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Journalistic Values, Objectivity, Fairness, Balance More Important than Ever

Objectivity, fairness and balance are values that have long guided journalism. But in our rapidly changing media environment, where affirmation is only a click away, do readers, listeners and viewers really want news that adheres to those values? The leaders of three Iowa journalism schools say they do.

Objectivity is a misunderstood term, according to Michael Bugeja, Director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communicaton at Iowa State University. He says being objective isn't being unbiased. "It's the ability seeing the world as it is, not as we wish it were. People see things the same way when the stakes are high enough."

Bugeja says the difficulty for journalists is learning to do this day in and day out. He says that while working as a journalist, he had to speak with victims of heinous crimes, and learn to view the crimes through their eyes. Then, he would go to the jail to speak with alleged perpetrators and see the world from that viewpoint. The result had to be a story including both viewpoints that put readers on the scene to help them see and feel what happened.

Kathleen Richardson, Dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Drake University says it's unrealistic to think that journalists can be completely objective. Richardson says every person approaches situations and sees events through their own life experiences, gender, age, etc. She says she talks with first year students about how, as professionals, it's their responsibility to recognize that inherent bias and think about it when approaching a story. She tells students to be curious, recognize the nuances, include more than one perspective, and approach each story with humility.

David Ryfe, Director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa says journalism results from a set of practices that journalists engage in, such as attribution, verifying facts and using multiple sources. Ryfe says today's journalism has become more interpretive, moving away from citing one source and then an opposing source, to interpreting what those sources have said.

Bugeja says social media hasn't changed journalism, but it has changed the expectations of the audience. "If you look at Facebook, it's programmed for affirmation, not information. So, if you're getting your news from social media, you can always find a platform to affirm whatever belief you have, whether it's true or harmful. But if you can teach a student to write, to fact check, to think about an audience, to use the technology, they're going to get an audience. With this new technology a student can still change the world for the better," says Bugeja.

Digital media has also changed the business model, which impacts journalism. Richardson says former students tell her  there is so much competition, there's tremendous pressure to get the story first, even before a reporter can fact check.

Ryfe says with the advent of blogs and podcasts, anyone can produce news in today's world. "There's never been so much news, and never less of it produced by journalists." He says it's never been more important for journalists to differentiate themselves through accuracy, fairness and balance. "These values are more important in this environment than in prior environments where they didn't have as much competition."

Despite all the challenges, all three educators are optimistic about the future. Richardson says, "It's an exciting field where you can still make an impact with thorough reporting." Ryfe cautions students to lead with their passion. "If you're not passionate about doing this, you probably shouldn't get into it." Bugeja says, "If you can write well, if you understand visuals, if you understand grammar, if you understand audience and you come to one of our schools, you can change the world for the better."

This program is part of the Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires Initiative, a joint venture of the Pulitzer Prizes board, the Federation of State Humanities Council, and Humanities Iowa in celebration of the 2016 centennial of the Prizes. The initiative seeks to illuminate the impact of journalism and the humanities on American life today, to imagine their future and to inspire new generations to consider the values represented by the body of Pulitzer Prize-winning work.

Support is provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Pulitzer Prizes Board, Columbia University and Humanities Iowa.

Katherine Perkins is IPR's Program Director for News and Talk
Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River