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The Best Disinfectant
February 20, 2012 - David Alexander
Generally speaking, I try to impose only those values onto my work that I believe are valuable to it — stick-to-itiveness, attention to detail, critical scrutiny and so forth. In other words, I don’t believe that journalists, or at least not newspaper reporters, should not be in the business of telling people what they think.
In fact, I don’t even support the popular practice of newspapers endorsing political candidates. But that is another issue. What I am driving at is that it is my observation that there is a lot of misinformation that surrounds the news industry from a variety of angles.
First, I would caution readers to be weary of attributing things to me or any other journalist. I don’t write an opinion column. The things I write are an amalgamation of ideas gathered from sources I believe this community deems credible, research and general observations. Together, I hope these items will assemble a log of information that is easily digested and informative.
I’m not the person saying these things. And it doesn’t mean that I even believe them. I try my utmost to anticipate the questions the members of this community will have and ask them of those people the general citizenry doesn’t generally have a great deal of access to. But that doesn’t always work out. I can only report the information I have. I can’t print speculation. I cannot suck water from a rock. I cannot make people tell me things they don’t want to tell me. All I can do is ask. So I ask.
I think many people have a tendency to think of the media as the bad guy — at odds with law enforcement, trying to sensationalize news at the expense of the general public, twisting people’s words. While I’m sure those people are out there, I can assure you I am not one of them. And the reason I can assure you of this is because I don’t care what you think. What I mean is, Republican, Democrat, whatever. It doesn’t matter to me. Everyone deserves a voice. It takes all kinds of people to make a community. What I am concerned with is what’s interesting. That gets my attention.
I have no interest in making anyone out to be anything other than what they are. Just like anyone, I go on my perceptions of people, of situations. Which actually brings me to my second point.
I am, first and foremost, a journalist. Perceptions, by their very nature, are subjective. This is the reason we in the news industry have stylistic and ethical standards. I always try to minimize the amount of my own ideas contained in a story. That being said, it is human nature for people to portray themselves and those they care about in the best light possible. That’s not my job.
If I wanted that job I would have gone into public relations. My job is to get as close to an objective truth as I can. When a person becomes a journalist, it is often because they love to tell stories and because they have an instinct for the truth. In the industry we call it our BS detector.
Naturally, balancing this nose for obfuscation with our desire to facilitate transparency in government, society and business is often, to say the least, arduous. So, because I am imperfect and cannot rely on my value structure and perceptions of a situation, all I have to go on is what people say. That’s the reason journalists are always writing and it is, I suspect, the reason people are leery to say anything around us. Which I can understand.
It’s our job to take what people say and dissect it, hold it up against what others say, what records say, what any number of other competing sources say. We are here to poke holes in things that don’t make sense. Nobody wants to be made to look a fool.
Never would I dupe someone into thinking they weren’t talking to a journalist. But please understand, if you are talking to me, it’s on the record. Don’t think that because you can say “this is off the record,” that means it’s off the record.
You don’t decide what goes into the paper. I do. If you tell me something, I can publish it. Don’t talk to me for 15 minutes only to tell me that you don’t want to be quoted. It’s a waste of both our times.
Not that I am in the habit of publishing things people don’t want me to publish, and if I agree that something is off the record, that’s another story. But please don’t start talking to me, dropping hot nuggets of information from your mouth like ejected machine gun shells with little more than a disclaimer. It puts me in an awkward position. I don’t know what you are going to say. What if you say something really important? Am I simply supposed to not publish it because you said so? I never agreed to that.
My duty is to my readers, not to some imagined oath that projects onto me the need to keep quiet because my source doesn’t want his or her name in the paper. The bottom line is if you don’t want people to know about something DON’T TELL A JOURNALIST! Silence may be misunderstood, but it can never be misquoted.
I for one believe, to paraphrase Justice Louis Brandeis, the solution to bad speech is more speech. Keep talking. For me, the better I know someone and where they are coming from, the easier it is to write about who they are and what they believe. As I have already said, it honestly doesn’t matter to me what you believe.
If you want to deny the Holocaust, blame the world’s ills on homosexuals or tout the virtues of Scientology, go for it. That’s your prerogative. I’m listening and will do my best to understand how you feel and give you a voice. After all, it’s not about what I think. Not in the newspaper. However, if all I have to go on is terse, sparse quotes, I have no choice but to let those quotes speak for themselves. That’s not me making you look like a jerk. That’s just you being a jerk.
If you don’t want to talk to the media, that’s your right. But please, if you have something to say, say it. That too is your right and nobody can tell you not to exercise it. That’s what we in the news industry are here for. To give you a voice and to reflect society as much as we aim to shape a better one through diversity of ideas.
I can’t count how many times in my short career I have heard people say they don’t want to comment on something they were involved in because they believed that the college administration, police department or some other Big Brother figure didn’t want them to. In that regard, it seems to me that it isn’t so much the news industry that people are afraid of as it is being reprimanded.
Say what you will about journalists, but we are about liberating ideas, not keeping them in a box. We get ideas out there in hopes of bettering humanity. We do it because, to once again quote Justice Brandeis, we believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant. _____
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