Talking about objectivity and representation in journalism with Amna Nawaz
Put your whole self in because that's what it's all about
This appeared on my blog over at Science.
Amna Nawaz is an American broadcaster and journalist, who is currently a co-anchor of PBS NewsHour. She has had an illustrious career covering politics and foreign affairs and has received numerous awards for her work, including a Peabody Award and an Emmy. Today’s editorial in Science highlights her thoughts about journalism expressed to me in a recent conversation and shown below (lightly edited for clarity).
Holden Thorp: All right, so I think one thing, I guess the thing that motivated me to really want to talk to you about all this was your statement that journalists bring their whole selves to their journalism and that that’s not something that they should shy away from. So if you could restate that, that would be great.
Amna Nawaz: Yeah, it’s funny too that, I’ve been saying this my most of my career, and it’s funny that it gets much more attention today because it is to me, one of the most simple truths about anyone who participates in this field. And you can go back generations ago and see evidence of this time and again. I bring my whole self to this job because that is the best way that I know how to practice my journalism. And what that means is, I bring every single part of myself, my lived experience, my personal experiences, my professional experiences, every interview I’ve done along the way, every country on which I’ve set foot, every question I’ve ever had answered, it is all a cumulative experience that makes me the journalist I am today. And every single person who’s come before me has done exactly the same thing.
The difference I always like to point out is there was largely a homogenous group of people, mostly men, mostly older white men who were in those roles of determining what was considered to be news, which questions got to be asked, and whose voices got to be elevated on those national platforms. We have many more people participating in that conversation today. And I for one, think journalism is better for it and our audience and the public we’re meant to serve are better served because of it. But I think because it’s not something that people have had to admit before, and it’s probably, I’ll say more accurately not something people were asked before, because there’s an assumption of objectivity with the people who were traditionally the standard bearers for the industry.
Whereas people who have only more recently gotten to positions of influence in this industry, women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, even some rural community members, they’re not granted the same sort of benefit or the assumption that they carry an objectivity that people before them were granted the assumption of carrying. And we’ve seen that show up time and again, whether Black journalists have to prove that they can, in quotation marks, cover a Black Lives Matter protest with objectivity. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of a white colleague being asked if they could accurately cover something unfolding in a white community because they happen to be of that community. And so I think these are conversations we’re having as journalists in our newsrooms, conversations we should be having. And the industry is different today than it was certainly 20 years ago when I began.
Holden Thorp: Yeah, and of course I agree with you completely that we’re better for it. And so does that also relate to things that reporters personally believe? I mean, because one thing that we get a lot in science as well, you all think that climate change is caused by human activity and therefore you go find evidence of that.
Amna Nawaz: Well, I think one thing that’s always been true is we let the facts guide our reporting. But then the natural follow-up question to that is, well, which set of facts? And you make decisions every day as a journalist, if you have 5 minutes to tell the story, you’re going to make decisions about which sound bite from this interview to use, which person to interview for that sound bite, which set of data you’re going to include to provide evidence for the reporting that you’re doing. Those are decisions we make every single day as journalists.
My bar for how I report my stories, for how I conduct my interviews, is fairness and accuracy. Is what I’m saying true, and is it backed up by evidence? And by evidence I mean facts and science and things I can hold up to be provably true. And am I being fair? And that people can have a disagreement about, whether I am rigorous enough or not rigorous enough, whether I ask the right questions. This is not a perfect science in what we do. It is a practice in journalism. I like to think I get better every day, I try at least. But it’s the set of decisions that goes into the final product, I think that is where people have a lot of questions because there’s different people making those sets of decisions today. Does that answer your question?
Holden Thorp: It does yeah. And so here’s a concrete example. So you’re writing a story about climate change, and this is two parts, but the first part is you’re writing about the science and I don’t know, 99% of scientists, maybe more, believe that humans are causing climate change and that it’s an urgent matter. But you can always find somebody with credentials to say, oh this is exaggerated and this is a natural fluctuation of the Earth’s climate. How do you decide whether you should include that dissenting voice?
Amna Nawaz: So I think this is the difference between evidence and anecdotes. And this is true regardless of what we’re talking about, whether it’s climate change or immigration, or really any topic, you can always find a dissenting opinion. I think you can always find a contradictory opinion or view. One of the questions we ask ourselves in our reporting is how much weight to give that dissenting view or that contradictory view. In the case of climate change, the overwhelming scientific consensus says to us that humans are driving these changes that we’re seeing. And that these changes are negatively impacting our planet in the following ways. And it would not be responsible of me to present a contradictory view, even though it exists, with the same weight as a view that has overwhelming science and expertise and studies and data behind it, because the two just aren’t the same.
