Sunday, March 14, 2010

Journalists are not priests, and other observations about opinions and the news


I keep having some variation of this conversation with people, mostly but not exclusively journalism people, and I thought it might be worthwhile to get my basic argument on paper. To clarify my own thinking if nothing else. I am obviously not the first person to think through this stuff, but I should say that my views seem to be at odds with much of the newspaper industry, and specifically with my own bosses. So just so you know, this is just me talking.

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I don't know what it is like at other newspapers, but editors and reporters at the newspaper where I work spend a lot of time thinking about impartiality, and making sure to keep opinion separate from news, and fretting about what reporters might be posting on Twitter or Facebook, and generally worrying about whether, at some point, newspaper people might slip up and say something that betrays the fact that they're human beings with human thoughts and feelings.

I understand this, and I don't totally disagree with it. It's very important that the newspaper, especially a small local newspaper like where I work, be seen as an honest broker. But my basic position is that journalism is not a priesthood. Isn't and shouldn't be. Newspaper writing should allow for much more space for personal observations, for independent judgment and, yes, for a certain amount of opinion.

Let's start out with a couple things that I am not advocating. I do not think local newspapers should turn into partisan media outlets, or that newspaper reporters should double as political pundits like Keith Olbermann or Rush Limbaugh. That's not what audiences want, and it's not a good goal for journalism. At it happens, I am a fan of partisan media -- TPM, Hot Air, Daily Kos, Redstate -- but they obviously have a distinct niche and are practicing a different sort of journalism than the daily newspaper is practicing. I do like English newspapers, which slant one way or the other, but that is really not it, either. That model might make sense for some of the big national newspapers -- NYT and WSJ, mainly -- but I doubt it would work for smaller papers.

What I would like, instead, is for newspaper writers to be allowed to be something more like human beings. Very often, reporters have completely interesting and insightful opinions about news stories they've covered in detail. You gather the information, you talk to the principals -- you're human, and you're going to form some sort of judgment about the topic. And in newspaper writing, readers aren't allowed access to any of that. I don't see how that serves readers or the overall cause of journalism.

Because judgments of any sort are considered verboten within the conventions of newspaper writing, what usually happens is that reporters are forced to adopt a sort of phony cluelessness about the topic they're writing about. This is typified by the much-scorned he said/she said style, which everyone seems to hate and with good reasons. Party A says the earth is warming, Party B says it isn't, who knows, whatever, the end. That's a very frustrating sort of story for readers, who are naturally seeking not only what the opposing sides are saying but also which claims are actually true. In many cases it's frustrating for reporters, too.

I'd say that a certain amount of he-said-she-saidism is inevitable, especially when you're talking about complicated topics that people disagree about. That's not a disaster. The disaster is that journalistic conventions can make it very hard to provide the reader with important context. This can be: What are the political angles here? What is the mood in the room? Which people really seem to hate each other? Who is a known self-promoter and who is a humble, behind-the-scenes kind of guy?

None of these things are impossible to provide within the accepted conventions of a news story. But they're hard, and they tend to go through a sort of institutional linguistic wringer that drains them of meaning. In a story about Joe the Plumber's visit to Wausau, I wrote flatly that he'd made some claims that were "untrue." They were. The sentence was changed by an editor to read that JtP "glosses over facts." To me that reads like he just sort of innocently left some things out. Not the same thing! By sanding the edges off the judgment made by the reporter, the newspaper also removed some of the story's bite, and I would say made it less true.

The problem of the priesthood is that there are a lot of reporters and editors who have internalized this belief system so thoroughly that they self-censor and prune their own opinions even from themselves in the pursuit of journalistic purity. Some of them are incredibly good reporters and editors! My friend Brian Reisinger, now writing for the Nashville Business Journal, is one of these who believes in trying to a achieve a kind of blank-slate approach to news. Longtime Washington Post Executive Editor Len Downie, who once spoke to my j-school class in Washington, D.C., said he didn't even read the Post's opinion page. Some reporters don't even vote. The idea is to live a sort of monastic existence free from opinion -- the better to honestly report the news.

This impulse definitely grows out of a desire to be honest and even-handed. Still, I say it is a pose. It's a vanity. Judgment is not independent of perception; it's part of perception. There is never a time when there are "pure" facts and no judgments. Facts always, always come in context. The shape of that context is what judgment is.

