Editorial: The new objectivity

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“Transparency is the new objectivity;” David Weinberger’s words have sent journalists into a flutter nowadays. And the Sean Hannity controversy is the perfect example.

On Monday night, Sean Hannity was named as the mystery third client of Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s long-term personal attorney. Hannity, a conservative commentator and Fox News host, addressed many stories on Trump’s lawyers but denied the relationship between himself and Cohen.

Whether you consider Hannity a journalist or a talk show host, his connections created a conflict of interest, or a situation in which his personal interests and biases could prevent him from reporting objectively.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics states clearly to “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” In other words, in situations where biased reporting cannot be avoided, the author should acknowledge this limitation, so that the reader can better understand what may have influenced the final product.

The problem, then, is not that Hannity had the connection, but rather that he did not disclose it — he wasn’t transparent.

Being transparent allows the audience to judge for themselves the reliability of your reporting, and the same goes with disclosing and citing sources. This allows the readers to opportunity to check journalists and make sure the sources were accurately summarized.

In short, we can’t avoid conflicts of interest — but, we can absolutely minimize them.

Relationships are an essential part of the job; it is necessary for a journalist to have resources, and inside scoops. But the problem arises when an inside source passes as an objective outsider, like when a student reviews their own club, or when a television host interviews their own lawyer.

In a college setting, preventing conflicts of interest is nearly impossible. We are all members of the campus community. Student journalists attend and contribute in many ways to the organization that they sometimes report on. One could that, because of this, student journalists would be hard pressed to objectively cover anything on their campuses.

In short, we can’t avoid conflicts of interest — but, we can absolutely minimize them.

And in all honesty, sometimes allowing a reporter to write about something they’re passionate about strengthens the reporting because they understand the nuances of the topic. Having an environmental science major write a piece on Earth Day could create a more insightful and nuanced piece than the average reporter — so long as the conflict is acknowledged.

It’s impossible to remain completely objective if only nine of the 10 facts in a given story can fit in the space. How do you decide which of the facts is least important? That matter is subjective.

Hannity’s mistake was hiding a connection which could have swayed his viewers’ understanding of his reporting. Faking anything, even objectivity, only creates trouble in the long run — we believe that acknowledging our own limits creates trust in our readers.

The Muhlenberg Weekly's Editorial Board is comprised of the Editor-in-Chief, Managing Editor(s) and Section Editors, one of whom writes the editorial. Material appearing without a byline represents the majority opinion of the Editorial Board.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Transparency should be the goal across the board. Based on that goal…Hannity should have stated his connection . However, based on the same goal shouldn’t the NBC HOST “Meet the Press ” have disclosed that his wife was a Political consultant and that during the last presidential cycle that the firm his wife ran received a million dollar contract to represent the campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders.

    Going back in history a bit…that both of COKIE ROBETTS parents were Democrat congressional representatives from Louisiana, that her brother headed the largest Democrat lobbying firm in DC and that her sister had been the Democrat mayor of Princeton, NJ.

    How about the fact that the older brother of the president of CBS News was one of the most senior advisors in the Obama White House, or that the SISTER OF the president of ABC NEWS also was key person in the White House.

    Yes…complete transparency would be wonderful.

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