Now people can choose to believe the thing that is not backed up by the same kind of body and weight of science and evidence. People can choose to believe whatever they want. But my job as a journalist is to accurately and fairly present that information to you. It’s not accurate or fair to put them on the same platform. It’s just not. And that is my bar. There’s a simple set of tools and questions I return to again and again when we ask ourselves these things. And they’re not always easy; honestly, I think climate change is one of the easier ones because there is so much data and so much consensus behind this issue. But it gets trickier in some of the gray areas.
Holden Thorp: Yeah, now I think this is more along the lines of what you were talking about, because there are voices in the climate change story that we need to hear more of. And that’s the folks in low-lying areas in Louisiana that are going to have to relocate communities that they’ve invested in.
Amna Nawaz: Right.
Holden Thorp: People in low-income countries that don’t have the resources to move out, move away. Are we doing an adequate job of getting those voices into stories like this?
Amna Nawaz: I don’t think we’re ever doing an adequate…. I think if I thought we were doing an adequate job, we could pack our bags and go home. I think there’s always more to be done. I do think when it comes to the impact of climate change, we can always do more to connect the dots in terms of the real-world everyday impact. And I know there’s a lot of questions around extreme weather events and how often we can tie those to climate change. We try to accurately and fairly report on those every time they happen as well. But even just here in the US, there are so many communities that have already felt the impact of climate change in real and devastating ways. And I think NewsHour more so than any number of other news programs has consistently tried to get on the ground to a lot of these places to talk to the people in the communities and the places that have been impacted and then to make those connections.
I mean, I went to Brazil 3 years ago, right before the pandemic, and we spent about 10 days traveling around and went deep into the Amazon to talk to some of the scientists who are on the front lines of tracking that change in real time. Where you can literally have one foot in one part of the forest and it’s one temperature and walk 10 feet the other direction and it’s literally 15 degrees hotter just because…. It was insane to see on the ground and to talk to people on the front lines of it, I think that is what helps us to do that job of bearing witness in our reporting. The facts and the data and the evidence will get you so far, but it’s connecting it to people’s everyday lives, I think, that ends up giving people something they can hang onto, something that they’ll carry with them.
Holden Thorp: Yeah right. So you already said this, but I think it’s just so important. I mean, doesn’t it matter who gets to decide what objective means? I mean, and how did this all evolve like this?
Amna Nawaz: Through the conversation we’re having today?
Holden Thorp: No, I just mean, so you said earlier what we think of as objective and what’s defined as being objective was set up by a bunch of old white men who developed our ideas about journalism. And it’s the same thing in science. Exactly.
Amna Nawaz: Yeah.
Holden Thorp: And so I guess, do you have any other reflections on how it got this way and then what do we do to get people to buy into the fact that there are new ways of thinking about this that we need to be focused on?
Amna Nawaz: I do want to be clear, I think objectivity has a place in what we do. I don’t think it’s the end-all be-all standard for our journalism. I mean, there was a time when we held up neutrality as the goal and the mission for all our reporting. And I think that has long since been abandoned because there are some issues that are just so inhumane or so clear that you can’t be neutral on, we can’t be neutral on things that are evidence and science and fact based. We can’t be neutral when children are being harmed. These are standards I think that we used to use in the industry that we don’t as much anymore. And 20 years from now, there may be a new way of talking about this and new language we’ve given it that more accurately represents what it is we’re trying to do as an industry.
But I think a lot about how we started covering the pandemic early. And one of the things we were seeing anecdotally and I was hearing from sources on the ground in different communities, was just how much more deeply and devastatingly communities of color were being impacted early on. And many of the experts we were seeing were largely people who we knew about, had been seen and interviewed on national platforms in a number of places, and they were mostly white voices. We had to work really hard to identify, and it’s not that they weren’t out there, but we had to go out and make sure we were making connections in the communities where people were being most impacted by this new thing we were trying to cover. And that was incumbent on us as standard bearers, as leaders in this industry, to make sure that those voices were being represented because they were going to give us the most fair and accurate view in terms of what was actually happening on the ground at a time when we couldn’t go out and report on it on ourselves.
And that to me, again, was a simple question. It was just, how do we do this the best that we can? Well you get the people who know what it is and who are living in the communities where this is happening and who understand this in a different way. I think you can apply that to any number of different stories. You can apply that to probably any number of different industries as well. But the simple overarching truth to all of this is that this all requires the way that we do things to change. And the other very simple truth that I learned from one of my mentors, Cokie Roberts, used to say this over and over again, is change is hard. Change is hard.
