You may remember how New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald discovered the seedy world of teenage webcam porn, and how his investigation became personal when he encouraged the subject he was interviewing—Justin Berry—to give up his sordid life, turn State’s evidence, and kick drugs. Eichenwald has since been in the hot seat for violating traditional journalistic ethics in that he became part of the story. Some claim he lost his objectivity and tarnished his legitimacy as a reporter not a story-maker by becoming personally involved and influencing the story. Eichenwald’s response is straightforward and direct: journalism doesn’t mean “we are required to check our humanity at the door.”
So, being in the eye of the ethical storm he can, presumably, objectively report on the conditions there. He recently gave an ethics lecture at Marquette University, titled, “A Delicate Balance: Objective Journalist, Engaged Citizen.”
Apparently, at some point, Eichenwald spun a riff about the difference between blogging and journalism:
Eichenwald said that while he was involved in Berry’s case, his writing has always been objective. He began his lecture by saying that journalists should keep their thoughts and their opinions out of their published work.
“When I’m talking about the difference between facts and truth, facts and knowledge, it’s the difference between a journalist and a blogger,” Eichenwald said. “A journalist is dealing in facts. Bloggers deal in their own truths, which may or may not be based on facts.”
Okay. Eichenwald’s a bright guy. I respect him, think he’s a fine writer, and a brilliant investigator. And while opinion and commentary do not a journalist make, he’s got his head in the proverbial sand if he thinks journalism doesn’t by nature convey opinion.
Every journalist, every writer, every blogger, diarist, podcaster, speech-writer, novelist, essayist, and every five-year-old with finger-paint-stained digits brings to his or her work a point of view that is unique to that person. No matter how objective one tries to be, it is impossible to escape the subjectivity of one’s own point of view. The selection of a story, alone, betrays objectivity. When a train crashes one reporter focuses on the engineer’s safety record while another focuses on maintenance records. Both reporters may actually dig up objective facts, but the very selection of which facts pursue imply an opinion and point of view. Then there’s the relative weighting of various facts against the other, the decisions over what information to leave out, what to put back in, what to open with, bury in the middle, or close with. Which third-party quotes to use—and let’s not forget how quotes can be inadvertently or intentionally skewed by the attitude and eloquence of the interviewer.
I could recite more here, besides. But consider an example recently cited in GetReligion.org, “But she was wearing a short skirt…”
“Rahman, 40, has become the poster boy for the Christian right and for religious freedom. Closer up, however, the picture painted by the local police who arrested him shows a candidate not quite ready for family values. Rather, a portrait emerges of a deadbeat dad with psychological problems who couldn’t hold down a job, abused his daughters and parents and didn’t pay child support.”
The quote comes from Rachel Morarjee, writing for Time magazine “Abdul Rahman’s Family Values.” GetReligion writer Mollie Ziegler questions the slant of the piece, revealing how just “reporting the facts” doesn’t avoid bias, spin, and opinion:
First, what is this “poster boy for the Christian right” business? Does the Christian left not care about Rahman’s fate? Or, if it does, does it get to be camped in the religious freedom camp? Why, then, does the Christian right get its own nonreligious freedom category?
Second, for all we know, these scandalous accusations against Rahman could be true. For all we know, for that matter, Rahman could have tortured small animals, robbed dying widows and taunted disabled children. But last time I checked, Rahman was not facing a death sentence for being unemployed, etc. He was facing a death sentence for converting from Islam. Printing the allegations, which have nothing to do with the international outrage his plight has caused, is about as appropriate as printing the sexual history of a rape victim.
No one was arguing that Rahman should live because he was a good person. Instead, people were arguing that Rahman should not be killed for converting from Islam. While more information about Rahman is needed and desirable, I’m not sure statements from the police reports that led to his life-threatening situation are the best character witnesses. What’s more, the reporter never speaks with anyone who may find the police statements questionable. She also never speaks with anyone who thinks the allegations are irrelevant to the Muslim apostasy problem. It bears repeating that this issue is not going away just because the Italian government provided Rahman with sanctuary.
Let’s face reality, Kurt, and own up to the truth: News is not objective. Now, say it with me, “News is not objective.” Repeat it … once more … “News is not objective!”
Now, admittedly, that’s only my opinion. I could be wrong. But since I’m just a blogger, all I need is “my own truth.”
- Marquette Tribune:: Online Edition:: NY Times reporter discusses objectivity
- GetReligion: April 1, 2006 “But she was wearing a short skirt…”
- TIME.com: “Abdul Rahman’s Family Values”
[tags]Abdul-Rahman, bloggers, blogging, BlogRodent, commentary, ethics, GetReligion.org, journalism, Kurt-Eichenwald, Mollie-Ziegler, Time-magazine[/tags]