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Colloquy Podcast: New York Times Executive Editor Joe Kahn and Harvard’s Danielle Allen on Journalism and Its Discontents

This month, a conversation about the state of journalism in an age of misinformation and political polarization. Does objectivity exist? Is it possible for news organizations to cut through the noise of the digital age and get citizens the information they need to be responsible participants in democracy? How can journalists build trust with disenchanted readers on both the right and the left of the political spectrum?

Speaking to these questions are New York Times executive editor, Joe Kahn, AB ’87, AM ’90, and Danielle Allen, PhD ’01, Harvard's James Bryant Conant University Professor and Director of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Ethics. Their conversation, which took place at the Harvard Club of New York City last November, is moderated by Columbia University School of Journalism Professor Michael Schudson, AM ’70, PhD ’76.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and correctness.

Michael Schudson: Good evening. It's a pleasure to be here with you and it's a privilege to be here on the same stage with both of you.

Let me come to the question of objectivity, which has been, from the moment it was articulated in the early 1920s as a value that journalists should be allegiant to, it was also criticized as a value they could never attain. And it was highly contentious at that point, and again, if anything, more contentious in the 1960s and early '70s. Is there anything new today about where objectivity stands and where its critics stand? Let me start with Joe.

Joe Kahn: Journalists, like scientists, essentially, begin any kind of journalistic undertaking with something of a thesis. We're not passive creatures for information and facts. You try to sort them out, you try to make sense of a complex situation, and you try to bring the readers into some deeper understanding of what's unfolding and why, and the context of it and the importance of it. You're looking for trends.

None of those things is perfectly objective. What should be objective is the evidence-based process by which you research and report against that thesis. And if you don't have an evidence-based process for pursuing your journalism and being open to the possibility that your thesis is incorrect, then you're not, in my view, acting with proper journalistic objectivity.

It doesn't mean at the end of the day that everybody in this room would read the outcome, the piece of journalism produced by that process, and agree or should agree that they're equally interested in it, that they're equally persuaded by it. Things will appeal to people in different ways, and there's no kind of perfect abstract objectivity.

But the process should be honest and transparent, and the process should be objective, which I think, actually, if you go back to the '20s, if you look in more detail, that's actually what Walter Lippmann described at that time about journalism.

Danielle Allen: I always, personally, in terms of my own work, understand the conversation about objectivity as really a conversation about a moral commitment to truthfulness, to always recording the world as I see it to the best of my ability, tell the truth to the best of my ability. And that truth-telling is absolutely about a recording of the circumstances that one's diagnosing in the world. Again, there are empirical fact patterns. But then it's also the truth of judgment, moral judgment about our choices, the choice that we have in front of us, the purposes we might adopt.

And that, too, we live in a world where people think that judgment of that kind is a sort of free-floating thing. You just pull opinions out of the air, whereas, in fact, ethical reasoning is something that has its own standards. There are better and worse arguments for various kinds of positions. And so, from my point of view, it's very important to model that caliber high standard of ethical reasoning in arguing for the “What should we do?” part of the conversation.

Schudson: There was a sign held up some years ago, I think it was at one of the women's marches, that said-- women's march related to science—and the sign said, “What do we want? Evidence-based conclusions. When do we want them? After peer review.”

I think that would be a reasonable watchword for science. Would it work, or is there some equivalent for journalism? Or is it a different thing?

Allen: I'll jump in for a minute there and just use the COVID situation as an example, because that question of what counts as a sound basis for judgment was one of the questions, as a society, we got completely tangled up about. And in fact, there's an important difference between validated scientific studies and actionable intelligence. And I believe at the end of the day, journalism, in conditions of emergency, the CDC should be responsible for actionable intelligence, not validated scientific studies. And our CDC has actually really attached itself to the commitment to validated scientific studies.

That needs to be a part of the work that it does, but it truly meant in COVID that we had very sound, actionable intelligence on a whole lot of stuff months before the CDC was empowering us to act on it. That was a real struggle for us inside the academy because we could see that it was sound, actionable intelligence, but was going to take months to get through the peer review process. You saw a lot of COVID groups growing out of the academy. The reason that happened was because we were ready to start orienting people towards actionable intelligence and saying, “No, we don't actually need to wait 6 months, 8 months, 12 months for a full peer review.”

The best example of this probably is asymptomatic transmission, which academics achieved actual intelligence on that, other countries were acting on it, and the CDC wouldn't give guidance that asymptomatic transmission was a real thing until it had achieved scientific validation. That cost us lives, it cost us a huge amount of bad decision-making in our policymaking. So, that helps, I think, just display the complexity of the different standards we use. But the point is you can bring quality to actionable intelligence, you can bring quality to journalistic work, you can bring quality to scientific validation, but there are different purposes for each of those sets of standards.

