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We Are What We Pretend to Be

October 14th, 2009 · 5 Comments

I’d flagged this Techdirt post by Mike Masnick to say something about but never quite got around to it. It’s part of a broader critique of journalistic norms of—or pretensions to—objectivity that’s been currently lately, for many good reasons.  But I’ll at least say a word for the idea of maintaining some neutrality rules at news organizations—in this case discouraging reporters from broadcasting partisan views on social media.  Mike points out that, of course, journalists are going to have political opinions—given that they often live and breathe the stuff, they probably have quite a few more than the average person.  So does it make sense to insist that they pretend they don’t?  Well, maybe.

Consider by analogy: Why didn’t I let the telecom guys expense the tab if we met for lunch or a beer to talk about whatever policy agenda they were pushing at the time?  Even as a penurious journalist, it’s not because the 20 bucks was going to buy more favorable coverage, or even really for the sake of “appearances”—who but the bartender would ever know? Ultimately it’s because there’s a symbolic value—for them, but more importantly for the reporter—in tiny persistent reminders that however genial you may find them, you don’t work for your sources. You are not all just buddies, happily indifferent to who’s got this round: You’re a reporter, and they’re people you report on. And so it is with opinions.  In the privacy of the voting booth, or over dinner with your friends, or just in solitary moments of reflection, of course you’re going to have a view about which policy is best and who’s a noble public servant and who’s a venal shitheel. But if your job is to do straight news reporting—partly to avoid coloring the perception of folks you’ve got to talk to when you’re doing that job, but mostly just as a reminder to yourself—I think there’s something to be said for hewing to a rule that says you leave those opinions at the door when you’re addressing a wide audience. It doesn’t mean you’re really rid of them, or that they won’t seep into coverage in ways you’re not even conscious of; total objectivity is both a chimera and a strawman.  But it is a kind of mental discipline I can see benefit in.  Certainly I haven’t ever exercised quite that much discipline myself—it was never really appropriate to the kind of reporting I did, which always had room for injecting your view, if you were clear about the distinction between your analysis and the facts. But for the guy on the national desk at the Times or the Post? Well, yeah, it might be.

Tags: Journalism & the Media



5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 squirrel // Oct 16, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    “…so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” – Vonnegut, FTW

    One of my favorite proverbs from one of my favorite books. Bravo.

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