Professional Journalism

5 Mar

“World views are…a means of protection from confusion, an ability to focus on what we think is important…and a way of defining what we see…But a world view is not a bias, and it’s not a prejudice.”

As is very clear from my two previous posts, I am a firm believer in the ability of journalists to be objective in their reporting. I not only think we have the ability to be objective, but the obligation to be. A lot of what is discussed in chapters 2 and 3 of “The Mind of a Journalist” has to do with objectivity and professionalism.

The book describes what they term as a worldview. Basically, it means that all journalists come into the field with their own views of the world, their own political preferences, and their own values. Clearly, not all journalists are going to think exactly the same way. I don’t think objectivity calls for a journalists to put aside their values at all.  If I do, however, think it requires a journalist to be open-minded about the issue and do everything within their power to present both sides of a story.

Sometimes we may go into a story with the goal of being objective, and with full intent of being open-minded. We may find that the story has two sides, but one side has their facts wrong. Objectivity does not mean that we must present both sides as both sides see it, and just leave the viewer to decide which is wrong or which is right.

People who believe objectivity is an unrealistic goal, often use the example of of McCarthyism and how the media tended to just report what McCarthy said without contesting it. They see this as a failure of objectivity. I would contend that it was a failure of journalists to apply objectivity–that because stories were not assigned to investigate the inconsistencies in McCarthy’s accusations, that objectivity was never put into practice. It could be that the journalists let their own fear of communism get in the way of what should have been real reporting. It wasn’t until Edward Murrow finally exposed the truth that objectivity was restored to the media. If we know the truth in a story, the objective thing would be to present that truth as fact, like Murrow did.

Here’s a clip from Good Night, and Good Luck–one of my all-time favorite movies. This is Edward Murrow exposing the truth about McCarthy and kind of explaining how the whole country has been so scared of communism, that even the media has been afraid to expose the truth.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Objectivity is not unattainable. Yes, we all have our own worldviews, but any failure to be objective is not because it is an unreachable goal, but rather that we have not reached high enough to attain it. 

I think as journalists, we should recognize how we feel about certain issues, and embrace that knowledge of our preconceptions as we go into covering a story. If we take the time before hand to acknowledge any biases we may have before we go to cover a story, I think we can avoid our biases bleeding into the story. That may seem counter-intuitive, but stay with me. If objectivity is our goal, and we recognize that we have a bias, wouldn’t we be more likely to make sure the other side gets their say into our story? We may not agree with what the other side has to say, but our job is not make judgments on a story. Our job is merely to tell it. I know that some don’t agree with me, but I would argue that the majority of journalists believe in objectivity, and believe in telling the story as it is, rather than what we think it should be.

Here’s a lovely example of a so called “professional” at CNN who seems to not have the same goal of objectivity…

Obama at APEC–Question on Waterboarding

I just love that, first of all, the reporter clearly does not think his question is loaded, nor does he seem to care that it’s one-sided. The reporter gives the president the option of basically calling the GOP candidates stupid, right wing nut jobs, or reckless. Even the president, who clearly disagrees with the Candidates views, feels uncomfortable with the question as is evident on his face. Now, this reporter’s worldview is definitely opposed to water boarding, and that is fantastic for him that he has taken a stance on the issue.  HOWEVER, as a journalist, he should know that this kind of question is irresponsible and unprofessional. He put the president in an uncomfortable situation, and he lost credibility by publicly taking a side on the issue, and therefore CNN lost credibility because they hired him. We all have biases, but I’m sure you can all agree with me when I say, that this blatant lack of objectivity could have easily been avoided by a simple rephrasing of the question.

I think in order to be objective, we do have to distance ourselves from the stories a bit, but not so much that we become un-relatable to our audience. I think it’s important that we veer away from stereotypes of being cold, unfeeling human beings, but we should distance ourselves enough from the stories that our emotions don’t cloud our judgement on how to present the story. The reporter in the video has a strong emotional response to water boarding, and I think he let that affect the way he reported the story.

I’ve argued in my last few posts that we have an obligation to the citizens as journalists and to always put their interest first in covering the story. I think there is another obligation that I failed to mention in my last post, but was brought up in class, and that is our obligation to humanity.  We may be journalists, but we are also human. If someone is dying, and we are in a position to save them, I think our duty to be a decent human being supersedes our obligation as an observer, perhaps the only time it should ever be superseded. I found a clip of Anderson Cooper in Haiti that some of you may have seen before. (I know, Anderson Cooper, again. Not intended, I promise.) It’s pretty graphic, but it touched me. Anderson goes in and pulls this little boy out of a looting area where he had been hit in the head with a cement slab. Anderson may have put himself into the story in the situation, but I think the fact that he saved a child’s life is more important than his violation of the journalistic code.

Some may say that objectivity is a thing of the past, something that is unreachable and unrealistic. Those people can continue practicing journalism like the guy on CNN if they wish, but as for me and my house…we will continue to strive for objectivity and professionalism in all our practices.


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