Baron rises to the defense of objectivity in journalism

MARTY BARON, the former editor of the Washington Post and Boston Globe, came to Brandeis University last week and threw down the gauntlet to those who think objectivity in news coverage is an outmoded concept. 

“I find myself in a diminishing minority and yet I have no reservations about being a dissenter,” Baron said in accepting a “distinguished fellow” award. “Not when I consider the subject so important and not when I see our profession moving headlong in what I consider a misguided and ultimately self-destructive direction.”

Baron took issue with a report issued in January by Leonard Downie, a former executive editor at the Washington Post, and Andrew Heyward, a former president of CBS News. The two former media executives, who are now professors at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, interviewed 75 news leaders and came away persuaded that objectivity is no longer relevant to the coverage of news.

Kathleen Carroll, former executive editor of the Associated Press, told Downie and Heyward that she has not used the word objectivity since the early 1970s because she believes it reflects the world view of “white, educated, fairly wealthy guys.” 

The report quoted Stephen Engelberg, editor-in-chief of ProPublica, the national investigative journalism nonprofit, as saying: “Objectivity is not even possible. I don’t even know what it means.” 

Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, the editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Chronicle, said attitudes in his newsroom have shifted. “The consensus among younger journalists is that we got it all wrong. We are the problem. Objectivity has got to go,” he said.

Baron said he is having none of it. He said objectivity has to stay, pointing out that it’s better for reporters “to be arbiters of fact rather than activists and partisans.”

At the risk of being what both sides in this debate despise – someone who practices on-the-one-hand, on-the-other hand journalism — I find it difficult to discern who is right and who is wrong.

Baron takes the view that objectivity means the pursuit of truth by asking questions, listening to the answers, and keeping an open mind. It’s about determining the facts and placing them in context. The method of reporting, not the journalist, is what’s objective, he said.

He holds journalists to the same standard as judges, jurists, prosecutors, doctors, business executives, and a host of other professionals.

“The concept of objectivity in all these fields gets no argument from journalists. We accept it, embrace it, and insist on it. Journalists investigate it when we find it missing, particularly when it leads to acts of injustice,” Baron said.

“Most of the public in my experience expects my profession to be objective, too. Dismissing their expectations, outright defying them, is an act of arrogance,” he said.

While Baron stands by objectivity, Downie and Heyward seek to move beyond it. They appear to be in the camp that believes no reporter can be truly objective, but they don’t embrace activism and partisanship. They come down somewhere in between, putting forward a ”trustworthy news playbook.”

Their playbook shares many of the same goals as Baron – building newsrooms that reflect the community being covered, pursuing truth, and being transparent about how news is reported. They suggest that reporters should keep their personal views out of social media while urging news organizations to develop a set of core values.

“There is a difference between having a ‘point of view’ and engaging in advocacy journalism, although defining that line can be tricky,” Downie and Heyward say. “We are leery of claims by some journalists to have ‘moral clarity’ on controversial issues.” (That was a reference to a different vision of journalists’ role, advanced by Wesley Lowery, a former Washington Post reporter who clashed with Baron over the idea. In the Cronkite report, Lowery said he was not arguing for subjectivity. “I’m actually whole-heartedly endorsing objectivity as properly defined; the argument is that, in practice, that’s not what it is.”)

Downie and Heyward advocate for a more inclusive style of journalism. “That means striving to reach not only an audience, but all audiences, and no longer with one-size-fits-all, traditionally white male ‘objectivity,’ a journalistic concept that has lost its relevance,” they say. 

In the end, Baron and Downie and Heyward seem to have more in common than one might expect. Downie and Heyward, however, are trying to navigate a slippery slope while Baron refuses to go down that path.



Nip ban proposed: Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo calls for a hearing on banning the sale of tiny nip liquor bottles in retail stores in Boston. The issue is likely to be divisive, with liquor stores fighting a ban and supporters of a ban arguing it’s needed to address growing litter and public health problems.

– Five municipalities in Massachusetts have already banned nips – Chelsea, Falmouth, Mashpee, Newton, and Wareham. Chelsea officials say the ban has been a success, both in reducing litter and the number of calls for ambulance and firefighter response to alcohol-related medical emergencies. “It’s been a game-changer,” said Keith Houghton, the city’s police chief.

– Robert Mellion of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, who is already battling an effort to extend the COVID-era drinks-to-go policy, said banning nips won’t address alcohol addiction issues. He said the litter issue could better be addressed by bringing nips under the umbrella of the state bottle deposit law. Read more.


Shrinking industrial land: Angela Brown and Jessie Partridge Guerrero of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council say industrial land is disappearing in Massachusetts at an alarming pace. Read more.

Save the C3 grants: Lauren Kennedy of Neighborhood Villages and Ashley White of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation say C3 grants are vital to the stability of child care providers. Read more.




A new report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the Earth’s countries must make a drastic and rapid shift away from fossil fuels within the next day or the planet will face dangerous overheating. (New York Times

The Idaho legislature passes a law by a veto-proof margin that would allow condemned inmates to be executed by firing squad if drugs needed for lethal injections are not available. (Associated Press)


The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is considering tighter rules on apps, websites, and cable companies that have partnerships with online sports betting operations and steer customers to them. (Salem News) “Nobody ever loses in the pathetic bro-culture commercials,” Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy writes, ripping the onslaught of ads for sports betting that will generate “a million suckers who’ll regret ever placing that first ‘legal’ bet.”


Bay State College, a for-profit institution located in Boston’s Back Bay, loses an appeal and will lose its accreditation on August 31. (WBUR)

Asian students in Boston public schools feel more marginalized, according to student survey data, than their white, Black, or Hispanic peers. (Boston Globe)


A coalition in Boston is pushing for expanded beekeeping rules, citing the critical role bees play in food ecosystems, with support from local city councilors. (MassLive)


Boston activist Monica Cannon-Grant and her husband, Clark Grant, were arraigned on new federal charges yesterday that were added to the existing case against her charging misuse of federal funds. (Boston Herald)