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Summary:

Yahoo fired its former Washington bureau chief on Wednesday for a joking comment he made during a video broadcast from the Republican convention. Isn’t it about time we admitted that journalists have emotions and opinions, rather than expecting them to be impartial robots?

Should journalists be allowed to have opinions? If so, when and where — and how — should they be allowed to express them? Such questions have been a thorn in the side of the traditional media industry almost since the web was invented, and they have become even more irksome now that Twitter and Facebook and blogs give everyone the ability to publish with the click of a button. Although it involved an open microphone rather than social media, the latest example of a journalist being fired for making an offhand comment is Yahoo’s former Washington Bureau chief David Chalian, who was dismissed for a remark he made about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But social media or not, the underlying question remains the same: why are we trying to pretend that journalists of any stripe are emotionless robots?

The Yahoo bureau chief’s comment came during the setup for a video broadcast by ABC News and Yahoo News during the Republican national convention in Tampa, Florida on Wednesday. As an audio clip of the incident posted at Newsbusters.org shows, Chalian was talking to someone on the program about the interview that was to come — which was apparently going to touch on the damage being caused by Hurricane Isaac during the convention — and the Yahoo staffer seems to be encouraging this person to describe the Romney campaign’s lack of interest by telling them:

“Feel free to say: ‘They’re not concerned at all. They are happy to have a party with black people drowning.'”

Why do we pretend journalists don’t have opinions?

As Jack Shafer of Reuters puts it in a post about Chalian’s dismissal, “Yahoo counted to one and then fired [him].” The company quickly put out a statement apologizing to the Romney campaign, saying the bureau chief’s comment was inappropriate and “doesn’t represent the views of Yahoo.” Chalian himself posted comments on Facebook and on Twitter, saying he was “profoundly sorry for making an inappropriate and thoughtless joke.” Within hours, dozens of blog posts and news articles were warning reporters about the dangers of a “hot mic,” and how their personal thoughts or opinions can get them in trouble if they are not always on guard.

New York Times media writer David Carr argued that the incident highlights how difficult it is for journalists to try and cover something like a convention for multiple platforms like the web and television, saying reporters sometimes “fall into the crevices when trying to cross from one platform to the other.” But is that really the point we should be taking away from Chalian’s dismissal? I don’t think so — and neither does Shafer, who says that the real problem is the expectation on the part of media companies that journalists like Chalian will never express an opinion, let alone joke about something important. As he describes it:

“The journalistic orthodoxy… maintains that news reporters and news editors must not have opinions, or if they do, they must not state them.”

One of the things that is so frustrating about the Chalian incident is that the former Yahoo bureau chief wasn’t even expressing his own opinion about what the Romney campaign thinks about Hurricane Isaac, or the fate of black people. As far as I can tell from the audio, he was simply making a humorous suggestion about something outrageous that a person might theoretically say about the Romneys — I would argue that there’s virtually zero chance he actually wanted his guest to make the comment he referred to.

As Shafer points out, this kind of joking around is so common in newsrooms and anywhere journalists gather (courtrooms, stakeouts, etc.) that it is second nature for many reporters, and the more outrageous the comment is, the better. In some ways, the internet and social media are like one giant “hot mic,” making the likelihood that a journalist will broadcast such witticisms almost overwhelming. And Twitter also allows those with thoughtful — but controversial — opinions to be tarred and feathered as well, as former CNN editor and producer Octavia Nasr was for a comment she made on Twitter about the death of a Hezbollah leader.

Seeing journalists as human makes journalism better

In the end, this is about more than just whether journalists should be allowed to joke or not, or even whether Chalian’s comment reflected his real opinions about the Romneys. As more of what we call journalism gets done in public, whether via Twitter or some other social tool, we are getting more of a view into the process by which journalism is created, and it is often messy and all too human (which brings to mind the quote attributed to German chancellor Otto von Bismarck: “If you enjoy the law or sausages, you should not watch either one being made.”)

As I’ve tried to argue before, in writing about the blinkered social-media policies that media outlets impose on their staff — which restrict them from ever expressing an opinion about a topic they cover, and in some cases even about topics they don’t cover — trying to squeeze the humanness out of what journalists do is a step in exactly the wrong direction. We need to encourage more transparency rather than less, because there are so many sources of information now that the old “journalist as impartial oracle” approach, or what Jay Rosen calls the “View From Nowhere,” simply no longer works (and was a fiction in any case). As Shafer puts it:

“Reporters and editors have opinions, and sometimes they’re going to express them, much to their embarrassment and to the horror of their bosses, who want to pretend that everybody on staff resembles Lady Justice blindfolded, holding a balance.”

