Martin Baron defends objectivity as the ultimate standard for journalism

The Justice - Student Newspaper of Brandeis University [Waltham MA]

March 21, 2023

By Anika Jain

Martin Baron, former executive editor of The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and the Miami Herald, is Brandeis’ 2023 Richman Distinguished Fellow in Public Life.

“Everybody has an opinion. With social media, everyone is expressing their opinion. We [journalists] have to offer more value than that,” said Martin Baron, who is Brandeis’ 2023 Richman Distinguished Fellow in Public Life. From March 15 to 17, Baron participated in multiple forums, in which he engaged in discussions with Brandeis students, faculty, and the greater community about his experiences in newsrooms such as the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Miami Herald. During his residence at Brandeis, Baron emphasized one main message to student journalists: prioritize objectivity. 

The Richman Fellowship website defines the recipient as someone “whose contributions have had a significant impact on improving American society, strengthening democratic institutions, advancing social justice or increasing opportunities for all citizens to realize and share in the benefits of this nation.” Throughout Baron’s career as a journalist, he has led newsrooms to 18 Pulitzer Prizes for groundbreaking journalism, including the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003 for uncovering the extent of sexual abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Church. That coverage became even more renowned following its depiction in the 2015 award-winning movie “Spotlight,” named after the Spotlight team at the Globe — a group of investigative journalists that consisted of editor Walter “Robby” Robinson and reporters Michael Rezendnes, Matt Carroll, and Sacha Pfeiffer. “Spotlight” won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. 

Along with Baron, Brandeis welcomed back Prof. Emerita Eileen McNamara (JOUR), winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. On March 15, Brandeis hosted a screening of “Spotlight” followed by a Q&A with Baron and McNamara in Levin Ballroom. In response to a question about the accuracy of the movie, Baron and McNamara confirmed that writers Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy researched thoroughly into the Spotlight team’s coverage process and accurately depicted the journalists’ efforts into investigating the priests. 

“Spotlight” begins with Baron’s first day as executive editor at The Globe in 2001. Prior to The Globe, Baron was the executive editor of the Miami Herald. Not only was he the first editor hired from outside the Globe, but he was also the first Jewish editor there. During the Q&A, McNamara claimed she could name the three other Jewish writers who worked there at the time, thus highlighting the significance of Baron’s leadership role. His first goal as editor was to pursue an investigation into whether the clergy intentionally concealed the sexual abuse perpetrated by Father John Geoghan, a priest accused of molesting more than 80 children. 

Baron’s leadership and commitment to objectivity shines through in his characterization in the movie, specifically during a scene where he refuses to cooperate with Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, who repeatedly relocated priests accused of sexual abuse to different parishes rather than administering justice to the survivors. When Cardinal Law’s character claims that Boston “flourishes when institutions work together,” Baron, played by Liev Schreiber in the film, dissents, insisting that the media must operate independently from the agendas of other institutions — a philosophy he reiterated throughout his residence at Brandeis. 

Although Baron has seen the movie multiple times around the time of its release in 2015, this was the first time he has seen it in the past eight years. He shared that he always tears up during the scene where Pfieffer, played by Rachel McAdams, shows the article to her grandmother, a devout Catholic. After reading the article, her grandmother asks for a glass of water, signifying how overwhelmed and betrayed she felt by the church for “not living up to the principles of the faith,” Baron said. 

McNamara also contributed to the coverage of the sex abuse scandal as a metro columnist at the Globe. In fact, two of her July 2001 columns, “A Familiar Pattern” and “Passing the Buck,” were what sparked the investigation into the clergy. She wrote many pieces about Cardinal Law that led to strong backlash due to the Church’s significant presence in Boston. Spotlight’s investigation into the Church ultimately revealed that over 1,000 people had accused 249 priests and brothers of sexual assault in the Archdiosce of Boston. After Spotlight’s initial articles about the scandal, which were published on Jan. 6 and Jan. 7, 2002, The Globe published 600 follow-up articles as survivors came forth to share their stories. McNamara shared that the same people who initially wrote “incendiary letters” to her mailed her their rosary beads, Baltimore Catechisms, booklets from First Communions, and apology letters. Although the Globe expected protests from faithful supporters of the Church, they instead received gratitude. In the movie, Baron’s character said, “For me, this kind of story is why we do this.” 

