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Judy Woodruff and Chris Stirewalt approach news delivery differently.
Woodruff, the longtime "PBS NewsHour" anchor and managing editor, emphasizes neutrality and keeping her personal opinions to herself. Stirewalt, the former Fox News political editor-turned-author-and-podcaster, believes in the power of "opinion journalism," in which journalists express their ideas as they report and present.
But both agree that journalists share an important and vital role in informing the public.
Woodruff and Stirewalt shared their perspectives Sept. 28 during United Facts of America: A Festival of Fact-Checking. The conference, hosted by PolitiFact and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, started Sept. 27, and concludes Sept. 29. All sessions have been broadcast online.
Woodruff, who has covered politics and other news for five decades, told Sanders there hasn’t been a cycle more consequential than the 2022 midterms.
"I can't remember another one where it just felt like there was so much at stake because you still have these big lingering questions hanging over this election, about what happened two years ago, in November 2020," Woodruff said. "The challenge to those results is the millions of Americans, and a former president of the United States, who is saying that the election was fraudulent, that the results were a joke, and that he — Donald Trump — should be president and not Joe Biden."
Woodruff expressed her "obligation as the face of NewsHour" to keep her composure under control amid the country’s recent critical events. To do this, she said she makes decisions based on evidence and confirmed information.
"I seek to find some kind of balance between acknowledging the facts, acknowledging the enormity of what's going on — and recognizing that — but at the same time, not getting overly overly excited about it. Certainly, not taking sides," Woodruff said.
When faced every day with communicating significant news to readers, she said "the side that I take is facts."
Woodruff, who will step down as the "NewsHour" anchor at year’s end to pursue special projects and stories, said journalists need "to report it straight," covering stories fairly and accurately. That matters especially, she said, given the depth of Americans’ opposing viewpoints and how those viewpoints have increased "doubt and distrust" in the media.
She said PBS is identifying conspiracy theories across social media platforms, including "how they’re promulgated, how they’re spread, the overactive efforts right now to spread."
"It’s people who believe what they believe, even though it’s not true. It’s not; it’s false," Woodruff said. "In many cases, they don’t believe that they know it’s false, but they spread it in order to hurt a candidate or help a particular issue or help a candidate. And we need … to be as open to understanding it as we can."
In a separate talk, Chris Stirewalt and Poynter President Neil Brown also discussed America’s political divide and what media credibility means for the electorate. Stirewalt, who testified before the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, helped the Fox News Decision Desk call Arizona for Joe Biden in 2020. The network fired him in January 2021. He is now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a contributing editor for The Dispatch and a policy editor at NewsNation.
After leaving Fox, Stirewalt started a podcast and published "Broken News: Why the Media Rage Machine Divides America and How to Fight Back," a book focused on the uncertain state of democracy, specifically the threat to local news.
Stirewalt said he supports and believes in journalism, and praised fact-checking, training young journalists and "allowing local news outlets to collectively bargain." He said he wants "people to understand that being well-informed is a patriotic duty, but it’s a loving act, too."
Fact-checking can use "the power of words to equip people to make better decisions in their lives," he said. It can be "a user’s guide" to people’s choices, such as participating in political elections or making contributions to the country.
"Fact-checkers are providing valuable information to persuadable voters around the country," Stirewalt said. "Discerning that stuff? That is hugely useful and practical."
Stirewalt said many Americans know the nation has institutional problems, including climate change and the national debt, that outstrip individual policy debates.
To work toward resolving these problems, Stirewalt said media producers and consumers need not undermine others, but "look for ways to express goodwill and come together."
"That is a movement that’s happening around the country," Stirewalt said. "And it's a movement that's going to help regenerate the local news business. It's a movement that's going to create new economic incentives for people to try to find aspirationally fair news."
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