As long as independent journalism has existed, it has angered people who want stories told their way or not at all. But I can pinpoint the moment when I realized how contested the very idea of journalistic independence had become.
It was the fall of 2018, my first year as publisher of the New York Times. I had spent my career until then as a reporter and editor steeped in the methods, values, and stylistic quirks of traditional journalism, covering small towns for the Providence Journal and local government for the Portland Oregonian before joining the Times. Even after years of watching these traditions come under intensifying pressure from the internet and social media, I was struck by how frontally the old journalistic model was being challenged by the dynamics of covering a new president unconstrained by precedent and social norms—sometimes even reality itself.
At the time, the country was waiting for the results of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election on behalf of Donald Trump’s campaign. Many of the president’s critics believed that the investigation would force the removal of a man they regarded as unfit to lead the nation. They were also convinced that the last safeguard against the president’s relentless efforts to undermine the investigation was Rod J. Rosenstein, the second-highest-ranking official in the Justice Department, who had assumed oversight of the investigation when the attorney general recused himself.
After months of careful reporting, two reporters in the Washington bureau of the Times, Adam Goldman and Michael Schmidt, uncovered a startling story. The previous spring, Rosenstein himself had been so concerned about Trump’s erratic behavior that he had suggested secretly recording the president and even raised the possibility of invoking a constitutional mechanism contained in the Twenty-Fifth Amendment that had never been used, to declare Trump unfit and remove him from office.
There was no question about whether to publish the story. It was based on extensive interviews with high-level players in the administration, the Justice Department, and the FBI and backed up by a paper trail. It seemed like exactly the type of journalism the public should expect from an independent press.
The article appeared on September 21. Given that the reporting raised profound concerns about the president’s ability to serve—from one of his own appointees, no less—the swift and angry response from the right was not at all surprising. Some saw our reporting as a validation of their theories about a “deep state coup.” Many others dismissed the reporting as entirely untrue and attacked us for publishing the story. Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted a response to the piece that proved typical: “When it comes to President @realDonaldTrump….. BEWARE of anything coming out of the @nytimes.”
What caught me by surprise was the outrage from the left. Here the criticism was not so much that the reporting was untrue—though some did jump through hoops to make that assertion—but that the information was too dangerous to publish.
From Twitter to magazines to cable news, these critics charged that our reporting had effectively armed Trump with the pretext to fire Rosenstein and end the inquiry into his own conduct. On her show that night, Rachel Maddow attacked the credibility of the story at length before warning: “They have provided President Trump this headline and this fully cooked, fully baked New York Times–approved headline inviting the president to fire Rod Rosenstein and thereby end the Mueller investigation.”
Even those who regularly espoused support for independent journalism suggested that in this case our values had led us to a misguided neutrality that jeopardized democracy. Readers accused the reporters of journalistic recklessness and even of treason. “I suppose you would argue that your job is to print the news, whatever it is,” one reader wrote in one of the thousands of online comments and letters to the editor protesting the article. “However, thinking so narrowly is an abdication of your responsibility, and I’m not sure this was really news anyway. To ignore the consequences of your stories is not ethical and is no service to democracy. You have a profound duty to consider whether the news value is worth the damage the reporting will do. In this case, I do not believe it was.”
As I watched the reaction unfold, I found myself increasingly concerned not just by the growing pressure on independent journalism, but by the troubling demand implicit in the criticism. A leading news organization had discovered that a top law enforcement official had such profound concerns about the fitness of the president of the United States that he discussed whether unprecedented steps should be taken to remove him from office. And many people, even some journalists, wanted this information actively hidden from the public.
The Challenge to Independence
American journalism faces a confluence of challenges that present the most profound threat to the free press in more than a century. News organizations are shrinking and dying under sustained financial duress. Attacks on journalists are surging. Press freedoms are under intensifying pressure. And with the broader information ecosystem overrun by misinformation, conspiracy theories, propaganda, and clickbait, public trust in journalism has fallen to historical lows.
There is no clear path through this gantlet. But there will be no worthwhile future for journalism if our profession abandons the core value that makes our work essential to democratic society, the value that answers the question of why we’re deserving of the public trust and the special protections afforded the free press. That value is journalistic independence.
Independence is the increasingly contested journalistic commitment to following facts wherever they lead. It places the truth—and the search for it with an open yet skeptical mind—above all else. Those may sound like blandly agreeable clichés of Journalism 101, but in this hyperpolarized era, independent journalism and the sometimes counterintuitive values that animate it have become a radical pursuit.
Independence asks reporters to adopt a posture of searching, rather than knowing. It demands that we reflect the world as it is, not the world as we may wish it to be. It requires journalists to be willing to exonerate someone deemed a villain or interrogate someone regarded as a hero. It insists on sharing what we learn—fully and fairly—regardless of whom it may upset or what the political consequences might be. Independence calls for plainly stating the facts, even if they appear to favor one side of a dispute. And it calls for carefully conveying ambiguity and debate in the more frequent cases where the facts are unclear or their interpretation is under reasonable dispute, letting readers grasp and process the uncertainty for themselves.
This approach, tacking as it does against the with-us-or-against-us certainty of this polarized moment, requires a steadfast, sometimes uncomfortable commitment to journalistic process over personal conviction. Independent journalism elevates values grounded in humility—fairness, impartiality, and (to use perhaps the most fraught and argued-over word in journalism) objectivity—as ideals to be pursued, even if they can never be perfectly achieved. And crucially, independent journalism roots itself to an underlying confidence in the public; it trusts that people deserve to know the full truth and ultimately can be relied upon to use it wisely.
Over the past few years, I’ve watched the arguments against this model of independent journalism become more widespread and more insistent, even within the ranks of established news organizations, including the Times. This critique has been accompanied by calls to instead embrace a different model of journalism, one guided by personal perspective and animated by personal conviction.
Many have made thoughtful arguments in favor of this shift. Some say that journalists are incapable of controlling for their own biases and hide behind a false objectivity that masks, for instance, liberal worldviews (the critique from the right) or privileges a straight, white, male perspective (the critique from the left). Others suggest that the model leads journalists to make unequal things seem equal—sometimes to the point of rationalizing nonsensical or dangerous positions—in performative displays of balance, often mocked as “false equivalence” or “both-sidesism.” Some argue that the posture of journalistic independence has evolved into a self-serving justification for powerful gatekeepers to protect business as usual, including the invisible assumptions and biases that prop it up. Still others assert that this model of journalism is poorly matched for the perils of the moment, arguing that more than just describing the world, journalists should do everything in their power to fix it.
In responding to these arguments, let me first acknowledge that my background may make me uniquely, perhaps even comically, unpersuasive as a participant in this particular debate. I am the publisher of one of the most scrutinized media institutions in the world; a wealthy white man who succeeded a series of other wealthy white men with the same first and last name; and someone whose family has starred in a full century of shadowy media conspiracy theories. At the same time, the Times is a 172-year-old human enterprise that publishes more words every week than Shakespeare wrote in his entire life. Despite our best efforts, it will not be hard to find examples where the Times has fallen painfully short of the independent ideal I defend here, from our early coverage of the Soviet Union to the run-up to the Iraq War. And I can also already hear critics dusting off their arguments about whether we wrote too much about Hillary Clinton’s emails, or too little about Hunter Biden’s laptop, or whether I personally mishandled my response to a now notorious opinion essay by Senator Tom Cotton.
