Marty Baron stresses freedom of the press in interview with student journalists

Marty Baron talks journalism with Marissa Payne (left) and Shannon Mason (right) / Photo by Joe Severino

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron discussed the importance of truth, freedom of the press and the future of journalism in an on-stage interview with two student journalists at a 2019 National College Media Convention keynote address.

Baron was interviewed by two college journalists who won the opportunity through an essay contest. Shannon Mason, a junior from Juneau, Alaska, is the current editor-in-chief of The Empire State Tribune at The King’s College in New York City. Marissa Payne, a senior from Grayslake, Illinois, is the current editor-in-chief of The Daily Iowan.

Mason and Payne both wrote about Baron’s iconic work as a formative influence that inspired their interest in journalism. 

Payne told College Media Association, “It will be important that attendees — who form the next generation of great journalists — hear from him so we leave the convention inspired to follow in Mr. Baron’s footsteps.”

After a 15-minute address from Baron, Mason and Payne spent about 30 minutes questioning the longtime journalist and editor. Over 1,000 student journalists and advisers sat in the crowd, some of whom were also able to ask questions at the end of the session.

The interview started with questions about press freedom and rebuilding trust in media in the era of fake news.

When asked by Payne about the current climate of distrust in the media, Baron said it’s not a new phenomenon. During the Watergate scandal, trust in the press declined, but in the years following, the reporting done by the Washington Post and others was proven accurate, even though the president claimed it was wrong.

Payne (left) is the current editor-in-chief of The Daily Iowan and Mason (right) is the current editor-in-chief of The Empire State Tribune / Photo by Joe Severino

He also said journalists should do more to clear up misunderstandings the public has about the news media. Baron said the common stereotype is that all reporters are from the coasts, went to esteemed universities and share similar political ideology, so it’s important to explain that’s not the case.

“One [way] is to talk a bit more about who we are,” he said. “I think there are stereotypes about people who work in our newsrooms. We have people in our newsrooms who grew up on farms, we have people in our newsrooms who had been in the military and have served in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

He clarified that although it’s important to have a range of experiences and types of people in a newsroom, he would never ask his reporters’ political views.

“What we ask of them is that they just be good journalists, and that’s the only thing that we ask of them,” he added. “The only litmus test for us is that they are committed to getting at the facts and getting at the truth.” 

He doubled down on the idea of transparency, saying journalists should also discuss their reporting process.

“I think we need to disclose a bit more about how we go about our work and be more transparent about that; show more documents, talk a bit more about the process, whatever we can do to actually display our work is important,” Baron said.

In his previous role as an editor at the Boston Globe, Baron oversaw the investigative unit that was featured in the 2015 film Spotlight about the team’s uncovering of sex abuses by the Catholic Church. Mason asked what the lasting effects of the movie and the Globe’s reporting were for journalism, and Baron replied that everyone learned how vital hard-hitting investigative reporting is to our country.

Baron has been leading the Post since Dec. 31, 2012 / Photo by Joe Severino

Baron said the Post’s business model now centers around this idea.

“We’ve shifted away from a business model solely based on advertising online to getting digital subscriptions to news,” he said. “What [readers] will pay for, is if they feel that you’re doing work that’s highly valuable to society, that no one else is doing and that holds powerful people and powerful institutions accountable. And when we do that kind of work, people support us.”

Payne said a common issue facing student journalists and college students is battles over First Amendment issues on campus. She asked what reporters can do to navigate these tensions.

“I think it’s important to remind people what the First Amendment actually covers, again,” Baron said. “It’s not just freedom for those of us who are in the press, it’s freedom for everyone to speak their minds.”

On Sept. 13, student newspaper The Harvard Crimson published an article about an abolish ICE rally on campus. The student activists who organized the protest criticized the Crimson for calling ICE and asking for comment, saying it put undocumeted students in danger.

The students stood by their work, and clarified that no undocumented students were identified to ICE, the organization was simply asked for comment on the rally itself. The president of the Crimson said in a statement that it was a fundamental journalistic principle to make sure “the individuals and institutions we write about have an opportunity to respond to criticisms in order to ensure a fair and unbiased story.”

When asked about the situation by a member of the crowd, Baron said the Crimson did the right thing.

“Look, our job is to talk to everybody,” Baron said. “The idea that there would be a protest against ICE, and you wouldn’t actually call ICE, just because somehow they’re not worth talking to or that it’s somehow offensive to actually talk to the subject of the protest, I mean to me that just violates every principle of journalism and I think it’s crazy, and that’s a path that we don’t want to go down.”

I think it’s important to remind people what the First Amendment actually covers

After the event, Mason told the Student Press Law Center she was happy with the interview.

“I think it went really well,” she said. “I was happy I stumped him with a question. That was what I really wanted.”

She asked what he wished he had known when he first became a journalist. Baron replied, “Oh, wow, there’s a question I haven’t been asked, uhm,” before breaking into laughter alongside the audience.

The conference began Thursday at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C., and runs until Sunday morning. On Saturday, the SPLC’s Sommer Ingram Dean will be interviewing NPR’s legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

SPLC reporter Joe Severino can be reached by email at or by calling 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @jj_severino.

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