Journalism is more than fifty shades of gray, and it isn’t exactly sexy.
Today in class an interesting discussion sprung from Daniel L. Golden’s Pulitzer-winning series on affirmative action at U.S. universities. Golden, who largely examined the non-academic reasons white students were admitted to prestigious universities, is a graduate of one of the schools that relied heavily on legacy admissions: Harvard University. One of my classmates brought up an interesting point: Could Golden tackle this subject with the impartiality required and expected in his profession? Can a seemingly privileged, white male, Harvard-alumnus fairly report on students not far-removed from his own roots?
These aren’t new questions, but I think they are important to repeatedly revisit. The mantra “Write what you know” is drilled into literature and creative writing students. But when it comes to journalists, the concept is hyper-qualified: “write what you know, if you can but,” followed by more ‘buts’ in a room full of editors wringing their hands.
The success of the profession, I think, hinges on a balance between recognizing that complete impartiality is impossible and that a new critical approach to the work may be the best means of judging its validity.
Journalism is largely an art of self-effacement, a somewhat paradoxical balance of immersing into a story without being in the story. Banish first and second narrative voice; get the reporter the hell out. Journalism’s style and mission demands a different approach in delivering reliable information. In striving for objectivity, journalists have to question: When is it a matter of writing from a place of authority, and when is it regarded as a conflict of interest?
This isn’t always as easy as saying, “My dad’s the mayor, so I won’t be covering town hall meetings.”
I’ve always found this concerning. I understand that objectivity is the crux of my profession —and an essential virtue— but I can’t quite grasp how this is a standardized absolute. Everybody brings different experience to their work, and it is impossible to completely separate the person from the circumstances that created that person. Obviously, some biases are apparent and can and should be avoided. But grappling with these on a subconscious level would require some major self-deconstruction. Self-examination and criticism is important, but attempting to nail down every possible internal conflict in the name of creating robo-reporters is silliness. Journalists are human. (I think).
I think, to an extent, readers should approach journalism as New Critics, viewing the work and the author as separate entities. This obviously wouldn’t apply to those who outwardly express bias, whose work has to be viewed with the understanding of this background.
But within responsible media outlets, when all reasonable precautions have been taken to avoid conflicts of interest, I think the important questions are not necessarily, “who is this person writing about X,” but “what is being said about X, is it relevant, is it truthful and have important questions been answered?” From there, the reporter’s accountability is called upon.
And if a reporter can bring relevant knowledge to a beat, I think it can be a valuable asset to furthering the pursuit of information.
But again, it isn’t black and white.