On the other hand, there may be few people for whom this subject is of greater personal and professional concern. My great-great-grandfather, the founder of the modern New York Times, helped establish the model of independent journalism—“without fear or favor,” in his now famous motto—and entrusted his successors “to maintain the editorial independence and the integrity of the New York Times and to continue it as an independent newspaper, entirely fearless, free of ulterior influence and unselfishly devoted to the public welfare.” For more than 125 years, generations of my family have made it our explicit mission to promote and defend that vision of independent journalism.
I hung our century-old mission statement on my office wall on my first day as publisher. In the years since, it’s become clear that maintaining journalistic independence through this polarized moment will be as difficult and unpopular as any challenge I will face in this job—and, I believe, as urgent as any challenge the broader news industry faces. Indeed, even as I prepared this essay for publication, three influential figures in the profession separately published major explorations of the topic, most recently a piece in these pages by the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wesley Lowery.
My own view is illustrated using examples from the Times. But there are many outstanding news organizations that exemplify the type of independent journalism I’m describing, from newspapers like the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal to wire services like the Associated Press and Bloomberg News to broadcasters like the BBC and NPR to digital publishers like ProPublica and Politico.
My defense of journalistic independence doesn’t come from reverence for some golden age of journalism. Each generation transforms journalism and the institutions that make it, almost always for the better, and I’m proud to have played a part in some of those transformations. It is certainly not rooted to a belief that journalism should be unmoored from values. Independent journalism has a natural and welcome affinity for the classic tenets of liberal democracy—the rule of law, honest governance, equal rights, free expression—as well as universal principles of human dignity, freedom, and opportunity. That’s why journalists tend naturally toward stories that shine a light on injustice, especially as they pertain to the most vulnerable among us. But independent journalism also rests on the bedrock conviction that those seeking to change the world must first understand it—that a fully informed society not only makes better decisions but operates with more trust, more empathy, and greater care.
In this way, independent journalism is the exact tonic the world needs most at a moment in which polarization and misinformation are shaking the foundations of liberal democracies and undermining society’s ability to meet the existential challenges of the era, from inequality to political dysfunction to the accelerating toll of climate change. When the stakes feel highest—from the world wars to the red scare to the aftermath of 9/11—people often make the most forceful arguments against journalistic independence. Pick a side. Join the righteous. Declare that you’re with us or against us. But history shows that the better course is when journalists challenge and complicate consensus with smart questions and new information. That’s because common facts, a shared reality, and a willingness to understand our fellow citizens across tribal lines are the most important ingredients in enabling a diverse, pluralistic society to come together to self-govern. For that, as much as anything, we need principled, independent journalists.
How We Got Here
It is no coincidence that maps of the world’s healthiest democracies and maps of the world’s freest press environments are essentially identical.
The press plays a straightforward informational role: who’s running for office, how tax dollars are used, what legislation aims to achieve. It plays an accountability role, exposing corruption and incompetence, ensuring that the law is administered evenly and justly, and shedding light on institutions that don’t want their secrets out in the open.
In a pluralistic democracy like ours, an independent press plays another crucial role. It binds society by providing the connective tissue of a common fact base that can be discussed and debated and by exposing people to a wider range of experiences and perspectives. “Democracy’s legitimacy and durability depend on dialogue and deliberation, on process as much as on outcomes,” Carlos Lozada, a Times columnist, wrote in a recent piece on this topic.
The history of the Times is intertwined with this vision of an independent press. For much of the early life of the country the press was, in the main, openly partisan, with newspapers aligning with various factions, ideologies, and politicians, championing supporters and attacking opponents. The Times itself was part of this tradition when it was cofounded, in 1851, by one of the men who helped form the Republican Party three years later. That changed when the small, struggling newspaper was sold out of bankruptcy to my great-great-grandfather Adolph Ochs in 1896. He embraced a journalistic model that contrasted sharply with the sensationalistic (and much more financially successful) newspapers of the era, like Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Ochs vowed to his readers that the Times would instead be fiercely independent, dedicated to journalism of the highest integrity, and devoted to the public welfare. His vision for the news report: “to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.” His vision for the Opinion report: “to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.”
This approach helped lay the foundation for the model that became known as journalistic objectivity. The most prominent champion of this approach was the journalist and public philosopher Walter Lippmann, whose writing almost always makes an appearance in pieces like this. He argued that journalists “ought not to be serving a cause, no matter how good.” Recognizing that journalists inevitably carried personal biases and blind spots, Lippmann called for controlling them by professionalizing journalistic processes and, in particular, embracing lessons from the scientific method. He entreated journalists to focus as much as possible on facts and to actively pursue evidence that could challenge, rather than simply confirm, their own hypotheses. In this conception, words like objective and impartial are not a characterization of an individual journalist’s underlying temperament, as they are so often misunderstood to mean, but serve as guiding ideals to strive for in their work. “The idea was that journalists needed to employ objective, observable, repeatable methods of verification in their reporting—precisely because they could never be personally objective,” Tom Rosenstiel, coauthor of The Elements of Journalism and one of the leading defenders of the model, explained in 2020. “Their methods of reporting had to be objective because they never could be.”
In the decades that followed, this model would become the dominant approach to American journalism, taught in universities and practiced at news organizations from the local to the national level. Today, however, the word objectivity is so contested inside the journalistic community that it is viewed by many as self-discrediting in the debate over the role of journalism. I continue to believe that objectivity—or if the word is simply too much of a distraction, open-minded inquiry—remains a value worth striving for. But independence, the word we use inside the Times, better captures the full breadth of this journalistic approach and its promise to the public at large.
How Independence Works in Practice
What does independence look like in practice, and what choices does it require of journalists?
Prioritizing process. The most important ingredient is treating independence as a discipline, backed by processes and ethics designed to foster it. At the Times, as with many other traditional news organizations, the commitment to independence is reflected at every stage of our journalistic efforts. Our goal is to only publish what we know; we would rather miss a story than get one wrong. We correct our errors openly because mistakes should be transparent and, honestly, painful. We talk to the people we write about whenever possible and give those accused of wrongdoing the opportunity to respond. We use multiple sources to confirm information and display a healthy skepticism of everything we learn. We review pieces not just for factual accuracy but for fairness. We enforce ethical guidelines designed to prevent conflicts of interest (for example, we prohibit supporting politicians and political causes) as well as stylistic guidelines designed to minimize bias (for example, we avoid the use of partisan terminology and provocative labels in our news pages).
Language is constantly shifting, and news organizations should shift too. But one of the ways propagandists and advocates try to steer coverage to advance their agendas is to win the battle over terminology. For this reason we generally try to use the everyday language of the public, what we call idiomatic English, rather than the specialized language embraced by academics, activists, and marketers. That means typically waiting until specific terms have gained broad societal acceptance (generally using the widely recognized terms “Latino” or “Hispanic” over the little-used “Latinx”) and trying to avoid market-tested phrases that have been designed specifically to shift public opinion (generally avoiding terms like “pro life” or “pro choice” and instead describing such views as for or against abortion rights). This can be contentious—when a Palestinian carries out an attack in Israel, the Times generally calls this person a “militant” and often hears protests from one side that considers the attacker a “freedom fighter” and another that considers the attacker a “terrorist.”
