For about a century, American journalism had a paradigm that positioned the industry as essential to liberal democracy: journalistic objectivity. It promised objective, reliable coverage of events that mattered to citizens regardless of partisan beliefs, and it was supported by a lucrative, ad-driven business model. The upshot was significant cultural authority and massive profits.
That paradigm is now a smoking ruin. The percentage of Americans who say they trust the news media has plummeted forty points in forty years. At the same time, newspapers and magazines are struggling to survive in the Internet age, when news sources have proliferated and ad money flows to new platforms.
The issue, however, is not only that journalists are failing to meet professional ideals or that the industry suffers financial woes. The collapse of the old model is due to internal inconsistencies that corrupted what should be—what can be—a profoundly noble calling: to see the world clearly and help others see it clearly, too.
Journalism’s ad-reliant business model has its origins in the 1830s. Newspapers at the time were mostly small-circulation money-losers sold by expensive annual subscriptions and dependent on political parties for support. Then, in 1833, Benjamin Day imported from Britain the idea of newsboys hawking papers on the street for a penny. His New York Sun had lots of “bright” anecdotes about police courts and shipwrecks and odd illnesses designed to appeal to immigrant cabbies and washerwomen. It was hugely popular and soon had many imitators.
As circulation shot up, so did newsstand revenue. But for the “Penny Press,” the real money was in ads; larger circulations meant higher rates. Instead of selling content to subscribers, publishers learned to attract large audiences and then sell readers’ attention to advertisers. This model eventually spread across the entire industry. It produced the big-city dailies of the 1890s (Hearst’s Journal and Pulitzer’s World in New York, for example). The same model financed the rise of radio and television in the twentieth century. Ad profits allowed newspapers to distance themselves from political parties.
Objectivity as a professional norm arose around the time of World War I. Ideals that had floated around journalism for decades coalesced into a package of standards: detachment, nonpartisanship, balance, and the conviction that truth will emerge if you just line up enough facts. The emphasis on objectivity was in part a reaction to the sensationalism of late nineteenth-century “yellow journalism” and its reliance on big headlines, graphic images, lurid details, and less-than-strict accuracy.
Adolph Ochs capitalized on the backlash against his competitors’ excesses after buying the New York Times in 1896. One of his early slogans was that the Times “does not soil the breakfast cloth.” He promised to deliver the news “impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.” He would turn the paper into a forum for “intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.” Ochs wove objectivity, public service, and advertising into a neat brand that slowly built the Times’s reputation, audience, and profits. An admiring editor from an upstate paper wrote in 1921 that Ochs taught his competitors that “decency means dollars.”
In 1922, the American Society of Newspaper Editors put out a Code of Ethics that reinforced this ethos; by mid-century it dominated newsrooms. Publishers wanted to project an image of benevolent neutrality and avoid alienating readers, and so they confined explicit interpretations to the editorial page.
In recent years, however, the mainstream media’s commitment to objectivity has weakened. In 2016, New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg said that if a journalist really believes that Donald Trump is a “dangerous” demagogue, “you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using” for decades. Explicit political opposition in the work of a reporter is “uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, nonopinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable. But the question that everyone is grappling with is: Do normal standards apply?” If he has to ask, the answer is no.
The collapse of “normal standards” is tied to the economics of journalism today. The major factor in recent financial woes is the rise of new communication technologies. The Internet forced news media to compete for people’s attention with Facebook’s news feed, Netflix, Buzzfeed listicles, mommy blogs, medical advice, dating apps, and online games. Meanwhile, a boundless supply of ad space drove down the value of ads, while community sites such as craigslist.org stripped newspapers of their profitable classified ad business.
Today, Google and Facebook alone vacuum up tens of billions of dollars annually from advertisers that in previous years would have gone to news companies. The Pew Research Center reports that newspaper print ad revenue fell by nearly two-thirds between 2006 and 2016, from $49 billion to about $18 billion. Free news online encouraged readers to quit subscribing in vast numbers; daily newspaper circulation has fallen from 55.8 million in 2000 to 31 million in 2017. The American Society of News Editors quit doing its annual estimate of full-time newsroom journalists after charting a drop from 57,000 in 2007 to 32,900 in 2015.
We have more news than ever from a multitude of publications, including nontraditional newsrooms and advocacy groups, but much appears online where losing small amounts of money counts as success. Broadcast and cable TV news are still profitable, but their biggest shows are typically argument and analysis. The vast majority of original reporting on public affairs in this country, from local to national, comes from print and online journalists, and their publications are struggling.
Financial stress clarifies the reality that has held sway for more than a century. Media pretend to be in the news business, but they are really in the ad business. When newspapers cut staff, reporters are the first to go. And to save themselves, news organizations blur the supposedly strict line between news and advertising. Major organizations—including the New York Times, Time, Inc., the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal—now have divisions that employ reporter-like workers to produce “branded content” or “native advertising.” The idea, baldly stated, is to fool people into spending time with ads that look like news while obscuring the advertiser’s role in their production. A recent “T Brand” (New York Times) piece noted the sponsor, Spotify, in small type atop the web page. The larger, more prominent label was “Fact-Checking.”
Competing for attention on the web has forced news companies to behave in ways that undermine their own credibility. Newsrooms now do the things that produce clicks on Twitter, Google, and Facebook: manipulative and distorted headlines, writing with outrage, gaming search algorithms, and “hitting the moment”—whether the Super Bowl, Trump, or Cecil the Lion. Tech-speak for this sort of emotional cyber-mugging is “engagement optimization.”
