Margaret Sullivan: We, the reality based press, cannot become the opposition party

On the last day of the GEN Summit 2018 in Lisbon, Margaret Sullivan, media columnist at the Washington Post, took to the stage to talk about the role of the public editor, the importance of watchdog journalism, and that journalists need to ‘hang in there’.

Margaret Sullivan © Rainer Mirau for GEN

Below are some notes from the session.

Do not be docile or keep your mouth shut

While journalists cannot become the opposition party to populists, Sullivan said that journalists should neither be docile, keep their mouths shut, or continue business as usual.

She pointed to three things that journalists should be doing differently and better:

  • Being more sceptical;
  • Being more transparent;
  • Providing more context and accountability.

How sceptical was the US press during the presidential elections? Not very, said Sullivan, pointing to the large amount of false equivalencies that were drawn between Clinton’s email scandal as opposed to Trump’s actions in his general career and life.

‘We weren’t sceptical about Trump’s connections to Russia’, said Sullivan.

‘We rely far too heavily on polls and failed to explain the probability model that created so much embarrassment for the mainstream press on election day and after’.

In her column, Sullivan called the press coverage of the elections an epic fail.


When Project Veritas tried to trick the Post into publishing a lie about Roy Moore, the paper gave the public an insight into how their journalism is done, by publishing an interview of the woman who was attempting to give them a false story.

‘This shows that our journalism is rigorous. We need to do a lot more of that’, she said.

Correct mistakes forthrightly

The New York Times reported that there were 1000 people in attendance at a Trump rally, when in reality, there were over 5000. The paper quickly corrected their mistake.

‘As embarrassing as that is’, said Sullivan, ‘the mistake was quickly owned up to’.


Sullivan told the audience that she had received an email from a Washington correspondent from a Scandinavian newspaper. He said that he had been reporting on the Singapore summit that may or may not happen. After saying that it would happen, and then saying that it won’t, and then saying that it might, the reporter felt like he was part of a ‘diplomatic game’ and ‘being hijacked’ by politicians. What could he do?

Sullivan replied that there is no perfect answer. ‘But we can provide more context and state forthrightly that President Trump is known for reversing himself’, she said.

Play watchdog

The highest measurements of trust in the US was shortly after Watergate and the Pentagon papers in the 1970’s.

‘Trust in institutions and in the press has gone way down since then’, said Sullivan. ‘But the public does appreciate — no matter what they think of us — they appreciate the watchdog role’.

She quoted Marty Baron, ‘We’re not at war, were at work’.

Fact checking

Sullivan opened up the session to questions from the audience. A Brazilian fact-checker said that readers accuse her of being the opposition party. How can she explain to her readers that fact-checking is her job?

‘We’re under assault and the truth is under assault’, answered Sullivan. ‘Many readers appreciate fact checking and the reality based press. We have to charge forward and explain ourselves as much as we can. It is heartening to see that the Washington Post and New York Times digital subscriptions have soared, as people feel a need for factual reporting’.

‘I would say hang in there, explain yourself as much as possible, and don’t let them get you down’.

The role of the public editor

Another member of the audience asked Sullivan about the demise of the ombudsman.

Sullivan was the fifth of six public editors at the New York Times; the first woman and longest serving in that role.

It is argued that the role is no longer necessary as a result of social media, but Sullivan disagrees.

‘Twitter is great at surfacing complaints, but what it’s not good at is getting answers and synthesising and bringing an experienced journalist’s judgement to the forefront. My job was to go to the press and get an explanation. Social media can only do one of those things’, she said.

Sullivan said that the New York Times’ Reader Center is interesting, but it doesn’t do the role of the public editor of ombudsman.

Standing up for yourself

Maria Ressa from Rappler asked at which point a journalist can absorb an attack and at which point you have to stand up for yourself.

‘I think it’s very important to be impartial as a journalist, but one thing I’m not impartial about is press rights’, answered Sullivan. ‘We need to be telling our story and talking about these things. I am less about sitting back and absorbing it, but bringing complaints to the surface and showing what their implications might be. We need to do more and forthrightly defend press rights, we have to continually explain our journalism to people and continually explain the importance of our role’.

Where’s the gatekeeper?

Politicians are able to take their messages to people through Twitter without a gatekeeper. Journalists can do the same.

‘I still believe we need journalism that interprets, brings context and fact checks and i think people are smart and realise that what politicians are saying is one part of the story and they need someone else to bring it to them’, said Sullivan.

When do you become a political actor?

Where’s the line between explaining more and becoming a political actor, asked a member of the audience.

Sullivan replied that the Washington Post ran into this recently with the horrific school shooting in Florida. They wanted to show exactly what was happening.

‘Journalists bring their values to their work. We’re often accused of bias. I don’t apologise for the fact that I believe how America has handled assault weapons is irresponsible. If people think that’s a political bias, I reject that. I don’t think it is’, Sullivan said.

News and opinion

Sullivan said that we’ve lost the line between news reporting and opinion reporting. When you are consuming the news on your phone, it is disaggregated: it is coming to you in pieces and we don’t always have the luxury of telling you that this is fact and this is opinion, she said.

The Washington Post now has clear labels. ‘At the beginning I used to get a lot of emails saying: How dare you express your opinion? And I would reply saying it’s in my job description, I’m a columnist.’

Sullivan’s work is now labelled ‘Perspective’, and according to her, that has made a huge difference.

‘It is appropriate to sometimes analyse and share opinion, but we need to be clear about what we’re doing’, she said.

No more fake news

Sullivan concluded by telling the audience that she has stopped using the term fake news, because it has been turned into a weapon to mean anything a particular person doesn’t like.

‘The answer is not to give up on searching for truth and representing truth’, said Sullivan.
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