they existed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And not to do explicit political acts. I get that.
STEVE FRIESS Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And yet, 15 years before you were sitting in that courtroom with your long-lost colleague, you wrote a piece, this was back in 1999 for the Sun Sentinel's Sunday magazine, about your own wedding with your first partner. And in it, you wrote about how the guests appeared oblivious to just how radical an event this was. You were writing a piece about yourself, personal journalism.
STEVE FRIESS The fact that my first wedding was actually so ordinary felt to me like a bit of a revolution at the time. You're right. Absolutely. There have been zigs and zags in the ways that I approached these things. I just felt like when I became a point person covering the legal developments of the time, I needed to be extra conscious of what that meant.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So how did you then approach the reflection you wrote in 2015, the year after you were in the courtroom with your friend? Was it personal or was it strictly journalistic? Tell me the process.
STEVE FRIESS I reported it out. I went back and I called up some of the people I had talked to. One of the people I spoke with was John Eastman. He is a very conservative lawyer, one of the architects of the anti-same sex marriage legal framework. I talked to him over and over again. He was an important source for that point of view, and I never talked about myself. I was just another voice on the other end of the line. So I called him up and I said, look, I was just wondering, did you know I was gay? He said, no. I said, did you think that I covered the case fairly? And it was very clear that I wanted the truth. I didn't want him to just say what he thought I wanted to hear. And he said, you were fair. I felt like I was being quoted in context, I didn't have any problem with your journalism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what actually was the point of this return to the story of the year before and this return to the sources for that story?
STEVE FRIESS I don't think that journalists do this enough. I don't think that journalists own the fact that they sometimes run into conflicts. They can work through if they're honest about it. In this case, I had this very crystal-clear moment that made it obvious to me that there could be some reason to doubt the quality of my work. I just felt like it was a good example. I don't think that journalists need to disclose all of their personal biases in the stories while they're writing them. But I do think that it is useful to the public to know that we're real people. I really do believe that in the effort to sort through it in your own mind, you keep yourself on the right path as a journalist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So when you're covering the news, how much of yourself do you disclose to build that credibility and make yourself more trustworthy rather than less? What's the line you have to walk?
STEVE FRIESS I don't think you disclose it at all in that context. I don't know where you would stop if you started. If I'm covering a trial, do I then have to explain that my brother in law is a D.A. or that somebody I know is a cop or that I've been robbed once? You know, I've been in this business a long time and I remember the early 90s, that was the first wave of efforts to diversify newsrooms, which, you know, 20-30 years later really didn't go very well, but nonetheless, it was the first time we really started to talk about it seriously. Then came the conversation of, well, can they cover their own minority? Well, pick one. Do you want people with diverse opinions and diverse experiences that help the coverage because they know things and some people might feel more comfortable talking to them? Or, do you want to play this ethics game that just increases people's suspicion and makes people question things that they don't need to question? If you're a journalist and you're covering a company that you own stock in, yes, you have to say that. You've chosen to buy that stock. I mean, you know, I didn't choose to be gay. The person didn't choose to be a person of color or a woman. Nobody chose to be sexually assaulted or victim of any other type of crime. So those aren't the kinds of disclosures that are, in my mind, required every time you cover something.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Steve, thank you so much.
STEVE FRIESS Thanks for having me. This has been fun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Steve Friess is an editor for Hour Detroit and a contributor for Newsweek.
Coming up, how to cover reality when there is always more than one. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Back in the winter of 2017, Donald Trump had just been elected and it seemed like all of journalism faced a reckoning. Could they call the president's lies lies? Could they report clearly and openly on what increasingly seemed to be democracy in peril? Into that set of questions walked a Marketplace reporter named Lewis Raven Wallace, who penned a post in Medium called Objectivity is Dead and I'm okay with that. Promptly leading to his firing, Wallace then wrote a book called The View from Somewhere: Deconstructing Notions of Objectivity. I asked him, this was in April, what's the prevailing argument for objectivity?
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE Well, it obviously it depends on your interpretation of what we mean by objectivity, but there was this idea that emerged early in the nineteen hundreds and was really codified in the middle of the century, that a reporter would be most accurate and fair if they were detached. You know, journalists were basically news scientists [BOTH LAUGH] who just investigated news in a very neutral way. And of course, objectivity in science has also been debunked. But I think the overall concept was we use this methodology, we use it without bringing ourselves in. And that gets us closer to the truth and that differentiates us from people who do propaganda. That's the positive reason for objectivity. The more negative reason that I see is this perception thing, of we want people to think that we are neutral, that we are unbiased, and so we strive for that appearance no matter what.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is what NYU Professor Jay Rosen calls the production of innocence.
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE Yeah, and in my book, I talk about it as a sort of purity ritual that we're going to take these people who might make us seem like we are ideological, you know, these gay activists or Black Lives Matter advocates. And we're going to make sure that they are outside of our doors.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So this notion of objectivity, of at least the perception of it is paramount. That's what got Linda Greenhouse, the longtime New York Times Supreme Court correspondent, in hot water in '89 when she attended a march in Washington for reproductive rights, she was completely open about it, told her bosses, she invited them. But her friends over at The Washington Post, they were prevented from going to the march. They said the Times were letting their people go. The Post ran a story with Howell Raines, who was the editor of The New York Times, who suddenly did an about face and says that Greenhouse had been out of bounds. She was asked to apologize and refrain from future demonstrations, and that flap received international coverage. One of the headlines about the Greenhouse story was one in the L.A. Times, it was in 1990, can women reporters write objectively on abortion issues?
