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Washington Post Columnist Discusses Role of Journalism in the Upcoming Election

The Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics, and Public Policy is based at the Harvard Kennedy School.
The Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics, and Public Policy is based at the Harvard Kennedy School. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Isabel G. Skomro and Meimei Xu, Contributing Writers

Pulitzer-Prize winning Washington Post columnist Eugene H. Robinson spoke about the role of journalism in the 2020 presidential election at an Institute of Politics JFK Jr. Forum lecture Wednesday.

The event, titled “The Challenges Facing the Media on November 3rd and Beyond,” was hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics, and Public Policy as part of the annual Theodore H. White Lecture series on Press and Politics. Shorenstein Center Director Nancy R. Gibbs moderated the lecture.

Robinson opened the lecture by discussing how journalism has evolved to be what it is today.

“It’s hard to remember, but not so very long ago we actually had a set of rules, and a set of guardrails. And those rules and guardrails kept our public discourse more or less tethered to objective truth,” Robinson said.

“Today, our voices are easily and dangerously drowned out on the internet by voices that are not even remotely tethered to fact, and not remotely tethered to actual events,” he added.

Robinson talked about a possible election-day scenario which he called a “red mirage,” in which same-day votes favorable to President Trump are reported before absentee and mail-in ballot totals, giving the appearance of a substantial lead for Trump before official results are finalized.

“Our job clearly is to tell people that this mirage is indeed a mirage, that it might actually turn out to be reality, but we won't know that until more of the votes are counted,” he said. “And we'll have to convince our readers and our viewers to be patient until all the votes are counted. That will be a tall order.”

In reporting political controversy up to the election, Robinson warned against the standard convention in journalism to give both sides equal weight.

“If we know that one side is telling the truth, and the other side is lying, we need to tell people that, and we need to tell them that plainly and clearly and loudly,” Robinson said. “And we need to say it over and over and over again. Because repetition works.”

In light of decreased public trust in news organizations, Gibbs spoke about the lessons learned from the 2016 election and the responsibilities that journalists have in ethical reporting in a Tuesday interview before the event.

“Journalists are much more aware of the risks of being manipulated, of the dangers, of the very high bar for verification of information, the risks of people trying to manipulate the media to cover a certain story or cover a story in a certain way,” Gibbs said. “So it's an even more treacherous terrain that journalists are operating in leading into an exceptionally important election.”

Despite the challenges that journalists face, Robinson said he remains hopeful that journalism can champion the truth.

“We should never be afraid or ashamed to advocate for truth,” Robinson said. “It is a daunting road that lies ahead. But I think news organizations have one enormous advantage and I think ultimately it is a decisive advantage. And that is that truth is our superpower. So we just need to use it.”

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IOPHarvard Kennedy SchoolJournalism2020 Election