A good editor will keep a story above board
A NATIONAL Journal columnist has suggested that newspapers, TV, radio and magazines should tell us much more about their journalists -- where they got their training, any political or group affiliations and certainly any political contributions they make.
That proposal seems to have been born out of an MSNBC story that 143 journalists contributed to presidential candidates from 2005 to the present. And that 125 gave to Democrats while just 16 gave to Republicans. Two gave to both parties. Only one Hawaii person was on the list, a copy desk editor with the Advertiser who gave to a Democrat.
I've been both a trench worker and a manager in journalism, and I have an opinion on the proposal: Forget about it.
It's certainly true in my experience that journalists run heavily on the liberal side of most issues. That's not surprising because so many go into the profession to stand up for the powerless and take a few whacks at the privileged.
But I've seen very few cases of a journalist intentionally injecting personal bias into a story. Most good ones I know often bend over too far to get away from their personal inclinations. The few bad apples have been people with great college degrees and big-time experience.
I've had people tell me how much they appreciate my wife's fairness as a TV journalist. Some even wink and say, "I know she sympathizes with our side." I happen to know she doesn't. That's pretty damn good journalism!
THE MATTER of political contributions admittedly is a bit sticky. I don't think you can ask a journalist not to have a home life and a citizen's rights. But I agree it would be embarrassing to have someone such as my wife, who often covers politics, listed as a contributor to one side. She doesn't contribute and neither do I. We both also gave up our membership in the Sierra Club many years ago because we felt it was inconsistent with her reporting on the organization and me sometimes writing about environmental issues.
Would I fire someone for contributing to a political party or belonging to an organization of controversy in the news? No. I'd ask my people to disclose to me their affiliations and probably limit what they cover where a conflict might be inferred by an outsider.
Listing a journalist's academic background and previous employment isn't even worth discussing. There have been and are great journalists with no college background, or who might not have worked for more than one agency. Who cares? Well, the editor does and he or she must be the judge of the journalist's work. Period.
I'm no fan, either, of second-guessing by citizen media councils, those community advisory boards, or an editor who feels the need to publicly explain every week why he or she did or did not allow a story and what agony he or she went through while processing the story. Gathering and presenting news isn't a community-collaborative thing.
ONE THING I am tough on is ethical behavior -- and I don't mean sneaking around and gathering information someone's trying to hide. I mean conflicts of interest, improper gift acceptance, lying and making up things.
I read that a Chicago TV reporter was fired after being videotaped in a bikini and swimming at a house party thrown by a man whose wife mysteriously disappeared. She was covering the story of the husband as a suspect. There with pad and pencil -- OK. In a bikini -- goodbye.
The public will judge journalism by the consistent quality of the reporting and opinions they see in newspapers and on TV. I doubt many are asking, "I wonder where that reporter went to school?" or "How many papers do you suppose that editor worked for before he came here?"
A journalist's background should be something an editor checks out before he makes a hire. There might be a hire with very little background because the editor has a feeling that a person has promise. Performance will be the test. Some low-background people work out swell and some stars fail.
If the reader or viewer ever feels a journalist is not doing the job right or is biased, there are two obvious ways to complain: letters to the editor and the phone that rings on the editor's desk.
Bob Jones has been a reporter at four newspapers, a network foreign correspondent, a local TV reporter and news director. He writes a column for MidWeek.