National reporters now so commonly trade favorable treatment for access to high-level sources that the practice has a euphemism: “transactional journalism.” In The Smear (2017), former CBS correspondent Sharyl Attkisson describes how activists, government officials, political parties, and big donors increasingly coordinate with each other and with mainstream reporters to push shared agendas. Hacked emails from WikiLeaks showed that during the 2016 campaign Politico reporter Glenn Thrush sent the Clinton operation whole stories to approve in advance and asked them not to tell anybody. He later claimed he was “fact-checking.”
The breakdown of standards is more than a wrongheaded response to financial pressure. In one sense, journalistic objectivity is essential. A commitment to accuracy and balance on disputed issues helps audiences see different sides of debates. Impartiality and non-partisanship (as opposed to the mere use of neutral language) help reporters speak across cultural and political divides. The use of verifiable sources allows audiences to hold reporters and sources accountable.
But the rhetoric of journalistic objectivity promised more than mere accuracy, named sources, and broadminded fairness. It created the impression that facts can be separated from values, and so purported to offer knowledge without bias, information without opinion—just facts. Walter Cronkite’s famous newscast sign-off captured the approach: “And that’s the way it is.”
But there is no view from nowhere, no independent vantage point from which a reporter (or anyone else) can gather and present “just the facts.” The process of converting events and people into news requires interpretation and an interpreter. Deciding which stories to write, whom to interview, which facts to include, and how to frame those facts is a very human process. Where society has a consensus on how to interpret a given fact (for example, child abuse is bad), mainstream news outlets often offer excellent coverage that appears “unbiased.”
Today’s fractured society now exposes the effects of a reporter’s worldview. We’re more likely to see it in coverage of contested issues, from abortion to gender to religious liberty. Liberal audiences tend not to notice mainstream reporters’ larger commitments because they share them; political and social conservatives, on the other hand, for decades have complained about the bias of mainstream coverage. Sometimes reporters slant coverage deliberately, sometimes not, but clearly they do slant it.
The old paradigm, however, requires that journalists deny the effects of bias, leaving them a false choice between subjectivity and objectivity. Some opt to pursue openly an ideological or partisan line. For most journalists, however, the surrender of objectivity is a rejection of the idea of journalism itself, reducing it to the mere exercise of power—hence, the agonized confession by the Times’s Rutenberg that many reporters feel they must set aside the “normal standards” of journalism.
Journalistic objectivity requires reporters to feign that their beliefs do not shape their coverage (at least, not very much). This is fraudulent in the worst cases and misleading even when reporters sincerely try to be fair. Journalists often know that they can’t be “objective” in the simple sense of writing without bias. But they pretend or deceive themselves, thinking that they do just that. This corrodes journalism from the inside out.
The industry is therefore torn. A minority embraces subjectivity as the only realistic approach. The majority clings to journalistic objectivity as an ideal, hoping to preserve their credibility—but they are losing it. A recent Knight Foundation/Gallup poll on media, trust, and democracy found that more than four-fifths of Americans believe the news media are “critical” or “very important” for “providing objective news reports.” But only 30 percent of Americans agree that the media do this well, and 40 percent say they do it poorly. More than half could not identify even one “objective” news source. Those who could picked Fox News nearly twice as often as any other source.
When Trump blasts the mainstream media as the “enemy of the people” and dismisses their “objective” reporting as fake news, journalists are outraged. When they read the polling numbers, I’m sure they’re flabbergasted that large portions of the country nod in agreement. They shouldn’t be. I doubt many people believe network correspondents fabricate stories. Most also know that Trump is trying to intimidate his critics and rally his base. But after decades of feeling ignored or insulted, conservatives share his frustration. They long ago lost what sympathy they might have had for network correspondents.
Many mainstream journalists cannot grasp the substance of the complaint. The real problem, NBC’s political director Chuck Todd wrote in the Atlantic recently, is that hatred for the media has been “artificially stoked” by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and especially ex–Fox chief Roger Ailes who, following Nixon, “exploit[s] the fears of older white people.” Such observations are wish-fulfillment, the opposite of the old ideal of objective reporting.
Today’s mainstream media, dominated by liberal opinion, foster conflict precisely because they purport to offer an “unbiased” version of the world. Traditionalists and conservatives can see for themselves that is not true, but instead of seeking truly fair or balanced coverage, they often turn to sources that reinforce their own perspectives. Progressives, meanwhile, enjoy the illusion that NBC and the Washington Post give them a more “objective” picture of the world than what is being served to those scared, gullible, old (and, cough, cough, white) Fox fans and Limbaugh listeners.
Nobody knows what will come after objectivity. But new models for funding journalism are emerging from the current chaos. The rise of pay-for-content online publications is a positive sign. This business model makes journalists directly accountable to audiences instead of advertisers. The Athletic and The Information, for example, are finding success providing high-quality specialized or local news without ads. Media that rely heavily on donations, from ProPublica to NPR to WORLD (I’m on staff there), are finding audiences that realize good journalism can have a point of view and still be good. Even legacy media are getting serious about paywalls. The days of free news with any pretense of credibility are likely numbered.
In this time of transition, journalists need a new paradigm that searches for objective truth while acknowledging the interpretive role of the reporter. This need not politicize newsgathering. (It seems a bit late to worry about that anyway.) Audiences will accept coverage with an angle if they believe the reporter is playing fair and making a good-faith effort to tell the truth. That sort of news may not rebuild the social consensus on every important issue. But it would at least offer a starting place for civil discussion among people who disagree. It might also restore some trust in the news media and encourage readers to pay for what’s worth reading.
Les Sillars teaches journalism at Patrick Henry College.