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Archive for the ‘objectivity’ Category

New York Times storyI have written occasionally here about objectivity and humanity in reporting.

I call your attention today to an excellent piece on the topic by John Leland of the New York Times: Attached: When Reporting and Caring Are Intertwined.

The story inspires me to propose this ironclad rule of journalism ethics: It’s always OK for a journalist to change a light bulb for a source. (Read the piece; you’ll understand.)

Leland wrote at one point:

Once, when Fred started crying in the middle of an interview we were videotaping, I didn’t hug him, even though I wanted to. Some boundaries held.

I, too, have resisted the urge to hug when someone cried during an interview. Sometimes what the person says while crying or after the tears stop is an important part of the interview. But I did put my arm around a woman who was crying and embracing a huge portrait of her dead daughter during an interview about the girl’s suicide. At that point, the woman needed an arm on her shoulder and needed someone to steer her back to the couch, and I was the only person around.

I think I have otherwise refrained from initiating hugs with sources. But I have interviewed people about a lot of intimate topics. If a source wants to end such an interview with a hug, I join in the embrace.

Reporters get some of our best stories when we ask people to cross the boundaries they usually maintain around personal matters. That’s no time for the reporter to get fussy about boundaries.

Some of my earlier pieces on objectivity and humanity:

Humanity is more important and honest than objectivity for journalists

Journalists shouldn’t hide behind a mask

The heart: one of journalism’s best tools

Storytelling in journalism: No estoy muerta (I am not dead)

Journalism ethics don’t (always) require us to be assholes

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A tweet from a panel discussion last night reignited the running debate over whether it’s OK for journalists to express opinions:

I was tweeting a comment from Associated Press race and ethnicity writer Jesse Holland, a panelist at Diversity 2016: Race and Gender on the Campaign Trail at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.

As I expected, others reacted to Holland’s view: (more…)

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Tim McGuire coverJournalists don’t tell our own stories often enough.

I practiced the journalism of neutrality and objectivity for most of my reporting and editing career. I became aware that my humanity helped me identify with the people I interviewed and persuade them to tell me important and intimate stories. But the stories were always about someone else.

I learned when Mimi was a columnist (and wrote about our lives frequently, to the readers’ appreciation) and relearned as a blogger that journalists have our own stories to tell, and I believe we should tell them more often.

So here’s my buried lead: Tim McGuire, a longtime editor and now a journalism professor, tells a powerful personal story in his memoir, “Some People Even Take Them Home.” Tim edited a lot of big stories in his career (the Minneapolis Star Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 1990, when he was managing editor). But I doubt that he did anything more important than sharing the story of his physical disability (which he denied for years), his son’s mental disability and their “journey for acceptance.” (more…)

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Journalism isn’t narcissism, as Hamilton Nolan noted correctly in his Gawker headline. But as Nolan elaborated, I heard an old theme that I think has misguided lots of journalists. Journalism also isn’t machinery. Journalism is practiced by humans, and journalists and journalism professors who deny their humanity diminish their journalism.

Nolan found fault with a New York Times piece by Susan Shapiro, an author and journalism professor he dismissed as “teaching a gimmick: the confessional as attention-grabber.”

Shapiro encourages her feature-writing students to “shed vanity and pretension and relive an embarrassing moment that makes them look silly, fearful, fragile or naked.” Nolan counters that journalism students instead need to be taught to write other people’s stories:

Your friends, and neighbors, and community members, and people across town, and across your country, and across the world far and wide are all brimming with stories to tell. Stories of love, and war, and crime, and peril, and redemption. The average inmate at your local jail probably has a far more interesting life story than Susan Shapiro or you or I do, no matter how many of our ex-boyfriends and girlfriends we call for comment. All of the compelling stories you could ever hope to be offered are already freely available. All you have to do is to look outside of yourself, and listen, and write them down.

I believe both journalists are right. Journalists need to tell the important untold stories of their communities. Most journalism should be outward-looking. But personal insight can and often should be part of the process of listening and writing down other people’s stories. (more…)

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Death tends to bring out a tendency by journalists to exaggerate.

If you had asked NFL fans last week to list the players from the decades of the 1990s and 2000s who were “icons” or “legends,” they would have named Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Jerry Rice, Reggie White, Ray Lewis, Barry Sanders and a few others. I don’t think many would have named Junior Seau.

He was a star and a probable Hall of Famer, but I didn’t think of him as an icon or legend, and I don’t think most fans did. But his suicide made him both in the front-page headline of USA Today (I stayed in a hotel last night, so it was delivered to my door).

I should add that I would have no criticism of the use of either term by the San Diego media. He clearly was iconic there, with Dan Fouts probably one of the two greatest Charger players ever. But not nationally. It’s not a big deal, just an indication that journalism isn’t as objective as we sometimes portray it. Journalism is practiced by humans, and we react with human emotion, surprise and exaggeration sometimes. (more…)

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An email (slightly edited) from a Digital First Media journalist last week raised a couple questions I hear frequently relating to social media:

I asked an important question at a staff meeting today, and the city editor suggested I e-mail you. It has to do with tweeting and/or posting opinions.

As a reporter (I know, you like the term journo), it is ingrained in me not to reflect my opinions. Last weekend, I scanned Twitter off and on and found many news outlets tweeting about the Occupy Oakland protest going on. A TV van was damaged, a flag burned at City Hall, etc.

My first impulse was to tweet my personal gut response: that I didn’t understand protests and flag burning in my generation and I don’t now. I also wanted to tweet that once Occupy got violent, that ended the argument for me.

But I had misgivings about whether I should post any kind of opinion at all, so I refrained.

So, is there a guideline about this? I thought about asking via Twitter, but obviously that wouldn’t work. (more…)

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One of journalism’s favorite notions is that we don’t become part of the story. We are supposed to be some sort of object (you know, objective) that doesn’t feel, that stays aloof and writes from an omniscient perch above it all.

It is a lie, and we need to stop repeating it. The first principle of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is “Seek truth and report it.” Here is the truth about journalism: Journalists aren’t objects; we are people. We feel. We have families and emotions. We have moral standards. When we show up for truly personal or potentially volatile interviews or events, we become part of the story and denying that violates our obligation to tell the truth.

But the Society of Professional Journalists denied it this week, somberly cautioning journalists in Haiti: “Report the story, don’t become part of it.” As I have written before, my family became a small part of the Haiti story this month. I will address the ethics of that story shortly. But first I want to write about the underlying ethical principles. I teach ethics in journalism seminars across North America (Ottawa, Canada, and Berkeley, Calif., this month), and I know that journalists sometimes like to reduce ethics to simple do-this-don’t-do-that rules. And ethics often aren’t that simple. (more…)

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