But I also learned that, I lived in Zimbabwe for a year when I was in college, I was writing my senior thesis and they were undergoing a lot of democratic change at the time. And one of my professors told me, translated for me a Shona saying, which was, "Change is like an elephant that’s very slow to start running, but once it gets going you cannot stop it." And I think about that a lot. It goes back to basic principles of physics too. Momentum is a very powerful force. Inertia is a very powerful force, but an object at rest will stay at rest unless acted upon by an external force. All of us have to be those external forces. All of us have to push for those changes that we need to see, because I think the work that we do in service to the public will be better because of it.
Holden Thorp: Yeah, terrific. And how does opinion journalism, I mean obviously it’s working at NewsHour, every survey, you’re the most trusted and objective source of news coverage there is. But one thing you said in that interview is "We don’t tell people what to think." But opinion journalists do tell people what to think.
Amna Nawaz: Yeah.
Holden Thorp: How do we balance? I mean, do we have a clear understanding in journalism about who’s an opinion columnist and who’s a journalist and how those things are different?
Amna Nawaz: I think that probably varies organization to organization. I don’t know how many people actually open a newspaper anymore these days. I’m one of the dinosaurs who still does. It’s very clear to me what unfolds on the opinion page is very different than what unfolds on the other pages. Probably on television, maybe people are trying to be better about it and marking that during the day you’re getting straight news and in primetime you’re getting more opinion-based journalism. And I think there’s a role, there’s always been a role for opinion and op-eds and analysis that has a view to it and comes to you through a certain lens. The best opinion journalists are using evidence and facts to make their arguments, but they are making an argument.
For the rest of us, for the straight journalists, I think you did point out we are the most trusted, incredible news brand when you ask people. But even our public trust has been declining over the years. All institutions of power have seen this over the years. And I think the only thing we can do in the face of that is to lean in to what we do best, which is just more good journalism. It’s the only answer in the face of all the doubt and all the mistrust and all of the disinformation and misinformation. That is how we fight back. That is how we exert our external force.
Holden Thorp: Mm-hmm. And so one of the things that we have in science, which I’m curious as to whether there’s an analogy for it in journalism. So every scientist is a human being who brings their whole selves to their research. And we’re just as susceptible to motivated reasoning, and we have every human flaw, we have lots of sexism and racism and homophobia and jealousy in science. That’s what makes my job interesting. But in the long run, we get to the right answer, not because of the character and skill of any one person, because we have a process that says if everybody believes that there was a supernatural force that created life, but Charles Darwin thinks that natural selection did it, well that’s not something that happens overnight the day Origin of Species gets to the library. It’s something that happens over a hundred years while lots of people poke and prod these ideas and people with different backgrounds come to look at them.
And we’re still working on that, because Charles Darwin was a sexist and a racist, which was something of his time. And people are now still digging through a lot of old ideas from behavioral genetics that need to get…. And so there’s a social process that gets to the answer. The reason you can trust scientific consensus is not because of the skills of any one person, but the skills of the collection of people. And the more diverse that collection is, the faster you’re going to get to the answer because you’re going to wash out all these common sets of biases much more frequently. So is there an analogy for that in journalism?
Amna Nawaz: Oh, a hundred percent. I mean, both on the process, which would be our editorial process, but also on the timeline. Because we are writing the first drafts of history in real time. I forget who coined that phrase, but that is very true. And as we learn more, as more facts are unearthed, as more evidence is presented, stories change, news changes. I think the pandemic is the most recent perfect example of that. The things that we were reporting at the beginning of the pandemic were very different than what we were reporting several months later, as the science evolved and as we learned more. I think about the time I spent on the ground in Uvalde, Texas, and I remember just in the course of that week I was there, the stories I was reporting on day one were very different than the stories we were reporting on day three and four and five, because we learned more. Because we got some answers to questions, because more people started to talk to us, because we got 911 calls released.
So things change. I mean, I think it would be unwise of us to present ourselves as infallible institutions that get it perfectly right a hundred percent of the time, the first time. That’s just not true. That’s not the way that the world works. But I think the hope is that the process, which is something that unfolds on an hourly basis, a daily basis in our newsroom, something that unfolds over many months and many years of covering high-profile people or elections or other countries in the world. I think that process over time, the hope is that you are getting closer and closer to the truth.
I don’t think it’s something should you ever hold up and say, "This is it. We have it, we’re done." I think it’s a process. It’s something you’re constantly working towards. And the more diverse, I will say, both in background but also in experience, in views, in professional and lived experiences that you bring to the newsroom, the more of those voices you have participating in the process and really participating, I mean not in a check-the-box kind of way, but having real voice and having real credibility in those conversations, the better the product’s going to be in the end, the better our journalism is going to be in the end. That’s sounds like it’s true for science as well.
