The Chronicle‘s Kyrie “MeMo” O’Connor posted some thoughts to her blog yesterday that were indicative of prevailing attitudes in legacy media — and, I would contend, in need of updating and upgrading:
Yesterday I was getting all het up about passkey journalism. I don’t know if it has a name, actually. Passkey will do. Passkey journalism is, to me, when you unfairly or excessively use your biography — who you were born as, as opposed to how well you do your job. Now, of course, using your background this can be just fine, indeed crucial, and that’s why a variety of voices is important. Special knowledge — of a language, a neighborhood, a way of life — is beautiful and essential in a complex world.
It completely irritates me, however, when it’s used as a cudgel rather than a wedge. Say it’s Chris Matthews going on and on (and on) and on and on about being raised as a Catholic, having a Catholic education, having two aunts who are nuns — get a grip! Or Tim Russert, with that vaguely creepy anecdote and nearly 20-year-old video of him and his baby son in a Todus Tuus t-shirt busting to the front of a Pope rope line. It’s Catholic Cred time!
Here is my question: If you’re showing us your home videos of the pope, how do you maintain your appearance or journalistic objectivity? There are — gasp! — problems with the Catholic Church and with this papacy just ended. Can you, as a viewer, trust these guys to report them fully?
Gawd bless them, one really suspects that professional journalists believe all of this “objective media” garbage they constantly throw out. Granted, because they insist that we should believe it, this blog and others like it attempt to hold legacy media to that standard they set for themselves, and they frequently fail to achieve it (dirty little secret: they make it easy because it’s an impossible standard they’ve set for themselves).
All journalists bring their life experiences and perspectives to the game. All the journalistic training in the world can’t (one hopes!) eliminate those life experiences and perspectives. So, in a certain sense, the journalist who’s showing his home videos of the Pope is being honest with his viewers/listeners, in the sense that he is saying “Here is who I am – Now judge my reporting on Catholicism given that information.” The consumers of the news can then figure it out for themselves (question: But do all of them WANT to empower news consumers in that fashion?).
It seems that O’Connor is not criticizing the perspective of the journalist per se, but the fact that he openly admits his background to readers/viewers. That, in my view, is not something to criticize! That’s a model to emulate. News consumers ought to be given much more information on the journalists who provide their news coverage — their unique life experiences, background, views, and the like. In that manner, we (news consumers) have some idea how those matters might shade their coverage (or not).
This notion of “objective journalism” rinsed of all perspective seems, more and more, entirely unrealistic. Even O’Connor seems to admit as much:
But I confess I sometimes, in news discussions, find myself speaking from a woman’s perspective or, just once, against stereotypes of the Irish.
Therein may lie the problem. We do speak from our experience and our perspectives. Even the most highly trained “objective” journalists can’t help but do so, because they are humans, not robots. As journalism evolves to catch up with technology (and catch back with human nature), I suspect we’re going to see more openness about perspectives and experiences of journalists, and less insistence on “objective” journalism. Right now, news consumers are beginning to turn to multiple news sources and perspectives. In the future, we’ll see even more of that, I believe, as the traditional print newspaper as “single source of news” becomes a quaint artifact of the 19th and 20th centuries. We’ll perhaps learn to trust journalists again, based on their reporting (as O’Connor wishes) but also based on what we come to know about their perspectives.
Or we won’t, if legacy media doesn’t adapt.