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Journalistic independence in a time of division

On 4th March, A. G. Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, delivered the 2024 Reuters Memorial Lecture. This is a transcript of his talk.

By A. G. Sulzberger

Journalistic independence in a time of division
A. G. Sulzberger giving the 2024 Reuters Memorial Lecture.

It’s an honour to be here to deliver this year’s memorial lecture. The Reuters Institute has been an invaluable resource for so many of us engaged in the difficult work of trying to blaze a sustainable path for quality journalism. And I feel lucky to receive such a warm welcome here at Oxford despite my institution’s many, entirely unintentional, affronts to British culture, such as our blasphemous suggestion that a full English breakfast can be cooked on a single baking tray in the oven. 

In the relatively short time since I was asked to speak today, the bad news about the news industry has somehow gotten even worse. It’s not a good sign when two different magazines both use the phrase “Extinction-Level Event” in headlines about the outlook for news organisations. 

In my country, about a third of all newsroom jobs have disappeared in the last 15 years, and local newspapers continue to close at a rate of more than two a week. The journalists lucky enough to still have jobs often lack the support needed to do original reporting of consequence – not just money but time, the guidance of experienced editors, and the ability to go to the places and talk to the people they’re writing about.

If that weren’t enough, the actual work of journalism has become harder as well. Threats, harassment and attacks on journalists continue to escalate, stoked by anti-press rhetoric that calls journalism “fake news” and the people who report it “enemies of the people”. And, of course, this is not a problem confined to the United States or Britain. Around the globe, near-record numbers of journalists are being killed and jailed. And increasingly aggressive efforts to strip longstanding journalistic rights are undermining independent reporting, even in countries that have historically supported free expression and a free press.

As news organisations strain against these pressures, they have to compete in an information ecosystem dominated by a handful of tech giants and polluted with misinformation, conspiracy theories, propaganda, and clickbait – all of which are further eroding trust in media. The Reuters Institute tells us that Americans’ trust in media, once robust, now regularly ranks among the lowest in the world, well behind countries where the media is controlled by repressive governments. Britain fares only slightly better.

And now the arrival of generative artificial intelligence promises to worsen every one of the challenges facing news organisations, unless those developing this powerful technology – and the frameworks to regulate it – ensure AI is used to support a trustworthy news ecosystem, rather than to hasten its demise.

Why journalistic independence matters

So why, when my profession faces more existential threats than you could fit in a big budget horror movie, have I decided to come here to talk about the comparatively esoteric concept of journalistic independence?

Because this era has made journalistic independence harder than ever, rarer than ever and, I believe, more important than ever.

The world is grappling with giant challenges, from accelerating climate change to persistent inequality to technological disruption to democratic erosion to seemingly intractable global conflicts. Meanwhile, epidemics of misinformation and polarisation are making the search for solutions ever more elusive. Overcoming those forces and bringing communities together to understand the options, make hard decisions, and take action requires trustworthy facts and mutual understanding. And facts and understanding are precisely what independent journalism offers society.

Yet in my role as publisher of the New York Times, I continue to be startled by the growing resistance to independent journalism.

Not long ago, from my office window in midtown Manhattan, I watched a mass of people protesting our supposed anti-Palestinian bias, while they stood directly below a billboard denouncing our supposed anti-Israel bias. It left me with the unnerving realisation that an increasingly self-sorted and intensely polarised public is perhaps most unified in the belief that any journalist who challenges their side’s narrative must be getting the story wrong.

Today, I’d like to make the case for the importance of independent journalism. And I’d like to do so not by singing our greatest hits, but by talking about our fiercely contested coverage of some of society’s most polarising and difficult-to-talk-about issues – such as the war in Ukraine, debates over trans rights, and the conflict in the Middle East.

