Truth. It’s recently sparked debate, especially given the rise of propaganda or false information published under the guise of being authentic news.
“We have a real risk in our society in the days and years ahead of losing touch with what the truth is,” said Matt Murray, the new editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal, during the recent 50th anniversary of the Wharton Seminars for Business Journalists, which was held at 48 Lounge in New York City. Murray was joined by Andy Serwer, editor-in-chief of Yahoo! Finance, and Stephanie Mehta, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, to round out a media panel moderated by long-time journalist and social media expert Sree Sreenivasan that addressed the future of business journalism, and more broadly, journalism as a profession.
Below are key industry insights shared by these journalism leaders, including a shout out to the power of Snapchat. Whether you’re working on your school newspaper or aspiring to someday write for a magazine or big daily publication, consider these thoughts from journalists who have done all that and more.
Different People, Different Perspectives. “About 10 years ago, I was really worried that journalism would completely lose its diversity,” said Mehta, who became editor-in-chief of Fast Company in February 2018. “I felt like Journalism jobs weren’t paying very well. You look at a place like Vanity Fair [where Mehta was previously deputy editor] and all the interns are connected and have well-placed relationships that helped them to get Condé Nast internships, which really disadvantages people who don’t have means and come from underprivileged backgrounds. I’m not just talking about ethnic or racial diversity, but also people from state schools and poorer backgrounds. I was convinced that this profession would drive out any kind of diversity and journalism would be left with privileged kids moving into the business. When I look at my staff and your staff, I’m thrilled this profession has still made room for people who didn’t go to Ivy League schools.”
Journalists Have a Big Responsibility. “If you have the moxie to go into journalism today, it’s absolutely fantastic. Storytelling is like the movie business of 1958; it’s going to explode and be incredibly exciting. If you’re open to that, it’s a great time,” said Murray, who became editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal on June 11. “As consumers and supporters of news, the media does a lot wrong and gets beat up a lot. Increasingly, there are actors who attack us tactically in business and in politics. A lot of people are ready to come along and join that train, and frankly sometimes we deserve it. However, we have a real risk in our society in the days and years ahead of losing touch with what the truth is. I don’t say that self-righteously as if journalists have a license on the truth. Think about fake video, propaganda and AI and where those things are going, and the data available on us. Figuring out what’s true is going to be harder. That is a threat to all of us… I really think the threat is great enough to society that journalists have to get it right. Journalism has to do its bit. I’m excited about the opportunity for some of us to stand out and make it work, but we should all take it seriously that we’ve got a responsibility to the truth and to understand the truth.”
Be Clear About What You Do. “I think journalists have not done a good enough job at being transparent about how we do our work,” said Mehta. “We expect transparency from other organizations, but when I talk to people, they don’t know how we do our jobs. They don’t understand that a writer doesn’t just write something and put it in a magazine or newspaper or online. We need to do a better job of explaining to the public that we have checks and balances, like fact checkers, more than one person seeing a story, or even lawyers checking it. As we work to rebuild the public trust, more transparency about our process would go a long way.”
Listen When Those Bells Go Off. “One of my biggest failures is one of The Wall Street Journal’s greatest successes in terms of a specific story,” noted Serwer, who now oversees all editorial content for Yahoo! Finance, from breaking news to stories to original video programming. “That story is Theranos. [Theranos is a consumer health care technology company that has been investigated by the SEC. The company, its CEO Elizabeth Holmes, and its former president Ramesh Balwani were charged with fraud in March]. I put Elizabeth Holmes on the cover when I was the editor of Fortune and said ‘she’s the bomb.’ Hats off a million times [to the Journal for its accurate coverage of Theranos]. Bells were going off because there was this part of the process she couldn’t explain. The Fortune writer [who wrote the Theranos story] is a great guy and a tremendous journalist with a great career, but those mistakes last with you forever. He’s never quite gotten over it. John Carreyrou’s great work [at the Wall Street Journal] exposed Theranos for what it was.”
Print Journalism Is Not Dead. The profession has lost half its jobs since the year 2000. “Around the time the Washington Post was sold [in 2013 to Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon] and even the years before that, newsrooms were changing,” said Murray. “Everyone was running around newsrooms eight years ago saying everything had changed. But I think the power of legacy media brands and institutions [like the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Post], while we face challenges, is becoming clearer and has shown to be a greater power than we thought.”
