What is the role of a journalist?

On October 27, New York Times columnist and former executive editor Bill Keller published a series of emails he exchanged with Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for the London-based The Guardian. Greenwald is best known for breaking the Edward Snowden story. In the process, he attracted much criticism for his (sympathetic) coverage of the Snowden leaks, which his critics claimed endangered national security and irreparably damaged relationships with between countries.

Greenwald was already well known for a particular brand of journalism which he calls “activism journalism.” A a lawyer-cum-journalist, Greenwald has already garnered a name for himself as someone who actively opposes “impartial” journalism. In the linked column, Greenwald espouses a model of journalism in which partisan writers are upfront and frank about their personal biases and take a more active role in shaping how information is presented to readers.

Bill Keller, on the other hand, upholds a more traditional model of journalism, in which journalists maintain an impartial treatment of the facts, journalists hide their ideological inclinations, and articles go unpublished or delayed in order to protect national security.

The differences between the two journalists are fascinating for their differing conceptions of what the role of journalists is in the process of information gathering and sharing, and the methods by which journalists can best achieve their shared goal of imparting the “truth,” whatever that may be. The column resurrects important questions about the ethics of journalism.


Should journalists just present the facts as is or, using specific language or strategically employing linguistic emphasis, shape the way readers perceive the facts? 

Greenwald gives the NYT coverage of waterboarding as example of where he charges that traditional newspaper establishments have been in the lap of moneyed and governmental interests. The NYT refrained from calling waterboarding “torture” in its early coverage and gave equal treatment to governmental sources that lied about waterboarding as they did to sources that provided credible information. Doing so gave officials trying to cover up these abuses a platform for intentionally misleading the public. Thus, Greenwald opines that journalists should have the discretion to omit perspectives, highlights others, and use selective language to present a certain account of the issue.


Should journalists openly disclose their personal affiliations, opinions, and other ideological preferences? 

Keller admits that human fallacy is natural and inherent, but Greenwald goes further and argues that making journalists’ viewpoints clear lets readers judge more accurately the validity of piece they are reading.


Are journalists, inevitably, activists? 

Greenwald believes that those who control the supply and delivery of information – namely, journalists – are inevitably activists. Choosing to spuriously present an issue “impartially” is to still present the information in a certain way that favors some interests over others. Is it a journalist’s role to champion social causes?


Can journalism be truly “impartial?” 

We can’t answer the previous question without considering a more philosophical question: is true impartiality possible? If not, then Greenwald’s argument about journalists as activists is considerably strengthened, as any treatment of the facts will yield an account more favorable to one side than the other.

So does what Greenwald espouse produce better or “truer” journalism? Or will we see the increased proliferation of hyperpartisan news sources, to the detriment of public knowledge? Even if we agree to disagree on these questions, we can all concur that the facts are never what they seem.