In an era of heightened political polarization and digital media, journalists have been under tight scrutiny for their work, especially in the wake of journalism’s historical adherence to objective coverage. The Northwestern University Political Union brought this topic to light Monday, Oct. 11, hosting a debate on the resolution that the free press should prioritize objectivity over advocacy.
Weinberg junior Will Secker and Medill junior Spencer Allan, the primary debaters, spoke for and against the resolution, respectively. Prior to Secker and Allan’s opening statements, speaker Kenzie Misso, a SESP junior, moderated the pre-debate voting process in which attendees voted 18-4 in favor of the resolution with 11 abstentions.
In his opening remarks, Secker outlined his reasoning in favor of the resolution, arguing that “activism undermines reliability” in the press and the news they receive. In addition, Secker explained that while the absolute pursuit of objectivity may not always be possible, journalists have a responsibility to represent the facts in their coverage without involving specific viewpoints or agendas.
“I don’t think objectivity just means being impartial between opposing sides. If I read an article about the Earth’s rotation, I don’t expect the journalist to make sure to include a flat earther as a source,” Secker said. “But objectivity itself is not incompatible with good journalism. Good, hard-hitting journalism can be objective.”
On the other hand, Allan held the position that advocacy and factual reporting are not mutually exclusive. According to Allan, when journalists or media outlets attempt to market themselves as objective, they appear to be partially dishonest. Instead, he believes that when outlets outwardly acknowledge particular biases or advocacy efforts in their coverage, they promote a culture of honesty and transparency.
“Objectivity is actually very subjective in how you define it,” Allan said. “Bias is going to be intrinsically woven into anything we read.”
Following the opening statements, Misso opened the room to clarifying questions from attendees. Political Union Co-President and Medill junior Felix Beilin asked both Secker and Allan whom journalists’ primary responsibility belongs to.
“Journalism is at its best when you give a voice to people who don’t have a voice,” Allan said in response.
“Journalism is about uncovering the hard truths in society and delivering that information to people, meaning that journalists’ primary responsibility is to their readers,” Secker argued.
In the next portion of the debate, the open forum, attendees presented their own perspectives on the resolution. Weinberg junior Sonia Peters discussed how journalists’ use of narrative structures inherently reduces objectivity, suggesting that objectivity is not truly possible.
“Advocacy at least allows us to be exposed to viewpoints we have not been exposed to before and prevents us from reinforcing the status quo,” Peters said.
In support of the resolution, Weinberg senior Ansh Prasad argued that the state of right-wing populism can be attributed to advocacy journalism. When advocacy is prioritized over objectivity, Prasad added, those in power can effectively “buy” the press and reflect their own perspectives by doing so.
At the conclusion of the event, 19 attendees voted in favor of the resolution and nine against, with six abstentions.
Reflecting on the debate, Secker acknowledged that while he values journalists’ adherence to objectivity, he learned that valid forms of journalism can involve advocacy. “The media landscape today is a consequence of activist journalism instead of a failure of objective journalism,” Secker said, echoing Prasad’s argument.
Despite their differing viewpoints, Allan recognized the attendees’ collective agreement that journalists should continue striving for objectivity even if it may not necessarily exist in all situations.
“Journalists cannot afford to have tunnel vision,” Allan said. “If journalists choose to pursue objectivity, they should also acknowledge that that’s a lofty goal. Beyond objectivity, they need to also keep in mind the importance of having empathy for the topics and the people they’re covering.”
Thumbnail photo by Avigna Ramachandran / North by Northwestern