As with other professions that have adopted explicit systems and ethical norms to support independence—science, medicine, and the judiciary, for example—the journalistic process described above doesn’t guarantee perfect results. Personal biases and agendas can still distort the work reporters and editors produce—just as people’s personal experiences and backgrounds can elevate it. But good journalistic processes reduce the frequency of mistakes and create mechanisms for self-correcting when we err. That stands in contrast to alternate models guided by political objectives, partisan loyalty, or, most obviously, self-interest—all of which are more vulnerable to mistakes, hypocrisy, and corruption. As with scientists, doctors, or judges, it is far better to have journalists imperfectly striving for independence backed by a defensible process than choosing not to bother because total independence can never be fully achieved. “Failure to achieve standards does not obviate the need for them. It does not render them outmoded. It makes them more necessary,” wrote Marty Baron, former executive editor of the Washington Post, in a recent essay on this theme. “And it requires that we apply them more consistently and enforce them more firmly.”
Following facts. Independent journalism can be morally straightforward and satisfying. Journalists hold power to account by exposing corruption and abuse. Journalists reveal injustice and inequality. Their work regularly leads to a society that is freer, fairer, and more just. This is the type of journalism seen in movies like All the President’s Men, Spotlight, and She Said.
Independence protects journalism from being distorted by business incentives. The fact that Harvey Weinstein was a longtime advertiser in the Times didn’t keep us from revealing the abuses that set off a cascade that ultimately landed him in prison. Independence protects journalism from being distorted by government pressure. The fact that China promised severe repercussions not long after we spent millions to launch a new Chinese-language website there did not keep us from publishing a major investigation into government corruption. And independence protects journalism from being distorted by various forms of self-interest. Even our own leaders, investors, and journalism are not immune from receiving unflattering coverage in the Times. These protections are not simply a matter of ethics and values; they are rooted in systems and processes and are reflected in the structure of the company itself—by ensuring, for example, that journalists are walled off from advertisers or that reviews of books by Times journalists are written by independent freelancers.
These commitments are widely accepted as necessary principles of an independent news organization. But a true commitment to independence—and the insistence on putting journalistic process ahead of a preferred outcome—isn’t always easy or comfortable. One of the surest signs of independence is that readers are frequently told things they don’t expect and would prefer not to hear. Take two recent examples:
For years, the Times has documented the brutal persecution of the Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority in Myanmar, that human rights experts have called a genocide. This was the story one of our reporters was prepared to tell when she interviewed four young sisters in a refugee camp, who recounted how soldiers burned their home, killed their mother, and abducted their father, who was now feared dead. But days of additional reporting revealed that little of what they said was true. The girls had shared heart-wrenching stories to compete for the limited attention of aid groups. In an overcrowded camp, four orphaned sisters were more likely to win sympathy than an intact family that lost all its possessions. In this case, following the facts didn’t simply confirm the larger moral truth but also exposed a smaller, less expected one: these refugees were incentivized to one-up each other in suffering to get much-needed support. And not without a cost. The reporter, Hannah Beech, later explained in her searching piece: “Such strategies are a natural survival tactic. Who wouldn’t do the same to feed a family? But false narratives devalue the genuine horrors—murder, rape and mass burnings of villages—that have been inflicted upon the Rohingya by Myanmar’s security forces. And such embellished tales only buttress the Myanmar government’s contention that what is happening in Rakhine State is not ethnic cleansing, as the international community suggests, but trickery by foreign invaders.”
A year later, on the other end of the world, an American aid convoy headed to Venezuela erupted in flames after being blocked at the border by the country’s repressive security forces. The idea that the government had ordered the torching of desperately needed supplies in the midst of a devastating famine appeared to fit the narrative of President Nicolas Maduro’s brutal authoritarian rule. Many prominent global leaders quickly denounced him. But as we reported on the calamity, video footage revealed the fire had apparently not been carried out by Maduro’s security forces; it had most likely been caused by an anti-government protester throwing an errant Molotov cocktail.
That’s the counterintuitive commitment of independent journalism. It must be open to the idea that a suffering refugee child may not be telling the truth, or that a tyrant who is persecuting millions may be accused of a crime he didn’t actually commit. In both cases, critics asked who could possibly benefit from such journalism. Society benefits, of course, since it depends on credible information to make any number of related decisions, from distributing aid to relief organizations to imposing sanctions for human rights violations. The truth benefits, too, as does the credibility of those sharing it. The next time the Times reports on Maduro’s offenses (as we’ve done here, here, and here) or the horrors that the Rohingya suffer (as we did here, here, and here), readers can be sure that those are the facts as best we could ascertain them.
This commitment to putting facts above outcome is easy to caricature as amoral, perhaps even as nihilistic. But it is grounded in a foundational optimism about people and democracy. Independent journalism is predicated on the belief that democracy is stronger when people have trusted sources for reliable facts. And that people should be trusted to comprehend these facts, process their complexity, and make up their own minds. Information empowers, and empowered people are more likely to make better decisions.
Covering uncertainty. Even if it’s not always popular, the discipline of following the facts wherever they lead is far more straightforward than grappling with the tricky questions that emerge when the facts cannot be fully established. The number of topics that are factually or morally unambiguous is dwarfed by the number of topics marked in some way by uncertainty, where facts are unresolved or questions are still subject to debate. The role of independent journalists in such cases is to help the public understand and examine the broadest possible range of intellectually honest positions.
In cases in which the facts have been established beyond reasonable dispute, journalists should not quote a fringe position to check a box or shield their work from accusations of bias. There is, for instance, no serious debate in the scientific community about the reality of climate change. The world is warming, with devastating consequences. There are plenty of other examples: The Holocaust happened. COVID vaccines work. Trump lost the 2020 election.
But even in moments when the facts are beyond reasonable dispute, there can be reasonable differences of opinion about how society should interpret and act on those facts. What specifically should be done to mitigate the effects of climate change? Should people espousing anti-Semitism be barred from social media? Should vaccine requirements be linked to employment? Should specific legislative measures be taken to safeguard elections? Independent journalism should not shy away from fully examining such contentious questions, even if some insist that the truth has already been established.
There are also some moral issues that we, as a society, have rightly come to view as settled and beyond reasonable debate: Racism is wrong. Women deserve equal rights. People shouldn’t be tortured. At the same time, there are many related questions society is debating and independent journalism must explore, even if the larger principle is beyond question. Should race be a factor in college admissions? Under what circumstances should abortion be allowed? What methods of coercion are acceptable in a war zone?
There can be a temptation to attempt to steer these debates based on our personal views or our sense of how history will settle the matter, thinking that represents a more honest and authentic form of journalism. However, independent journalism, especially in a pluralistic democracy, should err on the side of treating areas of serious political contest as open, unsettled, and in need of further inquiry. (And even in cases where debates are broadly recognized as closed, there is often added benefit to understanding the motivations and tactics of those who continue to push the issue to the fore.)
