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Truth: Can Journalists Set Personal Beliefs Aside?



One of the strange after-effects of Donald Trump's election has been the rapid elevation of a previously minor (and generally boring) sub-genre of journalism: Journalists Writing About Journalists. Particularly in New York, where I am based, the amount of professional hand-wringing and sack-cloth-wearing on the part of the media can seem extreme. "How could this have happened? Did we cause it?" ask my colleagues, never the humblest people, in the glossy pages of The Atlantic and The New Yorker. These petitions for understanding and/or forgiveness are followed by the inevitable question: "What now?" 

Terms have been coined to describe the current situation, most of which are appropriately hyperbolic considering that this political era is one of overstatement. We are told that we live in a "post-fact" democracy. And perhaps it is true. The gates seem to be closing on a responsible Washington press corps, to be replaced by random 160-character dispatches of presidential "truthiness." The media is seen as the source of all evil, a cauldron of bloodletting and partisan gossip, sometimes by journalists themselves. Individual reporters have been shamed in tweets by the elected leader of the free world, who has also rebranded The New York Times as "The Failing New York Times." Meanwhile, Russian hackers are afoot, or not afoot, depending on what you read. The situation is not great. 

But if you are like me, you are probably tired of reading slack-jawed journalistic accounts of how journalism is failing. Our problems are no mystery: We got here because contemporary journalism is too often a toxic combination of a commodified race to the bottom and a feedback loop. Surely the answer is not to add more to the feedback loop (though this article belongs in that morbid company. Sorry). 

I don't think we don't need a sea change in the field. We do need to keep doing our best and most rigorous work. We need to pay attention. We also need to stop vainglorious overestimations of the ability of journalism to form national opinion. It is a rare writer who can convince someone to change a dearly held belief, much less a whole country. 

The more interesting question for the coming weeks and years is not, "What can we do now as journalists?" but "What can we do now as people?" If you, like me, are a writer worried about the specter of a Muslim registry, the disappearance of healthcare and women's rights, the vulnerability of people of color, executive corruption, etc., there are plenty of forms of direct action available. Call your representatives. Donate money. Volunteer. Protest, if that's your bag. None of these actions should interfere with one's journalistic objectivity. It is possible to be both objective in our professional lives and to know where our beliefs lie. 

The night after Trump was elected, I joined several thousand residents of New York in Union Square for a march to Trump Tower. I was there as a protestor, not a journalist, though I broadcast images of the protest on social media. What were we protesting? Some held signs rejecting the election: "Not My President" appeared in Sharpie on white posters. Others were there as feminists, or for immigrant rights and anti-Muslim discrimination, or to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, or for Black Lives Matter. The protest was less about a single issue and more about a broad sense of the injustices of power — something that has never been a partisan concern.  

There are plenty of situations in my professional life that demand me to be a clean slate, to listen and write without judgment or pre-formed opinion. But that night wasn't a part of my professional life. It was a moment when I wanted not to be a reporter, but a person. I wanted to lock hands with my friends and march down Park Avenue. I joined about 5,000 other people whose feelings were similar. 

The boundaries are always messy, the answers hardly clear-cut. But it seems to me that if journalists are going to parse over anything, it should be questions of how we act ethically in the coming years, not just as The Media, but as Americans. 

A native Memphian and until recently an associate editor with Memphis magazine, Eileen Townsend is a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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