Striking a balance between objectivity and truthWritten by Quintin Ellison
There is an interesting disconnect in how some people perceive my job and how I perceive my job. This was brought home to me recently while working on articles about efforts to revive Cullowhee.
Additionally, working on this week’s cover story about community journalism got me all fired up and excited. I remembered how much fun it was to work in Macon County as a cub reporter. Working on the cover story gave me real hope for the future of newspapers. Paper, computer screens, who cares how newspapers are published as long as we get to cover local events.
I do believe people who work for newspapers need to do a better job of (ahem) communicating. For professionally trained communicators, as a group we are simply terrible at telling our own story. We are equally bad at explaining why we do what we do and about how we put articles together. No wonder people believe there is a vast media conspiracy. In our reluctance or inability to communicate, we’ve allowed others to speak for us. And they’ve not been kind.
Here’s my attempt to take my own advice: I used the word “watchdog” in an article to describe a new group that, in my mind, is promising to do just that with Western Carolina University.
Robin Lang, the spokeswoman for the new group, said she was aware some people had reacted negatively to the word. But she did not react that way herself in conversations with me. Robin isn’t one to back down when she believes in something, and this is something she clearly feels strongly about.
As I mused on the discussions I was having with other folks, however, the answer to what was happening dawned on me. People in Cullowhee and Forest Hills are working hard to do something positive for their community. They don’t want some vagabond reporter to derail those efforts by upsetting the powers that be.
I don’t believe this is from a desire to oppress the press, but because they don’t want to alienate anybody. Particularly WCU. Though I’m not clear whom exactly they mean by that, or what they think will happen if someone there does get pissed off. It’s not like WCU can pack its bags and go setup shop someplace else. If they are worried about Chancellor John Bardo getting mad, so what if he does? He’s planning to retire next summer, anyway.
This led me to mull over how I approach newsgathering and writing. It doesn’t always match exactly with policies at the places I’ve worked, but I do try to work places that are, in the main, congenial to my viewpoint.
• I’m not covering events in an effort to influence them. I’m not devoid of opinion — journalists who say they don’t have opinions on issues are lying, to themselves and to you. Ask me what I think and I’ll probably tell you. Like a good jury, however, my inner judge demands I set my opinions aside and listen and report.
Let’s keep picking on Cullowhee revitalization for a moment. I sincerely hope efforts there work. In fact, I might even help plant flowers or something. But it’s not my job to make things work — or to dally with coverage so that it’s palatable to those in authority. If someone designated a group’s spokesperson speaks, acts and behaves like a watchdog, and I use the word watchdog in a follow-up article, well that’s how the cookie crumbles and I make no apologies. Pick a less forthright spokesperson next time if my accurate rendering is bothersome.
• I don’t use anonymous sources unless someone is in actual physical danger. The last time I relied on an anonymous source was about six years ago. I was reporting on sexual abuse in the state’s juvenile prison in Swannanoa. The boy I interviewed had been molested. He was in true physical danger if identified. Using anonymous sources in lesser cases, in my book at least, is lazy reporting. It might take longer and involve more effort, but you can generally get any story into print with identified sources. If you can’t get it on the record, that’s an indication the newspaper needs to review whether the story should be printed in the first place.
• I believe, with all my heart, in the fundamental importance of journalism. Journalists have a unique and vital role to play, particularly at the smallest newspapers. There is a tradeoff: at a mid-sized to large daily you are somewhat insulated from readers’ and newsmakers’ opinions regarding your work. The quick turnover of news — a daily newspaper simply doesn’t stay on a restaurant table for a week getting repeatedly read and scrutinized — and the very largeness of a daily newspaper’s organization makes it difficult for readers to recognize individual journalists.
That’s not the case here, or at The Franklin Press, The Sylva Herald, The Macon County News, the Crossroads Chronicle, or at any other community newspaper in the region. I can’t even slip into a grocery store in Sylva to buy bread without hearing someone’s take on that week’s edition of The Smoky Mountain News.
I won’t lie. Sometimes this gets old, particularly when I’ve had a long day dealing with uncooperative sources, or when the words won’t come no matter how hard I glare at the computer screen. Or if I’ve made a particular egregious booboo, or if I’ve been trying to get to the gym all day to work out, and I just stopped for a minute at the grocery store and now I’m cornered with my back to Annie’s Bread display hearing about it, whatever it might be, and I’m watching the time tick away knowing I’m not going to get to work out because I’ve got to get home by a certain hour.
But, and this is the truth, I am also extraordinarily glad people feel free to speak their minds or email me about coverage, and I hope this column doesn’t give the opposite impression. The comments force me to assess what I’m doing, how I’m doing it and whom I am doing it to. This might not always be comfortable, because, bottom line, sometimes I’m wrong or misguided or I’ve screwed things up, but overall it is a fine thing.
We (listen up, my newspaper friends) need in turn to pay readers the respect of being equally engaged. And to understand that being objective and uninvolved doesn’t mean standing passively by and not telling our stories in turn. If we don’t speak, others will speak for us. Chances are, we aren’t going to like what they say.