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Why can’t we just admit that journalists are human?

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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 (s yhoo) 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 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

42 Responses to “Why can’t we just admit that journalists are human?”

  1. As a journalist and a sociologist, I\’m inclined to draw on best practice from the latter discipline and note that no posiion is truly \’neutral\’. If journalists voice their opinions they are, in effect, outlining their biases. Readers/viewers can then filter accordingly to get a clearer critical perspective on the facts.

  2. Splat McDuck

    Journalism is a mental discipline of nonattachment: The prime directive is “What do we know and Is it accurate?”

    The news job requires that attitude.

    With experience it gets easier, a sober eyeball on what anyone says to get elected.

    Editorial writers, columnists, reviewers, j-bloggers mix reporting with opinion and label that work. Chalian should have been booted to a pundit slot.

  3. Imagine a world where the police are allowed to interpret the law or your rights in their own way, subject to their opinions, however they see fit.

    Imagine if the forward reconnaissance troops in a war were allowed to give their opinion as to the threat level of a force they’ve spotted; “They look like idiots, I don’t see a threat here”, or even worse, “[those enemy civilians] are gathering en force [because the target is a shopping mall, and they’re all teens]. This is going to be a threat, bring in artillery.”

    Reporting is SUPPOSED to be objective conveyance of information, allowing the reader to build their own opinions. When a journalist injects his/her own opinion, they have a motive, pro or con.

    If you are a journalist and you have a motive, you’re called a lobbyist. You’re lobbying your readers over to your side, against the other side. In my opinion, you no longer have the right to journalistic free speech when you inject motive.

    This is why I don’t read the NYTimes any more. They have lost all journalistic integrity and their bias and motives are SO pronounced that their product is simply a means of killing trees, and not worth wiping ones bottom on.

  4. It’s called Professionalism. Journalists are Voices that impact a wide audience in profound and powerful ways. With the flip of a word of phrase you can portray a man as a villain or a saint. The journalist in question was at work, reporting live to the entire county on an event that could mark a shift in National power. If he can’t keep his game-face on for that, then frankly I wouldn’t want him representing my company either. Save the jokes for the kiddie table.

  5. The Yahoo journalist made an inane comment, whether it happened to be taped or not. It was insulting to Romney, and it was tacky to refer to possible flood victims, collectively, as drowning black people.

    I don’t think Yahoo should have fired the reporter for a single incident of this sort. That seems excessive (although we don’t know if there were others). I don’t think journalists should make comments like that while doing work in the field, even if un-taped and unrecorded. Share opinions with family or friends outside of work, or with co-workers in a non-public setting.

  6. jjfanning

    Sorry but trying to frame this argument in the simplistic framework used here just doesn’t wash.
    Working journalists have never had the right to print or say what they want. They are and always will be guided by the monetary, editorial and political sentiments of their publisher.

    You want to express your opinion? Then write a book or blog away on the internet. But if you want to work for me or other publishers, then remain mindful of the fact that I will spike what I don’t like and if I spike your work too often, you’re out the door.

    If a cop or a politician uttered a slur while off duty we in the press would go after them. We hold such people to a higher standard. I hold the journalists that work for me to a higher standard as well. You want to represent my publishing company or the books I produce then by God you keep your opinions to yourself until or unless I ask for them.

    You want to pretend that journalism or journalists don’t operate in the real world and should be free to express themselves without accepting the consequences, then go publish your work in La La Land.

  7. Mark Herman Simon

    Mathew, besides funny animations we are also the largest news media company in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Our subject of coverage China punches back harder than most, and so our guys walk a tight line. So while I am sorry the guy lost his job, the fact that there is an argument this should be blown off makes me wonder how soft American journalism has become.

    If you want to be John Stewart be it, but the belief that comic relief is part of journalism is fine with me, but be prepared to be treated like a comic.

    By the standard of a comic he should keep his job, as comics can call people racists and get a laugh. But Yahoo didn’t pay him for comedy. He damaged the company and the credibility of his team with the right, which if your Yahoo is about 50% of your audience. Who gets to do that to their employer and keep his job?