That is a fairly abstract formulation, so let's get concrete. What would newspaper reporting look like shorn of its pretensions to total purity and impartiality?
  • It would take a much, much looser approach to storytelling. The first and biggest change would be a lot more first-person, especially in non-hard-news stories. Sometimes the best way to describe what someone or some experience is like is to describe your own reaction to it. That doesn't mean the story is all about you or that it should be some kind of journal entry. But there are some newspaper stories that ought to be a little bit more like magazine profiles, which allow for a certain amount of participation. I'd think a lot of cultural coverage could go this way, or a lot of profiles. Some news coverage would be closer to some column-writing.
  • More ability to weigh the relative strength of various claims on the news pages. Not, like, "By the way, my name's Rob, and here's what I think about that thing I just reported." I am thinking of sentences more like, "Person A's strongest argument is _____ because _____." and "Person' B's weakest argument is _____ because _____." If readers disagree, that's fine. It's great! They can write letters, they can blog, whatever. In 2010, readers have plenty of ways to make their voices heard, and that is a good thing. So let 100 flowers bloom!
  • Understand that newspaper writing is just another literary form, like a magazine story or a short story or a blog or a tweet. The conventions of newspaper writing aren't set in stone or handed down from on high; they're just conventions. The journalism industry now knows that it needs to be reporting across many different platforms. That's not good enough. You can't just chop up news stories into 140-character intervals. You need to understand different forms and their own internal conventions, and you actually need to be able to think within those forms. That's also going to mean that sometimes different conventions spill across the forms.
  • Stop trying to be all things to all people. It's excessively defensive. All this stuff, picking at people's personal Twitter feeds or worrying about who we are befriending on Facebook, it is unnecessary. Reporters are human beings. If their stories are written in good faith, that will show up in the work and readers will respond to it. Period.
One of the things I find consistently weird is how many daily-journalism types believe that admitting any form of opinion into journalism necessarily means operating in bad faith. There are contrary examples all over the place -- in magazines, in weekly newspapers, on the Web, on the opinion page of the newspaper. But for some reason, what applies in other places can never apply -- even a little -- to the news pages of a daily. I find that a little frustrating, and actually a little arrogant -- like these pages are sacrosanct and have nothing to learn from other forms. Not true. Let's have the newspaper be a place that hosts all sorts of different pieces of writing, from straight-down-the-middle coverage to personal stories to straight-up polemics -- and let's have them be lively, interesting, diverse.

8 comments:

Dino said...

Ahh, yes. This leads me to a silent SIGH.

Anonymous said...

Rob -

Thirty years ago the op-ed columns were the place where lunatics from various fringes put aside "hard journalism" and instead flung mud around. Now those same lunatics are the most heard voices in the media. You know their names; you mentioned some of them in this article.

They are not helping people gain a clearer picture. It is not more opinions or foregone conclusions that are needed out of reporters. Rather they should try approaches that prove their affinity for facts. Sometimes these facts are not obvious, and sometimes they are overwritten by editors who care more about sales than integrity. However, facts are best illuminated by the writer who is able to use a little zen and see them as they are. You must make sure that when your story is delivered to a news reader, that reader is able to determine the context for himself, even after all the meddling by editors, public relations idiots, the opinions of other writers, and your own human ineptitude.

There are many wonderful and innovative ways to do this. Perhaps the small-town daily just isn't set up for the kind of story you want to tell?

Rob said...

I appreciate the thoughtful response, and you make a strong case. (Who are you? ... If you want to say.) I agree with most of it, and I really want to emphasize that what I am talking about is not making reporters more like bloviating pundits. That's not a reporter's role, nor should it be.

What I am talking about is making news stories read less like the voice of God and more like the perspective of a smart, informed observer who is making a good-faith effort to understand both sides.

Clumsy, content-free example. Imagine a graf like this in a news story: "The people at this meeting were really upset about this. I've heard from others who think the proposal is a great idea. But I wasn't able to find a single one of them when I talked to people after the meeting."

That's not impossible to say in newspaper-speak. But it's harder to say, and will end up clunkier and less clear.

That formulation is stylistically about half-a-step closer to a blogger's voice, which I guess is basically what I'm advocating. It's definitely NOT the same as, like, "the uninformed fools at this meeting are taking us down the path to socialism and ruin and must be stopped!"

Still, though, you make a really strong case here.

Logan said...

I couldn't agree more, man. In the journalism class I teach, I tell them that objectivity is a roadblock in many ways. It's a holdover from progressive-era reforms when being non-partisan was not only cool but necessary, and the prevailing conception of the public was one of deep involvement and attention. Neither thing is still the case. I agree that objectivity doesn't go completely out the window when you apply judgement to facts, which is in fact what we do all the time everyday: Which story should go on the front page? Which event is worth my reporter's time? Which source do I call for input on this subject? Each of these decisions clearly affects how the story turns out and how it is understood, and each of these decisions is made based on a lifetime of experience and not some sort of black-and-white uninvolvement (not actually a word, but I couldn't think of the right one) from a god-like perspective. Lastly, I appreciate your attempt to show what it would look like or be like without resorting to a sort of beattitudes full of meaningless adjectives.

Evan Nehring said...

Nice take Rob. I know we had chatted a bit about this subject a while back. I like the idea of local news reporters having more of a voice. I agree with you that this idea does not equal "bloviating pundit". And as one who feels that the main stream media is comprised largely of voices attempting to make the world more liberal, I feel you've always been fair.

I don't know the facts on the JtP visit, but if he stretched 'em, call it like it is. Part of the problem is that there are so many "referee calls" as to standards of evidence and philosophical underpinnings (eg. reporting man made global warming as settled science). That's true also with interpreting the Bible, to go along with your priesthood metaphor.

Nice job man. ...unless my approval hurts your credibility, in which case...

This is crap! Pure crap!

Pat Peckham said...

