Panel discussion centers on Trump, journalistic objectivity

By Taylor Bromante
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer

Towson University hosted a panel discussion in Potomac Lounge Oct. 20 titled “Journalistic Objectivity in the Age of Trump,” where four panelists deliberated about the role of objectivity in today’s media and the current presidential race.

The panelists included Joseph Torres, senior external affairs director for Free Press, a Washington-based group that advocates for a free and open Internet; Charles Robinson, a reporter for Maryland Public Television; Jennifer Rubin,  a blogger for the Washington Post; and Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s Reliable Sources and a Towson alum.

The panelists generally agreed that objectivity was important to American journalism, even when covering a candidate like Republican nominee Donald Trump.

“When I think of objectivity personally… I think about taking my own views, prejudices, biases or points of view out of my coverage,” Stelter said. “(I try to) have an objective, rational, grounded view of the story.”

Torres said one reason the American public’s trust in journalism has dropped over the years is because of the 1996 Telecommunication Act, which led to media consolidation in which a media company’s main objective was to maximizing profit.

“There has been a decline in the kind of journalism we need,” Torres said. “As a person of color, I have a difficult time with the word objectivity. Journalists work within a system where there are others pressures on them.”

Rubin and Robinson followed up by questioning the purpose of journalism, whether it be to entertain or inform.

“This is not an equal election, this is a consequential election,” Robinson said. “What you hope at the end is that you’re informing people. I don’t do opinion, I do news analysis. There’s a difference.”

Stelter said that Trump has received so much more coverage than his political rivals because he is such a riveting candidate.

“The biggest bias of all is the story,” Stelter said. “It was all of the television magnetism. He was and is the story of our time.”

Towson University held a panel discussion on how the news media has covered Donald Trump and the 2016 presidential election. From left to right: Joe Torres, Charles Robinson, Jennifer Rubin, and Brian Stelter.

Towson University held a panel discussion on how the news media has covered Donald Trump and the 2016 presidential election. From left to right: Joe Torres, Charles Robinson, Jennifer Rubin, and Brian Stelter.

Rubin asserted that although Trump made a great story, journalists were too uncritical by not providing analysis. “That was not journalism,” Rubin said.

Stelter backed Rubin’s statements and said fact checking adds value to journalism.

Torres followed Stelter’s comment by agreeing with one of his recent TV guests, Soledad O’Brien, when she said the media was mainstreaming white supremacy.

“It’s this white nationalist candidate running that we haven’t seen in a long time,” Torres said. “How is he allowed to spew this hate speech, it’s really dangerous. Trump is a total media creation.”

Robinson referred to this issue as “the seduction of media.” “When Trump goes on, numbers go up,” he said. “That becomes the unique narrative: Can a television star make a transition to politics?”

Torres said  there’s a white racial hierarchy and one down side is that there are fewer journalists.

“We fall into these stereotypes that are hard to break out of,” Torres said. “Dog whistle politics through the years has put people in boxes. Some communities don’t get covered in the totality.”

Rubin followed by giving an example of Trump’s false claims on immigration.

“The biggest illegal immigration problem is Visa overstates mostly from Asia,” Rubin said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time when there is a story about immigration, it’s about Hispanics. We’ve set up an association in people’s minds… We in the media have contributed by not looking at whether we are perpetuating putting people in boxes.”

She also pointed out that groups that have a history with persecution and being singled out have caught on and opposed Trump, one example being Mormons residing in Utah.

“If you had more people in mainstream journalism who understood that perspective, they would have clued in a little sooner,” Rubin said.

Stelter explained the difficulty of talking about racial resentment on TV.

“One of the best things about this year is more journalists are fact checking more aggressively,” Stelter said.

All the panelists nodded when Stelter said he’s been trained not to call anyone a racist, reiterating that journalistic rules are still vital.

“As people of color, we don’t own anything,” Torres added. “We have little control over the construction and dissemination of our own narratives.”

The panelists agreed that Trump has made the news media a target as a way of deflecting criticism of his inflammatory rhetoric.

“He’s running a media driven campaign and an anti-media campaign at the same time,” Stelter said. “His supporters are opting out of journalism. He’s trying to inoculate himself against our coverage and that only works if the audience lets it happen.”

Rubin said Trump will encourage crowds at his rallies to harass journalists.

“It is an attempt to delegitimize a free press,” Rubin said. “What do authoritarians do? They destroy and delegitimize democratic institutions.”

The panel agreed that press freedoms are being attacked.

Stelter drew a difference between television and journalism.

“There are times when media breaks down and it’s only good television,” Stelter said. “(Journalists should) get in the middle where it is compelling to watch but still informative.”

Following the discussion, Torres said it’s important for journalists to report on racial issues.

“Race is scary to report on,” Torres said in an interview. “We need journalists to understand race, who are unafraid to go in and tell those stories. Poorer communities and people of color within marginalized communities need to be centered in stories… Reporting should give voice to those who don’t have it.”

Kerry Ingram, a sophomore at Towson, said she learned a lot from the panel.

“It’s important to distinguish your opinion from facts, especially when you’re covering something like politics where there are strong characters and strong opinions,” Ingram said.

Ingram added that she enjoyed the panel’s diversity and variety of viewpoints, especially Rubin’s.

“(The panel discussion) made me realize you can have your views while still being open to hearing others,’” Ingram said. “I think it’s going to make me a more open minded journalist.”

Editor’s Note: The editor of the Baltimore Watchdog was the moderator of the panel discussion.

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