To be clear, I’m not camping out on the third rail because I want to get zapped. I’m addressing these topics because the issues that most divide us are also those that most benefit from an independent press committed to collecting the facts, providing the context, and fostering the understanding needed for solutions. They’re also the issues on which a posture of independence is most likely to be attacked as amoral, even dangerous. As such, pushback becomes the predictable cost of pursuing independent journalism; it’s important to understand the dynamics behind it, and the perhaps surprising feeling that I believe often animates it.

What journalistic independence really means

Let me pause here to define what I mean by journalistic independence.

You can think of it as a first-order commitment to open-mindedness. Journalistic independence demands a willingness to follow the facts, even when they lead you away from what you assumed would be true. A willingness to engage at once empathetically and sceptically with a wide variety of people and perspectives. An insistence on reflecting the world as it is, not as you wish it to be. A posture of curiosity rather than conviction, of humility rather than righteousness.

Where there is overwhelming evidence, independence means plainly stating the facts, even if they appear to favour one side. And in the much more frequent cases when the facts are unclear, or their interpretation under reasonable debate, independence means empowering readers to understand and digest that ambiguity for themselves.

Independence does not mean both-sidesism. It doesn’t mean centrism or neoliberalism or a defence of the status quo. It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card for inaccurate or unfair coverage. And it’s also not an innate personal characteristic any of us were born with. It’s a professional discipline to which journalists must recommit each day.

This discipline is rooted in process. Things like soliciting a range of perspectives, confirmation from multiple sources, fact-checking, ethics guidelines, prohibitions on conflicts of interest. It requires diversity, in the broadest sense. Newsrooms that embrace journalists with different backgrounds and worldviews will spot more stories and imbue them with greater nuance and insight.

The discipline of journalism also requires no small amount of personal courage. You need to be willing to challenge conventional wisdom and groupthink. You need to be willing to take a simple, easy, or comfortable story and complicate it with truths that people don’t want to hear. More than ever, you need to be willing to show resilience amid the torrent of harassment and abuse that often follows publication.

And you need to be willing to acknowledge that we don’t always get it right. That sometimes the critics have a point. Independence shouldn’t be used as a shield to fend off legitimate complaints or to hide from errors. Like every news organisation, the Times gets things wrong – sometimes very wrong. Our past failures on important stories like the Iraq war or the AIDS crisis give us plenty of reasons for humility. Pursuing the truth wherever it leads sometimes means recognising our own mistakes, and correcting them fully and transparently. That, too, is independence.

What independent journalism looks like in practice continually evolves. But at its heart it remains the same model of journalism my great-great-grandfather, Adolph Ochs, championed when he pledged in 1896 that the Times would “give the news impartially, without fear or favour, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.” Five generations of my family have made it our life’s work to honour that commitment, and to spread the word.

But journalistic independence has always had its critics. It’s long been contested by those on the right who see it as masking a pervasive liberal bias in newsrooms. It’s long been contested by those on the left who argue that independence privileges a straight, white, male worldview that props up existing power structures. And it’s increasingly contested by some journalists, who argue that a society grappling with existential challenges cannot afford an impartial press focused more on sharing information than crusading for change. Independence, in this view, is a peacetime luxury.

But the newest dynamic – the most difficult to navigate – is that the posture of journalistic independence is now contested by nearly every group we cover on nearly every issue we cover. In just the last few years, the Times has been called anti-white, anti-Asian, anti-Inuit. Anti-Hindu, anti-Catholic, anti-Hasidic. Anti-Africa and anti-Europe. We’ve been called anti-public schools, and anti-Harvard. Anti-fracking, and anti-environment. Anti-CEO and anti-union. Anti-Elon Musk and Anti-Queen Elizabeth. Anti-crypto and anti-yoga pants. Sadly, that is far from a complete list.

Why is this happening? Like never before, the social media era encourages the public to self-sort into communities unified by shared identity, interest or worldview. These groups form their own narratives, which harden and become more extreme. Louder voices rise to the top, as they inevitably do in digital environments. These echo chambers celebrate work that conforms to their narratives and protest anything that challenges them.

