OPINION: Unbiased journalism can be difficult in the age of social media, but is still worth it

by | Nov 28, 2018 | Opinion

Devin Nguyen 
Senior Reporter

Ronan Farrow accepted an award for his ground-breaking journalism about sexual assault on Nov. 4.

Farrow is at the centre of journalistic discourse because of the multiple investigative stories he has broken for The New Yorker in 2017 and 2018. His most noteworthy story, the investigation into the several sexual assault accusations against Harvey Weinstein, won him the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Farrow was invited by the Canadian Journalism Foundation to receive the CJF Special Citation for excellence in journalism and have a conversation with The Globe and Mail’s Robyn Doolittle on Nov. 4 at St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.

Even after three rounds of screening at Toronto Pearson International Airport, making him almost 30 minutes late for the event, Farrow took the stage and accepted his award with poise.

“There is so much authoritarian rhetoric directed against the pursuit of the truth and there is so much misdirection and brazen lying,” he said.

“And so, what this award represents and what reporters around the world are doing, like Robin, is a part of the solution,” Farrow said.

Considering the current crisis journalism is facing as an industry, it was heartening to witness two journalists, who have achieved so much before the age of 35, speak about the industry with insight and optimism.

Both Farrow and Doolittle, have achieved great success by producing top-quality investigative journalism and have not capitulated to the pressures that have forced many journalists to resort to partisanship and sensationalism.

Although Farrow was the main attraction, Doolittle is a star journalist in her own right.

She helped report the story revealing the late Rob Ford smoked crack cocaine while being Toronto’s mayor during her time at the Toronto Star. Doolittle later joined The Globe and Mail and produced the award-winning series Unfounded, which revealed one in five sexual assault claims are dismissed by police forces across Canada.

Farrow and Doolittle were happy to get into the fine details of reporting, sourcing, investigating and researching tough stories in front of a sold-out crowd of journalists and people passionate about journalism.

Farrow said special care has to be taken when dealing with sources that are making sexual assault claims because of the sensitive and traumatic nature of the claims.

He said he is grateful for his sources’ bravery and candour in coming to him but often has to explain his relationship with them will not always seem supportive and friendly because of his role as a journalist.

“There can be, in the heat of the story, an uncomfortable tension,” he said.

“I’m going to be stress-testing your claims. I’m going to be digging into every possible response that people could throw at you to try to impugn your credibility,” Farrow said. “That’s not always going to feel like a friendship.”

Doolittle felt similarly about her own reporting.

“I’m a journalist. I’m not an activist. I’m not going to write ‘I believe all survivors’ in a story and I’m not doing you any favours by not rigorously investigating your claims,” she said.

Strong journalism comes from an unbiased position. Even in stories in which one might be tempted to take sides, Farrow and Doolittle demonstrate the importance in remaining unbiased and bound to the facts.

“The greatest justice that you can do for these kinds of claims, and to difficult newsworthy claims in general not just sexual violence, is to listen to them,” Farrow said.

Journalism and entertainment increasingly overlap as social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have accelerated the news cycle to a dizzying pace.

Twitter especially, with the nature of a 280-character thought, lends itself to polarization and unnecessary combativeness.

“It’s specifically designed to ward us off of stories that people don’t like,” Farrow said. “It encourages that kind of dialogue.”

“Everything gets thrown into this cauldron of mistrust,” he said.

Farrow said some people don’t understand that he is just trying to present the facts so people can make up their own minds.

Journalism is being stretched in every direction as the industry redefines itself under new expectations.

Journalists are challenged every day to resist the urge of the easy option — the easy option which is polarizing, unnecessarily combative, overly sensational and reductive.

Farrow and Doolittle demonstrate in their work the strength necessary to fight that urge with resilience, patience, thorough understanding and a commitment to the truth under any circumstance.