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March 9, 2017, 11:23 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Voice of San Diego’s “What We Stand For” is straightforward — and a bold stance against “objectivity”

“When newspapers insist they’re just being impartial observers, I think that performance hurts trust in journalists.”

“High-quality education for all children.” “Preparations for the long-term challenges of drought, energy supply, and climate change.” “Government transparency, open meetings and accountability.”

None of these statements should be particularly controversial, but they can sound almost radical these days; at the very least, it’s still unusual for a mainstream news organization to come right out and say it stands behind statements like these as core principles.

That’s ridiculous, says Scott Lewis, editor-in-chief of the investigative nonprofit Voice of San Diego, which includes all of the above in its new mission statement.

Lewis believes that objectivity has never actually been possible in journalism, and that newspapers’ insistence that they are “impartial observers” has hurt their mission. “The moment they decide what to cover, they’re making a subjective decision about what’s important,” he said. “When they insist they’re just being impartial observers, I think that performance hurts trust in journalists, because readers can tell that you have a perspective, that you have some underlying assumption you’re working off of.”

In December, Lewis decided that the 12-year-old Voice of San Diego needed to bring its underlying assumptions out into the open. The site’s staff and board worked together to develop a list of nine “shared values.”

“We stand for certain things in the community,” Lewis said. “We are not objective about roads being bad. We’re not objective about murder or corruption. We’re not objective about pollution.” Writing and publishing “What We Stand For” simply makes things clearer, he said. “When someone asks: What is your agenda? We can say this is our agenda. When someone asks: What is your bias? We can say this is our bias…and then we can be impartial about the solutions, nonpartisan about the way they are addressed.”

Voice of San Diego is a nonprofit with 2,600 members who pay at least $35 a year, and Lewis stressed that the published values give its board — and its readers — a means of holding it accountable: “I wanted to provide, at least, a very basic skeleton of how the public and trustees of an organization could weigh in on what we cover.”

I spoke with Lewis about why he decided Voice of San Diego needed to publish this statement, what the response to it has been, and why he thinks other news organizations should do the same thing. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Laura Hazard Owen: You published this “list of shared values” in December. What went into the process of deciding to do that? Why was now the right time to publish it?

Scott Lewis: I’ve been grappling with the question of what objectivity is for a long time. What is the point of what we do? How can we be more clear about what we’re trying to achieve with journalism, especially local journalism?

It seemed to me that, throughout journalism’s history, we’ve had an undiscussed baseline group of assumptions that we all sort of share — things that we’re willing to be outraged about or not willing to be outraged about, things that we’re willing to take a stand on and not. There are all kinds of things that even so-called “objective” journalists are not objective about.

It used to be that journalists weren’t sure that people of different genders were equal, or that people of different races were equal, but we got through that, somehow, without officially marking it: Over time, we evolved to a group that would never be “objective” about racism, or murder, or corruption. We would never be “he said, she said” about domestic violence; we think a man beating his wife is bad. We are all okay saying that. And, in fact, I think that journalists are often at their best when they’re more passionate about an outrage or something that’s wrong.

Somehow, we all came to the decision that there are several things we’re willing to accept as bad and other things that are good — these things that have just become what I would call “grand assumptions,” facts.

I realized that, as a nonprofit, Voice of San Diego was already starting from the point of having an educational mission that ostensibly has a goal in mind. Our mission is clear: to provide investigative journalism and reveal things about how the community works. We stand for certain things in the community. We are not objective about roads being bad. We’re not objective about murder or corruption, we’re not objective about pollution — we’re anti-pollution. There’s a lot of these things that we were carrying with us as assumptions.

Journalists are at their most productive when something’s happened that they need to help uncover and keep revealing. But what foundation of assumptions and principles can you stand on in order to feel liberated to be outraged, to be fired up about what you’re doing? If we were coming at journalism from the idea that it was important to solve or help solve big problems, then we should identify what our baseline assumptions are. Then we can be impartial about the solutions, nonpartisan about the way they are addressed. But I think it’s important for us to identify when there’s just something obviously wrong.

