Skip to main content
PBS Public Editor

Fair News/Fake News

PBS Public Editor sits down with Firing Line host Margaret Hoover for a Q&A

PBS Public Editor

Do journalists have an obligation to blind objectivity?

11:55
Published:

by Ricardo Sandoval-Palos, PBS Public Editor 

Do journalists today have an obligation to blind objectivity? What do we do with verified fake news that’s often dressed up and sold as a legitimate argument?

Is it right to air untruths, without commentary or qualifier, against verifiable facts just to appear objective and balanced?

Does being open to “all sides” mean you have to treat demonstrably false information as a legitimate debate counterpoint?

These questions come to my mind as the PBS Public Editor. Our office fields several emails and phone calls each day from viewers who feel strongly about this topic. The complaints say PBS journalists deny “equal time” to claims by former President Donald Trump and his supporters that the November election was stolen from him. That untruth has fueled deep division in our country. It even led to the sacking of the Capitol building by angry Trump supporters a month ago.

Last November, a PBS viewer objected to the very practice of calling out known falsehoods and undoubtedly would object to the statement I just made. He wrote in an email: 

"When you momentar[il]y flash/post ‘Officials have found no evidence of significant voter fraud or irregularities’ today 11/29/2020 pertaining to [former White House press secretary] Kayleigh McEnany's 11/20 press release [it] is evidence [of] your organization's willful ignorance or purposeful lying actions. Why should I ever trust you to bring me truthful and current news?!!!?" -- Jerry Kelly, Colorado Springs

But facts are knowable and provable and cannot be tailored to the whims of an individual. A fact, simply defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a thing that is known or proved to be true.” 

The latest edition of the Associated Press Stylebook, treated like a bible by most reporters and copyeditors, considers “fake news” to be “shorthand for deliberate falsehoods or fiction masked as news.” Journalists following AP guidance describe what is false and back it up with facts. “Avoid amplifying the false claim,” AP says. Reporters adhering to AP style do not label as “fake news” items that are legitimately disputed. The subject has been so hotly debated that the AP had to update its entry on “misinformation, fact checks and fake news” in May 2020.

In a twist to how we usually do things, I’m limiting my printed observations here in favor of the webcast of a substantial conversation I recently had on this subject. Margaret Hoover, host of PBS’ Firing Line, knows a thing or two about opinions, and dedicates quality time to calling out empty arguments. So we asked her about fairness, objectivity and our responsibilities as journalists.

This topic is increasingly difficult these days because everyone seems to have retreated to their own camps. From there, they’re calling on PBS news people to be “fair” and “objective,” when they’re actually demanding we close our eyes to obvious holes in their arguments.

“What about Hunter Biden and China?” and “You’re ignoring the evidence” from (choose your swing state) that shows ballots being moved or snuck into the election count. Credible journalism has shown those two stories don’t hold water. Yet, when we don’t air them, or when we clearly identify them as unsubstantiated, many viewers have told me Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer would be ashamed that we’re not being fair or objective.

Journalists are not infallible and they, like all humans, are subject to subjectivity. But I dare say the legendary PBS newsmen would instead be concerned if today’s journalists simply parroted what politicians or the powerful said, without a proper dig for the truth.

---

PBS researcher Daniel J. Macy contributed to this report.



Sign Up For The Public Editor Newsletter

Find out what the PBS audiences are telling the Public Editor -- the good and the bad -- and what it means to you, member stations and public broadcasting.
A press conference

SUBMIT YOUR COMMENTS
Have a comment related to the journalistic integrity of PBS content? Send an E-mail to Ricardo or contact him at 703-739-5290. You can also follow the public editor on Twitter @PBSPubEd.

The public editor does not replace viewers' long-standing ability to contact stations, producers and PBS.

If you have a comment related to PBS website design or user experience, please contact the Audience Services team.


Public Broadcasting in the News

Brooks Resigns from Think Tank Amid Conflict-of-Interest Questions 

New York Times columnist and regular PBS NewsHour contributor David Brooks resigned from a paid position at Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization The Aspen Institute, amid questions over a potential conflict of interest, The Washington Post reports.   

NPR and PBS Not the Same, Public Editor McBride Reminds Audiences

NPR Public Editor Kelly McBride receives enough audience mail that confuses National Public Radio with PBS that she found it necessary to issue a reminder in one of her regular dispatches. NPR and PBS are both prominent in the public media sphere, but they are not affiliated. 

Kerger: ‘Frontline’ an Example of Where PBS Wants to Be

PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger told TV critics that news and public affairs programs like Frontline, Washington Week and PBS NewsHour, represent where the Service wants to be in the coming year, reports TVWW. She singled out Frontline and its hard-hitting documentaries that are scheduled. 

News Deserts

Do you live in a ‘news desert’? The University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism looks at the growing gaps in news coverage left by the closures of local newspapers around the country.

When Texas Border Town Lost Its Only Paper, Local Start-up Filled Void

When the Southwestern border town of Del Rio, Texas, lost its only newspaper, a local man stepped in with an investment in print, turning his event-oriented website into a news outlet with a print edition. He’s helping fight back against the encroaching edges of a news desert.

...more on 'News Deserts' and what PBS can do about them (older coverage)

Against the growing phenomena of news deserts in the United States – areas where local news outlets have failed or have been gutted by the loss of ad revenue – PBS is being called upon to act. One suggested remedy is overhauling the way the Corporation for Public Broadcasting issues grants for public affairs programming, from a Washington, DC -based metric to spending decided by local news producers. ...