These views are often sincerely held. But the fundamental goal of the cheers and jeers is to change coverage – making what gets reported more favourable to their interests, and making it more uncomfortable to report things they don’t like. Sometimes this involves seizing on offending pieces in isolation as evidence of an agenda – instead of viewing them in the context of a broader body of coverage that explores an issue from many angles and perspectives. One study showed that most people don’t even read a piece before posting about it on social media, meaning that complaints are often best understood as demonstrations of in-group solidarity rather than informed critiques.

The Washington Post columnist Philip Bump recently described this type of criticism as an “omnipresent rumble” from those “emboldened to hate reporting that challenges them and to see those reporters as a threat.”

Tressie McMillan Cottom, a columnist for the Times opinion section, explained that the public is avoiding shared spaces in favour of ideological encampments. “We don’t just want personalised content,” she says. “We want personalised content that affirms and does not challenge our political identities.”

And David French, another columnist for the Times, suggested these dynamics are fuelling “arguably the most comprehensively, voluntarily and cooperatively misinformed generation of people ever to walk the Earth.”

“We’re misinformed not because the government is systematically lying or suppressing the truth,” he wrote, “We’re misinformed because we like the misinformation we receive and are eager for more.”

Whether they’ve self-sorted over political orientation, nationality, race, gender, religion, profession, or anything else, the vast majority of these groups, I’ve come to believe, are animated by essentially the same feeling: a profound, perhaps even existential, sense of vulnerability.

In many cases, this feeling of vulnerability is understandable. We are living in a period when many feel threatened – often in ways that are justified – by rising intolerance and massive inequality, by societal instability and tear-down-the-system zeal. But history shows that tribalism, polarisation, and narratives of vulnerability are a dangerous mix. In combination, they stoke absolutism, snuff out tolerance, and often give rise to the demand behind so many of society’s worst episodes: Are you with us, or against us? More and more, that question is levelled at journalists.

I can assure you that it is extremely tempting to make the case for journalistic independence through self-serving, feel-good examples that show how well the Times has modelled the value and how by doing so we changed the world for the better. Widely celebrated stories that show how we defied presidents to bring essential information to the public, as with the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers. How we exposed patterns of harassment and abuse at the hands of prominent men, helping to spark the #MeToo movement. How we revealed secrets that powerful people and governments wanted to keep under wraps, forcing meaningful accountability and reform in countless areas of public interest – from documenting the widespread illegal employment of migrant children in dangerous jobs to exposing how America’s drone warfare programme has been systematically plagued by flawed intelligence, imprecise targeting and disregard for human life.

But the best way to know whether you’re living your values is not in the cases that are celebrated, but those that are contested. I think of my colleague who was called a Republican pawn for exposing Hillary Clinton’s private email server – and then called a Democratic pawn for exposing Donald Trump’s many efforts to undermine investigations into his actions. Or my colleagues who angered every side of the abortion debate by listening to every side of the abortion debate and then doing their best to fairly represent all those perspectives.

I’m going to explore some high-profile examples like these – not to sound defensive, or beleaguered – but to illustrate the difficult daily reality of independent journalism. And make clear why the fight is worth it.

Covering the war in Ukraine

Let’s start in Ukraine. When Russia stunned the world two years ago by invading Ukraine in an unprovoked act of aggression, our reporters had already been covering the escalating tensions for months. They have remained on the ground ever since – braving the same bombs and gunfire as the Ukrainian people – to bring the public essential information about the conflict. 

We’ve documented Russia’s atrocities, its military failures, and the ways it has misled and persecuted its own people. We produced groundbreaking investigations that proved that Russian soldiers systematically killed Ukrainian civilians – evidence that has since been used in war crimes investigations. We shared stories not just of the state of the conflict, but of Ukrainians who have taken up arms, lost their lives or started life over, far from home.