Kahn: Yeah, it seems to me like the equivalent in journalism of peer review is editing. We do a lot of that. Every piece of journalism we create is edited and then usually edited again. And there's a version of peer review in that. I don't know that there's an exact equivalent of scientific.

But there is an ongoing iteration of journalism, which comes from the feedback that you get from published reaction to what you produce. And that feedback loop is pretty critical to the journalistic process. I don't know if that's a perfect corollary for peer review. But all journalism is an iteration, essentially.

Schudson: Trust in the media has been in decline judging from public opinion polls. The question is, does one side or another in our partisan divide, growing divide between Republicans and Democrats, is one side creating the problem, or is there a problem on both sides of the problem of distrust in the media?

Allen: So, I think I'm going to flip the question around a little bit and ask less about what or who may be advocating for a distrusting position and ask the question more of about, “Why is it we are all vulnerable to a sense of confusion, honestly, about what facts are solid, what's knowable, and the like, and the changes in our broad patterns of media consumption that have made us all vulnerable?”

And I'll just give you a couple of examples that have driven home to me the point of just how hard it is for anybody, including highly educated people, to navigate the media landscape we currently live in. So, one of these examples comes from graduate students at Harvard. This is really telling because they’re really super sophisticated, highly educated people.

I run a civic education provider. We have a grade eight curriculum for districts in Massachusetts. We offer professional development for teachers. We are running a session for teachers, the purpose of which was they were supposed to be helping their students—preparing to help their students navigate digital media sources and sourcing and being critical consumers of things they find online.

And I had the graduate student team working on this, preparing all the materials for the teachers. And they're fantastic and super-talented, and I was sure it was going to be fantastic. And we got to the event and they passed around the packet, where teachers were going to be looking at different websites and then thinking about which ones to combine to offer their students to use as good sources.

And I started flipping through the packet of websites that my amazing graduate students had collected, and found, for example, that the sites that were about whether or not we should be switching to metal straws as a part of environmental concern, some of them were actually produced by companies that make metal straws. And my highly sophisticated graduate students had not noticed this.

So, we ended up completely changing the exercise and actually having everybody do a deep dive on the sites and try to figure out where were they coming from, what were the sources of information, what kind of evidence protocols were being made transparent on the sites, and things like that. And it was a real wake-up call moment for me about how hard it is for people to navigate the landscape. And I believe that difficulty, actually, makes us all susceptible to the idea that I can't even tell what to trust exactly.

And I said two stories, I'll just tell one more. This one's about me. So, I'm not just going to throw the graduate students under the bus. I'll throw myself under the bus. And it's one of those terrible stories—I was in a taxicab. I was in a taxicab talking to the taxi driver about COVID. I was doing a lot of COVID work. I happened to know a lot about COVID.

And so, the taxi driver, we were talking about this particular contested fact, and his facts were all right. Like he was totally on target, he was right. I was like, Yes, right on, you've got it. Next one, Yes, right on, you've got it.

And then he wanted to talk about whether or not COVID had been produced in the lab in Wuhan. And he produced a narrative that had the same shape of certainty and same account of why he thought-- this was like way back before what we now know about the situation. And I realized I had absolutely no way of assessing whether what he was telling me had any accuracy or not. I was in freefall.

I got out of the cab. I was like, I have no idea whether or not any of that stuff that he just shared with me I should take seriously or not. Like everything else up to that was accurate, but I have nothing to cross-validate that against.

And you know, so, if somebody like me, again, can't navigate the kind of ordinary conversations that are coming out of ordinary media streams to process what should I take seriously, it's no wonder we have just a considerable problem with trust and any sense of asking people to trust things.

Schudson: Can you say exactly what your responsibility is to truthfulness? And if you are truthful, how are people going to know that? Will people eventually come around and trust you, or are we living in an age in which trust, I mean, not only in the media but in other leading institutions as well, is in decline?

Kahn: At the moment, if you look at some of the Pew surveys, Fox News is more trusted by its viewers than many other news sources. What does that mean? They have enthusiasm for, they believe in, they are persuaded by Fox News. And that can be interpreted as trust.

So, I think trust, it's an important word, but I actually think trustworthiness is a more important word. And actual trustworthiness is you are holding yourselves accountable for producing trustworthy journalism. And the point of that is a sense of self-accountability. I want that accountability to be evident and transparent to a lot of consumers of news and information, but ultimately, we have to hold ourselves accountable for that. We hold ourselves accountable for being trustworthy. If we think that our journalism is flawed or that we're missing something, we have to put pressure on ourselves to go back and reexamine it.

And that process of producing trustworthy journalism and holding ourselves to account to produce it is, to me, the difference between quality journalism and propaganda. I have never been involved in producing a piece of journalism that I knew to be inaccurate or fake. Never once. Never done it. Right? I mean, anybody on my staff who intentionally put out false, misleading, fake information would no longer have a job. I mean, it's an absolute redline. We never publish anything that we know to be inaccurate.

