Impartiality is a strange thing, especially when attempting to apply the term to human beings, as human beings by nature are opinionated, probably even biased, and we all have a philosophy through which we view the world. I mean, I can’t name anyone who doesn’t have anything to say about the things they care about and pay attention to, can you? For instance, this bottle of vodka in my freezer? I’ve come to care for it deeply. In fact, if the long line of alcoholic Russians that make up half of my family tree have anything to say about it, I was born to love it.
And so, as a self-proclaimed reporter, I know if I were to ever get a job covering a prohibition movement (although Johnny Walker-forbid that would ever happen again), I’d have to be very conscious not to let my taste for tipples creep into how I’d report the event. No longer would I be free to call those in attendance “fun-hating squares” or “Molotov cockfails.” Instead, I’d have to leave my stupid comments in my pocket and make my language as neutral as humanly possible. Unless of course, it wasn’t a beat, but a one-time thing, or if I just fessed up and called myself an editorialist. In that case, I could report this story in any number of ways with any number of angles. Think Hunter S. Thompson, Matt Taibbi or even Mike Daisey, who combines reporting and commentary into his live-theater monologues.
Yes, in my mind, which is admittedly sometimes Smirnoff-soaked, reporting and commentary can live happily ever after in the Kingdom of Editorialshire. In fact, I think journalism is often better off for it, as long as whoever’s writing it is up front about their biases and intentions. Which brings me to what inspired me to write about this very subject in the first place.
Local news outlet TBD.com’s Sarah Larimer wrote two separate articles on the White House celebrations that sprung up after the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden, and TBD published them over the course of two days. The first, published May 2, was a straight up-and-down news story. We learned who was celebrating, what was happening, when said events were going on, why it went down, and how people got to the location. Very basic stuff within the job description of a news reporter. However, the second, published May 3, was an opinion column, in which she admitted she “wasn’t too keen on the spontaneous death celebration” and called the revelers “a pack of Yosemite Sams” that she was “considering disowning” as peers.
Ouch! But her specific opinion isn’t what’s needling me. (Full disclosure: I actually really enjoyed reading her commentary and even sent her an email thanking her for what I thought — and still think — was a well-reasoned editorial that finally gave some resonance to an argument I had thus far only seen being propagated via a made-up Martin Luther King, Jr. quote on Facebook. And of course, not being one to ever hold in my own opinion, I also included a link to what I hope is an equally reasonable opinion piece about why I disagree with her.) Nor, as I already made clear, am I bothered by the fact that a reporter decided to write about her personal opinion in the first place — a concept most journalism professors see as a punishable offense with no exceptions (the punishment, of course, is sitting through a Journalism 101 class). No, for me, the problem wasn’t the what, but the how. Publishing these two articles separately seemed at least a little misleading and entirely confusing.
I read Larimer’s opinion piece before I even knew about the original article and, like I said, I liked it. And if that would’ve been the entirety of what she wrote regarding those “who came to dance on the grave of bin Laden,” I wouldn’t be typing up this essay right now. My issue arose a few hours later only after I came across the other piece of reporting — the one not marked “opinion,” but presumably “news.” I read this and thought, how was I supposed to take this piece as impartial reporting when all I could think about were Larimer’s biases against her interview subjects, you know, the ones I had just read her equate to bunch of crazed, gun-slinging cartoons? For lack of a better adjective, it just seemed weird to me. I mean, did no one at TBD notice this?
And so I asked TBD Editor Erik Wemple what his specific policy was for his reporters when it came to his staff being allowed to editorialize in their work and he told me via email, “Though there’s no written document on the subject, our guidelines are that staffers at TBD are empowered to express opinions and infuse their copy with analysis provided they have no biases or conflict of interest about the material at hand.”
That sounds fine enough. Hell, that sounds great! As a huge proponent and sometimes practitioner of first-person reporting, this is exactly the thing I would want to hear from an editor. It’s a sign of a forward-thinking policy and a good example of how to promote an almost libertarian sense of self-awareness and responsibility among reporters. The problem in my opinion though with “the Larimer situation,” which is how Wemple christened it, is that by divorcing the commentary from the reporting and not eliminating one or the other, despite that this was a one-time report and not a “beat,” TBD actually created a conflict of interest.
And while I’m sure my reading of these pieces in the opposite order than what TBD intended underlined this fishy feeling, I’m also sure I would’ve felt a similar uneasiness had I read them the other way around too, as there was absolutely no way now I could see any impartiality in her reported piece because of the biases she revealed in her commentary. It’s as if dystopian future me pretended to be an impartial reporter at a temperance league meeting in one article while telling everyone how much I enjoyed vodka tonics in another. This is an important point: If reporters are going to put their opinions out there on a certain subject, it seems they’d also have to accept the drawback (if you even look at it that way) of losing any guise of impartiality. Returning to dystopian future me’s conundrum, I think to maintain transparency then, I should probably just combine the two and go ahead and cover the meeting through beer goggles, making sure to tell my audience that. That way, by making my biases upfront rather than hiding them a few clicks away, a reader could take it or leave it without having to question where I was coming from (the bar). I see absolutely no journalistic benefit to splitting the two up in either this hypothetical scenario or in the real-life example at TBD.
I do, however, see the business benefit in publishing two separate stories by the same writer written in two separate ways on the same subject, especially in the growing world of digital media, where page views and site traffic affect the bottom line. Obviously, two stories and two SEO-searchable headlines are better than one if making money is your goal.
And so I’ll be continuing this story tomorrow.
Just kidding. The math completely falls apart when no one reads your blog in the first place so we might as well just continue.
And I want to do that by emphasizing the reasons why I decided to blog about this in the first place. It wasn’t simply because it’s been a while since I last wrote a little something critical, or “frio” rather, about TBD. It’s certainly not because I have any personal vendettas against anyone. (I say “hi” to Wemple on the street!) No, I’m blogging about this because I think it serves as a very poignant example of the general ideas of impartiality and fairness in journalism.
Although technically synonyms, I don’t think the two are necessarily related, at least not when it comes to reporting. In fact, at times, I think they’re actually adversarial, as a reporter’s biases, even if they’re not blatantly mentioned (or maybe especially if they’re not blatantly mentioned) will play a part in how a story is framed regardless. This effectively makes impartiality an impossibility because biases that aren’t outwardly mentioned may still be visible in things like paragraph order, quotations, and the use of certain positive or negative words. For example, while the phrases “war on a woman’s right to choose” and “reassessment of a woman’s ability to obtain certain gynecological procedures” might refer to the same thing, anyone who has even a middling IQ and can read will understand the connotations of these two phrases are quite different.
And so maybe Journalism 101 professors and so many others of us should stop valuing impartiality as the No. 1 quality a reporter is supposed to have and instead aspire to fairness, defined not as something achieved via the fantasy of impartial observation, but through the reality-based methods of self-awareness, relevant disclosures and honesty. That is, until we just replace all the humans with robots. (See: Watson.) Because in this digital world, as social media and news media become increasingly intertwined, the currently distinct bubbles of the reporter as a professional and the reporter as a person are going to continue to shift/morph/dry hump each other until they become almost indistinguishable. We probably shouldn’t ignore that.