Video: Pitts calls on journalists to take stand in era of Trump

Story by Robby General, Ball State University
Photos and video by Ryan Shank, Ball State University

Miami Herald Columnist Leonard Pitts told journalists Monday that they needed to be tougher about reporting the truth and to stop wimping out when it comes to covering President Trump.

Pitts argued that truth has become distorted in the eyes of some in this generation, and he said it was the job of the journalist to set them straight.

“We are witnessing nothing less than a succession from reality by a large portion of our fellow citizens,” Pitts told journalists during his keynote address at the 2017 News Leadership Conference. He said the American public is witnessing, “A civil war of ideas and ideals in which the brazen lie carries the same weight as the actual fact, provided it is said loudly enough and satisfies the listeners emotional need.”

Pitts said while most journalists strive to be objective, that goal is simply not possible today and never really has been.

“You are not objective. You have never been objective. You will never be objective,” Pitts said. “To be objective is to act without human emotion. No one is capable of meeting that standard. Objectivity is neither possible nor desirable in journalism because journalism is, by definition, human experiences as processed by human beings.”

Pitts’ conversation titled “Guts: False Objectivity and the Danger of Truth” stemmed from the type of polite euphemisms he saw during the presidential campaign coverage.

“I was troubled by how often we, in the news business, seem to go out of our way to pretend that there was some rough similarity in the shortcomings in the two candidates for presidency,” Pitts said.

Pitts said urged editors to be “brave” and not accept “lies” as “untruths” but to call them what they are. He said he’s recognized the same tendency by today’s media to soften its coverage on difficult subjects like the Charleston marches, when those acts were described as “racially charged.”

Instead of trying to be “fair” so to avoid judgment of the American public, Pitts encouraged journalists to strive for fairness and balance over objectivity.

Pitts said that the use of “weasel words” news media use in the name of objectivity is a disservice to the public and ignores one of the primary tools of journalism – judgment.

Too often journalists tend to sit on the fence and not appear to lean one way or the other, which is a dangerous game to play, according to Pitts.

“Why do we draw up short when circumstances require us to be definitive?” Pitts asked. “I think we got in this trouble with the best of intentions. I think we got into this trouble to be objective.”

The story is all too often the same. News organizations report controversial topics so they pursue one source that leans to the right and another who leans to the left.

Somehow, organizations believe that that balance in coverage is at the same time unobjective and fair, when Pitts believes that organizations are doing it for a different reason.

“Many extreme news mediums seemed to embrace, instead, to embrace false equivalencies and polite euphemisms in hopes of avoiding anything like judgement,” Pitts said. “Judgement, we have come to believe is a bad thing. Judgment wasn’t in our job description.”

The mentality of having “two sides to every story” isn’t always the case, Pitts said, referencing stories like when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor or when Martin Luther King walked through Birmingham or Hitler and the Holocaust.

Restoring truth in news media begins by educating the youth on how to gather facts rather than simply ignore them. He also said journalists need to tell their facts in a way that serves the reader.

In the Civil War, newspapers were definitive. They saw injustices and said it the way they judged to be correct. That’s the type of definitiveness Pitts said journalists need today.

“Today, I am calling you to be definitive,” Pitts said. “Exercise your best judgment, to be fair and balanced and as impartial as you can and most of all to be brave. The people we serve need that from us now more than they ever have, whether they know it or not.

“The facts need someone to defend them and the truth needs somebody to tell it,” he said. “I can’t think of anyone better qualified than us.”

Robby General is a senior at Ball State University. He graduates in May 2018. His email is rjgeneral@bsu.edu.

Ryan Shank is a senior at Ball State University. He graduates in May 2018. His email is rjshank@bsu.edu.

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