Marty Baron Shares Insights on His Career, The State of Journalism

Former Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron spoke with Stephen J. Adler, director of the NYU Ethics and Journalism Initiative and former editor-in-chief of Reuters, at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute on Nov. 1, 2023. Find highlights of their conversation, as well as Baron's responses to questions from the audience of students, faculty members and professional journalists, in this post.

A video recording of the full conversation may be viewed here.

Balance vs. Objectivity

Balance and objectivity in journalism aren’t the same thing, Marty Baron, former executive editor of the Washington Post, told an audience at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute on Nov. 1, 2023. To illustrate his point, he cited an example from his early days leading the Boston Globe. The day before he began his new role, the Globe published a column about a Catholic priest who had been accused of abusing as many as 80 children The column gave the plaintiffs’ position that the Catholic Church knew of the alleged abuse but continued to reassign this priest from parish to parish, and the column then reported the church’s denial. Baron said the columnist ended by telling readers that the truth may never be known because documents were under court seal.

That’s balance. “One side says one thing, the other side says something else,” Baron told the NYU audience. But it wasn’t good enough.

At his first morning news meeting, as the journalists spoke about what they were working on, no one mentioned the column. “And the first thing that I said was, ‘What about this case? Can’t we get beyond the idea of one side saying one thing and the other side saying something else?’ The problem there was settling for balance. So I said, ‘Can’t we get to the truth of the matter? Who’s telling the truth here?’”

Baron told the NYU audience that journalists should instead seek to achieve objectivity, to set aside their preconceptions about a topic because what the journalist thinks is irrelevant.

“You go and you say, let’s find the evidence and do so in a very open-minded, fair, comprehensive, thorough, rigorous way, and find out what the truth is. …That is what I call objectivity. And then when you find out what you know to be the truth, what the evidence points to, you tell people that in an unflinching, direct way and show people the evidence. And that’s what we did. That is a distinction between balance and objectivity.”

Ideological Bubbles

Baron said that while journalists often talk about people who live in an ideological bubble, often referring to those on the Right end of the political spectrum, the journalists can be guilty of similar behavior. 

“Journalists need to be careful not to live in their own bubble,” he told the audience at NYU. Reporters must be good listeners to actually hear what people are saying and hear why they believe what they believe and not just practicing “checkbox journalism.”

“It’s important that we talk to people who may have positions different from ours, and to really hear what they’re saying,” he said, “also not to stereotype them and not to condescend to them, not to hold them in contempt.”

Honest Reporting and Getting Sources to Talk

Baron made clear that reporters always need to identify who they are, their affiliation and why they’re asking questions, even if that can make it more difficult to get sources to talk.

“We don’t want to engage in deceit,” he said, and pretend that we’re using the information for some purpose other than a reporting assignment. “That’s just not honest, forthright and not trustworthy.”

“There are many reporters for mainstream news organizations who go into the middle of the country, they go into Trump country, and people don’t want to talk to them. …  But you have to keep trying. And eventually you will find people who are willing to talk to you. It may not be the first two, or three or five. But eventually you will find people who are willing to talk to you.”

The Use of Anonymous Sources

Anonymous sources should be used as little as possible because the practice undermines journalists’ credibility, Baron said.

There are times a source must be named, he said, particularly if the source is accusing someone else of wrongdoing. In these circumstances, the only instances when you can grant anonymity is when the risk to the source is enormous. Indeed, some sources face losing their employment, being prosecuted, harassed, or physically harmed.  

Public Distrust of Media

While the use of anonymous sources is one of the leading reasons people say they don’t trust journalism, Baron said it’s more nuanced than that. The issue, he said, is what the anonymous sources are saying. 

“If what the anonymous sources are saying contradicts (the readers’) pre-existing view of the world and what they think the facts are, then they don’t trust it. … The real underlying reason (for the distrust) is because it contradicts what they believe to be true,” he said.

Challenges of a Polarization on Media Consumption

Baron told the NYU audience that the highly polarized political environment in the U.S. has led to a highly polarized environment for media consumption.

“A lot of people would just not read the Washington Post or not read the New York Times because they don’t want to see stories that contradict their preexisting view of the world,” Baron said. “And getting past that is really hard.”

But he offered several suggestions:

  • People who could watch or read or listen to our journalism need to “see themselves reflected fairly and not contemptuously in our coverage, but with some empathy for what they’re going through. We don’t have to believe we don’t have to agree with their political views. It doesn’t really matter whether we agree or disagree. But they have to see their lives portrayed in our news organizations, just like people in every community need to see themselves portrayed on our sites and in our newspapers.”
  • Journalists need to offer greater transparency about who they are, how they are qualified and how they can be reached. But, beyond that, journalists should share how they came to write the story and what’s the evidence upon which they are relying. “We have to assume that people are not going to believe us,” he said. “We now can show the original documents, … we can point to government data that was the basis for our story, we can provide a video that actually shows what we’re talking about, we can provide an audio. There are many tools that we have today to provide the evidence, and we ought to be doing that in almost every story and on almost every fact if we possibly can.”

The Role of Empathy in Journalism

Part of our job as journalists is to serve our community, Baron said. One aspect of that is understanding them; who they are, what motivates them, what their worries, expectations and aspirations are, regardless of their political views. We should listen generously; that’s our obligation. 

But what about when our reporting could put someone in harm’s way?

