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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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I’ll use a shortened version of this for my Monday column in The Gazette:

Mixing the personal with the professional has always been uncomfortable territory for journalists and especially for journalists’ bosses. Voicing opinions is another touchy area.

The Wall Street Journal weighed in on both matters last week with a resounding “no” to staff members who might be tempted to do either in their use of social media.

“Business and pleasure should not be mixed on services like Twitter,” a Dow Jones email guiding staff use of social media warned. The message also admonished staff: “Sharing your personal opinions, as well as expressing partisan political views … could open us to criticism that we have biases.”

The point of both rules seems to be to hide the person you are, as though reporting were a plastic Mardi Gras mask you could hold in front of your face and fool unsuspecting readers.

I was one of several bloggers and Twitterers during the past week who criticized the guidelines on various counts. I don’t want to re-plow that ground here, but I do want to address – and debunk – the notion that journalists can or should hide our humanity.

The fact is that the Wall Street Journal (as well as The Gazette and any journalism organization) already is open to criticism about biases. Readers attribute bias to us based on their own biases and based on their understanding of the fact that journalists are human and that all humans have biases.

Of course, we should maintain neutrality about topics we cover. But, as I have written here before, humanity actually helps us be better journalists. And I believe it can help build the credibility of our reporting. I will illustrate with three stories, one from the Wall Street Journal:

In the early 1990s, I was editor of the Minot Daily News (and wrote a weekly column) and my wife, Mimi, was a columnist for News. When she first started writing a column in Shawnee, Kan., before we moved to Minot, I advised Mimi that it was better to reveal occasional personal glimpses while writing about the community, and have the readers wanting to know you better, than to write frequently about yourself and have the readers feel they were getting too much personal information.

Mimi has never felt bound by my advice and pretty much ignored this counsel. She did write frequently about the community, but also dealt with our family life and her personal interests a lot (sometimes to the mild embarrassment of the husband and sons who became characters in her stories). My editor’s column did give occasional personal glimpses, but mostly wrote about lofty issues of journalism, the community or the world.

When I was fired, the publisher also dropped Mimi’s column. My firing drew some mild criticism from readers, but they were outraged to lose Mimi’s column. Four other North Dakota newspapers, whose editors were loyal readers, quickly picked up her column. Even as a columnist, I spent too much of my time behind that Mardi Gras mask, while Mimi was making a personal connection.

I covered religion for the Des Moines Register a decade ago. In addition to writing news stories, I wrote a column about faith, frequently expressing opinions or dealing with my own faith and experiences. People I interviewed frequently asked about my own faith and I answered candidly. I later learned from other religion writers that many are reluctant to discuss their own faith with people they cover and recoil at the thought of writing anything personal or opinionated.

I also wrote a lot about religion when I was at the Omaha World-Herald, but I didn’t write a column there. I’m quite sure I was accused more often of biased coverage (sometimes by people who inferred inaccurately about my own faith or opinions) in Omaha, where no one actually knew anything about my opinions or personal perspectives, than I was in Des Moines. When people knew we held different opinions or came from different faiths, I frequently heard appreciation for my fair and unbiased coverage.

Now for the Wall Street Journal example: In 2004, Farnaz Fassihi, a reporter in the Journal’s Baghdad bureau, sent an email to friends about her life in Baghdad. “Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest,” she started. What followed was detailed, well-written and candid, describing how difficult and dangerous work and life in Baghdad were then, one of the most chaotic times of the war in Iraq.

Someone posted the email online and it became an immediate sensation. Critics of the Journal questioned how she could continue reporting on the war. But others noted that the blunt assessment gave a more accurate account of life in Baghdad than the stories she wrote behind her mask for the Journal’s news columns.

Journalists are people. We can acknowledge our humanity and still uphold the principles of accuracy, independence and fairness. Sometimes showing our humanity helps build our credibility. People stop wondering who that is behind the mask.

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The best journalism comes from the heart. And sometimes it breaks your heart.

That’s why I want to tell you about Allan Thompson’s heart-wrenching story, “The father and daughter we let down,” published today in the Toronto Star (and called to my attention on Twiter in a simple but eloquent tweet by my friend Roger Gillespie).

I have written before about the myth of journalistic objectivity. Journalists are not objects; we’re people. We write for people and we connect with those people by learning and telling stories that matter to people. The best journalism does not just fill the human mind with facts. It touches the heart. It roils your gut. It moistens your eye. It kicks you in the nuts. Objects can’t do that, only people.

Yes, we should be absolutely vigilant and stubborn about getting the facts right. And we should maintain independence from special interests. But the truth is even more important than the facts. And sometimes a human heart is one of the best tools for telling the truth.

Any summary of Thompson’s brilliant work will not do it justice. He tells how he first failed to grasp the importance and horror of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, but later became haunted by a Nick Hughes video that depicts the murders of a man and his daughter as they prayed. He tells of his quest to identify them and tell their story. I have seldom been as moved in reading a story as I was by the account of his 2007 visit to Rwanda, when he not only identified them but met with their widow and mother and — at her insistence — showed her the video.

I won’t tell you any more about Thompson’s story. You should read that yourself and watch the video. But I will tell you what his story reminded me about journalism:

  • Too often, we keep the writer out of the story, following misguided notions about detachment and objectivity. We should not insert journalists into stories where we don’t belong, but sometimes we become characters or at least personal narrators. And we should recognize that. One of the best stories I wrote in my 10 years at the Des Moines Register was not published because of editors who were squeamish about using the first person. I’m not so squeamish. That’s why The Gazette has published first-person accounts by Lyle Muller, Adam Belz and myself about our involvement in stories we were covering.
  • We can’t let tight budgets and high newsprint costs keep us from telling great stories as they should be told. I haven’t seen how much space Thompson’s story took up in The Star, but I know lots of editors would have fretted over whether to publish it at that length. I couldn’t stop reading and I’m sure many readers of The Star felt the same way. When you get a great story, space should be no object.
  • Storytelling still matters. Often we write stories when all we have are sets of facts that could be presented in a variety of ways. But when you have a great story, employ your narrative skills and tell a great story. Thompson takes us right into the home of Rosalie Uzamukunda and you feel as if you are there, feeling every raw emotion as this woman finally learns how her husband and oldest daughter were killed.
  • Don’t let obstacles become excuses (a journalism rule I have written about before). Tracking down and identifying people in a grainy video shot 13 years earlier sounds impossible. Most journalists wouldn’t have tried. Thompson persevered and found the story of a lifetime.

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