But sometimes our journalists find a story that Ukrainian leaders don’t want told. We reported that the country’s military had been using internationally banned cluster munitions, which disproportionately kill civilians, particularly children. We reported that Ukrainian generals were experiencing such serious shortages of equipment on the front lines that they often traded supplies among themselves. The Ukrainian leadership, which often denounces journalism that challenges their official narratives as Russian propaganda, have at times punished our correspondents when they write such stories.

The Ukrainians are, understandably, trying to avoid anything that has the barest likelihood of further imperilling their country, emboldening their enemies, eroding support from their allies, or sapping the confidence of their own people. But a desire not to know, borne out of fear, is one of the most counterproductive of human impulses. 

Independent reporting is essential if the public – including the Ukrainian public – is to understand the reality of the situation on the ground. A true accounting of supply shortages, for example, is essential to Ukrainian decision-making, from knowing how to best deploy limited resources to the front line to understanding the urgency of additional international military support.

Covering trans issues

Let me offer a second example, involving another group that has good reason to feel at risk. In the last few years, the Times has extensively covered the surge of anti-trans measures advancing through legislatures around the United States. We have reported on the attacks and discrimination trans people face and we have highlighted the stories of trans people around the world who are breaking barriers and gaining recognition. We have also covered – fairly and empathetically – debates about medical interventions for trans children, an issue where there is disagreement even among the trans community, parents, and medical providers who specialise in such care.

This last group of articles make up a small percentage of our overall coverage – perhaps a dozen out of many hundreds of pieces – but they have been continually promoted by trans activists as evidence that the Times as a whole is “questioning trans people’s right to exist”. Many of the critiques are not focused on the facts we’ve reported but on the impact those facts could have in the wrong hands. They point to examples where our reporting has been cited in legislation and lawsuits by those seeking to restrict rights for trans people, including medical care.

The argument that information that could be misused shouldn’t be revealed at all is obviously unjournalistic. Doing so would give the public good reason to believe that journalists are reshaping reality in service of an agenda. And that, in turn, would make it harder to get the public to believe anything else we publish. But it also can do a disservice to the very people these critics are trying to defend.

In this case, we know that our reporting has been an invaluable resource for children, parents, and medical providers making decisions about care. We’ve had trans people reach out to say that if the Times stops its reporting on these issues, they fear that they will be left to make important medical decisions based not on science but talking points. And we’ve had doctors who’ve dedicated their lives to providing care for trans people share their alarm that those who even raise the possibility that this still-emergent medical field may need to continue to evolve will be dismissed and ostracised. 

After investigating complaints about our coverage, one media critic concluded: “The real purpose of the effort against the Times is to discourage in-depth stories on trans health care or put an end to such coverage altogether.”

Covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Then there is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There’s no story that is more fiercely contested, more mired in competing zero-sum narratives. Two peoples who claim the same land, each with arguments grounded not just in history but in religion. Two peoples whose past and present offer a multitude of reasons to feel existential vulnerability.

Independent journalism is needed to provide information, hold those in power to account, and expose the experiences of those affected by the war – giving the public the opportunity to understand what’s driving the conflict and what’s keeping it from moving toward resolution.

My colleagues have painstakingly detailed the October 7 terrorist attacks, showing how Hamas fighters invaded Israel, how they killed, sexually assaulted, and abducted more than a thousand people, and how they retreated to a tunnel system designed to protect fighters at the cost of civilians. 

Using everything from on the ground reporting to social video posts to satellite images, we’ve documented the scale of Israel’s destruction of Gaza and the massive death toll of civilians, particularly children. We exposed Israel’s widespread use of 2,000-pound bombs that defy precision, the deliberate demolition of schools, mosques and homes, and the struggle for basic necessities like food, water, shelter and medical care. 

