In June, I had the honor of attending one of the top journalism conferences in the country, if not the world. For three days, I rubbed shoulders with reporters from places such as The New York Times, USA Today, and ProPublica.
Call me naïve, but I expected to learn about fairness, integrity, and hard work. This means giving equal weight to politically divisive issues such as gun rights, women’s health, and policing. Instead, during some training sessions I watched top professionals in their fields encouraging political bias against conservatives before reporters’ pens could even hit paper.
Bias at a lefty news organization would be expected, and the same for those on the Right. (For full transparency, I am employed at a news organization that is openly affiliated with the conservative Heritage Foundation.) But to preach political bias at a conference that represents the gold standard in journalism is alarming, and is something that we, as journalists, have a duty to address.
The purpose of the 2016 Investigative Reporters and Editors conference was to share investigative journalism tips and tricks from one reporter to another. The concept behind the conference is selfless: fellow journalists openly share their most successful secrets so we competitors in the field can come together for the greater cause. Attendees could choose from more than 100 sessions with hundreds of speakers representing a diversity of topics.
To be clear, only a select few appeared politically charged. But those that were reflect a dangerous outlook for the future of journalism, and it’s time they were called out.
Two panels in particular caught my attention. The first was called “How to investigate the war on women’s health.”
The ‘War on Women’s Health’
“How to investigate the war on women’s health” is described publicly online as such:
How to investigate the war on women’s health
Speakers: Hannah Levintova (Mother Jones), Molly Redden (The Guardian US, formerly Mother Jones), Nina Martin (ProPublica)
**Moderated by Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, Mother Jones
In the first quarter of 2016, state lawmakers introduced more than 1,000 restrictions on sexual and reproductive health—more than 400 related to abortion alone. This election season, this conflict will rage on and will touch millions of lives. That’s why this realm is ripe for investigative reporting. A panel of reporters and editors who cover this beat will offer advice on how to dig deeper on reproductive rights. They’ll discuss intersections with other beats, the unique challenges of interviewing sources on either side of a stark ideological divide, and best practices for researching the major players involved—the donors, lobbyists, scientists, and politicians.
For starters, “The war on women’s health” has no basis in fact. The language assumes lawmakers deliberately aim to harm women, which is an extremely bad-faith assumption. There is no proof of this malevolent design, either. Further, according to a May 2016 Rasmussen poll, only 25 percent of likely U.S. voters believe a “war on women” even exists. Yet a top journalism nonprofit organization adopts this language and uses it to teach young journalists how to cover the area of women’s health. Then, organizers of the conference extended panelist invitations only to journalists from outlets such as Mother Jones who unabashedly support this premise.
This is deeply troubling for a number of reasons. Conference organizers could have chosen any issue in the world to train and equip young journalists to cover. The ones that they do pick send the message to reporters and editors in newsrooms nationwide: these are the issues that are worth your time.
One might ask, if we’re training young reporters to investigate “abortion restrictions,” might they also investigate “abortion safety”? And what about the other “millions of lives” that will be lost due to abortion? Are those lives not worth investigating?
I don’t mean to discredit the important work that Mother Jones, The Guardian, and ProPublica have done in the area of women’s health. But in assembling this panel, IRE sends the message that only one political view of women’s health care matters. Only one side of women’s health care is worth investigating. In a country where only 29 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal under any circumstances, that message seems a bit unfair.
In May 2013, Kermit Gosnell, an abortionist who operated a late-term abortion clinic in West Philadelphia, was convicted of first-degree murder for killing multiple babies who were accidently born alive during the procedures (by “snipping” their necks with scissors, no less). He was also found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for leaving a 41-year-old refugee, Karnamaya Mongar, lying on an abortion table to die. For these charges, and many more, Gosnell is now serving a life sentence.
The media greatly failed in their duty to investigate or even report on this case, where baby body parts were routinely shoved down the garbage disposal “to the point where they plunged it one day and an arm popped out.” This failure is generally accepted by media on both sides of the aisle as fact.
After attending this conference, it became clear to me how we missed such an atrocity. It made me reflect on what kind of responsibility we—as journalists and editors—bear for allowing these atrocities to happen sometimes, not even behind our backs.
