Reader Request 2004 #5: Objective Newspeople

For today’s reader request, we go to Dave Schaefer:

Hi John. I’m wondering what you think about the contrast between a journalist or writer’s personal and professional work. The local student paper recently ran an article on why it was a bad idea for journalists to have personal websites or participate in online discussions. The argument was that if a journalist “published” their personal opinions on the web it would reduce their credibility for presenting issues in an unbiased manner.

Any thoughts?

Yeah, I think it’s pretty stupid.

When people talk about journalistic objectivity, people are usually conflating two pretty much separate issues: First: whether journalists have their own opinions. Second: whether the journalist can put aside her own opinions in order to present significant news in an unbiased manner.

Well, obviously, like any other human beings, journalists have their own opinions about things. And call me naive, but I also believe most journalists don’t have a problem leaving their opinions at the door when it comes to reporting facts and events. This comes from my own experience working with journalists on a daily basis. The reporters I worked with for years had their personal opinions and thoughts on things, but ask them if they were promoting a political or cultural agenda and all of them, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, would bristle. Doubting a journalist’s dedication to facts is like doubting a clergyman’s dedication to God. It’s part of the job description. You can’t do the job without it.

Yeah, but what about Jayson Blair? What about Fox News/New York Times/The Washington Times/Insert Your Favorite Slanted Media Outlet Here? Well, Jayson Blair one messed-up puppy; no matter where he was or what he was doing, he would have imploded sooner or later. As much as the blognoscenti likes to imagine our media riddled with Blairs, the fact his pattern of dissembling was exceptional. He’s not representative of the average reporter.

As for slanted media, the question to ask is not necessarily whether the editorial drift of the media outlet goes right or left, but whether the individual reporters get their facts straight. Which is to say: On the article level — the level at which reporters work — are the facts correct? Is the piece well reported? When I lived in the Washington area, I subscribed to the Washington Times as well as the Washington Post; I’m not going to pretend the Times wasn’t blatantly conservative in its story choices, but by and large I didn’t get the feeling the reporters were Republican cogs. Like most reporters, they wanted to get the story correct.

News outlets benefit from oversight; reporters can get sloppy, and the deadline, daily nature of news and the limited availability of newshole (the total amount of space for news in the paper) means that newspapers can print the story in an incomplete fashion (any reporter who’s had several inches of a story lopped off to fit the rest of the story into a tiny newshole will tell you that). But by and large, reporters make the effort to get as much of the truth out there as they can. They all do it. That’s what being a journalist is about.

(Let me slide out here a moment and note that I’m using “journalist” specifically to mean “news reporter,” and that there are a lot of other jobs in a newsroom — critics, opinion columnists and editorial writers — whose jobs are to have opinions, and who cannot be considered reporters in any useful sense, even if they do reporting as part of their gig. When I was at the newspaper, I was one of these folks, and I would never confuse what I did with reporting. Reporting’s a way tougher gig. When they told me they wanted me to do more reporting, I wimped out and left. Point is, accusing these people of having opinions is waaaay dumb.)

I don’t think most people understand that journalists have this fetish for the truth, which is why people accuse them of bias when they have personal opinions, but also get angry with reporters who are assumed to be part of some community but might be writing up a story that’s “harmful” to that community. In both cases, people don’t get that a reporters desire to get to the truth of a story can (and should) override personal opinions and associations, because most people’s jobs don’t require that of them. It’s not driven into most people’s head every workday that it’s something they need to do.

If a reporter is doing his or her job diligently, I couldn’t care less about his or her politics, race, religion, sexual identity or taste in music — nor would I care about his or her blatherings about any and all of the above online. As that’s the case, I say let them say and do whatever the hell they want.

And now, having issued that blanket statement, let me issue the absolutely critical caveat: Whatever your beat is as a reporter (or, actually in any newsroom gig), stay away from talking about that outside of your work capacity, and for God’s sake don’t work for those you cover. When I was a film critic, if I were ever to have consulted for film companies, I should have been fired. If I’m a political reporter covering a national campaign, I can’t be working for one of the parties. Financial columnists shouldn’t invest in the companies they cover; they should stick to index funds (as, frankly, should most of us). And reporters should always disclose conflicts. This is something I think most people who’ve ever spent time in a newsroom should do reflexively. I mean, I’m not a reporter, especially here, but every time I make mention of AOL (which is not often), I automatically note I’m on their payroll. If these things are done, by and large I think everything will work out reasonably well.

Media outlets, of course, are overcautious and will prefer to have their writers withdraw from public life in all ways. When I was a film critic, I went to City Hall to support a friend of mine whose nightclub was having some problems with the city. When I spoke in support of my friend, the first thing I did was note that I was there as an individual and in no way representing either the newspaper or the company which owned the paper. Then I said my piece and left. When I got into the newspaper, my managing editor called me in and told me I shouldn’t have done that. Well, clearly, I think that’s dumb. The nightclub had nothing to do with my beat, and the owner was my friend. I think I did the right thing, and I don’t suppose I’d have a problem doing it again. I understand my editor’s issue, but he was overreactive.

If I got another full-time newspaper or magazine gig, I doubt that I’d give up the Whatever, although I would stop writing about things relating to my beat (If I got a full-fledged column I would probably stop writing the Whatever because what I do here I’d do there). But I wouldn’t stop having opinions the moment I joined a newspaper, and I don’t see much value in pretending that I did.