A decimated media rededicates itself to truth

“The notion that one can be completely without bias in their reporting is a nice idea until you realize what’s ‘objective’ is actually determined by what doesn’t rock a white, male, upper-class sensibility and worldview.”

If your news organization was on thin ice at the start of 2020, it probably didn’t survive to 2021, the great destroyer of local newspapers, the Black press, fledgling digital sites, and the continued consolidation of smaller, weaker organizations swallowed up by media behemoths. Basically, in 2020, the brakes stopped working, and we were a runaway semi-truck heading into a wall of disruption.

2020 revealed weaknesses everywhere — in financial models that brought entire companies near death, in the loss of in-real-life events like the iconic Essence Festival, or rocked by their decades-long lack of diversity and history of discrimination, revealed in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the great “awakening” in the white mainstream on the plight of African Americans.

In 2021, we’re bound to see even more. More restructuring. More losses. More reckonings. More disruption. But out of all this turmoil, I do see one bright light — the end of the journalistic myth of “objectivity,” forcing a much needed refocusing on fact-finding and telling the truth.

The notion that one can be completely without bias in their reporting is a nice idea until you realize what’s “objective” is actually determined by what doesn’t rock a white, male, upper-class sensibility and worldview. Many police departments and police unions have always been biased or intentionally misleading in their view of the “subjects” they interact with, but for most of my life — until 2020 and the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by local police — most newsrooms took what police said as gospel, largely unquestioning their version of events during deadly encounters with African Americans.

Compounding this realization, that “objectivity” came with its own biases, was the fall of the Trump administration and its “anti-truth” reality. Trump forced the media to let go of the “bothsidesism” that plagued it for generations and rededicate itself to reporting the truth, sticking to the facts, and questioning everything.

While this same administration relentlessly attacked the press for simply doing its job, this dire situation revealed how important a free press is in a fledgling democracy — which is what America has always been, considering it was an autocratic, democracy-for-some apartheid state for most of its history, with an enslaved and later segregated and oppressed black and indigenous underclass. Trump’s actions unintentionally revitalized and energized the fourth estate, giving it a clarity of purpose in a year of desperation, plague, and government-sponsored chaos.

Maybe things will calm down after the inauguration of President-elect Biden; somehow covering the White House under Trump was both a marathon and a sprint for the beleaguered press. But just as you can’t unring a bell, you can’t magically undo what transpired in this country in 2020, rocked by a failed pandemic response, economic uncertainty, a negligent and antagonistic president, and police brutality. We will be contending with what happened in 2020 for a generation, as this was the year that ended any notions of American innocence or feelings of invincibility, and begets our hopeful, but fragile and uncertain future.

Danielle C. Belton is editor in chief of The Root.

If your news organization was on thin ice at the start of 2020, it probably didn’t survive to 2021, the great destroyer of local newspapers, the Black press, fledgling digital sites, and the continued consolidation of smaller, weaker organizations swallowed up by media behemoths. Basically, in 2020, the brakes stopped working, and we were a runaway semi-truck heading into a wall of disruption.

2020 revealed weaknesses everywhere — in financial models that brought entire companies near death, in the loss of in-real-life events like the iconic Essence Festival, or rocked by their decades-long lack of diversity and history of discrimination, revealed in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the great “awakening” in the white mainstream on the plight of African Americans.

In 2021, we’re bound to see even more. More restructuring. More losses. More reckonings. More disruption. But out of all this turmoil, I do see one bright light — the end of the journalistic myth of “objectivity,” forcing a much needed refocusing on fact-finding and telling the truth.

The notion that one can be completely without bias in their reporting is a nice idea until you realize what’s “objective” is actually determined by what doesn’t rock a white, male, upper-class sensibility and worldview. Many police departments and police unions have always been biased or intentionally misleading in their view of the “subjects” they interact with, but for most of my life — until 2020 and the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by local police — most newsrooms took what police said as gospel, largely unquestioning their version of events during deadly encounters with African Americans.

Compounding this realization, that “objectivity” came with its own biases, was the fall of the Trump administration and its “anti-truth” reality. Trump forced the media to let go of the “bothsidesism” that plagued it for generations and rededicate itself to reporting the truth, sticking to the facts, and questioning everything.

While this same administration relentlessly attacked the press for simply doing its job, this dire situation revealed how important a free press is in a fledgling democracy — which is what America has always been, considering it was an autocratic, democracy-for-some apartheid state for most of its history, with an enslaved and later segregated and oppressed black and indigenous underclass. Trump’s actions unintentionally revitalized and energized the fourth estate, giving it a clarity of purpose in a year of desperation, plague, and government-sponsored chaos.

Maybe things will calm down after the inauguration of President-elect Biden; somehow covering the White House under Trump was both a marathon and a sprint for the beleaguered press. But just as you can’t unring a bell, you can’t magically undo what transpired in this country in 2020, rocked by a failed pandemic response, economic uncertainty, a negligent and antagonistic president, and police brutality. We will be contending with what happened in 2020 for a generation, as this was the year that ended any notions of American innocence or feelings of invincibility, and begets our hopeful, but fragile and uncertain future.

Danielle C. Belton is editor in chief of The Root.

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