Q&A with Professor Mitchell Stephens: On Opinions, Bias and the Future of Storytelling

Part II of an extended interview with Professor Mitchell Stephens, who teaches journalism at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU. Stephens is the author of the books “A History of News, Beyond News: The Future of Journalism” and “Journalism Unbound.” Stephens’s works focus largely on the history of journalism, the future of the journalism industry and journalism education.

Hanna Khosravi, Opinion Editor

Read Part I here.

WSN: What is the gray area of differentiating between information dissemination and journalism? Twitter can be used for people who are trying to air their stories, for personal experiences, for opinions. What about accountability?

Mitchell Stephens: That’s one of the ways in which journalism is changing, in part because of things like Twitter. My colleague Jay Rosen calls it “The View from Nowhere” — this idea that journalists had no opinions and were just talking about facts. It was, first of all, false because journalists have always been coming from somewhere, from some ideology, and we can say what that ideology was in the days before social media. And I’m not freaked out by people who have a perspective on things, and who have opinions. I learn a lot from people who have headstrong opinions — most of them on the left, some of them on the right. So that wouldn’t be my critique.

I’m interested in the question of false information and how we can help people better differentiate between things that are true and things that are false. In some ways, I think there are two Twitters, and the Twitter that I know — since I don’t tweet very much — is a collection of people I am really interested in.  And that, for me, is a pretty good journalistic source. And everyone says, “Oh, well everything is so short on Twitter.” But the whole point [of Twitter] is that it links to things. And it is my way of building my own newspaper or magazine, and in some ways I feel like my newspaper or magazine is better than The New York Times. I like the selection — there is nothing original about it, I just select a hundred or so people who I find interesting.

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And then there is the Twitter of nasty attacks by people, and the comments section that I do not often read. The Twitter that makes it very hard to be a woman with a point of view because you get torn down in the most vicious and ugly ways. That seems to be something else, and I guess I am too small a force on Twitter and I tweet too irregularly to experience any of that.

WSN: Do you think that there are countermeasures that institutions, the public, journalists themselves or governments can employ to decipher the false news from real news? Or do you think that over time, with years of social media exposure, the public’s acuity to decoding what is true versus what is false will increase?

MS: I take a John Stuart Mill kind of perspective on this stuff, or a John Milton perspective. The best antidote to false news, false stories, false opinions is true opinions. I must admit, I’m thinking twice about this now. I think we do have a problem, and there has been some effort in mainstream media towards fact-checking, which is another relatively new phenomenon, and I think that’s useful. But I do think that we need to look at this again and think about this again. What I don’t want to see, obviously, is some government agency charged with deciding what news is true and what news is not true. Imagine such an agency in the hands of the Trump Administration — that is really scary. Facebook has shown no talent for accomplishing this, nor has Twitter. This is a really interesting area, an area where we are going to need a lot more thought, and where we have to tread very lightly.

WSN: You mentioned earlier the concept of how we try to separate journalism from activism, and the notion that journalists have no opinion. Do you see that trait of having an opinion, and that being OK, developing in today’s journalists?

MS: That is something I talked about in my book “Beyond News.” I think there is a historical perspective you have to have on this. The “objectivity” period — with the word “objectivity” in quotes; it’s such a complicated and difficult and problematic word — lasted about a century and a half. And before then, in the era, for example, when the First Amendment and the Constitution was written, nobody thought of journalists as just purveyors of fact. Journalists had an opinion. Thomas Jefferson had his own Anti-Federalist Papers started and Alexander Hamilton started The New York Post as a Federalist newspaper. Newspapers were tightly aligned with parties in those days which was problematic in various ways, but many of the great journalists that we teach were tremendously opinionated.

And then you’ve got this kind of Walter Cronkite, The New York Times journalism in the 20th century in which somehow having an opinion was a bad idea. There were some economic reasons for that: if there were only going to be three network newscasts, you would not want to scare off any viewers by having a strong liberal or a strong conservative point of view. Now that there are 500 cable channels; having a strong point of view is a way to grab some sort of viable audience, as FOX and MSNBC do. There were some nice things about us sharing common facts in the Walter Cronkite era and in the heyday of The New York Times, but again, it was a kind of limited journalism.

And I think an opinion, a point of view, can be a wonderful tool for enlightenment, even if the person reading doesn’t share that point of view. And there is something to be said about people being upfront on where they are coming from and not trying to hide the fact they really think the Vietnam War is a bad idea but they are not allowed to say it. I’d rather read somebody who supports the current administration of the United States who at least is upfront about it and somebody who hates the current administration of the United States but is upfront about it. They can all enlighten me and also give me a new understanding of a situation. I would dispute the fact that they were good journalists if they were not telling the truth, if they were distorting the facts, if they refused to apologize if they made a mistake — and we’ve seen all of these things, alas, too much — but I don’t think there is anything wrong with opinions.

I think we are seeing a rise in opinions even in The New York Times. If you look at The New York Times webpage, a lot of what they are selling is their increasing number of opinion columnists. There are many times when I learn more from Paul Krugman’s analysis on the op-ed page, or its digital equivalent, than I do from the main story on the front page.

There is also an economic reason for this: we live in an age where news is so widely available that it is hard to make a living selling news anymore. So journalists have to add something to the fact that, as we speak today, Attorney General [William] Barr is being interviewed. I know that before any The New York Times story. I learned that on Twitter and various other places. So if The New York Times wants to make me pay for it, they are going to have to add some insight to it — and that might be in the form of opinion.

As you can see, I enjoy talking about this stuff.

This interview has been edited for clarity. 

This article is part of a special series from WSN called “The Future of Journalism,” in which the Opinions Desk plans to explore the future of the journalism industry in the current political and social climate, as well as try to gain a better understanding of how we can prepare our future journalists for the field.

Email Hanna Khosravi at [email protected] 

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