Prepare for Change. “As consumers of news and journalism, keep readying yourselves for more change — more and more change,” said Serwer. “When you find yourself getting stuck in the mud, you will not be keeping up. Change in the way that news is being delivered is really important and the way it’s being produced is really important. I find myself having to learn new tools. Keep up with, for instance, Snap [Snapchat]. Look at Snap, use Snap, understand Snap, so that you understand what 30% of America is doing. You don’t have to love it, but all these kinds of communication channels [are important]. It’s so important to keep up to date and to keep up to speed. Journalists are going to keep producing great stuff, but it’s going to come to everyone in new ways.”
- Matt Murray Named Editor in Chief of Wall Street Journal
- Stephanie Mehta Joins Fast Company
- Crain’s Chicago Business: Theranos Didn’t Just Harm Investors
- Elizabeth Holmes Resigns
- Interview: WSJ Reporter Who Broke Theranos Story
- Seminars for Business Journalists
- SEC Theranos Press Release
- K@W: From Startup to Meltdown: The Unraveling of Theranos
Why is truth such a fundamental concept to journalism, and how is that at risk?
Using the Related Links, explore the Theranos story further. Why would Andy Serwer consider this such a big failure as an editor? What did you learn from the interview with John Carreyrou?
Do you want to be a journalist? What inspires you most about the comments from these high-profile editors?
Hi I am from india, what you wrote about journalism is perfectly correct but these points which you have written are not exactly followed in our country. the news which the journalist want us to see is largely influenced by the politicians, the big capitalists of the country. and on top of that all news channels are loyal to one or the other political party[barring few]. they will only show positive about the political party. they will show anything in order to create a good perception of the party among the people which will help the parties in gaining power in the next elections, and the second most disappointing thing about Indian news media is that add spices to the news in order to make them more appealing by adding some facts and quotes which don’t even exist. what I feel that the future journalist shall be given some more freedom to express themselves. they should be given the opportunity to to express themselves even id they are pro or against the party which the news channel supports.
Hi Shaurya! I lived in China for seven years before moving back to the United States in eighth grade, so I certainly relate to your concerns about how powerful politicians and businesses often contribute to the distortion of the truth. All Chinese media is state-regulated, hence I grew up following what is essentially state propaganda. I found myself loyal to the ideologies and narratives of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), so when I first returned to the States, I was engaged in a lot of debates regarding Chinese politics and often found myself defending the CCP. However, I slowly became more exposed to news sources of the West and learned that many of the views I grew up with were one-sided and often uninformed. It is not to say that the West is completely objective in their reporting on foreign politics, but having the exposure to both sides certainly made me alter my views to what I believe is closer to the truth.
I think my personal experience speaks for the importance of proper journalism and the sanctity of truth. As Philosopher John Stuart Mill outlines in his famous work “On Liberty”, no one is infallible, hence the formulation of truth largely relies on the robust institution of civic debate. However, the debate cannot occur without the informative role of journalism. I am a captain on my school’s debate team, and my teammates I have always relied on proper journalism to formulate arguments that directly contribute towards the fostering of truth in debate. Looking at the other end of the spectrum, while debate can foster truth, censorship can foster falsehood. Censorship has often been used as a tool for the state to manipulate its people to fulfill the agenda of those in power. Adolf Hitler perhaps is the best exemplification of the dangers of falsehood in recent history, for he censored any opposing viewpoints against the Nazi Party. Journalism under his control fostered a Germany united under beliefs of hatred, of bigotry, of violence, of seeming “truth” that is in fact falsehood.
Both truth and falsehood cannot be established without journalism. On similarly grounds, journalism is powerful just as it is vulnerable. Once journalism is no longer grounded in truth, it is capable of perpetuating inequality, injustice, and inhumanity. I think journalists are just like soldiers: to determine whether they are good or not entirely depends on their willingness to fight for the institutions of truth and justice.
As Murray conveys, however, preserving proper journalism is not just a responsibility for journalists. As citizens, we ought not to dismiss any opposing viewpoint as “fake news”. As students, we ought to remain alert of what is taught in schools by those of higher authority. Similarly, as you have mentioned, those in the business community should not use their wealth or power in attempts to manipulate the press and the freedom of expression. Rather, they should learn to empower the press with their power and wealth to further contribute to truth, to the protection of justice, equality, and humanity. Tech companies such as Facebook and Snapchat should learn to not only serve its users by connecting them to their friends, but also connecting them to truth.
