The Pulse

UNC panel discusses challenges within and importance of American journalism

By: - April 8, 2022 9:00 am

What is the purpose of journalism in the 21st century? What is its future? As the legacy publications that exemplified journalism shrink or even die off, where do we look for news?

This week UNC-Chapel Hill’s Abbey Speaker Series brought together a panel of journalists to answer those and other thorny journalism questions.

The Monday evening panel, moderated by journalist and UNC-Chapel Hill history professor Molly Worthen, was presented by the UNC Program for Public Discourse, General Alumni Association, and Duke University’s Polis: Center for Politics. It featured McKay Coppins, staff writer at The Atlantic; columnist and John William Pope Foundation president John Hood; and Nafari Vanaski, a veteran newspaper reporter who has, since leaving the industry, written about how traditional concepts of ‘objectivity’ in journalism perpetuate racism.

Vanaski spoke to that from personal experience, having worked in newsrooms that were overwhelmingly white and male and seen how it impacted news decisions.

She told the personal story of covering the story of a police shooting in downtown Pittsburgh. Through interviews with sources and video of the incident, Vanaski wrote a piece that went beyond the standard first-day crime story.

“Those people trusted me with their story and my goal was to tell it,” Vanaski said.

Her editors disagreed about how her piece should be shaped and played in the paper. Ultimately the paper’s managing editor said she needed to have more sympathy for the police. They heavily edited the piece, removed photos and ran it as a column rather than a front page news story.

“I just hate even thinking about it,” Vanaski said.

Nafari Vanaski

But unfortunately, she said, that’s what often passes for objectivity or impartiality in American newsrooms where white men expressing sympathy for authority make the decisions.

Coppins, who has written about the health of the journalism industry and the perils it faces, said the diversity of American newsrooms – or lack thereof – often impacts just how impartial or objective its news will be.

“The version of the news that comes out is basically, you weigh the world views of everybody in the newsroom – and then what seems balanced and objective is the middle of that, right?” Coppins said. “If your newsroom is overwhelmingly white, male and college educated, then what’s going to seem balanced and objective is going to be very different than if you have a newsroom that is much more racially diverse, much more economically diverse and much more ideologically diverse.”

UNC-Chapel Hill was an apt setting for the conversation. Controversy over journalism, politics and objectivity has rocked the school and its renowned school of journalism in the last year. At its heart: the interference of Walter Hussman, the UNC alum and mega donor, in the school’s botched attempt to hire Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, herself a prominent alumna of the journalism school.

Hussman’s $25 million pledge to the school led to it being renamed for him. As part of his donor agreement with the school Hussman, a conservative Arkansas media magnate, also insisted a statement of values printed in his company’s newspapers be etched in stone on the wall of the journalism school. When Hussman was given confidential personnel information about Hannah-Jones’s hiring process and used it to lobby against the hire, he questioned whether the George K. Polk and National Magazine Award winning reporter believed in his journalism values and whether she should teach at the school if she did not. He also objected to the views Hannah-Jones expressed in The 1619 Project and an essay on reparations for Black Americans.

Central to Hussman’s professed core values is journalistic impartiality, also commonly called “objectivity” – though there is strong disagreement within journalism as to how that should be defined. Hussman cited the need for impartiality in initially refusing to publicly discuss Hannah-Jones’s hire and his role in it while working behind the scenes to influence school administrators and members of the school’s Board of Trustees on the issue. Hannah-Jones and others called that hypocritical, but Hussman pointed to traditional signifiers of impartiality like avoiding political donations and endorsements as proof he practices what he preaches.

Everyone on Monday’s panel agreed  conversations about objectivity can be complex but often focus on the wrong issues.

“This is well trod ground,” Hood said. “I remember being on campus here at UNC in the mid-80s, early classes on newswriting and reporting. Even then there was a debate about ‘is objectivity really possible?’ and ‘What do we mean by objectivity?’ I got a bit impatient with it then and I’m still a bit impatient with it now.”

“I think impartiality in a sense is impossible, but it’s not the right word for what journalistic detachment is about,” Hood said. “It’s really about accuracy, it’s about fairness and it’s about balance in a broadly defined sense.”

John Hood

Talking to people who only have one view on a proposed bill, Hood said, isn’t simply not objective – it’s not complete, accurate or fair.

Hood, an opinion columnist who has led conservative organizations in North Carolina, recalled working at libertarian and conservative leaning magazines. Even there, he said he observed people of widely differing political views bouncing ideas and opinions off each other and striving to fairly characterize ideas or arguments with which they disagreed in order to produce the best work.

Coppins said his work for The Atlantic – a publication whose founding manifesto said it would “be of no party or clique” – has been instructive. The magazine still publishes articles and views from a variety of political and social perspectives, but there are still discussions and arguments about which views may be so outside the mainstream or contemptible that they don’t deserve to be published.

“Everybody in this room could identify an opinion they don’t believe should be aired in a publication,” Coppins said.

But it’s far from certain everyone would agree on which opinion that would be.

McKay Coppins

“The reality is that journalism itself has a set of values,” Coppins said. “Journalism, at least in theory, should be in favor of freedom. It should be against government authoritarianism and against censorship in various forms. This is where the inherent values of journalism will come into conflict with popular ideas in the discourse right now.”

The idea that the press itself should be censored is an idea that has gained wider mainstream acceptance, Coppins said. But the values of journalism itself stand in opposition to that.

Vanaski said one source of the rise of the sort of pro-censorship, anti-democratic ideas against which journalism should stand is the diminishing number of journalists who are covering them at the local level before they blow up into national controversies.

“In my experience in local newsrooms, part of what our reporters did was go to school board meetings,” Vanaski said.

That’s when there would have been coverage of groups wanting to ban books, Vanaski said, preventing people reacting with outrage as it became a national trend seemingly out of nowhere. With beats like local school boards and local government in general getting less – and sometimes no – coverage, these movements get little coverage or interrogation before they’re already producing policies and laws.

Everyone on the panel agreed much diminished newsrooms – and the buying up of legacy news organizations by financial firms with little or no interest in good local journalism – is bad for everyone. Whether due to blows to traditional financial models from the shift to more use of the Internet or how people consume the news changing radically, the panelists said it’s obvious something is going to have to fill the void left by traditional news organizations.

Smaller, non-profit newsrooms and digital subscription publications have promise, the panelists agree. But it’s not yet clear exactly what model will get the job done.

“I think the way we’re going to have to solve that problem is some combination of philanthropy and enterprises that look very different than the old newspaper system did, but generate that essential information for the practice of democracy,” Hood said.

Vanaski agreed. As difficult as it may be to let go of old ideas of how and where we get our news, she said, continuing to produce the journalism is the most important thing.

“I grew up with this sort of romantic attachment to traditional news, watching movies like The Paper,” Vanaski said. “But I think we have to let go of the fact that it’s going to look that way as long as we can create new models that serve the same function.”

Full video from this week’s panel – and previous panels in the same series – is available here.

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.