  8. BlogWorld Expo

    He was fired because he was working for a traditional media company and bound by their traditional media standards.

    Traditional media believes the public is too stupid to discern the true story if we know what a journalist’s personal opinions are.

    When in fact the opposite is true. Journalists should be required to share their personal opinions on any given story they cover so news consumers can make their own judgement about the veracity of their reporting.

    • Mr. BlogWorld Expo: Oh my, I must be among that “stupid public” to which you refer. I DO find it more difficult to discern truth when events are filtered through a journalist’s personal bias. “News consumers” (readers, maybe?) should NOT need to make a decision about the veracity of every news story read! That is just ludicrous. Everything is NOT subjective. There are facts, and there are opinions. It IS possible for reporters to keep them separate.

      I read a news story, almost an investigative report, earlier this week, in a magazine similar to Mother Jones. The topic was a cultural sensitivity and religious diversity advisory distributed to U.S. servicemen on active duty in Afghanistan and thereabouts. Based on prior op-ed’s and other posts, I knew that the journalist who wrote the article was rather anti-war, liberal, leftward inclined. But he was VERY careful to avoid any subjectivity in his article. It read formally, thus a little awkwardly, but that was fine by me. I think the journalist is awesome because he resisted the temptation to indulge in any sort of irony or sarcasm. There’s more than enough of THAT on the internet. Calm, factual narratives are much more rare, and valuable.

  9. The larger context here is that 90%+ of the unprofessional hacks who call themselves “journalists” are working directly for Team Obama, and yet their business model depends upon lying about it. So when one of the hacks outs himself, they must fire him to keep up with the charade (before he is hired again by another MSM / DNC outfit within about 10 minutes.)

  10. Familclub Invitation

    What IF? The KISS principle =

    Journalists should just write about journals and leave the editing to Editors so there is no confusion with a good read written by an Author who is the only one who has the Authority to write whatever they want!

  11. Am I the only person wondering why Yahoo apologized to Romney and and not the people affected by the hurricane? Making fun of politicians isn’t offensive, its par for the course with the current levels of disillusionment. Making fun of people suffering at the hands of a natural disaster is never okay. Unless your a comedian then your just tasteless.

    Guess I’m never using yahoo again. Oh wait I already don’t.

    • will:
      So, you think that it was inappropriate for Yahoo to apologize to Romney. You think that Yahoo should have apologized to the people affected by the hurricane, and because Yahoo didn’t, you will never use Yahoo’s (free) services again.

      Tell me please: HOW exactly was Yahoo supposed to apologize to the people affected by the hurricane? Which people are you referring to, the “poor black people drowning”? Yes, that was a crummy phrase, and crummy comment for the Yahoo reporter to make. (I do think that the author of this article is correct though; the reporter was being sarcastic, joking, slightly bitterly, but not telling anyone to compromise integrity).

      I don’t particularly like to read about politicians being ridiculed, not once they are major party presidential candidate nominees. That’s what an op-ed is for. It puts things in a proper context. Yahoo doesn’t need to do any additional apologizing (or firing) at this point however.

  12. StephenJohn Menendez

    Wow very one sided article.. I noticed that all views and quotes in it were from liberal, main-stream media organizations.. It really just comes across as liberal reporters protecting their own, and nothing more.

    Not a single comment from somoene at Fox News.
    Not a single comment from someone at publications like “The Weekly standard” or “National Review.”
    Something tells me they would have a different opinion of what happened, so please forgive me if take this entire article for what it is, liberal reporters covering for their own.

  13. I was my understanding that we should be striving to have an independent, neutral fourth estate, a news and journalism sector of the society that does NOT cater to special interests or favor some hidden agenda. Reality dictates that we all have some bias and prejudice, but the goal for news media should be to simply present facts, as untainted as possible. A glaring example that makes me cringe every election cycle are all the major newspapers endorsing one candidate over another, a clear case of pushing one’s personal opinion instead of distributing actual ‘news’. Articles like this are hollow arguments to justify the sad state of our current news media.

  14. 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.

  15. Jacquie Hughes

    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

      • Jacquie Hughes

        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.

    • 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.

  16. Joe Schmo

    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”…

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. dComments

    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.