New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet still believes after 45 years in the business that journalism is an honorable profession with the grandest mission: To do the public good and to serve the public.
Baquet shared those sentiments and other insights during an hourlong Q&A session with students from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication on March 26, a day after he received the Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism from ASU.
Baquet answered questions on the future of journalism, objectivity, race and journalism, and other topics in a discussion moderated by Vanessa Ruiz, director for diversity initiatives and community engagement, and McKenzie Allen-Charmley, a third-year journalism student who expects to graduate in May 2022.
Early in the discussion, a student asked Baquet about a philosophy or motto that’s guided him through challenging times in his career.
Baquet said when times get tough, he reminds himself that journalism has a mission and a goal to serve the public.
“I remind myself that it's all in service of a large and important mission, and that may seem, you know, treacly or syrupy, but it's actually true,” he said. “If you just sort of keep focus on the fact that you have a mission and have a goal and you’re supposed to serve the public, it just helps you see through a lot of the stuff that gets in the way.”
Baquet told students to stay open to the evolution of objectivity — especially at a time when a new generation of journalists is reexamining its meaning and application.
“Objectivity has been misunderstood by newsrooms, including my own newsroom, including me,” he said. Objectivity was originally intended to present an audience with multiple sides of a story but it devolved to where reporters would just call sources to get a quick quote from an opposing viewpoint instead of actually wrestling with the facts, he said.
“The role of a journalist is to pore through and test all of those ideas and to either draw a conclusion if that’s possible or present them in a thoughtful way,” he said. “So for me it’s sort of to test notions and come as close as possible to telling the truth.”
Baquet said each generation of reporters wants to create its own journalism and challenge the notions of their predecessors, and older generations should welcome that challenge. These new ideas are necessary at a time when there are multiple ways to tell stories.
“I think the next generation of journalists are challenging us and they should. I challenged some of the notions of the people I worked for,” he said. “If you’re not going to listen, you really shouldn’t be in the business of journalism.”
The Q&A session also included questions regarding race and journalism, with students asking about his experience as a Black journalist who rose through the ranks of the profession.
Baquet is the first Black executive editor to lead both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. He acknowledged that journalism has a race problem and said he has faced challenges throughout the years as a Black man working in various newsrooms.
However, Baquet said it’s easier now to address race issues than when he first entered journalism, when Black journalists didn’t want to be stereotyped. He said newsrooms have a better understanding now about how bad they have been in not being diverse in the past. “They may be slow to change, but I think they get that,” he said.
Baquet also told students of color that it’s important to use their life experience to inform their stories.
“My advice is don’t be shy about writing about race. You shouldn’t be shy about bringing what you have to the party. And you really should aspire to the top jobs in the newsroom,” he said.
Baquet encouraged students to stay open-minded because it is key to the future of journalism.
“Everything is going to look different in 10 years. You’re going to get to reinvent this thing. I can’t imagine anything more exciting than that. I’m jealous.”