Some reporters work hard to get these same “argumentative” ideas into their stories in more subtle ways. Think of Jason Riley’s comment about “feeding information” to sources. Steven Weisman calls it making it part of the “tissue” of the story. For example, in a March 17 report on the diplomatic failures of the Bush administration, Weisman worked in the idea that the CIA was questioning the Iraq-al Qaeda connection by attributing it to European officials as one explanation for why the U.S. casus belli never took hold in the UN.
The test, though, should not be whether it is tendentious, but whether it is true.
There are those who will argue that if you start fooling around with the standard of objectivity you open the door to partisanship. But mainstream reporters by and large are not ideological warriors. They are imperfect people performing a difficult job that is crucial to society. Letting them write what they know and encouraging them to dig toward some deeper understanding of things is not biased, it is essential. Reporters should feel free, as Daniel Bice says, to “call it as we see it, but not be committed to one side or the other.” Their professional values make them, Herbert Gans argues, akin to reformers, and they should embrace that aspect of what they do, not hide it for fear of being slapped with a bias charge. And when actual bias seeps in — as it surely will — the self-policing in the newsroom must be vigorous. Witness the memo John Carroll, editor of the Los Angeles Times, wrote last month to his staff after a front-page piece on a new Texas abortion law veered left of center: “I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage.”
Journalists have more tools today than ever to help them “adjudicate factual disputes.” In 1993, before the computer-age version of “precision journalism” had taken root in the newsroom, Steve Doig helped The Miami Herald win a Pulitzer with his computer-assisted stories that traced damage done by Hurricane Andrew to shoddy home construction and failed governmental oversight of builders. “Precision journalism is arguably activist, but it helps us approach the unobtainable goal of objectivity more than traditional reporting strategies,” says Doig, who now teaches computer-assisted reporting at Arizona State University. “It allows you to measure a problem, gives you facts that are less controvertible. Without the computer power, our Hurricane Andrew stories would have essentially been finger-pointing stories, balanced with builders saying there is no way any structure could have withstood such winds.”
On April 1, Ron Martz, a reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution embedded with the Army in Iraq, delivered a “war diary” entry on National Public Radio in which he defended his battlefield decision to drop his reporter’s detachment and take a soldier’s place holding an intravenous drip bag and comforting a wounded Iraqi civilian. The “ethicists,” Martz said on NPR, tell us this is murky territory. That Martz, an accomplished reporter, should worry at all that his reputation could suffer from something like this says much about journalism’s relationship with objectivity. Martz concluded that he is a human being first and a reporter second, and was comfortable with that. Despite all our important and necessary attempts to minimize our humanity, it can’t be any other way.