Prematurely shutting down inquiry and debate forces disagreements to fester beneath the surface. In even more damaging cases, it allows conventional wisdom to ossify in a way that blinds society. Deference to such popular narratives—as the Times has learned the hard way—is as dangerous as any personal bias: Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction; Trump has little chance of winning a general election; inflation isn’t a significant risk in modern economies. The problem in each case, and many more like them, was that conventional wisdom isn’t always right, and even when it turns out to be, it benefits from probing and testing.
Evaluating these debates is one reason why the journalistic process is designed around hearing from a diversity of voices. That’s most obviously true in reporting, which requires talking to people and representing a range of perspectives. But it also is why reporters benefit from the additional eyes of editors, not just for style and accuracy, but to ensure the issues they include are fairly represented and contextualized. When journalism succeeds in illuminating questions and debates, it not only helps people better understand those with whom they disagree, it helps them better recognize the differences they have with people they thought they agreed with—and it can help society move conversations about these issues toward resolution.
Navigating criticism. Criticism is a natural and important part of the journalistic process. That’s partly because independent journalism, with its commitment to exposing problems and holding power to account, often upsets the people it’s about, as well as their supporters. It’s also because the business of making these types of editorial decisions, especially on deadline, is imperfect work.
Intense barrages of criticism were once reserved for a handful of the most polarizing topics in public life, like presidential politics, abortion, and the Middle East, where every word and image was tracked for signs of bias and loudly contested as inaccurate or harmful. Now nearly every issue sets off that level of reaction. The dynamics of social media have enabled pushback to be quicker, louder, and better organized, as supporters and opponents become more entrenched in their narratives and more aggressive in assailing anything that runs counter to their views or objectives.
This often reflects genuine anger and disappointment. Even those who appreciate the vast majority of our reporting often feel that our coverage is uniquely off the mark in its portrayal of the very subject they care most about—and where they naturally have the strongest views on how the story should be told. But such frustrations are often harnessed by interest groups in an effort to make coverage more favorable and to make it uncomfortable to report things these groups—or subsets of these groups—don’t like.
In the past, most of those without access to a printing press or a presidential pulpit could only hope that a news organization would police itself through corrections or letters to the editor. Today anyone with a Twitter handle or an email address can have their concerns heard. That shift has brought a welcome increase in accountability, but it has also created a challenging dynamic. Journalistic decisions are continually being criticized in public by leaders, activists, journalists, celebrities, and influencers speaking for themselves or, just as often, for a broader community. These communities are often tied to personal identity, whether it’s derived from race, religion, gender, ethnicity, nationality, or partisan affiliation. But the same dynamic applies to groups of all types, like climate activists, Silicon Valley rationalists, economists, and Taylor Swift fans. Even those whose identity centers on warning about the dangers of tribalism sometimes succumb to their own forms of groupthink. Navigating such criticism has become among the most challenging parts of the practice of independent journalism.
Journalists are often accused by these groups of misrepresenting their communities, perpetuating stereotypes, or increasing risks for people who already have good reason to feel vulnerable. Sometimes these criticisms have merit—a look back through the archives of any news organization will find a wealth of examples that were bad in the moment and look worse today. Many minority groups continue to think mainstream news organizations do not fully capture their communities and too often focus on moments of controversy or tragedy. And it is understandable that anyone who has personally experienced particular hardships—from enduring anti-Semitism or racial discrimination to fleeing one’s homeland or terminating a pregnancy—would have strong views about how these issues should be covered and what downstream consequences of that coverage they’d like to see.
Sometimes such groups will entreat journalists to lift up their communities by focusing on positive stories. Sometimes they will assert that their community can only be fairly covered by a member of it. Sometimes groups will offer to retrain reporters on what language and framing to use in covering their communities. And many times they will look past an entire body of coverage that addresses many of the issues they raise to instead find fault with a single article, headline, image, source, or phrase—sometimes a single word. (Even our personnel decisions are at times read through an ideological lens, with a departure taken as a sign that we’re caving to a progressive mob or a conservative one, or a hiring offered as evidence that we can’t fairly cover one side of a conflict or the other.)
Often the central criticism is not so much about the accuracy of the coverage itself, but whether it could be misused. Recently, for example, the Times described how scores of Hasidic Jewish schools were failing to provide students a basic education. The coverage was called anti-Semitic and dangerous even before it was published because it could be misused to demonize a highly visible population at a moment when they already faced rising prejudice. A group representing Orthodox Jews highlighted this line of criticism in a recent letter, arguing that “a free press can be an incredibly powerful force—for good or otherwise. Particularly so when these words appear, sometimes on the front page, of a prominent newspaper. The Times has misused this incredible power. And the victims of this reporting—Orthodox and Hasidic Jews in New York—are a marginalized minority already subject to a rising, frightening number of hate crimes.”
Independent news organizations should strive to cover every community with respect, nuance, and sensitivity. That is especially true in the context of the risks and prejudices marginalized communities or vulnerable people in particular face. But even when doing so, journalism will not always reflect the way these groups want to be seen or emphasize the issues they would prefer to talk about. When coverage features different groups engaged with directly conflicting narratives—for example, the anti-Muslim violence coming from Hindu nationalists in India today—it’s easier to see the impossibility of covering each group exactly as it would like to be covered.
And the care independent news organizations should take in reporting on every such group doesn’t overwhelm the value to the public—and often to the community itself—of reporting difficult but important facts and issues. In the example above, we also heard from many Hasidic readers who felt their school system had failed them and their children and were relieved that future students may be better served because of our reporting.
The attacks on this type of work sometimes take aim at the natural fear of journalists that their work, often called “the first draft of history,” will later be regarded as on the wrong side of it. But these attacks also confront journalists whose work explores subjects that divide the public or upsets a specific interest group with more pressing concerns. In this new environment, journalists—in particular female journalists—routinely receive threats of rape and death. Menacing visits to their homes and offices. Campaigns to get them fired. Harassment of family members. And a never-ending stream of insults and personal attacks, from racial slurs to accusations of bigotry, that can arrive by the thousands in a single day. With such a high price to their reputations and sense of security, journalists often wonder whether pursuing a given story would be worth the potential backlash. The silence that can stem from these fears is, of course, the goal of these attacks. The responsibility of independent journalists is to not be intimidated and to continue to report without fear or favor.
Critiques of the Model
The arguments against this model of journalistic independence have become far more persistent in recent years amid the reshaping of the journalism industry and the broader information ecosystem.
Inside the industry, newspapers continue to shutter and the number of working journalists has dropped by tens of thousands over the past fifteen years. The newspapers that endure, embracing the approach of many of the digital news organizations that have emerged, have often felt compelled to shift increasingly scarce resources away from expensive original reporting to far cheaper but less journalistically nutritious efforts like punditry, aggregation, and clickbait. As a result, the journalists who managed to keep their jobs now often find themselves stuck at their desks aggregating and opining on others’ work, instead of coming face to face with new people and perspectives through on-the-ground reporting.
At the same time, newsrooms have become more diverse, with far greater numbers of women, people who identify as LGBTQ, and people of color—though there is far more progress still needed. As this has happened, there’s been an overdue reckoning with the dominance of straight white men in our industry, a dominance that has long contributed to missing and distorted coverage. As a result, minority groups often carry deep skepticism that the same institutions and institutional values that badly served them in the past can now do better and actually capture the breadth of the world they live in. The conversation about those failures has left lingering uncertainty inside newsrooms as to whether those failures should be blamed on lack of representation or on outmoded values that may no longer fit the moment.