We broke stories about how Israeli officials ignored detailed warnings about Hamas’s plans more than a year before the terrorist attack. And in a conflict in which both sides too often fail to see the other’s humanity, we have told the stories of people who may share nothing but anguish – a Palestinian grandmother who refuses to leave her home in Gaza during bombardments because she already lost her home once, in 1948; a Holocaust survivor who spends her days worrying about whether her kidnapped grandson is still alive; a Palestinian child orphaned by the air strike that killed dozens of her family members; a 4-year-old Israeli girl who was taken hostage by Hamas after witnessing them murder her parents.

Those on each side of the conflict will find stories they like and dislike in that list. But independent reporting – the kind that doesn’t fully align with any one perspective – will never win over the partisans.

Critics of our Middle East coverage accuse us of bias in what stories we choose to publish, in the context we provide or leave out. They challenge the photos we run, the language we use, the sources we cite. Some say that a story on the plight of Israeli hostages “erases” civilian deaths in Gaza. Others claim a piece exploring Hamas’s motivations for the massacre in Israel “platforms” terrorists. To do anything short of denouncing bad people or opinions is to “normalise” them. To challenge good people or opinions is to succumb to “both-sidesism.” Even a seemingly straightforward word like “killed” is contested. Wouldn’t “died” be more neutral? Wouldn’t “murdered” be more accurate?

And as inconceivable as it sounds to those with strong views about the conflict, the accusations saying we are biassed against Israelis or biassed against Palestinians are almost always equal in volume and intensity.

One morning in November, I received a letter from a US Senator, the first of several such notes from state and federal officials, irresponsibly suggesting that the Times may have provided “material support” to Hamas terrorists. The very next day, pro-Palestinian protestors marched to the Times headquarters where they dumped fake blood, while insisting the very opposite thing – that we were complicit in the killing of Palestinians.

Still, it’s telling that even as both sides use inflammatory rhetoric to steer public opinion, they’re quick to reference our journalism when it aligns with their narratives. During the genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice, both Israel’s accusers and defenders cited our coverage.

Criticism is increasingly aimed not just at our work but at our journalists themselves. The Times has an especially diverse team covering this conflict, one that includes Muslims, Jews, and Christians, speakers of Arabic, Hebrew and English. Some grew up in the conflict and have lost friends and relatives to it. Others have studied it from the outside, some for decades. 

Critics see this diversity as fodder for pushback. Does a journalist’s background reveal a hidden bias? What about the words and background of the journalist’s spouse, or father, or children? Indeed, I’ve felt this myself – both sides have long put forward theories about why my family’s leadership of the Times stokes unfairness, either because our Jewish roots make us naturally biassed in favour of Israel or because they lead us to bend too far the other way.

Advocates will even find pseudo-scientific ways to quantify our supposed bias. One news outlet published an analysis of word usage in our coverage that found that the Times “Heavily Favoured Israel”. Another news outlet published a different analysis under the headline, “Proof that the New York Times anti-Israel bias is empirical, not paranoia.”

To be absolutely clear, I’m not saying the truth necessarily lies in the middle, in this conflict or on any other issue. Indeed, there are usually many sides, not just two. And I don’t believe a news organisation must be doing something right because people on all sides are angry. But it’s also not a sign that a news organisation must be doing something wrong. Indeed, it would be impossible to produce fair, accurate coverage of this particular conflict without making all sides angry.

The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross recently made the case for the value of independent actors in even the most fiercely contested conflicts. “Not everyone needs to be neutral,” she wrote in a guest essay in the Times. “But nations need to respect the space for humanitarian neutrality. When the world takes sides, we side with humanity.”

Being open to criticism matters

It is important for me to restate clearly that being open to good-faith criticism is an essential part of the journalistic process. A news organisation that cuts itself off from such feedback is destined to make more and bigger mistakes. That’s why the Times takes claims of error so seriously, with an entire team of standards editors to investigate and respond to concerns. When we make mistakes, we correct them promptly and openly, and then strive to learn from them in the future. 

