Journalistic Detachment

Breaking the News opens by sharing an incident from a television panel discussion from 1987. The moderator asked a wounded vet if he would have been willing to torture a prisoner in order to rescue soldiers under his command who had been captured. His answer was that although he would have to live with the consequences of his decision he would be willing to torture his captive to save his men. (Notice that this was him personally inflicting the torture, not simply ordering or signing off on the use of torture.) Other ex-military members of the panel wrestled with related questions and came to various conclusions but in every case their answers addressed the future consequences to themselves and others regarding their choices.

The moderator then asked one of two prominent journalists what he would do if he had been invited by an enemy military unit to visit the site of an atrocity committed by the military forces of his country’s allies and on their way to the site they discovered a unit of allied forces and set an ambush to kill them. His thoughtful answer was that he would probably do what he could to save the allied troops. As he gave his answer the other prominent journalist on the panel criticized him for getting involved in the story rather than just covering the news as it unfolded. Almost more sad than the fact that the two journalists saw things differently was the fact that the first journalist revised his answer to say that his human instinct to aid his allies in a moment of danger was wrong and showed personal weakness. He said, “I chickened out. . . I wish I had made another decision, I would like to have made his decision.” When the second journalist was pressed to address the impact of the position he had taken he responded by saying, “Don’t ask me! I don’t know.”

I value the role that journalists have to postpone judgement as they examine the issues they are reporting on until they are able to process all the available facts, but it is disturbing that this journalistic detachment should extend so far as to demand that the journalist stand as an idle witness to upcoming events when there is an obvious moral choice before them. Later in the book we are told of a journalist who refuses to vote in elections because it would make him biased.

This idea of a journalist acting outside the bounds of humanity in the name of “objectivity” seems to distort what journalism is. I think that attitude helps to perpetuate the myth among reporters that they can be truly without bias. Because of that belief it is all the more difficult for them to recognize their own biases. It seems to me that the logical extension of believing that you have no bias is to believe that anyone who sees an issue differently is wrong and less enlightened than you are. That seems to be a dangerous position for someone who is trying to uncover the truth of a situation or issue.

2 comments for “Journalistic Detachment

  1. January 13, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    Maybe superior, as you suggest. Or perhaps that they are uncaring sociopaths that are aloof from human passions. Or maybe that they think that different viewpoints and actions are essentially morally equivalent.

    Or perhaps in thinking themselves superhuman, they actually become inhuman.

    It should be blazingly obvious that many ‘journalists’ will do anything and twist any argument to purvey their personal bias. We would trust them more if they admitted their bias up front, since nobody can be so devoid of partiality as to be able to live up to the incredible standard to which they (pretend to) aspire.

  2. January 13, 2009 at 8:34 pm

    I try to avoid thinking that any of them are really uncaring sociopaths (although that would do it too) but I have to admit that it’s possible that some of them really believe that all viewpoints are morally equivalent.

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