Questions and answers with Indira Lakshmanan, Poynter's Craig Newmark Foundation Chair for Journalism Ethics
Poynter announced today that longtime national and foreign correspondent Indira Lakshmanan is joining the institute as its Craig Newmark Foundation Chair for Journalism Ethics.
Lakshmanan, currently The Boston Globe's Washington columnist, has worked for newspapers, a wire service, digital and print magazines, TV and radio. The new position, which is funded by a $1 million gift from the philanthropic fund started by Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, will focus on ethical issues facing the industry including accountability, fake news and building trust in journalism.
On the eve of the announcement, I caught up with Lakshmanan to ask about the issues she'll be tackling in her new role. Her answers are below.
Let’s start from the beginning. What’s your title at Poynter and what will you be doing, exactly?
The title may sound a bit exalted — "the Craig Newmark Chair for Journalism Ethics" — but my first mission is pretty basic: to try to understand the many ethical challenges facing our industry now — fake news, sponsored content, objectivity and access, low trust in journalism and media illiteracy, to name just a few. I’m looking forward to collaborating with others who are already working on solutions generated by newsrooms, civic education, and technology companies.
Today’s announcement said you’d be writing about media ethics. In your mind, what areas need examination? What are the major ethical issues facing journalists today — and have they changed over the years?
There are all the issues you see in headlines, from access and objectivity challenges facing reporters covering a White House that brands the so-called mainstream media the "enemy," to local press struggling to find ways to stay in business and build audience loyalty.
The rise of hyper-partisan news has enabled consumers to live in ideological silos, which damages civil discourse and undermines trust in nonpartisan media. Of course there are evergreen problems like plagiarism, inaccuracy and lack of disclosure, and fixing those is fundamental to building and maintaining public trust, which feels more important than ever.
You’ll also be convening journalists and teaching them about ethics. In your mind, what do they need to learn?
I don’t want to prejudge what journalists "need" to learn about ethics; everyone’s needs are different, and I hope to begin to address an array of questions that journalists in different newsrooms will have.
You’ve spent decades in journalism as a reporter working in print, digital, radio and TV and more recently, as a columnist. In your mind, what are the biggest challenges to the industry now?
Well I’ve been in Washington for nine years, so I’ve been thinking a lot about press freedom, access, impartiality and truth-telling at a time when our president appears intolerant of critical media and has appropriated the term "fake news" to mean any coverage, even with undisputed facts, that he considers unfavorable.
The fact that the 20 most popular hoax stories about the 2016 campaign were shared and liked 1.3 million times more on Facebook than the 20 most popular real news stories is troubling, especially as more people consume their news through social media platforms. I think most journalists, newsrooms and tech companies are at least aware of the problems. Our challenge now is to find solutions. I’m so grateful to Craig and Poynter for creating this position at such a critical moment for the news business.
Clarification: This post has been updated to note that it's the Craig Newmark Foundation that gave the gift, not Newmark himself.