As I’ve only been exposed to news in the United States, it’s really interesting to get a perspective on how the media operates in different parts of the world! While I have only visited foreign countries (never visited), I’ve witnessed firsthand how regulation plays a part in censoring what the media can or cannot report on in countries like China. However, in the United States, the First Amendment fundamentally gives Americans the right to circulate opinions with the censorship of the government. But as John said, while the United States’ government does not own the media and push its agenda through it, news sources in the West are not completely devoid of personal bias.
Bias is inherently present in any source, whether it’s textbooks, newspapers, or podcasts. However, bias becomes a problem when pushing a political agenda becomes a priority over delivering fair, honest news to the people of the United States. Most of the information we acquire comes from newspapers and online news websites, which is why truth is a key part of journalism. When millions of people each day read the news, whether it’s on CNN, Fox News, or BBC, they’re being influenced by the things they read everyday. We live in a time and age where the things we read on the internet or watch on television help us make important decisions when it comes to electing government officials or voting on a certain piece of legislation. But when misleading statistics, quotes taken out of context, or blatant lies are included in their articles in order to push a certain viewpoint on their audience, it’s dangerous because the American people look to the media for the truth. If the media fails to inform the American people truthfully, then lies disguised as truths can be spread quickly, which is extremely problematic.
As you said in your comment, the importance of preserving honest journalism is also in the hands of the citizens of the United States, as well as journalists. While it is inevitable for certain news sources to have certain biases and political leanings, it is also important for us to influence an atmosphere in which journalists are encouraged to engage in more fact-checking. Nevertheless, opposing viewpoints can and should be discussed by journalists. The spreading of new ideas and the discussing of different perspectives is vital to moving forward as a society, and journalism is a great platform for discussion.
Journalism will keep changing day by day. With the existence of social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat, news is accessible everywhere and can be spread more rapidly than ever before. But with these new changes, it’s also important to keep in mind that proper journalism is truthful journalism.
Thanks for the comment, Varun! You make a valid point on how Americans heavily rely on their news sources for truth-seeking. You mention examples of CNN and Fox News as well. I was wondering what your thoughts are regarding the sensational style of news coverage that is often present on these channels. I think we both agree that debate among journalist is fundamental towards good journalism, but do you think that modern media actually sets up a platform that fosters debate or does it create more divide? When I look at the news now, I often just see so-called experts yelling at each other with no intention on actually discussing the truth. It also seemed like winning the argument by any means necessary was more important than informing the public sincerely. In ways do you think journalism can improve to set up more civil or informative ways of reporting news? Please let me know what you think!
I have worked as a journalist in India for more than three decades, and I can relate to what you say about the declining standards. The dramatic expansion of broadcast media in India in the past 15 years has meant a surge in demand for journalists, and many left print media to join TV channels. The resulting shortage of good journalists in print media led to a dilution of standards as people rose up the career ladder rapidly without the requisite experience. TV journalism by definition is shallow, leave aside the tendency to play up to one political party or the other. The net effect is an all-round shortage of good talent. What makes it worse is the government including public sector enterprises are the biggest advertisers and media houses feel compelled to toe the line of the party in power. It is much better than in earlier days when print publications critical of the government would find themselves hard pressed to secure newsprint (mostly imported) and the advertising necessary to sustain themselves. Things are much better now as the private sector has grown as a source of advertising revenue, reducing publishers’ reliance on government advertising.
Things are not as bad as they seem, though. There are many publications that produce strong, compelling and high quality journalism. Examples are many, and they include Caravan magazine, online sites such as Scroll.in (www.scroll.in), The Wire (https://thewire.in/), The Print (https://theprint.in/), Quartz (https://qz.com/india/) and IndiaSpend (http://www.indiaspend.com/), a novel effort in data-based journalism focused on bringing accountability in public life.
The way you as a reader could help promote good journalism is to patronize the publications you think are doing good work, and stay away from those that fail you. With more public-spirited and aware readers like you, the waters will seek their own levels and good journalism will thrive.