Should journalists link their work to their bios?
Posted by: Stephen Baker on January 26, 2005
Here’s the big question, cyber readers: Is BusinessWeek a magazine with a Web site? Or is it a branded business news and analysis site with a paper edition? My feeling is that BW, like most of the mainstream media, is somewhere between the two points now. And as we work to solve this changing media puzzle, we’ll have to figure out where blogs fit into the picture.
This was a big theme at last weekend’s Blogging, Journalism and Credibility conference at Harvard. I found myself sitting by the main table, listening to the debate, and wondering when and if I should jump in.
Why wouldn’t I? It comes down to the role of a reporter covering a story. Tradition says that the reporter keeps his or her mouth shut, refrains from nodding, grimacing, applauding. In short, the reporter keeps a distance in an attempt to maintain impartiality.
But the blogger world says that no one is impartial, and it urges us to jump right in. I was perplexed, distressed, yes, even a tad defensive.
Dave Winer, one of the most prominent bloggers, is all for full disclosure. He suggests that we provide readers with a link to our bio. The idea is that impartiality and objectivity are impossible, so why not level with readers about who we vote for, where we went to school, who we hang out with, etc. Then readers can adjust for our biases.
This idea rankles most mainstream journalists. It assumes that we're incapable of writing fairly about a person we don't agree with or a company we object to. Of course I'm sure you could analyse our work and detect our biases. Sometimes it doesn't take much work. But if we all embrace our biases, than the entire universe of news will turn into nothing but opinion. Is that the future we want?
I think I understand what's behind this idea. If you look at today's celebrity journalists, they're all spouting their opinions. They represent partisanship, and it's highly lucrative. But for every celebrity who is on TV or on op-ed pages issuing opinions, there are thousands of others in newsrooms who labor away under the traditional rules. They have opinions, of course. But a key part of their job description is to seek out all sides of a story, and to be fair.
What happens to this world if everyone discloses everything? If a member of your family was a victim of a horrible crime, does that disqualify you from reporting fairly on the law? If you were an alter boy and suddenly lost your faith, should you disclose this spiritual journey to readers before writing a news bulletin on the Pope? I think it's better--though far from perfect--for journalists to keep these personal stories to themselves, and for diligent editors to ferret out bias--and readers to call us on it.