We publish things all the time that need to be iterated upon and improved upon as new evidence comes in. The very nature of a 24/7 journalistic cycle is you are constantly reporting and amending and learning new things. I mean, at one point we thought two people died in that UVA shooting the other day. Right? Then four people died. It doesn't mean that we put out inaccurate information when we said it was two people. It's that new information came in over time. And we owe it to our readers to continue to report and update and improve on the journalism that we do.

Danielle was talking about COVID. I mean, look back at the early days in 2020 of what we collectively thought were best practices related to COVID, that there was some received wisdom that large communities had to be locked down until the threat of the virus passed. And those who resisted lockdown were defiant, defying the science.

And then lockdowns faded away. People felt lockdowns weren't effective. Society wouldn't tolerate them. There was a time in which many, many people, including probably many people in this room, thought it was absolutely logical, inevitable to shut down schools during COVID. Children should not go to school. Their communal transmission happens in those places. It can be a vector for the virus. Makes total sense to shut down all the schools.

Over time, that debate emerged, and there were many different viewpoints on it. And many people have come to the conclusion that it wasn't a great idea to shut down all the schools for the extended period that they were shut down.

So, was it fake that at some point we were reporting on the scientific consensus around shutting down schools? I wouldn't call that fake. I'd call that an iteration. You're constantly reporting on it, you're trying to create the best facsimile of the truth and best practices in real-time, and that evolves over time.

Schudson: Looking at the questions from the audience here, here's one for the moment. Do other countries do this fair, accurate journalism better than we do?

Kahn: I think the quality media in the United States is the best, certainly the best by a significant margin in the English-speaking world. And I don't think the—I don't think that the discipline of quality media at scale exists in other languages, to be totally honest. I mean, I'm not saying there are no quality media outlets in Spanish, there are, or in French, there are. But I don't think many other cultures have the same deep tradition that a handful of leading media organizations in the United States do.

I mean, there's a small number in the UK that are quality media, you know, especially the BBC. And there is some government-funded media, which, including public media in the United States, which has a mandate or a charter to, as we were talking about earlier, to strive for objectivity, does produce some excellent journalism. But I think it's really just the UK and the United States where we'd see consistently outstanding examples of that.

Allen: I think the bigger issue is just that there is also a kind of curated garden of information that some people have access to. In the university, when I log on to my computer every day and there's the beautiful digital curation that the library does, I can learn about anything in the world, and it's all in a clean, safe environment, to come back to that again. But most people have to live in a “Wild West” of information.

Kahn: Yeah, a lot of that a lot of what you're referring to is the way, you know, third party, social media platforms, or Google prioritize and present the information that's available. You know, your Facebook feed that presents one set of problems related to the algorithms that they use to circulate and prioritize Google's search engine is by far the most influential way of recognizing authority in media. They have an enormous impact on the information that people see.

And there's a huge industry out there that tries to game Google, figure out what Google's algorithm is prioritizing and promoting, and then create news experiences, journalistic experiences that take advantage of that. At some point, Google figures out that people are doing it and it tweaks its algorithm to try to prioritize quality sources. I do think they genuinely have the intention of doing that. But we're in a constant cat-and-mouse game with Google.

Facebook and Twitter are—Facebook is getting out of the news business entirely. People can share news, but Facebook is not circulating news the way it once did and it's trying to step back from that.

Twitter is another story entirely. And Elon Musk has taken it over recently, but the Twitter ecosystem is one of chaos. And we ourselves have sought to pull back from Twitter to some degree because of that sense of chaos and ad hominem attacks, but also the unreliability of the way news and information are circulated on Twitter.

Schudson: I have a question from someone here about, “Is it time to bring back the public editor that was abandoned some years ago?” The first public editor was Daniel Okrent, and he wrote, not his first column, but somewhere in the middle of his several years as public editor, he wrote under a headline called, "Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?" And his first sentence was, Of course it is.

Now, he elaborated that sentence and he said that the paper was unquestionably liberal on social issues. That social issue of the day was same-sex marriage, and he said, “Every story I read in the New York Times could have been written by someone who was in favor of same-sex marriage. None could have been written by someone who was opposed to same-sex marriage.”

So, on social issues, the newspaper he judged to be liberal. On politics, he thought the paper gave just as much criticism to Democrats running for office as to Republicans running for office, just as much attention to Republicans as to Democrats.

So, my question, what—that was 2004—was that true, that on some set of issues, that he called social issues, it's a liberal newspaper, on partisan politics, it was as fair as it could be? Does that sound about right?