During the Q&A, one student asked Baron whether people questioned his motives for investigating the Catholic Church as a Jewish man.

Baron responded that although people expressed concern that the coverage of sexual abuse in the Archdiocse of Boston could lead to antisemitism, he could not control that response; he felt a larger obligation as a journalist to covering the survivors’ stories and reveal the systemic issue. 

Baron also emphasized that journalists have to pursue stories based on evidence and not advocacy. “Use your own independent judgment,” he said, once again demonstrating his commitment to objectivity. 

Prior to the Richman Fellow award ceremony on March 16 in Rapaporte Treasure Hall, Baron joined Prof. Neil Swidey’s (JOUR) journalism ethics course along with other students and other journalism classes to discuss the ethical challenges that the media faces today. When Swidey, director of the Journalism program, introduced Baron at the ceremony, he reflected on the discussion: “The students put Marty through the paces, but he held up well.” 

Swidey, who nominated Baron for the award, is also his longtime colleague and friend. He shared humorous anecdotes about Baron and described him as “all business but supportive and kind and very funny.” He welcomed Baron to the stage to deliver his lecture titled, “In Defense of Objectivity.” 

In addition to McNamara, many of Baron’s colleagues were in attendance at the ceremony. Stephen Kurkjian, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for Local Investigative Specialized Reporting, and Ben Bradlee, Jr., the editor who supervised the Spotlight team during their coverage of the sex abuse scandal in the Church, were among the acclaimed journalists in the room. 

In his speech, Baron presented an argument on why journalists should continue to uphold the traditional standard of objectivity in spite of mainstream media moving away from it in recent years. He identified himself as “part of a diminishing minority” who still view objectivity as their utmost priority and claimed that modern media is headed in a “misguided and self-destructive direction” as they lose the public’s trust. 

Baron suggested thinking about objectivity in the context of other professions. Not only do journalists expect objectivity from judges, police officers, prosecutors, doctors, and bankers, but they also hold them accountable when their lack of objectivity creates injustice, he noted. 

“We want justice to be equitably administered,” Baron said. “Objectivity, which is to say, a fair, honest, honorable, accurate, rigorous, impartial, open-minded evaluation of the evidence is at the very heart of equity and law enforcement.”

“Objectivity has to stay,” Baron said. He believes that journalists should not be activists or partisans or partake in political tribalism. In response to modern journalists who view objectivity as too lofty a goal, Baron stated, “The failure to achieve standards does not obviate the need,” and labeled the defiance of objectivity as “an act of arrogance.” 

Defined as “the ultimate old-school editor” in a 2020 article by The New York Times, Baron demonstrated why he might have earned that title by steadfastly standing by the traditional standard of objectivity. However, during the Spotlight Q&A, he also said that he does not care for the romanticism of print journalism and openly accepts the digital age of journalism and the benefits it has brought to the industry’s scope and impact. 

However, during the “era of misinformation, disinformation, and crackpot conspiracies” that has now erupted due to social media, Baron believes that journalists ought to stand by objectivity more than ever before. He explained how objectivity first became a standard 100 years ago, when people felt that journalism was failing as World War I propaganda gained influence in the 1920s. Reporters have to “fight for truth, not our theories,” Baron said. 

He acknowledged that critics of objectivity view it as unreliable and unattainable. Some also believe it leads to false equivalence, or “bothsidesism” — the phenomenon that occurs when the media equally covers both sides of an issue and creates the false impression that each side has equal amounts of evidence to support it. Last but not least, certain critics align objectivity with the white male perspective because of how journalists historically invalidated the experiences of people of color. 

Baron responded to these criticisms, stating that real objectivity is not neutrality or bothsidesism. “Journalists are full of bias,” Baron said. He emphasized that journalists’ methods have to be objective, not the journalists themselves. 

Journalists have to be “scientific, careful, conscientious researchers,” Baron said, “with a willingness to listen and eagerness to learn.” This can be achieved, he suggests, through a rigorous approach to evidence. He defined reporting as starting with more questions than answers and then setting out to discover and learn what we do not yet know or understand. Ultimately, journalism requires a moral core, and that is valuing the truth, he said. By recommitting to the principles of objectivity, Baron feels that democracy and the press can better serve the public.