For example, early in the Israel-Gaza war, we ran a headline that was overly credulous of Hamas claims that Israel was responsible for a deadly explosion at a hospital in Gaza City. That headline was updated within hours. Still, while some others who had made the same mistake simply moved on, we spent days investigating what happened, published an editors’ note publicly explaining our errors, and committed to improving our processes. 

A robust corrections section should be viewed with pride, rather than embarrassment, as a testament of a news organisation’s willingness to hold itself to account. But in many of the cases above, advocates often aren’t pushing back against the facts, but instead warning that the facts could cause harm by hurting their cause or emboldening a dangerous enemy. They insist our coverage will end up on the wrong side of history.

But what does it mean to be a journalist who approaches their work with the aim of being on the right side of history? Of course, any reasonable journalist would want future generations to look back at their work as standing the test of time. But the instinct to write for the future judgement of history rather than the public we serve today can lead even the most well intentioned journalist astray in three ways.

First, everyone wants to make the right decisions, but it’s not always clear as the news unfolds what ‘right’ means. Claims to the moral high ground in the moment, like the War on Terror or Defund the Police, haven’t always aged well.

Second, seeking to drive toward a particular ‘right’ outcome creates incentives to twist reality – hyping facts that align with your case and downplaying facts that don’t. That approach is fundamentally at odds with journalism’s responsibility to inform the public and undermines the long-term trust any news organisation depends on. This is the trap Fox News is in, contorting the news to serve a political mission and leaving its own viewers badly misinformed, believing that President Obama was born in Kenya or that President Trump won the last election.

And third, writing for the future rather than the present frontruns the public, forsaking the important role journalism plays in helping society work through problems. That not only pushes the public to less informed decisions, it often invites backlash. For example, much of the public felt government responses to the Covid pandemic were overly restrictive, and the media’s reporting on them insufficiently sceptical. This has contributed to declining support for vaccination programmes and increased distrust in medical professionals.

Simply put, journalists don’t serve the public by trying to predict history’s judgments, or to steer society to them. Our job as journalists is firmly rooted in the present: to arm society with the information and context it needs to thoughtfully grapple with issues of the day. The belief that an informed public makes better decisions is perhaps the most hopeful conceit of an independent press.

Helping people understand each other

Not long ago, one of our most experienced foreign correspondents told me the story of a dinner he attended at an American university. One guest confronted him angrily, saying she could not believe the overwhelming pro-Palestinian bias appearing every day on the Times’s homepage. Another guest at the table quickly countered that he was appalled by the Times’s constant pro-Israel bias. Incredulous, they both proceeded to list examples to prove their case. After a long back and forth, the dispute ended in impasse. “There was complete mutual incomprehension,” the reporter said.

That mutual incomprehension now exists seemingly everywhere. Helping people understand the facts and each other is one of the greatest services journalism can provide the public. As that foreign correspondent put it to me: if the fear and rage of the public conversation is ever to cede to civility and create space for solutions, there has to be a foundation for discussion built around independent reporting.

As you heard in the examples I’ve shared today, we are often told that this posture of independence represents some kind of moral abdication. But when I look at the forces keeping society from coming together to rise to the challenges of our era – whether in the Middle East, Ukraine, the United States or anywhere else – I see no lack of passionate, morally confident actors sounding the alarm. Indeed, the alarm seems so loud and so constant that much of the public has by now put in earplugs.

I view the posture of independence as the better, more optimistic path. As independent journalists, we empower our fellow citizens with the information they need to make decisions for themselves. That is a profound act of trust, of confidence. I remain clear eyed about the ways misinformation and polarisation conspire to block the shared reality society needs to come together. But I believe that the answer to those scourges can be found not in an advocate’s crusading righteousness, but in a journalist’s humbler mission: to seek the truth and help people understand the world.

Below is a video of the lecture, which includes the panel discussion and Q&A that followed: