Carol Pauli's "The 'End' of Neutrality: Tumultuous Times Require a Deeper Value"

Newsletter #77 — Jan. 31, 2023


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By Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

February 3, 2023

 For this newsletter, we would like to return to last fall's discussion of the relationship between neutrality and the quest for social justice. We recently came across an excellent article that I thought shed additional light on this important topic. It was written by Carol Pauli, an Instructional Professor at Texas A&M School of Law.  The article is entitled The “End” of Neutrality: Tumultuous Times Require a Deeper Value, and it was published in 23 Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution. p. 557 (2022). It is available full text at:, but we thought it is worth doing a short summary of it for our blog,

The article examines the value of neutrality that is traditionally held in high regard by both the fields of journalism and mediation. 

Pauli starts out by saying:

"This essay will focus on journalists, whose ideal has been to maintain a neutral position from which to establish the shared, accurate information that the public needs to make decisions. But along the way, I want to point to an overlap between journalists and mediators because I think they face similar challenges to neutrality in their work.   . . ." In their own way, journalists are—like mediators—third-party neutrals. They listen to various parties in a conflict, relay messages between opponents, and try to verify a baseline of facts in the disjointed public conversation. 

That conversation now swirls in an atmosphere of distrust.  . . .Only four out of ten Americans express confidence in journalists to act in the public’s best interests.1 (p. 557)

She notes that public distrust of the news media is not all that new.

A generation ago [1996], Atlantic Monthly editor James Fallows reported that American “disdain for the media establishment [had] reached new levels.”Back then, social media could not be blamed. The problem, he said, was the news itself: Audiences saw journalists as arrogant and cynical because their stories repeatedly portrayed civic life as nothing more than a hopeless contest among scheming politicians.Audiences were steadily turning away,1 and as a result, Fallows wrote, the news media were threatening the health of the political system. (p. 559)

Still seems true, doesn't it?

The result, she says is a profound challenge to the field of journalism. 

Challenges to long-held societal norms have rocked the ideal of neutrality. In journalism, neutrality suggests impartiality, a lack of any interest in the outcome for one side or another.3 Richard Tofel, the founding general manager of the nonprofit news organization ProPublica, has written that neutrality works when the playing field is reasonably level: “‘Neutrality’ may be an especially attractive value if you view public life as an endless series of fights between two sides distinguishable most importantly by the primary colors of their uniforms.”But neutrality pales when the context is bizarre, as when one side’s argument is based on falsehoods or poses an existential threat. (p. 561)

Focusing particularly on the Trump administration and its propensity to make up facts and call actual facts that it didn't like "fake," she presents the problem as primarily coming from the Republicans. Here we disagree — we think that Democrats too have been guilty of distorting factual arguments (by, for example, cherry picking the most supportive statistics, neglecting countervailing arguments, and "spinning" facts in self-serving waysBut that doesn't detract from Pauli's main arguments about journalism and neutrality. 

Neutrality is not an end. Neutrality is a means to an end.Determining what the end should be is a hard exercise, and it demands something other than logic. (p. 561)

She argues that the core goal of both mediators and journalists is not neutrality, but rather clients' "self-determination." The ultimate goal of mediators, she says, is to allow parties to actively take part in resolving their conflict and deciding its outcome. I would add that their goal is also to get the parties to actively listen to each other, come to a better understanding of each sides' interests and needs, and then to encourage the parties to use that understanding to resolve their conflict in a mutually-beneficial way themselves.  Similarly, the ultimate goal of journalism, she argues is "to provide factual information to facilitate informed decision making."6

But these goals, both for journalists and mediators, she observes, need to be grounded in a more fundamental guiding value that used to be taken for granted: and allegiance to democracy and opposition to authoritarianism. She quoted Jay Rosen as saying:

I think the great struggle for journalists in the years ahead is to find a way that they can emerge from this period as proponents of democracy, as pro-democracy, pro-truth, pro-participation, pro-elections, pro-legitimacy of democratic government. They have to stop assuming these things as sort of the background to their work and push them into the foreground and become champions of these fundamental values.7 (p. 562)

So her core, very important, idea, it seems to us, is that journalists are not neutral when it comes to these values.  They must ground their work in these values and report in such a way as to strengthen such outcomes, not detract from them.  So that would mean, we would think, (and note, we are not quoting or paraphrasing her here) refusing to fan the flames of conflict. Report the stories as fairly as possible, rather than cherry picking the stories that correspond to one side's narrative, and spinning stories to fit the narrative of the journalists or their publications themselves. Further, while they don't need to treat all sides' narratives as equally valid, they need, at least investigate all the sides' view of a story and do what they can to determine which views are based on fact, and which not. They should not assume that one side is right, and another wrong just because one side has a particular attribute (such as gender, race, or relative power.) But again, that is our view — not hers. 

