Journalism, Objectivity and Professionalism

I’ve been paying very close attention to the recent furor over NPR‘s firing of Juan Williams for recent comments he made on Fox News Channel.
I’m not even going to bother passing along my thoughts on this matter. There are plenty of places for you to hear/read people’s opinions. (In the interest of full disclosure, from 1993 through 2009, I worked or freelanced for NPR member stations with the exception of about a 16-month period. I’m writing this blog post as I sip my Saturday morning coffee out of an NPR mug that I received for a pledge drive donation.)
I learned journalism under some old school professors. Seriously — these were people who learned and were practicing the craft in the 1960s and 1970s. Objectivity was a major component of my training. A friend of mine, who came through the same journalism program many years before I did, remarked once that student journalists had our opinions “beaten out of us.”
As I matured as a professional, though, and as I progressed through graduate studies, I spent more and more time thinking about the idea of objectivity. I came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t focus on objectivity as a journalist. I’d focus instead on professionalism.
My belief is that none of us is truly objective. A journalist should ask questions such as “why did I choose this source over that one? this angle over the other one? this story instead of another one?” This can go on and on. We’re all influenced by conscious and subconscious decisions, value systems, and experiences.
By focusing on professionalism, though, a journalist can mitigate these circumstances. As a journalist, I can admit to my own biases and actively control them. I can give subjects a fair shake, even if my own personal values clash with theirs, because it’s not my job to judge. It’s my job to share their experiences and thoughts, thereby — hopefully — expanding the understanding of an issue. This creates journalism that is a credit to the craft.
And this is where opinion comes back into my argument. Journalists have to be very, very careful with their opinions. I see this as important for two reasons.
First, your opinions will be attached to your employer. In nearby Amarillo recently, a local television journalist was fired for what she wrote on her personal blog. I vehemently disagree with what she wrote, and I support her employer’s decision to fire her. This event created a lot of discussion in my classes. One of my main points was this: as humans, we rarely go the route of “That Mr. or Ms. X sure is terrible.” Instead, we tend to react this way: “Those [insert media operation] people are terrible!” We don’t focus on the individual; we focus on the organization for which the individual works. That creates a perception problem for everyone who works there.
Second, as a journalist, I want my body of work to speak loudest. As a professional (and an academic), I strive to be fair, informative, and complete. Alabama Public Radio‘s listeners heard my work for many years. In fact, longtime listeners were “witnesses” to my early evolutions as a journalist. It would be a great compliment if they could say “Yeah, I saw him on the Friday night roundtable. I disagree with his particular point, but I know his work. He’s fair.”
The concern, though, is that others who are not familiar with my work will make an immediate assumption about my professional practices and conclude that I’m biased in how I present information. I don’t want that. That reflects poorly on me and, of course, my employer.
Personally, this is still an evolving issue for me. Now that I’m a hybrid — a full-time journalism faculty member, a newspaper adviser, and a journalist who just happens to be out of a full-time newsroom at the moment — the circumstances dictate that I have to give serious consideration to the matter of how, when or whether to express my own opinions on particular topics.
I still have a lot more thinking to do on this.
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