Alan Rusbridger, former Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian, stressed the fundamental role of reporters in today’s world to a crowded Yale Law School room on Sunday evening.
In a conversation with Pilar Velasco, a journalist and current World Fellow from Spain, Rusbridger discussed his experience editing groundbreaking stories on WikiLeaks and Brexit, as well as highlighted the importance of bringing attention back to journalism as a public service. Rusbridger recently published his sixth book, “Breaking News: Remaking of Journalism and Why it Matters Now.”
“Having a world without reporters is like having a world without bees — society collapses,” Rusbridger said, “If people are to support journalism, we have to articulate the mission of public service. We are currently looking over the precipice of what this is to look like. People are questioning the credibility of facts — and this is where journalists need to step up.”
Rusbridger started the talk by discussing his transition from the fast pace and demands of a newsroom to devoting time to education and book writing. He said it was a good way “to step away from the stress.”
He then discussed what he called the highlight of his time as an editor — his conversations with Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, and Edward Snowden and the difficulties he encountered when deciding where the public interest lay in the story. WikiLeaks is a website that publishes obtained secret or classified information and news leaks.
“It’s hard,” he said. “People become whistleblowers for all kinds of reasons, so it is really helpful to start from concrete information, focus on what the documents tell you.”
He mentioned his suspicions behind Assange’s motives for getting the information out in the open, so he made sure to carefully work through all of the documents before publishing the story.
In his talk, Rusbridger called journalism a service to people. He said that it was necessary for people to view it as such not only for the survival of democracy, but also for the survival of news companies like The Guardian.
“There are not many professions where people are willing to risk their lives for something important, and journalism is one of them,” he said.
He followed this sentiment by discussion of the evolution of journalism in the United Kingdom. He said that advertising and journalism used to go hand in hand, so the work of reporters could be supported. But he said that today, in the age of Twitter and Facebook, when there is no longer a scarcity of information, it is harder to persuade people to pay for news.
Answering an audience member’s question on how to position oneself as a journalist in an industry saturated with voices of varying opinions, Rusbridger went on to highlight what he saw as a distinction between journalists as fact-checkers and opinion writers. He said that the first job of journalism is always to determine what is true and what is not, and to take one’s time to do it. Rusbridger added that a reporter’s job was to show all sides of the story and to encourage debate as opposed to deciding what the people should think.
“Even after 200 years of the craft’s existence, we do not yet know whether it is meant to be subjective or objective,” he said.
In an article he wrote for the New Statesman earlier this year, Rusbridger criticized BBC for its reporting on Brexit, claiming that “neutrality should not deny the proper function of journalism — to create an informed public.”
After the event, Velasco told the News that she thought his book “should be considered a modern history of journalism in times of crisis.” She added that since the book was written since 2016 during the time of the Brexit referendum and the election of President Donald Trump, the book offers perspective on how journalism should evolve with a focus on “the right issues” and the challenges ahead.
Darryl Laiu ’19, who called himself an aspiring journalist, said he was struck by the positivity with which Rusbridger talked about the future of the news industry.
“As someone stepping into the field soon, it was heartening to hear that even though we have challenges to overcome, there are ways for us to thrive and put good stories out there,” Laiu said.
Rusbridger serves as the chair of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.
Vrinda Sood | vrinda.sood AT yale.edu