Pauli goes on to quote one of our favorite theorists, Harold Lasswell, who suggested a value more fundamental than democracy—dignity. "The supreme value of democracy is the dignity and worth of the individual." Noting that conflict resolution theorists often talk about dignity and respect as if they are the same, Pauli quotes Donna Hicks as observing that 

"respect must be earned, but human dignity is the inherent value of every person, regardless of accomplishments or qualities.8 She [Hicks] lists “ten elements of dignity,” which she describes as suggestions for honoring the dignity of others.9 Among them, several are especially pertinent to news reporters in dealing with their sources and audiences: accepting others without prejudice, treating them fairly, actively listening to others, empowering others to act on their own behalf, and taking responsibility for one’s own mistakes.10 (p. 567)

Hicks's other elements are highly relevant to conflict resolvers and anyone else who is concerned about hyper-polarization: "recognizing others’ contributions, validating others’ concerns, including others in all levels of relationship, easing others’ concerns about physical and psychological safety, and giving others the benefit of the doubt."11

Yes! Those, we very much agree, should be values strongly upheld by both journalists and mediators.  If upholding those means not being neutral then, we agree journalists and mediators should not be neutral. BUT, I would argue upholding those IS being neutral.  The difference, though, we suspect, is that many conflict resolvers (and maybe journalists as well) lean left in their own political views, and they read these rules as applying to women, people of color, LGBTQ and other lower-power, traditionally disadvantaged groups, but not to supposedly powerful white men, because, as we have heard from some of our colleagues "they don't need it." But they do. There are lots of whites, many of them Trump supporters, who are also marginalized in our society. If their dignity is denied through prejudice against them, unfair treatment, not being listened to or having their contributions and concerns recognized, they are going to reject whatever process is taking place.  They are going to reject the news coverage as "biased," they are going to reject mediation the same way. If we want to improve the public's trust of journalism and journalists, journalists, indeed, have to earn that trust by granting dignity to everyone they are reporting about. 

Pauli seems to confirm this notion by saying 

The newsroom [that valued dignity] would continually monitor whether the stories and images of a wide range of its supporters—and its critics—were being represented in the news, and it would explore the needs, interests, and concerns of people all across the political spectrum.12  (p. 567)

While a majority of Americans now distrust the media, most (69% according to a Gallup/Knight study13) say their trust could be restored.  What these people are looking for from journalists is accuracy, fairness, and transparency.  They want to see links to back up reporting (so the readers can judge its accuracy and fairness themselves) and rapid correction of errors if they are made.  

Pauli concludes that "neutrality is an unsatisfying value" in our current highly conflicted times, and that neutrals need to look to deeper values to undergird their work.  Human dignity, she argues, is a good place to begin, and she invites others "to explore whether an initial commitment to the inherent worth of every person would make a helpful difference in practice.  We agree, it would. And that's what neutrality should be—even if it isn't now—all about.

That said, we are troubled by one final thought. Truly factual accounts of today's political controversies — ones that tell the legitimate stories of all sides — are sometimes unpleasant to hear. By presenting opposing views, such accounts, of necessity, raise the possibility that we may not be as virtuous as we would like to think that we are.  This invokes cognitive dissonance and other psychological biases, which make us reluctant to "consume" this kind of content. Instead, we gravitate toward more pleasing narratives that reinforce our image as being "one of the good guys" fighting the forces of evil.  In a competitive media marketplace, outlets that offer such one-sided, but pleasing, content have a major advantage in the struggle to build and maintain the audience required for financial viability and influence.  This is a problem that defenders of dignity-based journalism need to find a way to more effectively address.  For us, this involves cultivating a civic culture that embraces and seeks to be stimulated by and learn from true diversity and differences of opinion.  This, like respect for human dignity, is a core democratic value the needs to be taught much more than it is and strongly defended.



1Brian Kennedy, Alec Tyson, & Cary Funk, Americans’ Trust in Scientists, Other Groups Declines, PEW RSCH. CTR. (Feb. 15, 2022), icans-trust-in-scientists-other-groups-declines/ [].

2 James Fallows Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy

Markus Ojala, Is the Age of Impartial Journalism Over? The Neutrality Principle and Audience (Dis)Trust in Mainstream News, 22 JOURNALISM STUD. 2042, 2043–44 (2021).

Richard Tofel: President, 2013-2021, PROPUBLICA, richard-tofel [] (last visited April 26, 2022).

See Milton Rokeach, A Theory of Organization and Change Within Value-Attitude Systems, 24 J. SOC. ISSUES 17 (1968) (distinguishing instrumental values from terminal values).

Philip M. Napoli, What if More Speech is No Longer the Solution? First Amendment Theory Meets Fake News and the Filter Bubble, 70 FED. COMM. L. J. 55, 59 (2018).

7 Aspen Digital, Disinfo Discussions: The Role of the News Media with Jay Rosen, at 24:19 (July 5, 2021), [].

8 Donna Hicks, Dignity: The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflicts 5 (2011).

9 Donna Hicks, Leading With Dignity 16 (2018).

10 Id. At 16–17

11 Carol Pauli, The 'End' of Neutrality: Tumultuous Times Require a Deeper Value. 23 Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution (2022)..p. 564. 

12 Id. P. 567

13Indicators Of News Media Trust: A Gallup/Knight Foundation Survey 1, 13 (2018), inal/KnightFoundation_Panel4_Trust_Indicators_FINAL.pdf [].