Finding Fairness

Depending on your perspective, the “Mainstream Media” may be part of either a vast left-wing, or equally vast right-wing conspiracy.  These judgments are often based on a person’s own sense of injustice to a certain cause.  If a news outlet passes over, or offers inadequate coverage of a subject held dear, said outlet must be serving its own agenda. 

I don’t wish to defend or explain the perceived lack of neutrality of certain outlets, but in the same breath I can talk a little to what a news story should contain. 

I was honored with the first-ever “Michael Kirk Award for Outstanding Senior in Broadcast” before I left university.  Michael Kirk is a UI alum, and creator of PBS’ Frontline.  I never met Kirk, though he attended a subsequent ceremony after I’d graduated and left the Palouse.  I sent a letter to Kirk telling him a little about myself, and about how I appreciated his views on objectivity. 

Kirk spoke once about his views on reporting.  He said a reporter can never be objective because his or her biases will always influence the coverage.  In that vein, the best a reporter could strive for is fairness.

 At the time I had never heard that breakdown before, and I thought it was unique. 

But the more I look into the history of journalism I see this argument has been around for a long time.  Notably championed by Edward Murrow.  In Murrow’s time journalism was approached differently, with much of his reporting done live, with his analysis.  His reporting focused on the “small picture.”  He tried to describe a scene simply, and then apply that scene to the larger state of the world.

Later in his television investigations, he made a point to offer the other side a rebuttal.  That was his attempt at fairness.

In school I was required to read up on the tools and methods of journalism, but not until recently have I found a book that seems to “get it.”  “The Elements of Journalism” deals with everything from perceived bias, to news values, to newsroom culture.  Immediately for this entry, the book talks about the objectivity argument. 

Simply, the book makes a case that journalistic method was meant to be objective, not the journalist.  Journalism then becomes like a science, following a scientific method for truth-finding.  Fairness is subjective, and incomplete as a guiding factor in news coverage.

Along the same lines, journalists need to avoid the faults which may make a story less legit.  Things that fall under this line of thought are sources who are friends; stories in which the journalist has a history or personal affiliation with; or the always attractive for the ego-driven: becoming wrapped up in the story.

My recent story to the Williams Family Ranch, a cattle ranch that hosts Europeans, is a good example of how hard separation can be sometimes.  My wife and I were guests, staying in the ranch bunkhouse.  The family and guests seemed nice, and were friendly at every stage.  My wife and I were learning along with other guests, and we participated like everyone else.  

But we were there to observe, and tell the story, not be the story.

These things seem so simple, but it seems like putting them in practice is harder and harder for journalists.  And the only way to get better is to want to improve.  I’m not sure I see that desire, unfortunately. 

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