Saying that reporters should abandon neutrality on certain issues and choose sides may seem at odds with everything that’s taught in journalism school. But there are times when the only way we journalists can fulfill our primary social responsibility—challenging those in power—is by leaving neutrality aside.
Of course, I have nothing against objectivity—journalists must reflect reality as it is, not as we’d like it to be. If something is red, we say it’s red; if 15 people died, we report exactly that. We provide the who, what, when, where, how and why. The challenge comes after the basic news is delivered.
So when should journalists choose a side? I’ve identified six topics where we can’t be neutral: racism, discrimination, corruption, public lies, dictatorships and human rights violations. Why? Because presenting both viewpoints in an effort to attain balance doesn’t necessarily lead to the truth. For instance, interviewing Donald Trump—the presumed Republican presidential nominee who has made racist remarks about Mexicans and Muslims and publicly insulted women—and then interviewing people he has offended might seem balanced, but it doesn’t bring us to the truth.
The best examples of journalism we have in the United States come from instances where reporters took sides: The Washington Post’s reporting on the Watergate scandal, leading to President Richard Nixon’s resignation; news anchor Walter Cronkite’s outspoken stance against the Vietnam War; The Boston Globe’s diligence in exposing pedophile priests within the Catholic church (a matter explored in the movie “Spotlight”). There are many more.
Neutrality, indeed, can make bad situations much worse. “We must always take sides,” Elie Wiesel, the author and Holocaust survivor, said in his speech after accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Desmond Tutu, who fought alongside Nelson Mandela to end apartheid in South Africa, expressed a similar sentiment when he said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
With these words in mind, we journalists should always choose the side of the victims over that of the oppressors. For instance, we should denounce the Cuban dictatorship, the imprisonment of political prisoners in Venezuela, the corruption in Brazil, the official lies about 43 missing college students in Mexico and racist outbursts in the U.S. presidential campaign.
I recently spoke with reporter Glenn Greenwald, who helped publish Edward Snowden’s secret documents from the National Security Agency related to the government’s monitoring of Americans’ telephone usage. “The idea that journalists can never take a position and never sound the alarms, especially when you have a threat and a danger like Donald Trump,” he told me, “is a really perverted and corrupted idea of what journalism is.” Greenwald is right: Some interviews with Trump, in which journalists failed to challenge his extremist views and sexist commentary, have been truly shameful.
But the same journalistic breakdown happens in places like Venezuela, where many reporters have remained silent after Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian regime has locked people up for speaking out against him. Failing to denounce an injustice, whether or not you’re a journalist, can make you an accomplice.
So yes, in very specific instances, journalists should take sides. This requires fierce independence and a willingness to ask everybody the tough and awkward questions. As journalism professor Jeff Jarvis pointed out in his book “Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News”: “If it isn’t advocacy, it isn’t journalism.”
The late Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci used to say that she wasn’t merely a “recorder,” repeating what she heard and saw. “I’ve left shreds of my soul all over my professional experiences,” she wrote in her book “Interview With History.”
And Martin Luther King once suggested the problem is not the violent actions of mean people but “the appalling silence and indifference of the good people.” The real danger of being neutral happens when journalists believe they’re fulfilling their basic duties when, in fact, they’re just helping those who abuse power. That’s not journalism.
Jorge Ramos, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, is the host of Fusion’s weekly television news show, “America With Jorge Ramos,” and is a news anchor on the Univision Network. Originally from Mexico and now based in Florida, Ramos is the author of several best-selling books. His latest book is: “Take a Stand: Lessons From Rebels.”