Holden Thorp: Yeah, and so how do we get people to see that? I mean, have we hurt ourselves by holding up these individuals in our world, Darwin and Marie Curie and Einstein, and in your world, Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow? And I mean that saying these are these great individuals shortchanges the idea that actually these are collective endeavors.
Amna Nawaz: Well, let’s remember those people were deemed great individuals by their contemporaries, and by the people who got to participate in the narrative writing that becomes the historical record over time. We just have more people doing that today. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with celebrating individual achievements that leap us forward in a number of ways. We do that all the time. Think about journalism awards when we acknowledge some of the most exceptional work being done by people who have either moved the industry forward or moved us all forward as an audience because of something they revealed or something they were able to uncover. I think about the frontline reporting being done by some Ukrainian journalists right now and what it has done for our understanding of the war and what it means for the rest of the world.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with individual achievement. I think it has the potential to push all of us forward, both in ways that question things that we’ve done, but also things that build upon what we’ve built. But over time, over time it is a collective effort, it is a group effort. I always say television in particular, and broadcast journalism in particular is a team sport because it’s not about what any one person does. It takes dozens of people every single day to get us across the finish line.
Holden Thorp: Yeah, perfect. And so I guess my last question would be, how do we get the people who consume this to understand this better so that we don’t have to constantly say, oh yeah, that’s what we thought. But we found out something new that we weren’t expecting, which should be an exciting thing. It should be cool to find something that you weren’t expecting. But we’ve gotten ourselves into this situation where we’re constantly getting punished for it, and the people who have perfectly good intentions who are absorbing this, don’t know what to think about it. Are there things we could be doing to inoculate ourselves and the world about this?
Amna Nawaz: I learned a long time ago, at least in the practice of my journalism, to think less about how the news was going to be received and more about just making sure that I was doing the best job I could reporting it. And that goes back to something very simple that I’ve taught my little girls from day one, which is you don’t control what anyone else says or does. The only thing you control is what you say or do. You have no control over how they react, or how they treat you, or how they treat other people. But you do control yourself and you are responsible for yourself. And I think applying that to what we do just means, if you think too much about how are people going to take this in or how could people misinterpret this, then I don’t think you’re giving our audience in our case, the public in your case, enough credit.
We have no other choice but to do our jobs to the best of our abilities. There is no other option. And I think these times when there is both a very messy and very crowded information landscape, and it’s very easy for people to go to sources of information that confirm what they want to be true rather than what is actually closer to the truth. I think there’s a few things I hang onto. One is consistency, right? If we’ve held someone up as an expert or we’ve reported something to be true, we try to make sure we’re repeating that time and again. I think transparency is incredibly important. How do you know what you know? I don’t expect people to take the information we present to them at face value. I want to explain to you how many people we talked to, what are the sources we cited? How do we know this to be true?
And specificity I think is also really important. We come to adopt shorthand phrases for things all the time because we’re covering them for a while. People are familiar with them, and so I’m just going to say this two-word phrase that, you know what I mean. But I don’t think we can do that. I think being specific every single time helps to drive home to people that this is credible information that comes backed by evidence and facts, and that’s why I’m reporting it to you. Again, we don’t control how people are going to take this in, but I perhaps foolishly, maybe a little naïvely according to some, I come to this work with optimism because I don’t know another way to do it. And I have to believe that what we’re doing is making a difference in some small way.
Holden Thorp: Beautiful. All right, well this is great. Our readers will be really interested in this. There’s so many parallels, and also our audiences overlap a lot.
Amna Nawaz: Yeah, I’m fascinated by the overlaps. I went to a science and tech high school here in Virginia, and I’m curious now I want to reach out to a lot of people I was at school with, because I’m probably the only one from the high school who went into journalism. Most people actually went off to science and tech, but I wonder if they see a lot of these things too.
Holden Thorp: Yeah, I think so. And I see it a lot because Science is two different things. In the back half, it’s a world-class research journal, and in the front half it’s a magazine, and we have 30 journalists who work here and work all over the world.
Amna Nawaz: So you see both, yeah.
Holden Thorp: Yeah, I see both yeah. And I’m the one person who lives in both worlds, so it’s pretty interesting. I learned journalism by being the subject of journalism, which I think going to J School would be a lot more pleasant, but I think—
Amna Nawaz: You know I never went to J School.
Holden Thorp: Yeah.
Amna Nawaz: I only ever learned on the job.
Holden Thorp: Yeah.
Amna Nawaz: I think it’s harder now to get work in this industry without doing it, but—
Holden Thorp: Probably, yeah,
Amna Nawaz: You can come to this work in lots of different ways, which I think is one of the great things about it.
Holden Thorp: Oh it is, it is great, yeah. Well, thanks for your time, this is really, really nice of you to do this and I’ll—
Amna Nawaz: Thank you. It’s a real pleasure.