Journalists at EWTN/Franciscan conference discuss media bias in the internet age 

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“What is the nature of journalism? What are we getting right and what are we getting wrong?” Father Dave Pivonka, the president of Franciscan University, inquired during the opening speech at a conference jointly hosted by EWTN News and Franciscan University Friday.

Three speakers who work in the journalism industry — Carl Cannon from RealClearPolitics, Mary Margaret Olohan from The Daily Signal, and Clemente Lisi, a former newspaper editor and current journalism professor at King’s College — delved into those questions in a Friday morning panel discussion. The conference is being held at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., from Friday, March 10 through Saturday, March 11. 

The event is open to the public. Those interested can register to attend in person or livestream the event here

Cannon, who has worked in journalism for more than 40 years, said when he first got into the industry, many reporters tried to write in a way that would interest Republicans, Democrats, and independents so “they’ll all want to read you.” At the time, he noted, newspapers made a lot of their money from advertisements that targeted a broad ideological audience.

“This ethos of being objective — it wasn’t just good citizenship,” Cannon said. “It was good business.”

As the news industry shifted toward the internet, Cannon noted, advertisements became more targeted and a lot of newspapers began to sell online subscriptions. If a news outlet failed to toe an ideological line, he said subscribers would “rant and rave and cancel their subscriptions. People wanted the culture war stuff: the slogans, instead of information.” 

“If you give people what they think they want, that might work economically,” Cannon added, “but that isn’t journalism.”

Lisi echoed many of Cannon’s concerns, saying “if you tell your audience [something] they don’t want to hear, they’re going to go somewhere else.” Along with the incentive structure, he said students are being taught activism and “they go into journalism because they want to be activists.” For these reasons, he said the “fly on the wall mindset [is] going away.” 

“They think this is the right way and the wrong way,” Lisi said. “It’s hard to put people in your story if you think they’re evil.”

Olohan noted that the bias in “mainstream outlets” all shifts one way because “the media is very ideologically bent.” She said mainstream outlets have taken sides on disputed topics, such as transgenderism, the right to worship, and abortion.

When speaking about the reporting on pro-life bills that ban abortion once a heartbeat can be detected, Olohan said, “you won’t see the word heart, you won’t see the word baby, [and] you won’t even see the word mother” even though “abortion ends the life of a human child.” She added: “That is activist reporting right there.”

On transgender issues, Olohan said media outlets will frame legislation as “an anti-trans bill” or as a “bill targeting transgender youth” while “not giving us all the information.” 

“You can literally get your outlet kicked off of a platform [if you do not use] the language of the regime,” Olohan added in reference to preferred gender pronouns.

All three panelists argued that journalists need to put more effort into presenting the news more objectively and ensuring more diversity of thought in their newsrooms and in their articles. 

“A journalist should be someone who sheds light on the truth ... in the most dignified and objective way possible,” Olohan said.

Lisi suggested a lot of people still want objective reporting and noted that the standard might change with the growth of nonprofit reporting. 

“It may boomerang back,” he said. 

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Cannon argued that a diversity of opinion within the newsroom “would solve a lot of these problems” and suggested that nonprofit news outlets “have to get sponsors from both sides.” He said sponsors “should support journalism even that they don’t agree with.”

Although Cannon acknowledged that objectivity can be difficult, he reminded attendees of some of the difficult things Christ called on his followers to do, such as loving one’s enemies. 

“If we can aspire to that, we can aspire to objectivity,” Cannon said.

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