Rob,
Thoughtful comments on a topic worth considering. There ought to be reporters who can be given some leeway. Maybe there should be a mix of straight reporters and those who can offer added insights. I have often suspected that there are editors who would like to humanize stories with a little personal insight, but they want it to be their personal insight. They aren't allowed to trust themselves to allow more humanity into a story, so they're damn well not going to let you do it. Readers ought to be able to tell that a human wrote the story, not a machine.

Brian said...

One day a guy I used to work with told me reporters should be putting their opinion in their news reports. Then he wrote about it in his blog and actually gave me a major compliment in the middle of his heresy, dropping my name in the same paragraph as Len Downie. These viewpoint journalists are tricky people. But Rob is a smart, honest guy with whom I just happen to disagree strongly.

To be clear, I think Rob and I are talking about ideal versions of journalism that are different by degrees. We’re both talking about – and I am confident in saying, striving to practice – the sort of journalism that informs, challenges and empowers readers. I think opinion is something to be run through a filter as part of the reporting process, knowing that you can’t completely keep it out but believing it should be minimized. Rob thinks that since you can’t keep it out, you should let it land in your reporting in large, selected segments. Practiced correctly, both forms are valuable. Practiced poorly, my form is just not very enlightening, while Rob’s form is damaging. And let's be honest: A lot of journalism is practiced poorly.

First on the point that striving for impartial reporting is vanity: I would argue that inserting your opinion too freely is also vanity. What makes your personal take so valuable?

Now, how do we address the “he said she said” Rob outlined? By reporting with authority. Journalists should not actively insert their opinion – for no other reason than it does not fill the “truth gap” Rob is describing. They should be vetting information against all available sources and people with useful viewpoints, to make sure the best information gets in the paper. And that same process allows them to write with authority – saying, for instance, that county employees receive better compensation than private sector counterparts because you’ve compared like jobs on the basis of average salary and cost of benefits. Another, simpler example is calling U.S. Rep. Dave Obey blunt – an absolute, neutral truth. I think some of what Rob is talking about is this sort of thing. But reporters should always fill the truth gap with data, a summary of history, factual observations or well-reported assertions. Inserting opinion, by this measure, is lazy.

On the topic of the Wausau Daily Herald, I don’t think it’s a particularly perspective-averse publication, for better or for worse. It does adhere to the basic idea that reporters should try to give a fair, impartial take on the news. But as a guy who grew up on a dairy farm, I received encouragement from editor Mark Baldwin to report on the plight of dairy farmers as milk prices hit historic lows in the recession. Here lies the caveat, and a point I think Rob is missing: a reporter should not ignore his or her opinions, but rather master them. I had to be aware that I was naturally inclined to feel sympathetic to farmers, because it helped me see where I needed to challenge my reporting. In the end, I “humanized” the story by being able to describe the sites, sounds, smells and thoughts of the farming community. Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post in the Watergate days, says reporters view the news through different “prisms.” We can’t help what our viewpoints are, but we all need to understand the “prism” through which we see things, and try to allow as many types of light shine through it as possible.

Viewpoint journalism is also inferior, even if we consider which has more financial longevity. Rachel Maddow (who I actually think gathers a lot of fact for her show) and Sean Hannitty (who honestly is a mentally tough interviewer at times) can only get so far. They’re kept out of circles on the opposite side, and their allies are using them. It’s the Washington Post, the Associated Press and others that actually drive things forward. Politico, a hybrid, has the greatest impact on the discussion when it breaks news or provides weighty, objective analysis. The rest is noise.

Objective journalism isn’t perfect. But it’s closer than anything else out there.

matt.lehman said...

Rob,

As I read your original article and the comments that followed, I struggled with my own personal beliefs. In the end, I agree with the point of view that journalists should not be allowed to share or offer their opinions in a news story.

Instead, journalists should be dedicated to balancing all sides of a story in pursuit of the truth. Allowing personal observations may give readers the context that you desire, but it can also cloud the story that is being covered. While our profession is built on the foundation of reporting facts, readers and news sources may have doubts about which facts are true or the way a story is presented if they know a journalists’s particular take on an issue.

As Mr. Reisinger accurately points out, you can have very passionate opinions about a topic, like the impact of milk prices on dairy farmers, but can transform that passion and insight into finding relevant sources to contextualize and offer depth to your story.

There is a role for journalists who want to publicly take a position – in the form of an analyst or community columnist. Here I offer Jim Stingl of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Nick Coleman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune as examples.

These two men show how journalists can take a slice of the community and write a provocative story without any qualms about inserting their own viewpoint into the piece. In other words, you know going into the story that these writers have an opinion that they are willing to share and often do.

Moreover, your concern about objective reporting is not limited to just the newspaper medium. It also applies to the radio medium where I work.

As a case in point, I called into our local talk show one day shortly after I had first started in 2005 and gave my two cents worth on a controversial topic. When I arrived at work later that day, I was promptly called into my boss’ office and told that reporters don’t offer their opinions. My alternative, I was told, was to leave my news job and become a talk show host.

Will journalism evolve into something where reporters can blend their opinion into a story? Possibly. But, I think the profession is better served by those who gather and report the facts.