Baron noted that seems to come up more frequently now because “there seem to be more severe consequences for people simply for expressing a point of view. And so I do think we need to think about it. I’m not sure it should always be the governing factor in our deciding what to do.”

Use of Social Media By Journalists

Social media can be a great reporting tool, “supplemented by actual reporting,” Baron said, but it has also facilitated the erosion of standards in journalism. But “I don’t think it’s helpful for (journalists) to be expressing their views on whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want on social media.”

Well-established institutional standards are the basis of a publication’s reputation, he explained. Editors and writers at a publication work collectively to perform journalism in a way that is in line with the established standards of the institution, but those standards are obliterated when anybody on staff can decide to say whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want.  

We implement those standards by having editors, those editors work with reporters, the reporters are selected based on their experience and their expertise and their judgment. And we work collectively to perform journalism in a way that is in line with established standards of the institution that built its reputation. What happens to those standards when anybody on staff … can decide to say whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want. And then those standards are … obliterated, as a matter of fact. And that’s a real problem because it basically destroys the very reputation of the institution.”

Coverage of Clinton Emails in ’16 Presidential Election

In Baron’s book, “Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and The Washington Post,” he wrote about the weight that the media, including his Washington Post, placed on reporting on the content of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s emails versus the motive behind the hack of those emails. 

“I think that if I had to do it over again,” he told the NYU gathering, “it’s not that we wouldn’t report on the contents of those emails, because I think we had an obligation to and there was real news contained in those emails. But I think we should have given at least equal weight to what was the motive for hacking those emails in the first place and (we should have) paid a lot more attention to why would Russia do this. What was the purpose, emphasizing that (issue) so that it was not lost.”

False Equivalency

Baron cautioned that journalists should take care not to fall into a trap of false equivalency. Just because some people or even a large number of people don’t believe something that is established as scientific fact doesn’t mean that journalists have to say, “OK, well, that has equal weight.” As examples he noted the efficacy and safety of vaccines, evolution and climate change.

“I heard the novelist Margaret Atwood talk about how people have really now confused beliefs with facts,” he said. “We need to be careful not to confuse beliefs with facts, as well.” 

Word Choice

Once you use the most extreme word, you’re never going to be able to take it back, Baron said, in discussing the importance of word choice. This is part of the reason so many organizations were reluctant to call Trump’s untrue statements lies. It was an important distinction to determine first if he knew what he was saying was false, or if it was a mistake or self-delusion.

“I do think we have to be careful with the language also,” he said, “because a lot of people are just going to focus on the word and not on the actual facts of the underlying facts.”

On Becoming Close With Sources

“There’s a difference between being friendly and being friends,” Baron said in response to an audience question. “You should be friendly; I don’t think you should really be friends. … You need to maintain your independence. If the objective is really to get at the truth, then you can’t necessarily be an ally.”

Media’s Place in a Democracy

Asked about the Post’s slogan, “Democracy dies in darkness,” Baron said: “As many people have pointed out, democracy dies in the light, too. I think what we’re seeing today is a lot of threats to democracy that are very much in the light. So if I think that democracy does have a future in this country, it depends on the American public to make sure that it does. We in the press don’t … determine elections. Our obligation is to give the public the information it needs and deserves to govern itself. How its people choose to be governed is up to them. So I think our obligation is to provide that information to people and to do it in an energetic and forthright, fair, but unflinching way.”

Advice for Young Journalists

When people asked Baron what they needed to do in his newsroom to succeed, he would always say: “I want people who are more impressed with what they don’t know, than with what they know or think they know. And that’s what I think we need in our profession: People who are more impressed with what they don’t know, rather than thinking they know it all at the beginning. … You cannot assume that you have all the answers at the beginning. In fact, you may not even know all the questions to ask. And so I would like people in our profession to be more impressed with what they don’t know, than with what they know or think they know.”

Reflections from Stephen J. Adler, director of the NYU Ethics and Journalism Initiative:

We need to take some responsibility for the public’s distrust of journalists. There’s validity to the observation that audiences trust us if they agree with us politically and distrust us if they don’t. However, based on public-opinion surveys and conversations with people who consume news, it seems likely that distrust also stems from:

  1. a) Overuse of anonymous sources;
  2. b) Sloppy and inaccurate reporting;
  3. c) A reluctance to correct mistakes;
  4. d) Public doubts over whether journalists are seeking the truth or pursuing an agenda;
  5. e) Resentment over reporters’ perceived arrogance or condescension.

 My view: To be trusted, we have to be trustworthy.

I struggle with the value of journalism that reaches only people on one side of the political divide. Those who advocate “speaking truth to power” often mean, for example, denigrating or dismissing Republican-backed policies. Denouncing authoritarianism, racism, and anti-democratic behavior is appropriate. But I also think it is necessary to explore – rather than dismiss – widely held viewpoints even if a journalist objects to them. If we had done more of this exploration in 2016, we would have had a better understanding of why so many people would end up voting for Donald Trump.

I hope it remains possible to report honestly and carefully, recognizing our biases but putting them to the side, so that our audiences can make their own decisions on the wide range of topics about which we report. While this may seem naïve in the current climate, I think Reuters, for example, does a good job of this and that users prefer fair-minded coverage to implicit advocacy. It’s vital to point out misstatements and disinformation, but it undermines our credibility when we appear to take sides.