Bret Stephens: Journalism is not activism, reporters must know difference

At the Jerusalem Post Annual Conference, MediaCentral’s Laura Cornfield highlighted the need for help in accessing accurate sources in Israel.

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Social media has hijacked the field of journalism and has led to the public’s deepening mistrust of reporters and the newspapers they serve, according to Bret Stephens, a senior columnist for The New York Times.

“Journalism is not activism, and reporters should know the difference,” he said.

Speaking at a Jerusalem Post Annual Conference panel on Monday with Laura Cornfield, director of MediaCentral, and Eric Gertler, executive chairman and CEO of US News & World Report, Stephens said Twitter has had at least two “deleterious” effects on the field.

“One, it has turned every journalist into a kind of freelancer, so that in addition to their identity, such as Bret Stephens of The New York Times, they are a Twitter avatar,” Stephens said. “The second aspect is it creates an avenue of political expression… which has harmed the reputation of journalism, since you can tell by virtue of what he might be tweeting where a reporter’s political bias might lie.”

He cited Gallup polls that show trust in journalism in the US is lower than it is in the US Congress.

“Writing for the sake of gaining followers is yet another aspect that is terrible,” Stephens said. “You should not be in journalism to win popularity contests… Journalists should be doing everything we can to husband the authority that is still left to us – if there is any authority left to us – and instead we have been squandering it in the interest of clicks.”

Gertler said many institutions are under attack today, and the media is no different. The press needs to stay focused on trust and the credibility of what it delivers, he said.

“You cannot focus so much on social media,” he added.

‘Accuracy is key’

“There are so many facts and background about Israel that people just don’t understand.”

Laura Cornfield, director of MediaCentral

Cornfield said the need for speed has led reporters and their employers to fall into similar traps.

In response to a question about a recent situation in which the Times was exposed for hiring three freelancers in the Gaza Strip who praised Adolf Hitler and celebrated deadly Palestinian terrorist attacks on their social-media channels – hires the paper made without knowledge of the stringers’ tweets, which were only in Arabic – she stressed the need for support for foreign media.

Cornfield said her organization helps provide accurate sources and connections for the press in Israel, who are often “helicoptered” in to cover the conflict.

“There are so many facts and background about Israel that people just don’t understand,” she said, adding that MediaCentral’s job is to help explain these items to the foreign press without any obligation to the government, politicians, the IDF or the Israel Police.

During Operation Guardian of the Walls, for example, MediaCentral offered reporters contact with families whose homes were destroyed by rockets and access to military analysts, she said, and it also provided them with the information they needed to navigate the war-torn landscape.

“We are a completely independent, unbiased, balanced organization whose aim is to help reporters get the story right,” Cornfield said. “Accuracy is key, and MediaCentral can help.”