Editor's Note: Cracks Are Forming in the Foundation of Responsible Reporting

Oct 1, 2010

Dana Heupel
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
In recent years, the distinct lines that once marked the boundaries for impartial journalism have become blurred by television news commentators, radio hosts and Internet bloggers who practice advocacy under the guise of objectivity.

Indeed, there is a school of thought that objective reporting is obsolete. That trying to maintain impartiality — which everyone agrees is impossible in the absolute sense — ultimately leads to “a view from nowhere.” That journalists have morphed into politically correct observers of public discourse, not participants in the discussion who are seeking solutions to problems. That in their zeal to disclose the shortcomings of both ends of the political spectrum, reporters have become self-righteous, antagonistic and most of all, untrustworthy. Why not just disclose your innate biases, the argument goes, and let readers, viewers and listeners decide whether you speak the truth?

That theory has played out most visibly on the practical stage of cable TV news coverage. Fox News, which many argue comes at viewers from the right, and MSNBC, which approaches from the left, regularly kick the ratings slats out from under CNN, which purportedly aims to be impartial. Viewers are voting with their remote controls, and it seems they want their news with a point of view.

It’s no great secret that journalism is in upheaval, but much of the recent discussion has centered on which platform it will present itself: ink on paper; airwaves; or bits, bytes and pixels. Less apparent are the cracks forming in its very foundation, the questions about what constitutes responsible reporting.

I am enthralled by the future platforms for news and open-minded about the direction to go. But I am unabashedly old school when it comes to the main thrust of journalism. I was steeped in objectivity in my college journalism program, which also stressed such ideals as ethics and civic responsibility. The discussion about whether true objectivity is attainable bores me — like lawyers and doctors and educators, you do your best to ignore your biases and rely on your training. During 35 years as a newspaper reporter and editor and my nearly three years at Illinois Issues, I have tried to follow that path. What I wrote, edited and presented was — to the best of my ability — accurate, balanced and, yes, objective.

That road hasn’t always been smooth. A politician once tried to slip me a $20 bill to “do a good story” about him. I started looking for a new job after a newspaper executive and the subject of news story I wrote recast it to make it more favorable toward the subject. My fortunes declined noticeably at another publication when I refused to promote in the news pages a civic project that a company director — and even I — thought was worthwhile. Another newspaper executive sneered that I was “naïve” when I argued that a news story needed more response from a politician he was out to destroy. On separate occasions, I was offered free vision-correction surgery and a free hair transplant to promote specialists who performed those procedures. A glance at my photograph can tell you how those offers played out.

If that sounds sanctimonious, I apologize. I know that journalistic arrogance is partly to blame for the predicament that my craft is in. And over the years, I’ve taken peculiar pleasure in stomping on the sand castles of self-righteous fools. But anyone who’s been in this business as long as I have can tell similar stories.

Obviously, in writing this monthly column, I do think there is a place for opinion and commentary, clearly identifiable as such and separate from “straight news” coverage. But I still believe that objectivity and accuracy remain at the heart of what we call journalism.

It worries me, then, when readers, listeners and viewers migrate into self-contained camps, believing only the “news” that reinforces their pre-established opinions and seemingly ignoring impartial reporting that adheres to “just the facts, ma’am.” And it illustrates how far trust in mainstream objective reporting has fallen when polls reveal that significant numbers continue to assert, for instance, that President Obama is a foreign-born Muslim or that the Bush administration orchestrated the 9/11 attacks to promote a neocon political agenda in the Mideast.

The blame for those kinds of poll results doesn’t rest entirely with opinionated news commentators, such as Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh on the right and Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow and others on the left. The problem is created by the silos that many news consumers have built around themselves, where they obtain their information from a limited number of sources. Everyone would be better informed if we took the time to scan the broad spectrum of news reports — from MSNBC to Fox, from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal, from The Nation to The New Republic— with a thorough understanding of the perspective that each provides. Only then can the words of another specter from my journalism school days, 17th century poet John Milton, play out to their fullest extent: “Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

I hope Illinois Issues falls somewhere in that mix of news sources for readers who care about public policy in our state. And I assure you that we will continue to stay the course when it comes to impartiality, despite any other storms gathering on the journalistic horizon. You’ll find occasional analysis and commentary in this and other regular columns and our online blog, as well as in occasional feature articles we label as essays. But the bulk of our magazine and website will reflect our best attempt to present the issues to you completely, accurately and objectively.

 

Everyone would be better informed if we took the time to scan the broad spectrum of news reports — from MSNBC to Fox, from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal, from The Nation to The New Republic — with a thorough understanding of the perspective that each provides.

Illinois Issues, October 2010