I started my DC career as a newspaper reporter, then a magazine writer, then an editor/bureau chief, and then I moved to what my poor parents, bless them, believed was truly the dark side of career options when I became a lobbyist. Like a lot of you I’ve been reading election coverage closely – political junkies do that – but I find myself not only analyzing candidates’ positions on the issues about which I care, but also how objective the reporter is or is not covering the candidates of varying stripes – ex-reporters do that.
My informal and personal analysis comparing journalism today to the “profession” I practiced is that today’s reporters and their editors generally – not all are guilty – seem to believe that when it comes to political coverage, objectivity is no longer relevant to good reporting.
I believe the needs of reader haven’t changed; most people want facts and they want them without a reporter’s personal slant. I believe the balance that is the hallmark of good reporting has given way to a phenomenon I heard one analyst describe the other day as the journalism of “my truth,” or what’s been dubbed “interpretative reporting.” I’ve cancelled newspaper subscriptions and switched radio and TV channels because I didn’t care about the reporter’s “truth” or I wasn’t given fair warning that what I was digesting was someone’s interpretation.
I’ve worked in enough newsrooms and bureaus both in print and electronic media to not fool myself that the news media is a bastion of conservatism, particularly in Washington, DC. That most journalists consider themselves liberal, however, is not the issue. I learned that at the very least what the reporter owes the reader is this: Stories should be read or watched by readers and viewers who should come away from the experience with absolutely no hint as to the reporter’s political or personal opinion of the topic at hand.
Political reporting particularly must be held distinct from political analysis. Reporting is fact sharing; analysis is putting facts in context and interpreting them so that expected outcomes and unintended consequences can be discovered. Analysis of news events to enlighten readers or viewers is a privilege not to be abused; it’s a role that should be earned through study, experience and the construction of a reputation for actually knowing what you’re talking about. Unfortunately nowadays everyone with a pen or a tape or video recorder – or who did press on Capitol Hill – believes themselves to be an analyst. That’s why most folks don’t pay a lot of attention to 20-something “analysts,” or to those for whom stories and events become way too personal.
I fell victim to this plague of ego, so let me state a few lessons as I’ve learned them when it comes to being a member of the Fourth Estate (you should “Google” that phrase): First, being blessed with a talent for stringing words together – and seeing your name in print as because some will pay you for that talent – does not make you a better person or more intelligent than anyone else, particularly your reader. Second, because only you know deep down that reporting allows you in a socially acceptable way to satisfy a curiosity about a lot of things that would ordinarily be none of your business – while cloaking yourself in “the public has a right to know” – does not make you better or smarter than your reader. Third, because you get to rub elbows at times with folks who have some kind of national reputation does not make you better or smarter than your reader, nor does being lucky and talented enough to have worked your way into the ranks of national media make you better or smarter than your reader. And, never forget: Words have consequences.
Objective reporting is not easy. Some journalists, sadly, contend it’s impossible. But if a reporter remembers one fundamental thing it’s that he/she is not paid to be an evangelist, but to report. The reporter’s job is not to enlighten the ignorant masses; it’s to present data points so a population a lot smarter than you believe can make informed decisions.
When I worked for the Minneapolis newspaper, I had a sign on the desk I shared with the night reporter that read: “Just the facts, ma’am.” I have no idea where the little plaque came from, but I fondly recall my first Minneapolis boss – an outstanding reporter/editor/executive named Beverly Keys, someone from whom I learned more about journalism in four months than I learned in four years of college — who taught me the job of the reporter is to present unvarnished truth in clear prose easily understood and difficult to misinterpret. You want to tell the world what you think, Bev said, go write editorials. Or nowadays, bang out a blog.