Today, one of my all-time favorite journalists and heroes, Nicholas Kristof, was named the Syracuse University 2013 commencement speaker. After I leapt for joy, sprinted up the stairs and jumped on my roommate’s bed, I started to reflect on what makes Nick Kristof such an unbelievable opinion journalist.
There is a common idea, and I will argue misconception, that journalists should not have opinions. Some people think that being a journalist of repute means never sharing your political beliefs, or even removing yourself from the political sphere altogether. Why then, does Nick Kristof constantly share his opinions and yet is an extremely celebrated Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist? I would like to argue that a journalist who shares his/her opinion can still be unbiased.
I once had a journalism professor who, while constantly spewing his own political beliefs, told me to change my voter registration to independent so that none of my future viewers/readers could look me up and find out what party I am registered with. In my home state of Massachusetts, I cannot vote in the primary elections unless I am registered with a party. For someone to suggest that a journalist, who will cover these elections extensively, should then refrain from participating in them is absurd. Luckily, all my professors since then have disagreed with that premise.
If you paid attention to the last election, you may have seen that most newspapers endorsed a candidate for presidency.
This is the typical reaction I hear regarding this (especially from people who like the other candidate): “What?! Journalists are supposed to be unbiased! How could the New York Times support Barack Obama! Liberal media grumble grumble!”
The New York Times did indeed endorse Barack Obama for president, as did the Daily Orange here at Syracuse University. They can still be unbiased journalists.
The average voter is not a journalist, so they have a job that prevents them from spending all their time thinking about the election during election season. Journalists, especially political reporters, spend virtually all of their time thinking about the election…it is quite literally their job. They fact-check everything the candidates say, research their backgrounds, past successes and failures and analyze the possible outcomes of their future plans for the presidency. Their opinions, therefore should be the least biased opinions possible. They are based on facts. If a newspaper can say that based on the facts they have compiled about the candidates, they formally endorse one of them for president, that is not only acceptable but almost ESSENTIAL for those average Americans who don’t have to time to figure out which candidate will do the best job.
Back to Nick Kristof. I think he has one of the best jobs in the world. He travels the world and unearths injustices. He is labeled an opinion journalist, but what he really is is a journalist who takes facts and uses them to argue a point. Here’s an example of a column of his that I circulated amongst my friends during the 2012 election: Election 2012 Pop Quiz!
In this column, Kristof listed a number of quotations and asked the reader to guess whether they were said by Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. Here are the first two quotes:
On abortion: “I will preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose and am devoted and dedicated to honoring my word in that regard.”
“I am fighting for an overturning of Roe v. Wade.”
If you forgot, Roe v. Wade is the benchmark case that legalized abortion in the United States. Promising to overturn it is the strongest possible anti-abortion stance. Obviously, these two views are complete opposites. They were also both said by Mitt Romney–as was every single quotation in the column, most of which contradicted each other.
What was effective about this column was that Kristof was arguing in favor of Barack Obama for president by using facts. Unlike some political pundits or commentators, or perhaps some sloppy journalists, he had effective logic to back up his argument. His opinion was not based on some sort of prejudice against Mitt Romney, it was based on the fact that Mitt Romney had changed his stance on several issues and Kristof felt he could not trust the candidate.
Obviously, Romney lost. Kristof’s column was just a tiny blip on the radar in the grand scheme of election coverage. But it was the combination of many columns, stories, blogs, fact-checkers and news coverage that brought Americans to decide who to vote for. In this case, the majority chose Barack Obama.
It was Nicholas Kristof’s opinion about Mitt Romney that brought him to find those quotations, organize them, and present them to the public in a fashion that he hoped would help them make a decision about the presidential election. There is no way of knowing how many people he influenced, but without a deep passion for democracy and a strong, unbiased desire to share facts he probably wouldn’t have written that column.
The reporters who practice biased journalism give true journalists with opinions a bad name. They make some people believe that a journalist with an opinion is a bad journalist. Nicholas Kristof is the shining light of optimism for the continuation of passionate opinion journalism.
I’m certainly not counting down to graduation, but I am excited that at least it will include one of my role models.