Re-examinations Of Objectivity & Distance In Journalism

For the Agora report, I interviewed several journalists in the Pacific-Northwest. One topic of discussion was how they are re-examining some of their approaches to and philosophies about the practice of journalism. One of these re-examinations is the role of objectivity and distance in journalism.

The idea that journalists need to be detached from their community—lest it in influence their reporting—is beginning to change.

One journalist who discussed his evolving stance on this issue is Lou Brancaccio, editor emeritus of the Vancouver Columbian. Vancouver Columbian. He explains, “I used to believe that people in the newsroom should keep their distance from the community.”

Brancaccio’s rationale, which was by no means unique, stemmed from a recognition that it might be difficult (or perceived to be di cult) to criticize people and organizations you are close to. Similarly, journalists may also be open to criticism that positive coverage and analysis is the product of close personal and professional relationships, rather than journalistic objectivity.  He says:

I gradually figured out that I had a life to live as well and that I just had to make sure that I uphold my principles and that my credibility was still the most important thing to me. And, you know, Mayor Leavitt of Vancouver is a friend a mine, but I’ve beaten him up plenty of times when I thought he’d done stupid stuff. It’s just the way it is.

Some other journalists and outlets have, historically, been more relaxed about these types of relationships. John Costa, president and publisher of the Bend Bulletin (Oregon) noted how “the founder of this paper, near the end of his life, gave the stock to his children, but he gave the rest of his estate to the Oregon Community Foundation in his name.”

This act imbued the spirit of the paper, whereby many people—on both the editorial and business side of the newspaper—are actively involved in their local community.

The numbers of people in this building who are out doing something that is without any compensation, that is aimed at making it a better society, is staggering,” Costa says.

According to Costa, staff at the Bulletin are involved in everything from health programs for unwed mothers to court assistance initiatives, fundraising for good causes, and organizations like Rotary, the Bend Chamber of Commerce, and Little League teams.

I spent an awful lot of time and energy on the original committee that started the construction [and] that brought OSU Cascades [Oregon State University’s Bend campus] here…. My wife was on symphony boards…. We’re all part of organizations that really get out there and try and do things,” Costa says.

This is an extract from a new report on the evolution of local journalism in the Pacific Northwest, published by the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon. 

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