The shifts for the public have been no less dramatic. The fracturing of the media’s gatekeeper role, in which a handful of outlets in print and television were able to set the national agenda, means that proliferating publishers and individual commenters are increasingly built around specific niches and more focused on catering to their audiences’ identities, passions, and politics. The gatekeeper approach was far from perfect, but the unmediated nature of the internet has led to a surge in content aimed at driving engagement by playing to people’s hopes and, especially, their fears and resentments. The more conversational style of writing for the internet and the obvious dissonance between the carefulness of some reporters’ published work and their informal, sometimes injudicious social media commentary have exacerbated the sense that standards are shifting. These trends further confused the public’s understanding of the role of the press, making journalism seem partisan and unreliable. Today, barely over one-quarter of Americans trust the news, according to a Reuters Institute report, a figure that now ranks lowest of the countries they surveyed. The numbers from a Gallup survey were even more abysmal, with 16 percent expressing a high degree of confidence in newspapers and 11 percent in television news. In many studies like this, journalistic bias was a top concern cited.
The current pushback to the model of journalistic independence typically takes three main forms.
“Objectivity” as a myth: One of the most persistent critiques asserts that journalists should own up to their biases rather than pretending to be able to meet an impossible ideal of being truly objective or impartial.
The primary argument from the right, a staple of Republican stump speeches and conservative media for decades, alleges that reporters and editors use statements of journalistic independence to disguise a consistent bias against conservative views and more negative treatment of conservative leaders. This stretches from long-standing critiques of coverage of topics like gun rights and rural America, same-sex marriage and faith, and it extends to the ongoing national conversation about slavery’s role in our history that was, in part, sparked by the Times’ groundbreaking 1619 Project.
It’s true that the two populations that make up the vast majority of journalists—college graduates and people who live in big cities—have become more likely in recent decades to hold liberal views, particularly on social issues. These groups tend to be more secular and less likely to own guns; they engage with a different mix of culture and hobbies; they are typically more embracing of racial, gender, and sexual-orientation diversity. Those qualities—everyday assumptions in a place like New York City, our hometown—are why my predecessor, even as he pushed back on accusations of political bias, sometimes talked about the Times having a metropolitan sensibility.
This type of journalistic culture, the norm in most large newsrooms today, sometimes leads to journalistic decisions that many conservatives regard as picking a side in what they consider to be open debates, like the existence of climate change or the frequency of voter fraud, but which newsrooms treat as settled. On the many more issues that are obviously unsettled and subject to robust debate, the model of journalistic independence is explicitly designed to help correct for the narrowness of a journalist’s own experience and worldview, including by intentionally seeking out and attempting to fairly convey a much broader range of views. It doesn’t deny personal experience; it provides a method not to be trapped by it. If you look at coverage of abortion, as an example of an issue where society has been conflicted for decades but where the urban professional class has been disproportionately on one side of the debate, you’ll see the Times grappling with a fair representation of views from across many backgrounds and political orientations.
It is also true that the MAGA-era Republican Party has become more challenging to cover in a way that the party and its supporters would recognize as fair. On some subjects, a significant portion of the party has become untethered from fact and science, and it has made startlingly direct attacks on democracy and its foundations. Journalists have an obligation to report on this shift plainly, even if that leads our coverage to be accused of bias. If a majority of Republican voters believe—as polls have consistently shown—that Trump won the 2020 election, it’s safe to assume that those same voters would be skeptical of a news organization that clearly labels that belief false. But this heightened skepticism can at times go too far, and that risk can be compounded in moments of premature consensus among experts journalists rely on. Here the early coverage of the COVID pandemic is instructive. The press was confronted with the challenge of the president and others in his party sharing inaccurate information about the disease and the toll of the pandemic while also undermining the efficacy of vaccines and peddling sometimes dangerous alternatives. Those stories required the press to be intensely skeptical of the administration’s claims and actions. But there was insufficient skepticism of an emerging scientific and bureaucratic consensus that presented itself as more settled than it actually was. That combination sometimes created blind spots, like an overly quick dismissal of the lab leak theory or insufficient questioning of the wisdom of extended school closures.
Critics on the left also argue that supposedly objective journalists are anchored to a point of view, but in this case one that privileges a straight white male perspective and the status quo. This critique takes many forms, but often centers on the belief that notions like objectivity—the very idea of it, not just the failure to achieve it—exist to maintain and insulate existing power structures from change or scrutiny.
The assertion that newsrooms, like virtually all of the nation’s institutions, have long been overly dominated by straight white men is obviously true. Even with significant progress in diversifying in recent years, few newsrooms look like the communities they cover, leaving gaps in the stories they find and the insights journalists bring to them. That’s the case not just with race and gender, but with groups like evangelical Christians, military veterans, or people who attended community college. It is also true that at times, news organizations have wielded the objectivity label to wrongly suggest that minority journalists couldn’t fairly cover issues crucial to their own communities, even though they rarely questioned whether white men could fairly cover white men.
These shortcomings should be seen as a failure of independence rather than an indictment of it. In all kinds of coverage, reporters bring their experience and expertise to bear. More diverse newsrooms—armed with a broader range of backgrounds, experiences, relationships, skills, and expertise—spot more stories and imbue them with greater nuance and insight. A reporter who studied physics will be a better science reporter for it. An editor who grew up in the Great Plains will have a sharper eye for nuance in a story that takes place there. And a journalist from an underrepresented group can bring life experience and direct knowledge to stories involving that group. “Our eyes are connected to our bodies, which often shape the way we experience the world and how the world experiences us. My eyes will see some things yours never will,” as Lowery put it in his recent CJR essay. “The ‘story’ we seek to tell is in fact a mosaic that must be filled in piece by piece. While one journalist may supply many tiles, seeing the entire scene requires others to fill in the rest. Thus, understanding objective reality requires a diversity of contributors.”
It’s striking how often these two ideals—a diverse newsroom and an independent newsroom—are pitted against each other, as if one or the other must be chosen. What’s clear is that representation alone is not enough; it needs to be backed by a culture that invites a broad range of views into conversations about story choice and story framing. Many journalists from underrepresented groups have stories about being recruited in part because of the different perspectives they bring but, once on board, being told to put aside those perspectives to avoid being dismissed as biased.
Independence doesn’t mean that a reporter has to be a blank slate. A reporter who grew up in a neighborhood where racial profiling or police violence was a daily concern can bring an invaluable depth of knowledge and understanding to those topics. That experience might lead to a healthier dose of skepticism of police accounts or a greater understanding of the ways these injustices damage communities. Independence is only compromised if a reporter’s preconceptions undercut the goal of genuinely open-minded inquiry, like dismissing all police statements or downplaying rising crime. The public is best served when journalists—regardless of personal identity, personal political views, and personal life experience—approach each story with an open mind, ready to seek out information that might upend expectations or present a more complicated picture.
Both-sidesism: One of the most common criticisms of independence is that it leads journalists to treat unequal things equally.