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE You could ask the same question about men who clearly have an investment in the outcome of abortions. And I think we see the same sort of double standard around race. Right. So many black reporters have told me stories about being either taken off a story or sort of inherently viewed as kind of biased around an issue of racial justice, where white people like myself aren't being approached in that same way by an editor. And white people have a lot of bias around that. That's the conversation that I want to have. How do we talk about power and oppression in newsrooms, not just in terms of kind of personal identity, but in terms of all of us having a stake in these big questions of race and class and gender. And oftentimes the privileged perspective, you know, the white perspective or the male perspective is the one with the most bias because it's allowed to go unchecked.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You couldn't raise a question like, should women report on abortion anymore in an L.A. Times headline. But in some ways, we're still stuck in the same paradigm. Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez was barred from reporting on sexual assault for the very reason that she is herself a sexual assault survivor.
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE It wasn't that she had been sexually assaulted. It was that she had been out about it, right? And disclosed that, that led her to be taken off those stories and these publications who talk about, you know, we value diversity and we respect everybody in whatever, they're more concerned about protecting their own reputation than protecting people who are actually vulnerable. Like women who are being trolled in really violent and scary ways who work for them or something that I've talked about a lot, as transgender people, I just, I don't think that you can go around saying we want to be trans inclusive workplace and whatever, but we won't allow our reporters to take a stance on the oppression of trans people. I'm not going to accept this paradigm that I can't be a reporter and also choose to speak out and say that's not OK. It's asking folks to choose between their livelihood and their humanity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE For all the people in the publications that cry conflict of interest. When someone with an identity at stake in an issue reports on the issue, there is another loud voice that says, hey, wait a minute, there's no one better equipped to report on it.
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE Yeah, and there's a whole tradition that we can look to going all the way back to people like Ida B Wells, who covered lynchings, and the way she got interested in it was that a friend of hers was lynched and then she was targeted by white mobs. Her newspaper office burned to the ground for deciding to cover this. So, she very clearly had a stake in it, but her stake in it was also what allowed her to do such powerful reporting and what motivated her to do such powerful reporting. White reporters weren't doing those stories. They couldn't even see how horrible this thing was because they weren't close enough to it. And now I think it's easy to look back 100 hundred years and say, oh, lynching bad. Everybody knows that's bad. But at the time, that wasn't the conversation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There are tremendous advantages, but still some risks in covering a story to which you are very close. What are the risks?
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE Conflicts of interest are real. As a trans person, yeah, I might on the one hand have more access to the community and more information about the conversations happening within that community, and a more nuanced take than your typical cisgender reporter on a trans issue. On the other hand, the community is small enough that I might sometimes be trying to cover my friends, or my idols, and that can be a conflict of interest, but the same issue comes up in other types of reporting. I mean, a lot of financial reporters are friends with the guys on Wall Street and nobody's bringing that up as a problem. That's like, oh, you're working your sources, you're doing a good job being a reporter. Again, it's the double standard that I take issue with and the lack of self determination to sort of say you as a trans person might be uniquely qualified to cover this story. You will be allowed to if you want to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How do you manage the reflex to give maybe more space than you would normally to an idol and deny space to a point of view that might be informative for the reader?
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE In any story there's a really good conversation happening between the writer and editor about what viewpoints are we centering and why. Because somebody is making those judgment calls anyway.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah!
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE You know, they just might be less conscious of why in some cases. We have to have some courage and integrity, I think, as reporters, when we make those choices about which things we see, what we focus on and how we tell the stories. We're shaping what's possible in the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And what about for you? The debate over trans issues, the presence of trans issues, in presidential lists of groups to be protected? Does your head sometimes spin with how it was nothing, nothing, nothing, and then suddenly so much of something?
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE Yeah, it's weird. I don't even know what to think of it. I have so much privilege as a trans person. Being a white person and being somebody who's perceived as masculine. I've experienced a relative lot of safety and privilege as these things go in my community. You know, there are so many people who are still just in so much danger for being out and visible as trans. So, you know, I know part of me wants to rest on some laurels of like, well, we've arrived and now we can be in the military or whatever when it's literally physically unsafe. Especially for trans feminine people and people of color and working-class people and people who are working on the streets. That said, the cultural conversation is so different than it was 20 years ago when I was coming out. It does kind of make my head spin. And I think that's entirely a credit to trans people who were just so fierce and courageous and said, I don't care that people are going to come for me and call me crazy and be even violent toward me for being open about who I am. This is what I need to do. Today, the Associated Press says we can use they/them pronouns or whatever, and it seems like a small thing, but it's the tip of the iceberg of all this struggle and pain and loss that led to these changes we see now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So now that we've established that neutrality and objectivity can't be the principles at the heart of our journalism. For one thing, they're mythical. What should we place there instead?
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE Curiosity, for me is at the core, that's like the center, the beating heart of what a journalist does. Asks questions and stays open. And this is where I see the gift that activism can give journalism is the commitment to justice and accountability, and the gift that journalism can give activism is a commitment to curiosity. And that's why it's such a beautiful thing to bring the two together.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Lewis, thank you so much.
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Lewis Raven Wallace is the author of The View from Somewhere and host of the podcast of the same name.
That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Molly Schwartz, and Anthony Bansie with help from Ellen Li. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter. Our technical director is Jennifer Munsen.
Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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