I’d been thinking about it for a long time, and finally, with this last year and the election, I just wanted us to be at the front of it.

Owen: How is what you are doing different from how news organizations have handled this in the past?

Lewis: Newspapers play this strange game of “objectivity” that is really subjectivity. The moment they decide what to cover, they’re making a subjective decision about what’s important. When they insist they’re just being impartial observers, I think that performance hurts trust in journalists, because readers can tell that you have a perspective, that you have some underlying assumption you’re working off of.

A newspaper may have an opinion page and an editorial page, and the editorial page won’t have bylines, and it will say this is the “newspaper’s” view on all these things. And then you ask a news reporter at that paper if they share that view, and they’ll say, absolutely not — that’s the editorial board’s view, which is completely separate.

You have to choose. Are you all going to be on the same page about a point of view, or are you all gonna be bylined and let your different writers identify their different points of view? Because I don’t think this middle ground — this claim that “no, we’re completely objective” — has served us well at all.

So I asked our staff and board to help identify what we stand for that we can all agree on. When someone asks: What is your agenda? We can say this is our agenda. When someone asks: What is your bias? We can say this is our bias.

After that, we can be impartial about solutions. Several years ago, we did a series of investigations that revealed that some neighborhoods in San Diego were receiving emergency response a lot more slowly than other neighborhoods. The neighborhoods that were getting slow emergency response from fire and ambulances were poorer neighborhoods.

We felt pretty comfortable being outraged about that, but after establishing that it was not right and reporting more about the situation, we were impartial about the solution. People with a more conservative perspective might say that we could handle it more efficiently by addressing it with smaller fire crews — not necessarily taking a fire truck to a medical emergency. On the other side, people might say we need to build a fire station and have more union firefighters work there. We were impartial about that debate, and I felt pretty comfortable being impartial about it. I actually didn’t have a perspective on which solution it should be, and I didn’t want to. But underlying it was an assumption that it needed to be dealt with.

I think that just makes everything better. It means that we can tackle bigger problems. We’re going to be upset if there’s a school that’s struggling that doesn’t have a permanent principal, that parents are avoiding by the thousands: I feel pretty comfortable saying that needs to be addressed. Now, is the answer a new principal, or a charter school? I don’t know. You can have that debate — we can help you host that debate — but the situation is intolerable as it stands.

Owen: How did you decide what should be on the list? Will you add to it over time?

Lewis: We tried to identify the things we cared about in San Diego: the environment, housing, sea level rise, government. We included three descriptors in government: “just, efficient, and excellent.” “Just”: If you’re accused of a crime or pulled over by a cop, you should be treated appropriately; you shouldn’t be fined more than somebody else; there should be justice in how the government treats people in its jurisdiction. “Efficient”: Government should be an efficient entity that provides services well.

Obviously, a lot of these things aren’t controversial. I don’t think people would get all that fired up about very many of them.

I really do believe this is a first step, a living document. There may be more that we can adopt. Maybe at some point our membership will say we need to adopt a more clear statement about criminal justice, or the border, or something like that, and we’ll put that in there as well. It also helps us identify our areas of coverage and interests going forward.

This is especially important locally. As a national reporter, you can spend all day covering stuff that will never, ever touch you or impact your own personal life. But when you’re covering local politics and schools and roads and housing and clean water and all these other issues, you’re covering stuff that literally affects every aspect of your life pretty regularly.

I don’t think you can pretend to be objective about that. If housing prices soar, you’re either stoked because you own a house or you’re really frustrated because you don’t. We can’t really expect people to be “objective” about those things.

Owen: Some of the items on your list have become controversial under the Trump administration, though. And there are so many right-wing news sources that either explicitly or implicitly don’t take some of the things you mentioned as truths — like that climate change is real.

Lewis: Yes, some of these come off as liberal — obviously the climate change one. Locally, though — I mean, the mayor of San Diego is a Republican and he passed a landmark climate action plan. He very much accepts the reality of climate change.

