A great book I just read got into the thorny issue of reporters sharing their opinions about the stories they're covering.
A Great Read
I just finished reading a book that I would highly recommend to anyone interested in journalism, US politics, or both.
It’s called Collision of Power and the author is Martin Baron, the former Executive Editor of the Washington Post. He was at the Post when the paper was bought by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos in 2013 and for the years of the Trump presidency. He was also depicted in the movie Spotlight, as he was the Editor at the Boston Globe when the paper broke the sexual assault scandal involving the Catholic church several years before.
Collision of Power is a fascinating read that takes you behind the scenes of some of the biggest stories in US politics, and details how they were covered. It also gets extensively into the way Bezos kept his hands off day-to-day editorial operations, even though Trump didn’t believe it.
There was an interesting chapter about Twitter. In the early days of Twitter, Washington Post reporters were encouraged to get an account and use it to publicize the stories they wrote for the paper. As time went on though, Marty says more and more reporters, especially younger ones, wanted to go against the Post’s policy of not offering their opinions on various stories. They thought it was important to express their thoughts on the people and the stories they covered.
Baron explained why reporters have to “remain in the audience” and not offer personal opinions because doing so hurt their credibility. He had a big fight on his hands and at times reporters had to be reprimanded for crossing the line. To the new generation, going out of your way to give your opinion on a story should be part of the job.
I would have told them the same thing Baron did.
I Don't Want Your Opinion
I found that chapter fascinating and thought provoking. Many of the Post’s reporters not only wanted to cover the story for the paper, but also tell you what they thought about it on Twitter.
I hope you can see the problem here. If a person reads the story in the paper and saw the reporter’s personal thoughts on Twitter, they couldn’t help but think the report they got was biased. I certainly would.
There’s far too much of that already in the media and perhaps that’s why a growing percentage of people on both sides of the Canada-US border don’t believe what they hear, see and read in the media. I saw a survey last fall that said over 40% of Canadians don’t trust the media. Having reporters express their opinions in social media just makes the situation worse.
Reporters need to report with total objectivity. When they don’t, they’re open to criticism and should be.
Quite frankly, I don’t care what a reporter thinks about a certain politician or a particular issue. They’re not paid to express opinions. They’re paid to report accurately.
Objectivity vs. Opinion
I follow a large number of reporters on Twitter (still can’t call it X) and really don’t see this as being a problem in Canada. I rarely see opinions expressed by reporters. Once in awhile they use Twitter to point out how bad news for a government was released late on a Friday afternoon, as an example, but normally refrain from giving us their opinions. There are exceptions of course.
I need to make two distinctions though. To begin with, I’m talking about mainstream media and not right-wing outlets like Rebel News or the Western Standard. Please don’t write telling me media outlets like this are the same as CTV or your daily newspaper, because they’re not.
There’s also a difference between news reporters and columnists or commentators. A big difference. Reporters are paid to report. Columnists and commentators are paid to give their opinions.
While I don’t see a large number of reporters expressing opinions on social media, I do see columnists and commentators doing it, but there’s nothing wrong with that. When I see David Staples of the Edmonton Journal, or Rick Bell of the Calgary Sun expressing opinions on Twitter, that’s just part of their job. They want you to read their columns and hope their work on social media will bring more eyeballs to what they wrote.
Their opinions might not make a lot of sense to you or I, but that doesn’t matter. If you don’t like what they write, don’t read them.
The problem is, many people don’t understand the difference, just like they don’t understand the role of a sports columnist or commentator. It’s not their job to be objective. It’s their job to express their opinions. When they’re critical of the home team, or one of its players, they’re just doing their job. They’re giving their opinion. That’s what they’re paid to do.
Objectivity is still fundamentally important for journalists. Facts matter. I’m glad there aren’t a lot of exceptions to that rule in traditional media in Canada. When there are, those reporters should be called out.
Image credit: Amazon.ca