False equivalence—today often derided as “both-sidesism,” a phrase popularized by Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU—is when journalists make opposing views appear similarly credible, even when they are not, to leave the impression of down-the-middle reporting that doesn’t take sides. Once again, it is not difficult to find historical grounding for this critique. News organizations long included comments from outlier scientists casting doubt on the reality of climate change, even after the vast majority of scientists had concluded it was real. Several factors drove such failures. Newsrooms often cared not just about being independent but about being perceived as independent, by readers and sources alike. The mechanics of deadline journalism also played a role, as inserting a quote from all sides was a quick and simple way to signal both fairness and completeness. There is good reason to disparage a model that elevates a pantomime of fairness over demonstrations of good judgment. It’s lazy journalism that fails readers and is easily exploited by bad-faith actors. As a previous publisher of the Times remarked: “Although I favor the open mind, I certainly do not advocate that the mind should be so open that the brains fall out.”
But this line of criticism misses the profound ways that traditional news organizations that believe in the independent model have shifted. Journalists today use plainer language, show a greater willingness to expose lies, and produce more analytical work grounded in their own reporting and expertise, even when doing so opens them up to calls of bias. While that shift was already well underway, it was solidified through the norm-shattering presidency of Trump, whose statements—whether they were about crowd sizes, the birthplace of his predecessor, the COVID pandemic, or election results—were often demonstrably untrue and were typically called out as such without euphemism or counterpoint.
Today, the both-sidesism argument thus has the feel of media critics fighting the last war. But the both-sidesism line of attack has been happily embraced by activists and partisans who want to pressure the media to minimize any alternative to their views. By demanding that journalists treat a topic as settled fact, they attempt to win a debate by avoiding one. This is why people often invoke both-sidesism when journalists interview a voter for a candidate they oppose, explore the opposite side of an issue to the one they hold, or take the journalistically responsible course of giving those accused of wrongdoing a chance to explain themselves.
This charge is particularly common on issues where participants have staked out zero-sum positions—as with abortion rights or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—in which open-minded coverage of each side is seen as undermining the other. For example, despite Russia’s attempts to make it a criminal offense to report the truth, it is undeniable that Russia invaded Ukraine in an unprovoked act of war and that its troops have carried out a huge number of shocking atrocities. It is also true that Ukrainian forces appear to have used internationally banned cluster munitions. Reporting this does not amount to a moral judgment asserting “on the other hand, Ukrainians do bad things too,” but reflects an attempt to fully capture the conflict. Without such independent assessments it would be impossible for Ukrainians, Russians, foreign leaders, or ordinary people to understand the true state of the war and its costs.
As that example shows, the both-sidesism argument is wielded most powerfully when the stakes are highest. We often hear a version like this: Trump is a threat to democracy, and you’re asking about his opponent’s age or emails? Or, the world is facing a climate catastrophe and you’re wondering if gas prices are too high? Or, the human rights of my group are under systemic attack and you’re focusing on one bad actor on our side? In the end, these efforts attempt to reduce wide-ranging lines of coverage into a single statement about what is most true and important, rather than to reflect the reality that many things can be true and important at the same time. Journalists should be alert to the risk of false equivalence. But today I believe the greater journalistic risk is for reporters to close themselves to the possibility of new and evolving facts that may reveal other aspects of a story or, worse, to actively embrace a journalistic one-sideism to signal that they are on the side of the righteous.
Bad outcomes: Another line of criticism asserts that when journalists report information that makes a negative outcome more likely, they are complicit in that outcome. This argument typically takes two forms: that news organizations should not publish information that bad actors might misuse and that they should not offer airtime to views that should be excised from the public square.
It is true that journalists should not be blind to the potential impact their reporting may have. And in limited cases we do change a specific story or alter our approach to a broader area of coverage with an eye toward minimizing any resulting danger. For example, we are careful in quoting dissidents in countries where such an action may lead to reprisal, particularly when it comes to ordinary people who may not fully appreciate the risks they are taking. Similarly, our coverage of subjects like mass shootings and suicide has been informed in part by research looking at how media attention can inspire others to do the same thing. And on rare occasions, we will hold publication of a national security story when we are told the release of certain secrets could directly endanger lives.
But, in general, independent reporters and editors should ask, “Is it true? Is it important?” If the answer to both questions is yes, journalists should be profoundly skeptical of any argument that favors censoring or skewing what they’ve learned based on a subjective view about whether it may yield a damaging outcome. Do we overlook the corruption of a US ally because it could embolden an anti-American opposition? Do we fail to explore legitimate questions about the physical or mental health of a political candidate because some believe the other candidate might be worse? Do we not report that the government has been secretly wiretapping US citizens without warrants because the Bush administration argues the disclosure would put lives at risk by undermining a critical antiterrorism tool? That last argument succeeded in delaying a story for the better part of a year—a decision many now view as the wrong one—but its eventual publication made clear that this information was needed to open up an important debate about how the country was balancing national security and civil liberties.
More recently, we’ve heard similar arguments about journalism putting lives at risk emerging from our coverage of the debates inside the medical community over care for transgender children. Critics have accused our work of “‘both sides’ fearmongering and bad-faith ‘just asking questions’ coverage” and have suggested that even acknowledging a broader range of views on this topic has legitimized—wittingly or not—a repressive legal effort to undermine the rights and the safety of a group that faces significant prejudice. “The pretense of objectivity—the newsroom ideal that all ‘sides’ of an issue should be heard—often harms marginalized people more than it helps them,” wrote one critic of our coverage. “If you say ‘I want to live,’ and I say ‘No,’ what happens next isn’t a debate; it’s murder.”
The Times has covered the surge of discrimination, threats, and violence faced by trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people, including the rapidly growing number of legislative efforts attacking their rights. We’ve also covered the many ways in which people challenging gender norms are gaining recognition and breaking barriers in the United States and around the world. Yet our critics overlook these articles—and there are hundreds of them—to instead focus on a small number of pieces that explore particularly sensitive questions that society is actively working through, but which some would prefer for the Times to treat as settled.
In the long run, ignoring societal disagreements or actively suppressing certain facts and viewpoints—even with the best of intentions—turns the press into an overtly political actor, encourages conspiracy theories about hidden agendas, and validates accusations that the media is dishonest. That, in turn, undermines trust in journalism and limits its ability to have an impact when we reveal injustice, corruption, or other wrongdoing.
The second bad outcome that is often raised is “platforming,” the concept that including people with bad or dangerous views in articles—or allowing them to write guest essays in the opinion section—makes the world a worse or more dangerous place. The central concern in this argument is that the very act of examining or sharing disliked or repugnant opinions, without explicitly condemning them, amounts to promoting and legitimizing them.
This reflects the heated societal debate about what to do about views one finds questionable, offensive, or dangerous. The Times has been criticized along these lines for everything from a profile of a Nazi sympathizer to an opinion essay from a Taliban leader, not to mention the essay “Send in the Troops” by Senator Cotton that roiled the Times like nothing else that has happened in my tenure. It is true that a soft feature or an unrebutted essay can effectively misinform by failing to provide needed context and thus obscure a larger truth. And it is certainly true that news organizations don’t serve readers well by flooding them with a cacophony of information and perspectives in the hope that they stumble upon the truth on their own. Everything we publish should meet basic standards of verification and intellectual honesty. Exercising journalistic judgment about which voices to include and how does not amount to censorship.