Okay, there are a lot of citizens here who do not. The line about us accepting climate change was probably the most “controversial” on the list. But I deliberately wanted to establish it. I’m willing to be impartial about solutions, about mitigation efforts, but I do think sea level rise is on its way and it’s something that we need to think about as a coastal city and a city on the border. I want us to start from that position.

I think it’s important to look at the language [in the statement] too. When we say we support high-quality education, that doesn’t necessarily mean traditional schools; it could mean everybody deserves a right to a great education, but who knows what avenue that might come from.

I actually think a lot of conservative outlets are transparent about what they’re doing and what they want to see happen in the world. But traditional news organizations are playing a game that they’re destined to lose when the assumptions come out about the way they see the world, and when people identify [those assumptions] they’re stuck saying, “no, we’re just the vessel of information passed along to you.”

It’s an argument that they’re always going to lose. This tactic — “this is where I’m coming from, deal with me or not” — is something they should probably consider.

Owen: What are some of the other benefits of doing this?

Lewis: It gave the board of directors of our organization an appropriate way to weigh in on our journalism. There’s this cult of independence in journalism, and yet that’s never defined either: Obviously publishers have roles in journalism, they have perspectives that trickle down in some form whether it’s by what beats are covered, or whatever. So what can we do to provide an outlet for good discussion about whether our journalism met standards or not? A board should have an opportunity to weigh in on that without saying we should or shouldn’t have done a story.

I wanted to provide, at least, a very basic skeleton of how the public and trustees of an organization could weigh in on what we cover. Without that sort of document, I don’t know how you facilitate that kind of discussion. Because maybe one day an editor comes in and takes a stand against climate change — it would be important for the public to then say, okay, are you going to change what the organization stands for? You should grapple with that and make your reporters grapple with that.

Owen: What was the reaction from members?

Lewis: I think most really liked it. There was a lot of raw emotion after the election. Some more conservative folks were finally tired of us about the climate change thing; I heard from a few people that they thought that was wrong for us to do. But I only know of one member who fully left.

Our membership soared over that period. And I’m still very proud of the conservatives and the number of people of different political perspectives that support us. We ended 2015 with 1,900 members and we ended 2016 with 2,600 paying members. That’s due to a lot of different things, but I do think there was a real coming-down-to-earth moment for people when they realized they cared a lot about what we were doing.

A lot of people wanted us to be more clear about criminal justice. They took the list of values as a statement of the things we would cover or care about, and wanted us to be more clear that [criminal justice] is an issue for us. We’ve done a lot of work on police brutality and profiling and controversies like that, and to me [that reporting] fits fine with the mission statement, but I listened to people when they said that maybe we should be more clear about where we’re coming from on it.

Owen: As newsrooms become more diverse, do you think the traditional view of objectivity, the view from nowhere, becomes more difficult to pull off?

Lewis: I don’t know if it’s that or if it’s the natural evolution away from this sort of institutional authority, almost monopoly, that some news organizations have had in local or national areas.

They’ve had this privileged, very comprehensive, almost ubiquitous presence in these communities. They felt they had to speak with the voice of God: This is the way things are. It was an authority based on formality, not “here’s how I did my work, and here’s why you should trust me.” But: “We’ve figured out what the truth is, and this is what we present to you now, in the most fair, objective possible way as decided by us, editors and reporters.”

The Internet democratized publishing and made it so that other people could pop in and say either (a) “You’ve done bad work on this” or (b) “Here we are, and we’re more interesting and we’re more conversational and here’s where we come from and here’s how we do our work.”

As fake news and weird conspiracy theories and fringe-y elements start to get more attention, there may be nostalgia for this old formality: Wow, it was nice when we could all agree on baseline facts for a community.

But that cat’s out of the bag. So we should all agree to better identify our own algorithms for how we figure out the news, and where we come from, and how we are funded, and be as honest as we can be. If a reader doesn’t want to listen to us after that, fine — we may have picked the wrong formula and not appeal to enough readers and therefore fall away.

It’s tough. But I think it has to be done.

POSTED     March 9, 2017, 11:23 a.m.
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