Oracle After Hours: Journalists faced with unfair standard, harms public trust in media


Noah Walch, Columnist

As someone who spends a considerable amount of time on Twitter, I can attest to the fact that pressing the “post” button is sometimes too easy. Firing out a 200-character Tweet can seem so innocuous in the 30 seconds it takes to type it. 

But as freelance journalist Lauren Wolfe, then working for the New York Times, learned last week when covering the imminent inauguration of Joe Biden, what is posted in the heat of the moment can have consequences. In Wolfe’s case, those consequences were nasty, unjust and revealed deep-seated issues in the culture of American media.

On Jan. 19, Wolfe tweeted that she felt “chills” as she watched Biden’s plane land en route to his inauguration. As Joe Pompeo of Vanity Fair reports, not even two days later, she was out of a job. Many high-profile journalists attributed this decision to concerted effort by right-wing social media influencers against both the Times and Wolfe herself.

Wolfe’s termination, while laden with its own nuances and plenty of hearsay, brings to light how poorly equipped we as a society are to evaluate media biases. Now more than ever, with accusations of “fake news” a dime a dozen, it is essential that objective reporting remains the standard for the newsrooms of esteemed publications like the Times

However, it is also imperative that we be able to separate the journalist from their journalism. 

After all, journalists are not characterized solely by their work. Writing for a newspaper does not magically wash away all biases held by reporters, yet somehow, it seems as if the American public has created this unrealistic expectation for the stewards of our media, and this expectation unfairly limits the civil engagements of journalists across the country. 

This limitation becomes most evident every four years as certain states hold their presidential caucuses and reporters are faced with the dilemma of publicly demonstrating their partisanship or forfeiting their voice in democratic institutions. Some papers even make that decision for their staffers, like the Iowa Gazette, which, according to Adam Hochner of Poynter, barred their journalists from participating in the state’s famous first-in-the-nation caucus.

Admittedly, the instinctual response that biased reporters lead to biased reporting is wholly understandable. But this is not a fair justification for preventing journalists from privately engaging in the political process, whether that means caucusing, voting or even tweeting. No human being can be completely neutral, and burying our head in the sand when it comes to bias will not make it go away. Instead, doing so demonstrably limits the free political speech of the fourth estate.

Lauren Wolfe’s termination showed what happens when those limits are pushed. It demonstrated to the public that their worst fears of biased reporters are correct— they distort the news they produce and do not belong in professional newsrooms. If that were the case, however, professional newsrooms would cease to exist. 

Journalists are not mindless drones of objectivity— they are humans with their own sets of beliefs and opinions, who are willing to set those beliefs aside to provide information to the masses. It’s time we start treating them as such.