During Protests, What Is “Fair Journalism”? 

Abigail Lee, Copy Editor

In the last few weeks, the New York Times has come under fire for the use of passive versus active language in a tweet on Twitter, and the publishing of Tom Cotton’s op-ed, “Tom Cotton: Send In the Troops.” Both incidents involved a heavy criticism of the Times carrying a bias towards the police, with the tweet using passive language when describing police actions and the op-ed calling for military involvement on protesters. 

Fair journalism is often described as showing both sides of an argument; this description is fairly simple and allows a straightforward guide of what one should do. However, in these intense times, is fair really fair when promoting one side puts lives in danger? 

In the tweet, the subtle use of active language with, “Washington, D.C.: Protesters struck a journalist with his own microphone” among vaguer language feeds the idea of violence being enacted by primarily protesters as a person skimming would have to critically think about who is to blame for “a photographer was shot in the eye.” 

With the publishing of Senator Cotton’s op-ed, many Times staff have come out to criticize and reprimand the NYT for the release of this article. For example, Lindsey Underwood, who writes for the Times, tweeted, “Running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger,” and Sophie Helf tweeted a screenshot of an email that she wrote to the Times requesting that her piece be pulled from their publications after having read Senator Cotton’s article. Viewing a situation from every perspective is one of the pillars of what keeps journalism fair, but fair does not always equal moral. In the last weeks, protesters and journalists all over the country have faced danger and brutality.

A CNN crew was arrested by police while broadcasting live, MSNBC’s Jo Ling Kent was nearly hit by a tear gas canister, and photojournalist Linda Tirado lost the use of her eye from a rubber bullet. In even more abundance, there is phone-recorded footage of protesters being dragged, shot at, and brutalized by cops all over social media. The NYT has decided to stand by with their publishing of the op-ed with James Bennet, the editorial page editor, stating “We published Cotton’s argument in part because we’ve committed to Times readers to provide a debate on important questions like this. It would undermine the integrity and independence of The New York Times if we only published views that editors like me agreed with, and it would betray what I think of as our fundamental purpose—not to tell you what to think, but to help you think for yourself.” 

Reader’s abilities to be critical in what they read and engage with is incredibly important; however, the press has a responsibility, too. Well-known news sources like the Times have prestige and what they choose to publish and promote influences people. This is a significant amount of power to hold, and in times of tension in our country, I hope that the NYT and the rest of the press are able to use that power for good.