Consuming news critically: Martin Baron’s insight on journalism in the digital age 

Reading Time: 3 minutes Eighteen-time Pulitzer Prize winner Martin Baron speaks on how to combat misinformation in an age of strong opinions and generative AI.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

On Tuesday, March 26, 2024, now-retired executive editor of the Washington Post Martin Baron visited the UVU campus as part of the presidential lecture series. Holding his position with the Washington Post for over eight years, Baron spoke to students, faculty and guests about his experience working in the press.  

“We have to look beneath the surface; we have to look behind the curtain,” Baron said, reflecting on the role of journalism in our modern era. “Our job is really to hold powerful individuals, powerful institutions to account.” 

As public approval of the press continues to diminish, a focal point of the lecture became the importance of doing one’s due diligence when reporting on and, by effect, consuming news content.  

Though many want news sources to be neutral, Baron holds that everybody has beliefs and viewpoints and, citing author Sebastian Junger, says that a good journalist is one that’s willing to destroy their own opinion. 

 “Our job,” Baron argues, “is to sort of recognize that we have [an] opinion, but [still] talk to everybody that we need to talk to, look at all of the evidence we need to examine, be open-minded, be rigorous, be thorough, be comprehensive, be fair.” 

In his time as executive editor for the Washington Post, Baron pushed for objectivity to be the driving force behind his team. He believes that there is a key difference between neutrality, objectivity and moral clarity in relation to free press.  

Though these three standards sound interchangeable, Baron warns against the dangers of allowing moral clarity to guide the press: “Every party thinks they’re morally clear.”  

Baron believes that neutrality can also create potential pitfalls for journalists and consumers, which may suggest that, once the research has been completed, “everything is equal.”  

However, objectivity pushes for the willingness to see other points of view and asks the important question “What are the facts?”  

Baron compares news reporting to scientific journalism. “[You] have a hypothesis that something might be the case, but you must test it, and you test it against the evidence. And you don’t … pick and choose among the evidence and say, ‘Well, this evidence contradicts my hypothesis, so I’m going to ignore it.’ That would be considered scientific fraud, and it would be journalistic fraud to do something of that sort.” 

University President Astrid Tuminez, who moderated the lecture and Q&A, asked, “What would you advise students in terms of their consumption of news and media?”  

The answer: education, experience, expertise, and evidence and the power these principles hold. These four e’s are what allow people to determine facts, but according to Baron, every one of these is becoming devalued by society.  

“In many instances today, somebody is disseminating so-called ‘information,’” Baron said, emphasizing his air quotes, “… And you don’t even know who’s behind it. Who wrote this? What is that individual’s qualifications? Is it even an individual, or is it generative AI? Who knows.” 

He urges consumers of news to investigate the stories they see and to think critically and ask questions. Reading into where evidence and data are coming from, seeking out full video clips to ensure they aren’t taken out of context, and doing research on reporters’ journalistic history to verify that they are credible are all starting points.  

During the question-and-answer section, an audience member asked Baron about the rise of AI and its impact on the field of journalism. Baron replied, “Like every other new technology, it has plusses and minuses.”  

Baron has already seen AI being integrated into newsrooms for alerts, headline writing, SEO optimization and more. He believes that generative AI can be used to help journalists continue to report and update stories as new information comes out. 

As far as the future of journalism, Baron doesn’t fear generative AI replacing reporters but cautions about the enormous risks. “Fabricated video and fabricated audio and things like that– that is a huge risk to journalism … more importantly, to society and democracy.”  

“Imagine a society where we can’t verify what’s true and what’s not true,” Baron says, “and where everybody just says, ‘I’ll just believe whatever it is I want.’” Baron believes we’re already headed in that direction, and as generative AI becomes more polished and more believable, it will become “infinitely worse.” 

Although journalism in this digital age is changing, Baron urges the audience to be constant learners. In the face of continual upheaval and disruption, “I try to be optimistic about our country… and I try to be optimistic about my profession as well.” 

In his long career in journalism, Baron has reported on many large, breaking stories, with him and his various teams collectively receiving eighteen Pulitzer Prizes for journalism throughout his career. In the face of reporting on the truth, Baron states that it is the duty of journalists to report in an “unflinching and fearless way.” 

Despite the shifting terrain of journalism, Baron is optimistic about the field and the future of our nation and encourages all who attended the lecture to do the same. Change is a constant in this field, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. “I don’t think we can afford not to be optimistic… and I’ve never seen anybody succeed by expecting to fail.”