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Newspaper journalists must always work from neutral ground

November 03, 2003|by LINDA DUFFIELD

"The only thing I ever saw that came close to Objective Journalism was a closed-circuit TV setup that watched shoplifters in the General Store at Woody Creek, Colorado."

- gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson




Judging by the criticism leveled at the media, Hunter Thompson wasn't alone in thinking objectivity in journalism is a myth.

That doesn't change the fact that when you work on a newspaper as a reporter or an editor, it is important to work hard to maintain objectivity. That means stories should be fair and balanced and different opinions and points of view included. Personal feelings must be kept out of print.

Most of the time, that's not too tough. We tend not to have vested interests or ulterior motives that would lead to slanting the stories we cover or edit.

We don't usually know the players in crime stories and have only a fleeting familiarity with subjects of feature stories. We have learned from experience, or should have, to keep our distance from politicians, business executives and the movers and shakers in the communities we cover.

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Keeping a distance can be a little trickier for reporters on beats because, by nature of their jobs, they see the people they cover at meetings, conduct phone interviews with them, or run in and out of their offices when they need information or a quote.

That's where professionalism comes in.

Good reporters know how to maintain working relationships with their sources without compromising their own integrity or their objectivity. They know they must be vigilant against bias that could creep into their stories simply because of their familiarity, favorable or not, with those they cover.

It's easier for the editors who work on reporters' stories, place them on pages and write the headlines that accompany the stories. Those editors tend to have little or no first-hand knowledge of the players in the stories they handle, so there's not much chance of subconscious bias for or against a public official or anyone else in a story coming into play on the job.

That said, let's be honest here.

Reporters and editors live in the communities the newspaper covers. We pay taxes and utility bills, shop, send our children to school, own houses in areas subject to zoning changes. We shop, donate to charities and vote in local, state and national elections.

Of course we have opinions.

It's what we do about those opinions that matters.

Newspeople are, or should be, trained to stifle their feelings and opinions and to concentrate on the job at hand. With experience, maintaining a professional detachment is, for many of us, easier than those who don't do this for a living might think.

That detachment not only helps maintain objectivity, but is what makes it possible for newspeople to handle the tough stories, to do the painful interviews, and to incur wrath and still sleep at night.

In cases in which one of us is dealing with a subject that hits too close to home, then the reporter or editor in question is expected to disclose that information and ask to be pulled from the story. That doesn't happen often, but it does happen.

And that's good because it helps ensure personal opinions stay on the opinion pages, where they belong.




Linda Duffield is managing editor at The Morning Herald. She can be contacted at 301-733-5131, ext. 7591, or by e-mail at lindad@herald-mail.com.

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