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Politics and journalism course addresses 'crisis of truth' in political reporting

Politics and journalism course addresses 'crisis of truth' in political reporting

Watson Senior Fellow Isaac Dovere is a senior reporter for CNN covering Democratic politics and the bestselling author of "Battle for the Soul: Inside the Democrats' Campaigns to Defeat Trump." This spring, he is teaching a politics and journalism class at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs that allows Brown students to learn about political journalism from a practicing journalist.

Dovere says the course is "pragmatically minded" and "not an academic study of what it means to be a journalist or how politics work." Instead, he designed it as a practical class for students who might be interested in careers in journalism or politics or who want to better understand how political journalism works in practice.

Ellis Clark, a senior International and Public Affairs (IAPA) concentrator, had high praise for the class, "Isaac's class is the epitome of Brown and Watson — a capstone of the open curriculum, intellectual curiosity, and unmatched resources that the University and the Institute can bring to bear for its students." He noted he has been an avid reader of Dovere's work since middle school and "to learn directly from him all these years later is nothing short of a dream come true."

As Dovere notes in the course description, "...we're not just in overlapping crises of government and democracy and economics and race. We're also in a crisis of truth. It's impossible to think about what is happening in politics without thinking about how it's covered.

In the age of partisan media, the issue of journalistic objectivity is central to that "crisis of truth," so the first issue Dovere discussed with the class was whether there's such a thing as objective journalism and how various biases, intentionally or unintentionally, work their way into journalism. 

When asked if reporters can truly remain objective, Dovere responded, "Obviously, any time you write about something, you're making a choice to write about that versus something else. But it's about being fair and not letting your bias overtake things." 

The class also discussed whether reporters with different backgrounds can report fairly on issues directly related to their lived experiences. As an exercise to address this issue, Dovere told the class to pick a topic that is currently in the news that they feel passionately about. "I told them they had to write an 800-word account of the topic in which I can't tell where they fall on the issue," he said. 

"I think there is a bit of a generational divide on not just the possibility of objectivity, but the desirability of it," he said, "many students really want to know where you stand and think it's important to make it clear where your flag is planted." "I thought it would be a good exercise to see if they could write something in which they effectively suppress their point of view," he added.

But Dovere has also emphasized to the class that a journalist should not let the truth get lost in an attempt to remain fair or objective. "The example that I tend to go back to," he said, "is climate change." "If we cover that as 'some people say it's man-made and a serious problem and others say it's not a problem, and man has nothing to do with it,' then in the interest of being 'fair and balanced,' we're actually letting bias sink in because 99 out of 100 scientists say it's real, man-made, and a looming crisis," he said.

When asked what he hopes students would take away from the course, Dovere said, "Ultimately, that's on the student and what they want from the class. But I hope that everyone walks away from the class with a more sophisticated understanding of what goes into producing the news. I hope they come away as more sophisticated consumers of the news. And for some of them, perhaps eventually more sophisticated producers of the news."

— Pete Bilderback