If anything, journalists who are not afraid to show their human side can actually be more effective, and National Public Radio editor Andy Carvin was a great example of that during the uprisings in Egypt and Libya. It’s also why I think it’s better in many cases for fact-checking to be done in public. Are some journalists going to say offensive or even stupid things? Of course they are. Everyone does. So should a single remark that someone makes on Twitter, or over an open microphone, disqualify them from ever being able to practice journalism? Even a veteran newsman like Sam Donaldson doesn’t think so. Why does Yahoo?

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Steve Jurvetson and Rosaura Ochoa

  1. You should also apply that logic to anyone who makes an off-the-cuff comment and then later “gets in trouble” for it. This applies to actors, athletes, and especially comedians. Too many people and business are caving to the reactions of a few vocal groups.

  2. These things usually run only one way. This is one of the few exceptions. A conservative journalist would be fired just as fast for saying something of that nature. Either everything goes, or nothing goes. Just be consistent.

    1. So true. It is refreshing to see this happen to a liberal journalist.

  3. I will begin, by pointing out, that there are certain people, who don’t have a right to free speech. Unfortunately, if we are not careful, we won’t either. I think he brought out a good point. Our nation is very skilled at using distractions, so we forget other issues at hand. The information we receive now is only what they want us to know. That’s part of the reason they’d like to become stricter with the information given over the internet. Hopefully, this will awaken many to the fact that, the liberties we hold dear, are constantly being challenged by powers that be. You can decide who those powers are based off of the situations that arise. In this case its Yahoo. Let’s keep in mind, all have the right to express themselves, whether you agree or not, with what is expressed.

  4. Susanwnj@aol.com Friday, August 31, 2012

    I agree that everyone has and uses free speech, however, not when you are paid to report the news not your personal opinions. That why they have paid pundants!!

  5. Absolutely they should let their opinions be known.
    I want to know the names of those who are with me and those who are against me

  6. If the journalist is good at what she or he does and the organization that employs him is scared of its own shadow, then it is a case of great talent transferring to great organizations that understand this gain.

    If however a great media organization is under the shadow of fear cast by the possibility what a future political overlord may have the capacity to unfurl, then the problem is one of living in a culture of fear, rather than a culture of journalism. Then it is simply a case that we become victims of the latest dark age.

    Our grandchildren have this on record, I am sure when the light of history is shone on this, these generations to come, won’t accept this form of fear to be a part of the culture of their generation.

  7. Reporters do have opinions, the outlet for them is an op ed piece where they can say what they want and own it. They also want the best of both worlds though, to be able to have an opinion and express it and to be able to hide behind “journalistic integrity”…

  8. Jacquie Hughes Friday, August 31, 2012

    Your premise is plain wrong. Journalists on duty should not express personal opinions. It’s not about them, and when journalists become the story then the game is up. Be professional! Do the job you’re trained to do, strive for due accuracy and due Impartiality at all times and judgement – but carrying a press pass

    1. It’s possible to strive for accuracy and fairness while still having an opinion, is it not? Why do you assume those things are mutually exclusive?

      1. with all due respect, these things ARE mutually exclusive. As the thread below this says – opinion and comment are completely different from news and should be delineated as such. I have a duty as a reporter to strive to be informed, authoritative, independent, impartial and honest. What I think of a story is of no matter and has no place.

    2. I totally agree, Jacquie. The Press corps, in general, seems to think that they have a unique license to put up any old thing and count it as news. I recently caught a deeply flawed op/ed piece that the newspaper put under as a front page piece, and not listed as an op/ed, but as a news article. I called both the paper and the journalist on it and they quickly moved to have it pushed to a column article and re-list it as an op/ed. They claimed that it was a “mistake”. It’s always a mistake when you’re wrong.

      But getting back to the more general topic, I completely agree that if you are going to have a press pass and write for a NEWSpaper, that the news is separated from the front page/top-half of a website or newspaper. It used to always be that op/ed pieces were “below the fold”, so that people would not be swayed by the rantings of those who are trying to convey the point of a particular ideology. Rant all you want, but below the fold or in the columns. And if a newspaper or website, with the ability to gain a press pass and be given the rights associated with “Freedom of the Press”, goes astray…then have that press pass revoked.

      Media has caused a lot of the problems with polarization in the US, and its starting to become very problematic in Canada. Just like Joe Friday says, “Just the facts…”. That’s all a newspaper should be allowed to report.

    3. I have to agree on this one. Journalists don’t own the news space– they’re only reporting it. (BUT good title-question though.) As for impartiality, well that’s another matter for networks and viewers.

  9. A reporter can ruin a life with words. To the public in general the reporter’s opinion is and has to be irrelevant; I personally don’t care about what the reporter thinks I want to get the facts. Reporters should be held to a higher standard and reprimanded severely when they go astray.

  10. A reported and a commentator are two different things. The difference is to be respected. Thus a reporter, reports. Period. It is correct.

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