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Can reporters balance activism and objectivity?

Professional and student journalists debated whether reporters could be activists as well as objective during a panel discussion March 30 hosted by MDDC and the Salisbury University SPJ chapter. The discussion was wide ranging and touched on the role of journalism in our democracy today as well as how journalists should approach their own bias while reporting.

Jim Lee, editor of the Dover Post, moderated.  He was joined by Michele Ennis, Executive Director, Tri-County Mediation, Jennifer Brannock Cox, assistant professor, Salisbury University, Todd Karli, News Director & Anchor, WBOC, Jim McLaughlin, deputy general counsel, The Washington Post and Ben Penserga, content strategist, The Daily Times & Delmarva Now.  Click here for the panelists' bios.

Several panelists discussed the central role of objectivity in reporting, and how critical it is to be objective in both appearance and fact. Reporters and the publications they work for must be perceived as credible and neutral for citizens to trust the news they receive.  McLaughlin noted that it could be very damaging to a news organization's credibility to have pictures or social media postings from reporters protesting or being politically active.  He went on to note that if a libel suit is filed against an organization, those postings could be used as evidence of malice or bias on the part of a reporter.

Ennis explained that in mediation, it is particularly important to stay neutral so that participants feel heard and understood.  In her work, she strives for understanding and accessiblity.  She noted that if a mediator is vocal about political leanings or visibly active in advocacy, it turns potential participants off from using mediation.  She drew parallels from this work to that of reporting, where the reporter is tasked with gaining information from a source. 

Members of the audience questioned how anyone could ever be completely objective, as reporters bring their own bias to their work.  Brannock Cox focused on showing the reader the process of how a reporter arrives at a conclusion to provide context for an assertion.  Letting the reader into the story by being transparent about where the reporter's experience intersects with the subject matter can provide the detail and nuance that will create compelling copy.  This needs to be balanced with strong editing and discernment by the editor.  

Penserga asserted that part of credibility is having the courage to fully admit mistakes when they happen.  Getting it right is paramount in building trust with the community.  Both Penserga and Karli discussed the importance of not showing a reaction to information or a source in the moment as that can compromise objectivity.

Sorry you missed the discussion?  We're having another session in Baltimore on May 24th, this time moderated by Andy Green, opinions editor of the Baltimore Sun.  Join us!  Registration is open to all. 

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