But there is just as much risk to a journalistic model that aggressively narrows the field of acceptable speakers and comment. When we err, we would rather err on the side of inclusion, not exclusion. For example, as part of our extensive coverage of COVID vaccines, we published an article about vaccine skeptics, which clearly stated that the vaccines were safe and gave careful context about conspiracy theories. But why bother to understand skeptics’ views at all if they are wrong, even dangerous? The United States has the lowest full-vaccination rate of any of the world’s wealthiest democracies, and the anti-vaccine movement was strengthening in ways that raised profound public health questions that society continues to grapple with.
It’s also worth briefly noting two more criticisms that are more specific to the structure of the Times, though they are shared by many other news organizations as well.
The first is that the existence of our opinion section can appear to be in direct tension with our promise of independence. It’s easy to see why some people would make this argument, given that every opinion piece promotes a personal point of view. But opinion journalism can actually represent another valuable way to meet this core commitment to independence by helping readers explore ideas and develop and challenge their own views on important subjects. That’s why we employ a diverse group of columnists who bring a range of backgrounds, interests, and political leanings to their work. And it’s why we make a point to solicit guest essays from an even wider range of perspectives. For many of our readers, the voices and pieces they’ve come to appreciate most are the very ones they agree with least.
Indeed the original goal of inviting outside writers and experts onto our pages was based on the belief that exposing readers to a diversity of opinions would have the effect of “stimulating new thought and provoking new discussion on public problems.” Even if each piece, including our editorials, is rooted to an individual view, reading across the section offers a broad and diverse collection of views that together should serve as a guide through the big debates in society. The best opinion writing embraces many of the same values as an independent newsroom—with columnists and other opinion writers using reporting, analysis, and expertise to inform their work and editors holding it to high standards of accuracy, fairness, and intellectual rigor.
Even though each day’s opinion pieces are typically among our most popular journalism and our columnists are among our most trusted voices, we believe opinion is secondary to our primary mission of reporting and should represent only a portion of a healthy news diet. For that reason, we’ve long kept the opinion department intentionally small—it represents well under a tenth of our journalistic staff—and ensured that its editorial decision-making is walled off from the newsroom. In recent years we’ve also gone to increasing lengths to make its work both less prominent on our homepage and more visually distinct from news reporting to avoid confusing readers about the difference between news and opinion.
The second criticism centers on our subscription-based business model. In this time of institutional skepticism, it’s easy to assume cynical business motives when executives espouse high-minded ideals. Conservative critics assume we are incentivized to cater to a liberal audience. And progressive critics assume that our insistence on independence is motivated by a desire to acquire more conservative subscribers. In truth, the value of a fair representation of the world—and the people and ideas shaping it—isn’t just for the believer, it’s for the skeptic. A diverse society should aspire to understand the lives and motives of all people, as well as the range of arguments shaping the public debate. Thankfully, we’ve found that readers generally agree. Though I’m often asked about the cancellation campaigns led by interest groups upset with our coverage, the actual numbers are vanishingly small. Instead, studies of our readers show that across all their diversity, their most consistent shared quality, compared with the broader public, is a desire to be challenged, confronted with information, ideas, and perspectives that expand rather than merely validate their sense of the world. Even as our coverage has upset every part of the political spectrum, the number of people who value independent journalism enough to engage with it and pay for it has grown significantly at the Times and elsewhere.
The Risks of the Alternatives
Much as with democracy itself, to borrow a quip from Winston Churchill, the case for independent journalism is made stronger by the weakness of the alternatives.
Independent journalism is not a neutral platform. Rather than simply deluging readers with a cacophony of voices and hoping the most valuable rise to the surface, it makes countless journalistic choices, large and small, that aim to actively guide readers to a fuller, more nuanced understanding of the world grounded in fact. These choices include contextualizing information, discerning which voices would be most relevant in capturing a debate, and helping people put the significance of an event in perspective.
But independent journalism is also not advocacy journalism. To be clear, the model of advocacy journalism—whose practitioners wear their leanings openly—has shown its value in a long and honorable history. News outlets focused on specific ethnic or racial groups, for example, have played an essential role for more than a century of forcing attention on issues, celebrating people, and championing reforms too often ignored by the mainstream press. Today many high-integrity news organizations are open about their politics and objectives, from Mother Jones on the left to The Dispatch on the right to a host of podcasts and newsletters catering to every imaginable subject and viewpoint. The Marshall Project has not let its core goal of remaking the criminal justice system allow it to skew the facts. CoinDesk broke a story that threatened the very cryptocurrency industry it was launched to support.
But this advocacy model is dangerous when treated as independent journalism’s replacement rather than its supplement. The revelations from the Dominion lawsuit against Fox News underscore the dangers of the advocacy model when fully unchecked. In trying to satiate its audience’s desire for validation—or to advance its preferred political outcome—Fox and those who have embraced its model ultimately unhinge themselves from a fair-minded pursuit of the truth. Facts that match their ideological leanings or preferred political outcomes are often hyped up while those that undermine them are downplayed. Instead of broadening understanding, this model misleads its audience—seen in the fact that Fox News viewers are more likely to believe, incorrectly, that Saddam Hussein helped plan 9/11, Barack Obama wasn’t a US citizen, and the 2020 election was stolen.
Putting ideology front and center is frequently promoted as more honest (isn’t it better to announce one’s biases than to hide them?) and more honorable (isn’t it better to push for solving problems rather than just describing them?). But this can stoke false confidence that one’s personal opinions are actually fundamental truths. What it means to fight for justice is different for everyone. For some it means defending the right to openly carry a weapon, for others the right of migrants to cross unfettered into another nation. But what are the facts about whether carrying guns makes people safer? What impact has tightening or loosening immigration laws had on people, jobs, and culture?
Journalists, no matter how wise and well intentioned, who believe in their own righteousness can find their conviction hardening in ways that obstruct rather than illuminate the world they cover. Even if journalists can navigate all these hazards, journalism driven by a desire to shape outcomes struggles in the inevitable moments when the facts they discover sit in conflict with a larger political goal that they—or their employer—is committed to advancing. And there are further risks when those views are motivated not by genuine principle but by self-interest or partisan advantage.
Contrast the advocacy model with the independent model and you’ll see how different the approaches are. The same Times reporter who broke the story that Donald Trump had asked the director of the FBI to pledge his personal loyalty also broke the story that Hillary Clinton used her personal email account as secretary of state. Similarly, just months after a Times investigation revealed large payouts to silence sexual harassment allegations against Bill O’Reilly, a leading conservative commentator, we published a similar investigation into Harvey Weinstein, a leading liberal donor. And we’ve vigorously reported on everything from personal misconduct to gerrymandering efforts by both Republicans and Democrats. We didn’t write these stories to balance a ledger; we wrote them because each one was individually true and individually important.
The pushback we get on every such piece makes clear that one of the most profound journalistic choices of the era is to either pick a tribe or prepare to upset people. A commitment to independence means the latter is the only defensible option, even though it comes at a substantial short-term cost. At a moment in which forces are attempting to exploit classically liberal ideals—like the journalistic model I am defending here—toward illiberal ends, independent news organizations shouldn’t do their work for them by forsaking those values ourselves.
