By Robert Liwanag
Neutrality in journalism limits the civil liberties of reporters and should be abandoned, said the director of Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression during a recent panel discussion.
Citing CNN’s two-week suspension of global affairs correspondent Elise Labott over a tweet last November, James Turk said neutrality fails to distinguish an institution’s business interests from the journalist’s public obligations. Labott’s tweet—“Statue of Liberty bows head in anguish”—was posted in response to a U.S. House of Representatives bill halting the admission of Syrian refugees.
“(Neutrality) is based on a myth that it’s possible to be disinterested, neutral and dispassionate with regard to the issues that are at the centre of one’s work,” said Turk. “Or, alternately, it recognizes that this myth is not true, but demands one act as if it were.”
James Turk argues that journalistic method is objective, not the journalist #journalistsneutrality— Robert Liwanag (@rrobertl) February 8, 2016
Turk made his comments during a Feb. 8 panel at the Ryerson School of Journalism. The panel also included Lee-Anne Goodman, senior editor of business and Ontario at The Canadian Press, and Ivor Shapiro, chair of Ryerson’s journalism program. Bernie Lucht, former executive producer of CBC Radio’s “Ideas,” moderated the discussion.
“Large media organizations are all over the place when you add together their editorial positions and the various columnists they have,” said Turk. “To pretend that journalists, by expressing their views, are going to compromise the brand of the organization when it’s a large organization with many employees and different views is, I think, a mistake.”
Lee-Anne Goodman reminds audience that readers consume news with their own biases as well. #journalistsneutrality— Robert Liwanag (@rrobertl) February 8, 2016
Shapiro and Goodman agreed with Turk that a journalist should be judged exclusively on the professional quality of his or her work. However, Shapiro noted that a news organization should have the right to maintain its credibility and hold employees to codes of conduct.
“If I’m a beat reporter and I’m running a website covering crime in Toronto, I’m free to express my opinion that every cop in Toronto is a racist meathead or every victim of crime in Toronto is a whiner,” said Shapiro. “Is it wise for me to express that opinion? Not really.”
Goodman said neutrality should not be abandoned by journalists, citing the ongoing trial of Jian Ghomeshi as an example—Goodman said The Canadian Press’s reporter has been “meticulous about including both sides.”
“Court proceedings can be a particularly dangerous place for a journalist’s bias to be real,” she said. “Those are the sort of things that could cause mistrials.”
She did note, however, that news organizations like CNN are often paranoid about social media backlash.
Goodman: journalists should have the right to be outspoken, should also know that it may undermine sources’ trust. #journalistsneutrality— Robert Liwanag (@rrobertl) February 8, 2016
“Even-handed, cool and neutral coverage is what journalists should strive for,” said Goodman. “A tweet suggesting Rob Ford is a buffoon is one thing, but you couldn’t then write a story about Rob Ford being a buffoon — a snarky tweet has nothing to do with journalism as far as I’m concerned.”
Robert Liwanag is a fourth-year journalism student at Ryerson University with a passion for arts, culture and human rights. He has written for the Financial Post and the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.