September 1, 2021

Journalists who want to express their political views on social media, engage in activism and ally themselves with social justice protesters value truth as much as journalists who seek to maintain a neutral, dispassionate approach to the profession.

That’s one conclusion from our new study of 167 journalists that included professional reporters and editors at a variety of outlets as well as student journalists and journalism professors.

Many outlets, including Poynter, have written about the firing of staffers for social media posts, newsroom protests over insensitive headlines and the evolution of journalism ethics codes to allow journalists to publicly support certain causes. Taken together, these developments make it clear that the number of journalists who reject the traditional journalistic mindset is growing and beginning to alter the boundaries of the profession.

What is less clear is what this newer breed of journalists value, which tenets of journalism they see as unnecessary or even harmful and which they see as essential. Our study, presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication annual conference in August, sought to define the mindsets journalists bring to their work and to identify the commonalities and differences between them.

Two distinct mindsets emerged: A traditionalist group that favors neutrality and a second group that shows more concern for the impact of journalism on their sources and desires more engagement in political discourse.

The traditionalists said journalists should not be activists, but the second group supported the statement that journalists are citizens first and should be free to sign petitions, protest and join political parties. Members of this group want to be agents of change and protectors of citizens, especially those in marginalized groups.

“I think that journalists have the right to vote and partake in protests that they think are just, as long as they are not letting their emotions and actions interfere with their work,’’ a student journalist said.

Another journalism student would likely agree with NPR’s new policy, which allows its journalists to support causes such as “the freedom and dignity of human beings,” a free press and the right to “thrive in society without facing discrimination” on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, disability or religion.

“I don’t think you can be objective with the Black Lives Matter movement, and it’s simply because it’s a movement of talking about the rights of humans,” the student told us.

Speaking out on social media, too

Like many news outlets, NPR still prohibits its journalists from contributing to political candidates and putting bumper stickers on their cars or political signs in their yards. It also still bars them from sharing their political views online.

The public may agree. Ben Smith, The New York Times’ media columnist, reported in January that most of 3,400 Americans polled agreed that journalists should keep their political opinions private.

In our study, the strongest area of disagreement centered on whether journalists should air their political beliefs on social media. The traditionalists said it’s problematic.

“If journalists are outwardly casting their beliefs to the public, how can readers trust that their reporting is unbiased and fair?’’ a magazine journalist said.

But study participants who identify with the newer mindset want to be open on social media.

“Why, as private citizens, should journalists not be able to share what they think, particularly when it comes to issues of race, gender, sexuality and inequality?” a journalism professor asked.

A changing view of journalism

Some nontraditionalists in our study said objectivity is an illusion that comes from white, male privilege. One wrote that traditional journalism has caused “real, substantive harm against marginalized communities.”

A journalism student said she sees “immense goodness” in activist journalism, but one professional journalist said that’s not his job.

“If by ‘agent of change,’ you mean to promote good government, transparency, adherence to the law and to give voice to the voiceless, then I am for it, but as a rule, I don’t think journalists should be in the business of advocacy nor should their job to be one of fighting for justice or change,” he said.

Common ground

Despite the divergent schools of thought in our study, each group agreed that journalism’s first obligation is to the truth. They also agreed that facts are more important than people’s opinions. “Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth” was the most supported statement among both groups and was scored even higher overall by the group with the engaged mindset.

We think this is a bright spot in our research that could lead to journalists with both mindsets in newsrooms finding common ground on such issues as attending protests, neutrality and acceptable boundaries on social media.

One journalism professor told us his students are forcing him to reconsider journalistic traditions.

“It sensitized me in new ways to have these conversations with young journalists who have very outspoken and strong viewpoints,” he said.

He said some of the concerns his students have raised, such as how journalists refer to immigrants and people of color, are now reflected in the Associated Press Stylebook.

“Changes in terminology and what’s acceptable, like ‘illegal’ immigrant or uppercasing the word Black, that’s where some of these changes are driven from,” he said. “So, it’s good that they’re having these conversations.”

Another professor hopes newsroom traditionalists will be open to changes being sought by this activist generation.

“It’s an exciting time for young journalists,” he said. “Let them create new standards and processes.”

Kate Farrish is an assistant professor of journalism at Central Connecticut State University. Megan Craig is a reporter for the Syracuse Post-Standard who teaches journalism at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. Greg Munno is an assistant professor at the Newhouse School. Newhouse Professor Alex Richards also contributed to this research.

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Kate Farrish is an assistant professor of journalism at Central Connecticut State University.
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  • Uuugghh! This is insane. This is exactly why people don’t trust the media. Many already think the media is biased when they are only reporting the truth and now journalists want to be political activists? May I suggest a different career path for you then, because you lack the skills needed to be a credible journalist.