Journalists’ Responsibility Is To The Truth, Not The Cops
I have a lot of admiration for BuzzMachine who expresses better than most the changes underway in blogging and journalism, but sometimes I get depressed about how the blogosphere views journalists, and, frankly, how little they understand their profession. This would be fine, but the success of blogs (a good thing) sometimes engenders what feels like a moral superiority over journalists. That lack of humility is out of place in such a new, and fast-changing medium.
Take this post, for example, that calls on journalists to behave more like citizens and report criminal activities to the police, like NYT reporter Kurt Eichenwald turned in child porn web sites because it is the law. Jeff’s take:
I think the reporter who does not follow Eichenwald’s lead is in a riskier position: of allowing and thus even abetting crimes to be committed. And what does that tell the public about our role in our communities? What kind of citizens are we then?
As I understand it, Jeff is suggesting a journalist should report to the police if he or she believes a crime has been committed. He says that the only counterargument to this is that “sources – especially if those sources are the ones performing the criminal act – will not trust reporters and reveal information that should be revealed if they believe those reporters will not protect them and will hand them over to the authorities.”
This call gets the usual smattering of anti-MSM comments in agreement. But at least one commenter, Charles Arthur, editor of the technology supplement of The Guardian, sees the obvious hole in this one: “Sometimes journalists have to do things that involve talking to people who break the law in order to show society what it’s like. That doesn’t mean standing idly by while someone breaks into a store. But if the only way you can get to talk to someone about something is by promising that you won’t betray their trust, that can be the price of freeing up the information that person holds.”
But that’s not all. Journalists are not designed to operate as citizens, and it’s unreasonable to suggest that being a reporter means being a bad citizen. The problem with the suggestion is that it concerns itself with clearcut cases: It may seem irresponsible not to report a paedophile ring, but should I then report every case of apparent corruption I come across? Every spammer I interview? Every indication of corporate fraud I come across on my stock reporting beat?
The bigger point is that journalists are in a place to report, and occupy a place somewhere alongside the Red Cross in terms of neutrality. This may sound pompous if you’re not in a war zone, but if you are, that’s exactly where you’d like others to consider you. This is why press and their vehicles are clearly marked. You want both sides to consider you as an impartial observer; your life may depend on it. This is a core tenet of journalism, and is something bloggers should be embracing, not trying to dismantle. (In many countries if a journalist was seen to be cooperating so closely with law enforcement, their lives would be in danger.)
Furthermore, what law? If a journalist is considered by government and law enforcement agencies as a model citizen who shops every law breaker she/he comes across in his/her line of work, does that mean even controversial laws that the journalist is writing about? So interview a bunch of human rights illegally blocking a military runway, and you’ll have to turn them after the interview is over?
The bottom line is that we expect our journalists to go out there and talk to all the people we can’t talk to, because we’re here, we don’t have the access, we don’t have the background, we don’t have the time, and then distill their knowledge and, where applicable moral judgements, in a way that makes sense to us. Their eyes and ears are ours not because we want to hear what laws have been broken, but because we want to understand the essential truth of the situation. A family living on benefits in a tenement: We don’t want the journalist to report potential abuses of the benefit system to the police, we want to know why the family is having problems, and, hopefully what may be done to solve the problem.
Journalism is rarely to do with the law. It’s about much more than that. If we suddenly expect our journalists to be model citizens, whatever they are, we can only blame ourselves if they come back with a much smaller part of the story.