Originally I named this post “Journalist Self-Censorship, or Could You Please Pretend You Don’t Have An Opinion?” But I figured that was both too inflammatory and too long to tweet.
But that is essentially the problem I want to address in this post.
Before we get any further down the controversial road of objectivity vs. transparency in the media, let me explain something that I’ve always taken for granted. Journalists are critical thinkers. We are trained to evaluate information and fit it into the context of the world at large. And since journalists aren’t zombies, we are probably going to have an opinion. It’s inevitable.
However, the whole idea of objectivity now seems to be that journalists have to pretend to not have opinions. I’ve heard of some journalists who literally do not vote, EVER, because they don’t want to seem biased in any way. Opinions are only for the op-ed pages.
However, call me wrong, but that doesn’t seem possible. Journalists are not zombie robots. They are people trained to analyze information, make quick decisions, ask the tough questions and inform their public. OF COURSE they’re going to have opinions. How could they not? Not only that, but your opinions inform, even subconsciously, how you view a story, what angle you pursue, who you interview, how many column inches you beg your editor to let you use.
So wouldn’t it maybe be better to let people know what side of the spectrum you’re on and go from there?
This issue became closer to my heart and experience over the last two years when Walker took office and the protests began around the Capitol. Now that I am no longer a journalist, I can freely admit this: I participated in the UW walkouts, leaving my Media Ethics class to march for my professors, TAs and friends in the teaching profession with the full support of my professor. I took my poor little 5 megapixel camera all over State Street and the Square. I filmed rallies, I tweeted from inside the Capitol building, I took innumerable photos that ended up on Flickr. Needless to say, I did not support Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal.
Those photos, videos and opinions ended up on this blog. I didn’t write a lot about it, I was too upset and as I said in one post, “I can’t write about this with any objectivity, so I won’t.” Luckily, I got a journalism internship and a job working for a small print newspaper after graduation, even with those opinions out there for anyone to read.
I say luckily because others weren’t as the years wore on. One journalism student had their internship offer rescinded after admitting to signing the recall petition.
While I didn’t have my offers of employment rescinded, an intrepid reader who stumbled upon my blog after Googling the new reporter brought it to the attention of my editor about a month after I landed my first real journalism job . While my editor, in the spirit of fairness, told me he couldn’t require me to take down posts written before I reported in any official capacity, he did ask if I could delete them. The recall election was heating up and I’d inevitably be covering it in some way within a month or two.
After a night or two of soul-searching, I agreed. I didn’t want to compromise my integrity in a new town where no one trusted the reporter who was only 3 months out of school and I wanted people to think I could listen to them and report fairly on both sides of the aisle.
But I have to admit that I almost didn’t. This blog was inactive at that point. The way I saw it, I shouldn’t have to sacrifice having beliefs to be able to do my job. But worry about the appearance of integrity won out.
I also didn’t sign the petition to recall Walker. In this case the law came down from the main office in Madison. Signing a petition would be sacrificing integrity. We agree to keep our personal opinions to ourselves when we take on the role of being journalists.
It killed me to not be able to participate. It took all my strength to not pull over and sign when I saw someone standing at the corner with a drive by petition signing booth. I seriously considered saying screw journalistic principles and doing it anyway. But I didn’t. I’m thankful as well, considering the investigation that went down later on within Lee.
But that was a major factor when deciding whether or not to leave my journalism position two months ago. I couldn’t bear to spend my entire life pretending I didn’t have opinions.
In my media ethics classes, we spent a lot of time debating objectivity vs. transparency. Objectivity is the idea that journalists are neutral. As I’ve established, I believe that’s totally impossible. Here’s where transparency comes into play: Instead of pretending to be objective, let readers know where you’re coming from, especially on political issues.
My coverage of the recall election and petition signing was possibly some of the least “biased” coverage I gave to any story while I worked as a reporter. Why? Because I knew my own limitations and biases and did my best to keep them out of the story. I believe every journalist does the same.
As Reuters columnist Jack Shafer said after Gannett reprimanded employees for signing the petition:
“So the ethical crime in Wisconsin wasn’t having political views, which the Gannett code allows. It wasn’t expressing those views in secret. It was expressing a weakened form of them in a way that could go public. As long as you conceal your views from the ethics cops, you’re safe….At the core of the current journalistic codes is the notion that judging journalism requires us to judge the conduct of the journalists producing it. Instead of suppressing the political lives of journalists, why not allow that which is now covert to become overt and give readers more information to assess coverage?”