We have civil rights - not only to protect us from bad people, but to protect us from good people as well, from people who think they know what's good for us. Tyrants have always acted in the best interest of their people, or so they thought.
From Derek Sivers’s notes on Management of the Absurd by Richard Farson
Got real journalism?
Besides being excruciatingly accurate, real journalism is balanced and unbiased.
As a former reporter for my university student newspaper, and a believer in citizenship, I utterly believe in ethical news reporting. Call it “real journalism.” Maybe ethics are vanishing along with newsprint, but still, I think we all need to know what was once expected. You might associate reporters with crowded coastal cities, like in the Hollywood movies, but newspaper journalists are working all over this fair land. I live on the Great Plains in Alberta, a province of beautiful crops and fields of contented cows.
Imagine Southeastern Alberta, near the badlands and the old coal mines. Two small towns each have libraries. Go to either library on the weekend, and it’s queer: If one’s closed, the other is open. Turns out they share the same library staff, who alternate. It’s a conservative land: All the librarians are female. You might expect the ladies would think alike. After all, it’s a rural land, in the Bible belt, with harsh winters that confine people together. And of course, librarians who share a livelihood probably share similar values. So then, which books do they stock: Leftist or rightist? Advocating communism or fascism? Abortion: For or against?
One might think the old birds who sew quilts together, and flock together, would think together. Maybe they do. But you wouldn’t know it by their books. Take your the scales of justice to their shelves, grab their books, and put them in the pans: In equal balance would be books leftist and rightist, books for and against abortion. That’s what being a trusted librarian means, according to a friend getting a college librarian diploma. A banker once wrote that democracy is not served merely when a communist and then a fascist can each book an evening at a community hall to spout their views: It’s when the same citizens can attend both nights, to weigh and balance their arguments.
Ethical journalists, like librarians, are in a position of trust. A “balanced” news story is where the reporter takes the time and effort to track down people representing “both sides” of a story, and then letting the readers decide for themselves. (In some countries they believe the readers can’t be trusted, meaning they believe their country has no place for democracy)
I remember reporting on stage plays. Afterwards, in the lobby, eager theatre goers, who knew I was a reporter, would ask, “What do you think of the play?” Having taken my notes in a removed, objective way, my honest answer, and it’s a cliche, was to reply, “I won’t know until I go home and write my review.” In a way journalists must sacrifice themselves, like a sports referee, or a judge at the county fair, by standing back from the contagious excitement that everyone else gets to enjoy.
It’s nice to belong to the herd, but — If a lady is reporting on a potential new river dam that everyone is excited about, then she can’t join in. Balance means finding the cranky old farmer who says, “Everyone is so excited over building a new irrigation dam for crops, but my daddy warned me: The land can become salty, salt leached, I mean, and unfit for agriculture.” What a downer of a quote, when everyone is excited, but it must be included. Then building the dam will be from an informed choice.
As for news with balance, consider the context: Not just news among an informed citizenry, but news within a democracy, where the people feel a sense of safety and freedom to speak and reason. Statistically, there is a link between a strong GDP (gross domestic product) and freedom of thought. Maybe freedom is not an effect of a strong economy, but a cause. Maybe, by having our reporters keeping society accountable, we have more decisions, business and political, being made not by corruption but by merit. Everybody wins.
We are so lucky, on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. I knew a boy killed in action in Afghanistan. Knew his parents, stayed at their ranch. Right now those countries with terrorism are the same ones that lack freedom of speech and press, lack civil liberties, and are the same ones where people have violence and intolerance towards each other. And corruption. The extremists think they are doing the right thing by not allowing freedom of thought, but too often it’s all too easy to put extremism above democracy, too easy to be actually serving the rulers when you think you are serving God. (No, I won’t make links to support that last sentence—for Allah’s sake, we at war on terror! There should be oodles of links you can find! If not… then a boy I knew was too good for you)
“Ethical journalism” is not a matter of degree, but an absolute. I believe such ethics are not solely of today’s time and place, nor specifically European, nor “decadent western,” nor “western plus Japan,” nor— never mind. Ethics, like the U.N.’s Universal Human Rights, exist already, in potential, for each country in the world. And in fact, there is excellent journalism coming out of the Arab world—what Arabs might call the Muslim world—called Al-Jazerah. They don’t make newspapers; they use modern electronic media. Ironically, the home base, the patron of Al-Jazeerah, is Qatar, the country that some other Arab countries are right now ganging up on. I would hope that ganging up is just coincidence, and not for the purpose of suppressing the best news outfit in the middle east. (link to Al-Jzerah)
Ethics. My young friend was a reservist with token pay, in a country (Canada) that does not have conscription, and needless to say, he surely did not die for a “job,” but for a cause. If journalists are being murdered in Russia and Latin America, it is NOT because, for a job, they are putting food on their table by reporting on dull, safe things, but because they are bravely reporting on risky things. To them, real journalism is worth it.
On this continent we have learned how to be safe in our everyday lives, after first learning “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” Here I expect ethical journalists, including “Al-Jazeera in America,” (before it shut down) to make an effort to be accurate, balanced and unbiased. The least I can do, in return, is to humbly accept my role: “A citizen’s duty is to be informed.”
Afterthought: I have to stop writing now, because I am at over 1,000 words for writing about “balance.” I have no time to explain how a journalist, clever like a fox, can produce news that is “unbiased,” just as we did at my university newspaper. That is a subject for another day.