The Path Forward
How do we protect independent journalism, as challenges arrive from nearly every corner?
The most important safeguard of an independent press is a strong and sustainable press. We need to build up the business model for reported journalism, particularly at the local level. We need to secure legal protections for reporters and their sources to ensure the free flow of information to the public. We need to address the deepening crackdowns against journalists overseas—like Russia’s recent arrest of the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich—and the growing harassment of them at home.
But focusing more narrowly on the question of independence, a few steps are clear for journalists and leaders of journalistic institutions, the Times very much included.
First and foremost, journalists should remember that our core purpose, as I have been saying, is to follow the facts wherever they lead, even when we would prefer for them not to be true, and to fairly represent people and perspectives, even when we disagree with them. Any compromise on this is likely to further erode the public’s already shaky confidence in journalism and ultimately hobble the ability of journalists to serve a society desperately in need of reliable information. I’ve seen countless instances in which people want journalists to bury reporting, twist the facts, or embrace speculation—all to demonstrate allegiance to some higher cause. Instead, journalists should interrogate the world with curiosity, not certainty. We should remain skeptical, humble, searching, as we explore every story, no matter how well we think we know a topic. We should complicate seemingly tidy narratives, embrace nuance, and continually question what we find.
Second, journalists should recommit to reporting as the most valuable service we provide to the public. Reporting—not commentary or aggregation—is the essential ingredient of new ideas and new insights and allows every part of the journalism ecosystem to flourish. This requires journalists to get out of our bubbles. One insidious side effect of the collapse of local news is that journalism jobs are increasingly dominated by highly educated people living in blue coastal cities: according to the Pew Research Center, more than one in five journalists lives in New York, Los Angeles, or Washington. And far too many over-rely on Twitter, mistaking it for a public town square rather than a journalistic echo chamber. Reporters need to work harder to go to unfamiliar places, meet with unfamiliar people, and challenge our own assumptions with unfamiliar perspectives, experiences, and ideas.
Third, journalists need to better recognize how public criticism can manipulate coverage. In today’s hyper-connected environment, the response to our work is more immediate and intense than ever. The increase in transparency and greater accountability for our mistakes and missteps is a welcome shift. But the reaction to our work now often arrives through attacks designed to intimidate by questioning journalists’ legitimacy or morality. The critics here don’t want to set the record straight; they want to cajole, shame, and scare journalists into providing more favorable coverage. At the same time, cheers, like jeers, can be used to co-opt. Self-respecting journalists don’t take marching orders from politicians and corporations; they need to equally resist shaping their coverage to win the praise of activists and interest groups, even those engaged in admirable work. As Dean Baquet, the former executive editor of the Times, often says: Watchdogs cannot allow themselves to become lapdogs.
Finally, journalists should more actively reckon with the uncomfortable reality of widespread distrust in the media. It will take years, if not decades, to win over people who have been told again and again by those they admire and trust—including a former president of the United States—that the media hates them and hates this country. But news organizations can’t act as if they are powerless to reverse the growing distrust in journalism more broadly. They need to do a far better job fighting for their reputations and explaining how they make journalistic decisions. Many of the profession’s conventions—the inverted-pyramid article structure, datelines and bylines, and contortions to excise the writer from the work— are relics of an era when faith in journalistic institutions was assumed. I’m not convinced people ever really understood these conventions. But today we can say with certainty that they don’t. The Times’ own research suggests that even many loyal readers did not understand that our journalists—who, in a normal year, report on the ground from more than 160 countries, often in difficult and dangerous conditions—actually go to the places they write about. That is a failure not of readers’ understanding but of our communication. We haven’t consistently and clearly shown what goes into our reporting, adequately explained our process, or fully clarified how we view our role.
Beyond the journalism industry, others must do their part if we are to protect independent journalism and the role it plays to nurture an informed society. Three groups stand out.
Search engines and, especially, social platforms—most notably Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok—have played an outsize role in creating the conditions that threaten independent journalism. I’m not talking about the shift of advertising dollars from news organizations to tech giants, though that hasn’t helped. I’m talking about the profound shifts in how people find and engage with information, shifts that have exacerbated groupthink, fostered antipathy, and fractured people’s understanding of reality. These platforms and others have largely treated facts as indistinguishable from opinions, allowed reality to mix with conspiracy, and given propaganda equal footing with journalism. And the use of likes and shares to assess engagement and determine promotion has incentivized publishers to produce content that affirms rather than informs, that inflames divisions rather than promotes understanding. I’m sympathetic to the challenges the platforms face in regulating their environments, but they will continue to foster misinformation and polarization until they do more to both differentiate and elevate reputable independent news sources, even if it comes at the cost of user engagement or political backlash.
If journalism was the unintended casualty of the platforms, it’s been the political establishment’s explicit target. Our country’s founders largely defended the free press, even as they knew that its scrutiny wasn’t always comfortable. But particularly in the past few years, a sustained and escalating campaign from the American right has focused on attacking the press to win votes and inoculate itself against criticism or scrutiny. Rather than responding to the substance of unflattering reporting, they’ve labeled reporters “enemies of the people” and our work “fake news.”
This campaign has widened what was long a modest partisan gap in trust in journalism to a chasm. Today, 70 percent of Democrats say they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media; 14 percent of Republicans do. The anti-press rhetoric has also inspired legal action. The Times has faced four times as many libel suits in the six years since Trump’s election than in the six years before—many from right-wing activists who want the Supreme Court to overturn what were long assumed to be bedrock legal protections for the press. A not-so-subtle goal of this effort is to make it easier to sue news organizations and, as a result, harder for journalists to bring information to the public.
This may be an effective tactic. Few professions today evoke more widespread scorn than journalism. But attacking the free press is reckless and unpatriotic. In countries like Hungary, Turkey, and Russia, similar anti-journalism rhetoric and action have presaged broader dismantling of democratic norms, efforts made far easier without the transparency and accountability provided by a free and independent press. In the United States, this amounts to a dangerous incursion not just on the spirit of the First Amendment, but on the special formula that has made this country the most successful on earth. Our nation’s history shows independent journalism not only makes our society more informed, it makes our nation more secure, our economy stronger, our people healthier, our society more just. Systematically undermining independent journalism—and seeking to replace it with self-serving propaganda from powerful interests—weakens the nation.
No one stands to lose more from these trends than the American people. For decades, spreading a newspaper on the kitchen table or gathering to watch the nightly news was an essential part of being a good citizen. The rituals may have changed, but the need hasn’t. Citizens still benefit from a shared set of facts. They still benefit from understanding their neighbors and their nation and caring enough to peek beyond the boundaries of their own lives to engage with the larger world.
It is Americans themselves who will need to insist that there is a future for independent journalism. Amid all the distraction, confusion, and chaos of the digital world, it’s more important than ever that citizens develop relationships with news organizations that inform and challenge them, commit to finding a daily place in their lives for independent journalism, and use it to expand, not merely reinforce, their worldview. If the press holds fast to journalistic independence, I am confident that over time more people—of all backgrounds and perspectives—will come to see the value of journalists serving as fair-minded guides through a complex world at a consequential moment.
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