The Debate Continues Over Journalism Objectivity at UNC-Chapel Hill
Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Mega-Donor, and the Future of Journalism are in a fierce debate.
During a pandemic UNC-Chapel Hill raised over $4.25 billion in a capital campaign and Walter Hussman Jr.’s $25 million commitment in 2019 to the UNC-Chapel Hill school of journalism stood out, making him the largest single donor in the school's history. His name went on the school, and his statement of journalistic principles will go up on the entryway wall.
Yet, the board decided to hire a black woman as its lead and the schools largest donor has a problem with it. Last summer, Hussman learned of the university’s interest in hiring Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning essayist, former News & Observer reporter, and current New York Times reporter, best known for her work on the 1619 Project.
“As a Black woman who has built a nearly two-decades long career in journalism, I believe Americans who research, study, and publish works that expose uncomfortable truths about the past and present manifestations of racism in our society should be able to follow these pursuits without risk to their civil and constitutional rights,” Hannah-Jones wrote.
It also reveals a new front in a growing national debate about objectivity in newsrooms: journalism schools themselves.
About One of UNC-Chapel Hills Largest Donors
Hussman, 74, is considered an innovator and astute businessman. After graduating from UNC-CH, he received an MBA from Columbia University. He leads the family-owned WEHCO Media, which operates newspapers, magazines, and cable television companies in six states, and has been inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.
In 2001, Hussman differentiated himself from most newspaper publishers by rejecting the era’s mantra—“information wants to be free”—and instead placed his content behind a paywall. He didn’t understand why most publishers charged readers for the print paper but gave away that same journalism (and more) online. Today, most papers have followed his example by implementing strong paywalls. At the time, Hussman was a radical—an outlier.
Hussman sees his role as an active one. He told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson in 2019 that there’s too much opinion in news coverage. “We’re trying to take a step to move it back in the right direction again,” Hussman said.
Few question Hussman’s genuine passion for those values, and he’s not seen as a partisan ideologue. His belief is in the news. “We believe in this so strongly that our family, which has been in the newspaper business 110 years, has made its largest donation ever and is lending our name to the school,” he wrote in the Journal.
He represents one end of a growing debate over the role of objectivity in reporting, sometimes defined as neutrality. Some see the debate as more like a spectrum. Others think the fight is over semantics—that fair and balanced writing is important but objectivity is impossible. And a growing number, including many younger journalists, see objectivity as a trap.
Hannah-Jones, 45, received her undergraduate degree from Notre Dame and a master’s in journalism from UNC-CH in 2003.
Before long, she was covering Durham Public Schools for The News & Observer, where she delved into issues of school equity and the racial-achievement gap. She worked at The Oregonian and then covered civil rights, housing, and school segregation for ProPublica before joining The New York Times in 2015.
Hannah-Jones is one of the most prominent journalists of her generation. She won a MacArthur Fellowship, often called a “genius grant,” earned multiple National Magazine Awards, and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Her approach to journalism is, in some ways, at odds with Hussman’s, which reflects a current national debate in newsrooms about what journalism is and how it should be conducted.
Hussman’s report-both-sides approach is built on reporter objectivity. Hannah-Jones considers this a less-than-rigorous approach that can lead to false equivalencies rather than the truth.
“[Mainstream media] has long tended to operate as stenographers of power, and we've taken that to be non-biased, objective reporting,” she told NPR’s 1A podcast last June. “So when white Americans say to me, ‘I just want factual reporting,’ what they're saying to me is they want reporting from a white perspective ... with a white normative view, and that simply has never been objective.”
Hannah-Jones doesn’t pretend to be outside the story and says objectivity has always been a fallacy. If you grow up white in a community with good schools, respectful police, and welcoming businesses, that influences how you view those institutions, she says.
“We really need to understand that all of our racialized experiences as journalists lead us to cover things a certain way,” she said to NPR.
Nikole Hannah-Jones and Walter Hussman Jr. represent different sides of the debate on objectivity, but they also cover some shared ground. “What’s always been important,” Hannah-Jones told reporter Brentin Mock last July, “is that our coverage is as accurate as it can be, and that it's fair.”