Reporting on Guns
The second panel that failed to encourage the best journalism practices was called “Reporting on guns.” The description, according to the IRE website, is as follows:
Reporting on guns
Speakers: Lois Beckett (ProPublica), Ben Hallman (Huffington Post), Mike McLively (Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence), Jonathan Bullington (The Times-Picayune)
**Moderated by Matt Drange, Forbes
With more guns than people in the U.S., you’d think there would be an army of journalists covering every aspect of guns, from gun violence to the business of guns to gun policy and everything in between. The reality is, there are precious few journalism resources dedicated to consistent coverage of guns. Most newsrooms only get involved when there’s a mass shooting. Come hear from some of the best in the business as we talk about how to cover guns and highlight recent in-depth reporting on them. We aim to send you back to your newsroom with story ideas you can execute right away, along with resources you can use for the long haul.
In this case, the problem wasn’t with the premise of the panel, but rather, the journalists invited to speak. Ben Hallman is a former senior editor at The Huffington Post and current deputy editor for The Trace, a nonprofit news organization funded by the the Joyce Foundation and the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund (a gun-control advocacy group that seeks to “unseat politicians who do the NRA’s bidding”). Browsing The Trace and Hallman’s present and past portfolio, it’s clear he has it out for the National Rifle Association.
The NRA, like any advocacy group, deserves to be held accountable. But at a journalist conference organized by journalists, one might think that you’d find a staunch Second Amendment supporter sitting next to Hallman. Or, at least, someone who investigates the other side to the gun debate.
Instead, accompanying Hallman on-stage was Mike McLively from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence does some great work, but is a highly politicized organization that advocates in favor of gun-control legislation, much of which groups such as the NRA oppose.
If an organization preaching good journalism decides to invite an advocate who represents the liberal side to the gun-control debate, it should go without saying that they should invite someone from the other side. Perhaps that’s why, when watching your TV at night, it’s so easy to conclude that the majority of Americans support more gun control. But a quick Google search of the polling reveals something much different.
“While support for gun rights surpassed that of gun control in December of last year, reaching a two-decade high, it has since fallen five percentage points,” reads a 2015 Pew Research report. “Now 50 percent say it is more important to control gun ownership, just slightly more than the 47 percent who say it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns.”
During the session on guns, Lois Beckett, the panelist who most fairly represented both sides to the gun debate, asked attendees to raise their hands if they thought the media were biased against conservatives in their coverage of guns. The room went silent, with almost no one raising a hand. Beckett, shocked, asked again. Instead of raising their hands, the editors and reporters filling the room looked at one another and laughed. They laughed because they all knew there is a liberal bias, but to them, it’s funny. Nothing more.
The Future of Journalism
Before writing this article, I reached out to Mark Horvit, executive director of IRE, who did not indicate that leaders even considered inviting someone from a group such as the NRA.
“We sometimes add experts to sessions if they’ve done research on a topic or have information that can help the session,” Horvit said of the decision to invite advocates such as McLively, adding: “For example, we had a former police chief on a panel about policing, and we’ve had judges and elected officials speak on sessions. While such speakers almost certainly represent specific positions, the hope is that the mix of voices adds to everyone’s understanding of an issue.”
A skewed panel like the one IRE hosted in June, however, runs the risk of blinding up-and-coming journalists to an entire side of the gun debate before they even get started. If IRE truly seeks to help reporters understand these issues, the organization needs to do better at including a “mix of voices.”
For the panel addressing the so-called “war on women’s health,” Horvit admitted the title was “provocative,” but said “that is not an excuse” for any bias that occurred. “I agree that in the future, we need to look especially closely at both the focus and makeup of panels on topics that cover politically charged issues,” Horvit said, suggesting hope that next year, IRE leaders might look more critically at the panels they compose.
To close the conference, attendees had the privilege of hearing from the original Boston Globe “Spotlight” team, the group of investigative reporters and editors who uncovered the Catholic church sex abuse scandal. This meant having the honor of hearing from Marty Baron, who led the original “Spotlight” team and now serves as executive editor of The Washington Post. As he was on stage, Baron expressed frustration about the current state of journalism, where the public now gets its news from politically charged outlets that each has its own set of facts. We can’t even agree on the facts anymore, Baron lamented.
After attending this conference, I gathered the problem goes far beyond agreeing on the facts.