Journalism as Public Service: Truth-seeking in a hyperpartisan age

Wednesday, Nov 14, 2018
by Benjamin Gelman '22, Pace Center student correspondent

“Journalism is activism for the truth” said journalist Indira Lakshmanan, who spoke at Princeton University’s Distinguished Teaching Lecture in Service and Civic Engagement on Tuesday, November 13 in McCormick 106 to discuss the current state of journalism and how it can function as a public service. 

Lakshmanan’s talk was sponsored by Princeton University Public Lectures, the University Center for Human Values, the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, the Program in Journalism, and The Humanities Council. The lecture primarily focused on the effects our contemporary political moment is having on reporting and how it is necessary for reporters to re-evaluate their standards while remaining committed to providing in-depth and factual stories to the public.

One of the most striking questions Lakshmanan, who is the executive editor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and a columnist with the Boston Globe, asked during her lecture was “what is the ethical role of journalists in our society?” This question has a long history. Lakshmanan detailed that reporters have been exposing injustice in America for decades, from meatpacking industry exposes to the civil rights movement.

Indira Lakshmanan Lecture

Photo by Gwen McNamara    Journalist Indira Lakshmanan discusses journalism as public service during Princeton's Distinguished Teaching Lecture on Service and Civic Engagement. 

“Nobody gets into journalism for the money” she explained, and even recounted how she had gotten into journalism in order to have a platform to tell important stories that would have an impact on society. “We too perform an important public service,” she stated.

Lakshmanan also described a precipitous decline in public trust in news media since the the early 1970s when Gallup began asking the question. Trust in news media hit a high in 1976 in the Gallup Poll, perhaps due to the role of the press in exposing Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, Lakshmanan said, and the fact that most Americans got their news then from three very similar nightly national news broadcasts that were regulated by FCC, which required broadcasts to be "honest, equitable and balanced". Under Ronald Reagan, the FCC's "fairness doctrine" was eliminated, allowing for the rise of partisan cable networks like Fox News and talk radio - which have contributed to polarizing the public. Trust in media plunged in the 1990s and hit an all-time low in 2016, which coincided with the election of Donald Trump. Throughout history, Lakshmanan said, media distrust has been an issue, as often local towns would have separate papers for those with different political leanings. “There has long been a sense of ‘I don't trust the media but I do trust my media.’”

Lakshmanan went on to describe how currently, we are witnessing a new stage of this phenomenon. “President Trump did not invent the concept of distrust in news media, but what he has done is capitalize on pre-existing doubts and exploited legitimate concerns,” she said. These concerns, including the media being elitist, out of touch, or having a liberal bias, are now often reasons cited for disregarding well-researched and factual journalism. However, as Lakshmanan admits, “there are some things we are getting wrong.” She cited some flaws in the news industry, such as its lack of socio-economic or racial diversity, the fact that news organizations are clustered on both coasts, and its lack of representation for those coming from rural areas, varied religious practices, or military backgrounds as areas in which the field can improve. “Newsrooms need to look more like the whole country so we can tell everyone’s story better,” she advised.

Indira Lakshmanan Lecture

Photo by Gwen McNamara      Journalist Indira Lakshmanan shares ways journalists and media outlets can build trust.

The final portion of the talk concerned what standards journalists can adopt to meet new challenges of the modern era. Lakshmanan described how it can be tempting for reporters today to publish “hot takes” or first impressions on events, as the fast pace of the internet now requires journalism to collect facts and publish faster than ever. However, she prescribed caution in this area, saying “Think before you tweet. I would never tweet anything I would not be comfortable being under my byline.” 

She also suggested more transparency, and that journalists should make sure all stories are clearly labeled as news, editorial, analysis, etc. so that readers can be assured that their news source is making efforts to distinguish between fact and opinion. Lakshmanan cited a story written by The Washington Post on allegations of sexual misconduct against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore as a great example of news transparency, as that story was very honest about where its sources had come from, and had even published documents that had the potential to damage the reputation of one of their sources in order to be upfront with the reader from the beginning.

“We need to be transparent about our ethics, funding, and reporting process ... and we need to demystify journalism," she said. 

Watch a recording of the lecture.