Editor’s note: Paige Masten, a 2021 graduate of UNC and the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, wrote a column published Monday about objectivity, Nikole Hannah-Jones and the journalism principles championed by Walter Hussman Jr., a prominent UNC donor. Hussman replied with this letter to Masten, which is being published with his permission.
Paige, I read with interest your opinion column. While we don’t agree on all of what you have written, it is opinion, and diverse opinions are beneficial to the free competition of ideas and to the public.
One of your sentences in your last paragraph jumped off the page at me, and I think you ask exactly the right question, which is italics below:
“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?”
I think that is exactly the right question, because there seem to be two competing schools of thought on this in journalism today. One is that the reporters, editors, and news journalists should determine the truth, then reveal that to readers, or listeners or viewers. The other view is that we should give the news as objectively, impartially, fairly and as honestly as possible, without personal opinion or bias, then let the readers decide what is the truth. (My emphasis added in italics.) I say the readers should decide based on over 50 years in the news business. I have seen so many times we started pursing a news story, thinking we knew what was true, only to be surprised that it was something quite different. And there are so many times when first reporting facts, and thinking we know the truth about those facts, that later other facts emerge and the truth is something quite different. We also know that some of our readers have far more knowledge in some specific areas than any of our reporters and editors. In that case, we are better to give them the facts and let them use their knowledge and context to determine the truth.
I have also found that while this is an interesting debate in journalism circles, the public is clearly on the side of allowing them as news consumers to decide what they believe to be true.
You also ask: “Who decides what — or who — is objective?” I think the answer to that is the readers, viewers, or listeners.
And your last question: “And by clinging to this notion of objectivity, are we merely reinforcing the status quo?” I think the answer to that is it is not our mission to reinforce or not reinforce the status quo in providing news converge. Our job is to report the news. It may be important for some writers to challenge the status quo, but that should be done in the opinion pages, not in the news reporting.
Thank you for your opinion. I appreciate your raising these valid questions for your readers to consider.
Walter Hussman Jr. is the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock.