News Leadership 3.0

October 29, 2010

Stewart/Colbert “Sanity” rally stirs journalism objectivity paranoia

Washington, DC is bracing for the onslaught. From noon-3pm ET tomorrow (Oct. 30) huge crowds are expected to gather on the National Mall for a joint rally called by two leading TV political satirists. If you’re a Jon Stewart fan, it’s the Rally to Restore Sanity. If you’re a Stephen Colbert devotee, it’s the March to Keep Fear Alive.

Among these throngs, some journalists may lurk—especially since the 2010 Online News Association conference will still be happening in DC on that date. But depending on their personal ethics and the news organizations they work for, some journos may want to wear a paper bag on their head to preserve objectivity.

...Or so one might think, to see the ethical hand-wringing and flagellation this event has spurred in media circles…

By Amy Gahran

AOL News summed up this controversy, in a roundup by Deborah Hastings. The highlights:

NPR banned its employees from attending the Oct. 30 rally. NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller wrote in a memo: “The rationale for this policy is pretty simple. We live in an age of ‘gotcha’ journalism where people troll, looking for cracks in our credibility. We need to err on the side of protecting our journalism, our journalists, and our reputation.”

Schiller also acknowledged that NPR “did not specifically send out a similar note in advance of the [Aug. 28] Glenn Beck [Restoring Honor] rally. That is true. Conspiracy theories aside, the reason we did not send out a note before that rally, or the One Nation rally, is that they were overtly political (e.g. Sarah Palin was a main speaker at the Beck rally). In terms of Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert, that rally could be perceived as entertainment and subject to confusion.”

Washington Post employees can attend but not participate in the rally. Michael Calderone of Yahoo News published this internal memo to Post newsroom managers:

“Events, like those organized by Glenn Beck or involving Jon Stewart and Steven [sic] Colbert, are political, and therefore Post newsroom employees may not participate. By participate, we mean that Post newsroom employees cannot in any way put themselves in a position that could be construed as supporting (or opposing) that cause. That means no T-shirts, buttons, marching, chanting, etc. This guideline does not prohibit Post newsroom employees from observing—that is, watching and listening from the sidelines. The important thing is that it should be evident to anyone that you are observing, as journalists do, not participating, whether you are covering the event or not.”

...From there, journalists started fretting over the issue in many venues, including the Christian Science Monitor, the Poynter Institute, Ground Report, TIME, and more.

Perhaps the best take on this flap came from the Washington City Paper, which published its own spoof guidelines for its reporters attending the rally. Instructions included:

  1. “You may attend the rallies in a non-participatory fashion.”
  2. “However, because the rallies are comic events, you may not laugh.”
  3. “The act of not laughing, though, can be just as politically loaded as the act of laughing. Therefore, staffers are advised to politely chuckle, in a non-genuine manner, after each joke…”

I’ve long disagreed with newsroom policies and cultures (overt and implicit) which discourage or bar journalists from expressing opinions, participating as individuals in campaigns or public events, or even voting.

In the US, the entire profession of journalism is deeply rooted in the Constitutional right to free speech. Given that, is it not unethical that some news organizations actively attempt to deprive some of their employees of their rights to free speech and civic engagement—even (and especially) on their own time?

Furthermore, policies which presume that newsroom staff represent their employers 24/7 (and so their personal activities always reflect on their employer) can be considered deceptive. Such policies fail to ensure actual objectivity; instead, they foster a veneer of objectivity—a potential act of self-deception as well as a sleight-of-hand for the news audience. This I find far more troubling than whether individual journalists attending a rally may lean left or right politically.

Yesterday in a Facebook discussion thread about this controversy, longtime Seattle Post-Intelligencer environment reporter, KDMC alum, and Investigate West co-founder Robert McClure noted: “I long ago abandoned objectivity as an ideal in favor of fairness, accuracy, and impartiality. To me, objectivity is an impossible standard.” (Note: Direct excerpts from this discussion are quoted with permission.)

I called McClure for further clarification. He elaborated: “When I came up through journalism school, they taught you should try to be objective. I took that to heart. Over the years, what that really translated into in practical terms was to get all sides of the story. I saw this especially with coverage of climate change: the idea that reporters had to be ‘objective’ began to conflict with reality. Increasingly the evidence mounted on one side of that debate.

“What responsible journalists really always have done is examine facts and come to conclusions—rather than simply parroting all sides of controversy.”

McClure also cautioned: “I do think journalists should be aware of their potential biases and work doubly hard to examine the information and assertions from people whose views they agree with.”

Also in that Facebook conversation was Richard Mullins (longtime journalist, former University of Missouri journalism instructor, and current defense database analyst for Aviation Week—but speaking here strictly as an individual). He noted that when he embarked on his journalism career, “I did not sign up for a lobotomy. When will the profession realize, intellectually and practically, that journalism has an objectivity of method?”

In an interview, Mullins explained what he meant by that phrase: “In journalism, objectivity stems from how we do our reporting, how good our facts are—not who we are as people.”

Acts of journalism are (or at least, should be) a kind of research effort. “When you’re doing research, you have to be able to define and defend your methods,” said Mullins. “Your journalistic method must be definable and defensible. Someone else might pick a different method, but you should at least be able to explain and defend yours.”

Mullins, who’s been collecting perspectives and research on journalistic objectivity for many years, mentioned sociologist Gaye Tuchman’s 1972 paper, Objectivity as Strategic Ritual: An Examination of Newsmen’s Notions of Objectivity.

Said Mullins: “‘Strategic ritual’ is an academic term for CYA. It means: Don’t blame me, I just quoted my sources.”

On Saturday, undoubtedly some journalists (perhaps flouting newsroom orders) will attend the DC rally. In an age of internet-enabled cell phone cameras, simply being on the scene means running an immediate risk of going public with an act that could—and probably would—be misconstrued or even maliciously misrepresented.

However, isn’t that true for just about everything that everyone (including journalists) does in public these days?

I believe the answer lies in news organizations embracing transparency and free speech, rather than cloistering journalists.

(Note: The views expressed in this blog post are strictly my own.)

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