Independence in Journalism

12 Mar

“Journalists must maintain an independence from those they cover”

I’m going to start right out by saying, that there were a lot of things in this chapter of the book that I didn’t particularly agree with. Not sure if that’s allowed, as it is the textbook for this class, but I just have some different feelings on journalism I suppose.

The authors make the statement that “being impartial or neutral is not a core principle of journalism”, stating further that impartiality was never what was mean by objectivity. This statement seems a bit like a contradiction in my mind.  How are we to be objective viewers of history if we do not give the news without bias, or impartially? Objectivity, to me, is the search for truth, and truth has no room for bias.

I used the example of McCarthyism in one of my previous posts…how many use it as an example of how impartiality or objectivity can fail the public interest. The failure in the McCarthy case was with the journalists failing to find the truth. They reported the news “truthfully”, sure. I mean, what they reported was what McCarthy said, but what he was saying wasn’t true, and no one bothered to check his facts. When they finally did expose him, they used facts to take down his argument. They reported it not necessarily because they disagreed with his political views, but because it was their duty to expose corruption and be a watchdog for the government. These journalists were independent of any one political party in this report. They simply told the truth…without bias…or being partial to the left or the right.

Because I believe in this type of objectivity, I have a really hard time viewing editorialists as journalists. Here, is another place where I disagree with the authors. They assert that editorialsts are rooted in dedication to accuracy, verification, public interest and a desire to inform like all other journalists. My experience with editorials have led me to believe otherwise, and made me, admittedly, a bit of a “news snob”.  This is an examples that stands out in my mind particularly, some of you may have read it. It’s an op-ed piece from the New York Times on…of course…Mormons.

Click here to read it…but be warned, it may cause blood to shoot of your eyes. 

I dare you to find one paragraph that puts Mormons in a good light, or any statement that doesn’t have at least one falsehood in it. I was personally offended by some of the things she wrote here, but I can’t blame her for it. I realize that editorial pieces do not go through the same scrutiny as the front-page, hard-hitting stories, and I’m not saying they should be. I have nothing against columnists or editorialists. They absolutely have their place in a newspaper, and often times help sell them, but I just don’t think they should be clumped under the category of journalism.

The journalist’s job is to be objective, report the news and supply the material that provides cause for public debate. That’s where the columnists come in. They help facilitate that debate, but they do it through opinion, not objectivity. The book even says opinion “journalism” is not for reporting news, but making sense of it. Because of this, I see them as writers, but not journalists. If all articles were like op-ed pieces, it would be immensely more difficult for the public to make informed decisions. There’s a reason that the editorials and core-news stories are kept separate and independent from one another, and I think the distinction between the two is very important.

I read a book in my Politics in the Media class called “Losing the News” by Alex Smith that talks about this specifically. It’s a really good book, if you ever get the chance, but for now, here’s an article kind of summarizing what Smith talks about in regards to objectivity and core-news values.

The last point I wanted to kind of touch on is the story of Linda Greenhouse, the New York Times reporter who was just “another woman in blue jeans and a down jacket” at a pro-abortion rally. We discussed this a bit in class, and the point that was repeatedly brought up was the fact that the Times never specifically said their employees couldn’t participate in such rallies. While this may be the case, I don’t think it’s the issue here.

The problem with reporters going to rallies like the one Greenhouse attended (that is, attending as a participant and not a reporter) is that immediately, you are attaching yourself to a specific side of an issue. Perhaps it is unlikely that anyone would have recognized Greenhouse as being a reporter for the times, but again, this is not the issue. Part of it, yes, is that you don’t want your public to perceive you as having a bias if they know you attended a certain rally, but more than that, you don’t want your reporters to show a bias either.

Clearly, Greenhouse has specific opinions on abortion, and that’s fine, but by going to a rally supporting it, her views become even more dependent on the views voiced at the rallies. She is no longer independent of the issue. She’s chosen a side, and if she were ever to be called up to write a story on it, I’d say she’d be much more likely to show a bias than if she hadn’t attended the rally.

This is a fascinating article from RTDNA that talks about how NPR warned their reporters that they were not to participate in the “mock” rallies hosted by Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert last year because of their political nature. (It also has some really good counterpoints as to why perhaps they should). They stated it as a matter of “independence and perception”, and they’re absolutely right. These forums allow people to go and have their political views reinforced, to hear one version of the truth, and by participating in them, reporters can be swayed.

One part of the book I fully agree with is on page 118-119. It says,

“One might imagine that one could both report on events and be a participant in them, but the reality is that being a participant clouds all the other tasks a journalist must perform. It becomes difficult to see things from other perspectives. It becomes more difficult to win the trust of the sources and combatants on different sides. It becomes difficult, if not impossible to then persuade your audience that you put their interest ahead of those of the team that you are also working for.”

I don’t think I could have said it better myself. Participating in rallies, even as an off-duty journalists can cloud your judgement and make it more difficult to write objectively. It moves you away from where you should be as a journalists, and I think we should be cautious not to ever let that happen. We must remain independent and be perceived as honest, objective reporters rather than partisan, biased ones.

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