Kahn: I think it's a little different the way we report, and I wouldn't limit this just to politics. There are many hot-button issues in our society, and we do hold ourselves accountable for exploring a range of perspectives on those issues. And we do not have a universal or institutional kind of take on every hot-button issue.

For example, right now the equivalent of gay marriage would be trans issues. I'm actually very proud of the work that our journalists have done to sensitively explore a range of issues around trans identity, puberty blockers for trans teens, the many social, cultural, and political issues that are raised by a very rapid evolution of the notion of trans rights. And I don't think the New York Times has an institutional position on that issue.

The constitutional basis for democracy is another question. I mean, the New York Times literally as an institution doesn't exist unless you have a viable democracy. The New York Times can't exist in Russia, it can't exist in China, it can't, frankly, exist even in Turkey or Hungary. It depends entirely, the kind of high-quality media pursuing the truth, wherever it may lead, depends on a viable rule of law and Constitution, and ultimately, on a Democratic structure. So, we're not impartial about that issue. And I don't think we should be impartial about that issue.

But we go out there all the time, as we did in these midterms, and actually explore how Americans view the issue of democracy and where they see the impediments to democracy. And we have articles exploring the fact, in some states and in some contexts, people prioritize other things over democracy and think that they will vote for certain candidates who may election deniers in part because they think that democracy, as it's been interpreted in the United States, is an impediment to getting some of those things done. And we have those voices in our report.

So, no question, the New York Times doesn't exist without democracy, and no question, we could be accused accurately of being partisans for democracy. But at the same time, I would consider it part of my mandate to explore why democracy has become so controversial in the United States and try to provide evidence and insight into how that issue has evolved and people's views on it here.

Schudson: Of those folks who are persuaded by Fox News, that that's the truth or as close as we're going to get to the truth and the New York Times is fake news, is there anything you can do to persuade them otherwise?

Kahn: We have a very closely divided country. And even though this election turned out to be, the midterms turned out to produce a result that was a bit more favorable to the Democrats than many of the expectations going in, we still have an extremely close division between the two parties. But I really have a belief that most people most of the time are undecided on most issues.

You know, whenever I get out and travel around the country or have a chance to interact with people, I find a much higher degree of curiosity and openness on the leading issues of the day that give me some sense of confidence that there's a degree of curiosity and inquisitiveness and changeability in kind of the thinking of average Americans from the left. Outside like actually, Donald Trump is a reader of the New York Times, so, actually a fairly avid reader. So, he's a special case.

But I think that there are—I actually have a signed congratulatory note from Donald Trump, who said, “You're taking over the New York Times at an important time. Get it right.”

But he's a particular case. There probably are many others in the far that are somewhat unreachable to us because the brand has been presented in such a polarizing and kind of toxic way. But actually, I think that there are many people who are open to seeing facts and information. And as I said, good data, like election night data, we have the most credible election night real-time reporting on election results that are coming in. That's completely available and accessed by people regardless of their political viewpoint.

So, if you can provide quality election data, if you can provide quality data, for example, about wildfires, the services that we provide tend to reach people wherever they live and whatever their political viewpoints are. And we're actually investing more in those things because we want to have an entry point for a wider variety of people.

When you are talking about the super hot-button issues that prompt the most polarization, there would be some segmentation and stylization of the brands. But I actually think we still have an enormous opportunity to reach a greater number of Americans and people around the world when we're providing good, vetted, quality data, as well as a range of journalism that's useful to people.

Allen: I spend a lot of time talking with people about rebuilding relationships on a small scale, actually. And I think the way past the polarization really is about bringing together groups of people who sit in different places with different perspectives and having them work on something together.

I can give you a load of examples, but we have just one small project at the [Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics] called the Intercollegiate Civil Disagreement Partnership, which is just small cohorts of students on about five different campuses around the country, ideologically diverse. And they literally just spend months learning how to talk to each other, and then they do work together of picking a kind of controversial speaker to bring to campus, and moderating sessions for other students after that. But they do actually have to learn how to have a relationship with each other, to hear empathetically, to try to mirror back or provide charitable interpretations of the other person's point of view before they engage with it. These things don't come so easy anymore.

So, it brings me back to this broad experience of toxic culture most young people are growing up with. We actually have to give them a chance to learn different ways of interacting in the context of disagreement. So, I'm very reassured to actually think that there are some broadcast ways as well that we can bring communities back together again. That's very heartening.

Princeton economist Ellora Derenoncourt

The Colloquy podcast is a conversation with scholars and thinkers from Harvard's PhD community on some of the most pressing challenges of our time—from global health to climate change, growth and development, the future of AI, and many others. 

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Produced by GSAS Communications in collaboration with Harvard's Media Production Center, the Colloquy podcast continues and adds to the conversations found in Colloquy magazine. New episodes drop each month during the fall and spring terms.

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