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UNC’s decision to deny acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones a tenured professorship at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media has prompted discussions about race and academic freedom. But it’s also raised a fundamental question about journalism itself.
As first reported by John Drescher in The Assembly, UNC mega-donor Walter Hussman Jr. conveyed in emails to administrators that he opposed the hiring of Hannah-Jones because he worried it would distract from the school’s core values.
These core values — impartiality, integrity, objectivity and truth-seeking — adorn on the wall of the school that now bears his name, the result of a $25 million gift made by Hussman in 2019. They’re also the same values laid out in a statement that Hussman publishes every day in his newspapers. Hussman’s hope was that these values would be imparted upon the newest generation of journalists being trained at the school.
As Drescher noted, UNC’s latest controversy has made it ground zero for a debate about what journalism is, what it has been and what it should be.
On one side of the debate, there are old-school traditionalists, like Hussman, who consider objectivity and impartiality to be journalism’s gold standard. Then there’s another camp — younger folks like Hannah-Jones and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Wesley Lowery — who think that should change.
People like Hannah-Jones and Lowery argue that objectivity has always been defined by those in the majority — from a white perspective. Maintaining an objective neutral, “both sides” approach can raise the danger of false equivalency, they say.
Hussman disagrees. “That’s not what I learned in journalism school in the 1960s,” he wrote in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in 2019.
But maybe that’s the problem. It’s not the 1960s anymore, and we shouldn’t want it to be. Journalism is inevitably changing. Will journalism schools like UNC change with it?
Faculty say that what’s written on the walls doesn’t have a huge impact on their teaching.
Associate professor Deb Aikat said that while he teaches about Hussman’s core values in his media ethics classes, he frames them largely as just one example of ethical thinking — not the only form of journalism that students ought to follow.
“As we are training future journalists, future communicators to navigate the changing times, we’ve got to also change with the times,” Aikat said.
Many readers might be skeptical of — even resistant to — change. And understandably so, especially as Americans’ trust in the media wanes. But readers ought not worry about journalism losing all credibility. There are a number of values that journalists should — and do — hold dear: fairness, accuracy, transparency, to name a few.
After all, this debate isn’t a question of whether we should continue to do our due diligence and thoroughly investigate both sides. It’s about whether we should give both sides equal weight when the facts clearly favor one side over the other.
“Journalism is not stenography,” Hannah-Jones told NPR’s 1A podcast last June. “We don’t simply say, ‘Donald Trump said this. Nancy Pelosi said this.’ That should not be our role. Our role should actually be getting at the truth and providing context and analysis so people understand what this means.”
None of this is to say we should never be objective. Instead, it’s a call for us to think critically about what objectivity is, and how it can sometimes hold us back.
Perhaps the most concerning part about expecting journalists to remain purely objective is that it functions as a gatekeeper for Black journalists and other journalists of color. When we define the experiences of the majority as the objective truth — as history often does — it indicates to everyone else that their version of the truth isn’t valid, or that divergence from that truth constitutes bias. Adherence to these standards tells Black reporters that they can’t objectively cover Black Lives Matter protests. It tells women that they can’t fairly report on sexual assault if they’ve experienced it themselves.
It’s not wrong to think that journalists should be objective. But we all need to ask ourselves: who decides what the truth is? Who decides what — or who — is objective? And by clinging to this notion of objectivity, are we merely reinforcing the status quo?
Paige Masten is a 2021 graduate of UNC and former editorial page editor of the Daily Tar Heel.