Objectivity is a highly debated topic among journalists. Lisa Desjardins, a PBS NewsHour correspondent, spoke about fairness in journalism on Tuesday during a conversation with Christina Bellantoni, a professor of journalism at USC. The event was part of USC Annenberg R. Rebecca Donatelli Expert-in-Residence program, which has also brought NBC host Lester Holt and Politico editor Carrie Budoff Brown to Annenberg.
“I feel like I’m fortunate in that I rarely have a very searing opinion. I generally think both sides have massive problems," said Desjardins. “I see Republicans and Democrats the way I saw my parents during their long decade of divorcing. You love them both but you know they have very serious flaws, and they’re not as attractive as they used to be.”
Desjardins told the audience healthy civil discourse is important to the NewsHour. The show often features pundits from both sides of the political aisle.
“We like to have debates. We don’t like them to be fights — that’s kinda the difference," said Desjardins. "I feel like sometimes on the news you just see a fight.”
She said sensationalized journalism is often driven by business economics, since more viewers equate to more money. PBS, however, has several standards that decide what funding they will accept. The goal is to keep their content independent from donors.
“It’s a very difficult time because I think cable news has been very successful at getting ratings built out of emotion rather than information. It’s sort of like a crack-cocaine for people’s minds," Desjardins said. "As a journalist trying to navigate that, I think you have to be ready to stick to your guns and to not get swept up in that emotion yourself.”
This message of leaving your own beliefs at the door resonated with several of the students in the audience.
“I mean, like she said, you cannot really go in and give your thoughts [in a story],” said Kaylenn Gomez, a senior studying journalism at Cal State Northridge. “If journalists just speak facts that’s going to bring more attention than someone who just keeps saying, ‘I think.’”
Isabelle Richards, a senior studying communications at USC, watches PBS NewsHour regularly. She felt the show lined up with what Desjardins said about objectivity and fairness in news coverage.
“The PBS NewsHour in general — they’re very non-biased,” said Richards. “They stick to just reporting the facts as opposed to inputting their own personal opinions, which I think is the best way to do it so that the viewer has their ability to come up with their thoughts, their opinions about certain events, conflicts, et cetera.”
Richards attended the conversation with her father. Though she’s not interested in political journalism, Richards took away a lot from the event.
“She’s a really inspiring woman,” said Richards. “I’m not particularly interested in politics, but just seeing such a successful woman in the journalism industry is really inspiring for the aspiring journalist.”
In an interview before the event, Desjardins gave several tips on how journalists can remain objective in their coverage, especially when they are covering someone they do not agree with or understand.
“I think you have to have a lot of conversations,” said Desjardins. “You have to go out of your way to put yourself out of your comfort zone and talk to people that you might not normally talk to.”
“The first thing – if you’re approaching someone whose ideas you don’t understand and whose ideas you might even think are wrong or dangerous — is to not talk about that idea, but to ask about them as a person and to ask about things like their family," said Desjardins. “Think of them as a person and try and understand what are the challenges, what are their problems in their life.”
During the event, Bellantoni also provided a tip from her time in the newsroom to audience members.
“One of the bits of advice I used to tell some of my reporters at the LA Times was, ‘When you feel solid and like you’ve got something, go back to your source and ask five more questions,’" said Bellantoni. “You just have to challenge what you know.”