By David Poulson
Many reporters of my generation went into journalism because of the Watergate scandal.
Holding public officials accountable – public service journalism – was the attraction then. So, too, were Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the president’s men, the movie version of that story.
Me? I was more of a Lou Grant kind of guy. Ed Asner isn’t as pretty as Redford nor as cool as Hoffman. But the crusty fictional city editor he played on the television show couldn’t be beat for advancing the nobler aspects of the profession.
And it wasn’t just Lou. Pit bull reporter Joe Rossi on that show was such a hard-nosed journalist that he refused to belong to any organization for fear it would compromise the perception of his objectivity.
Heck, Rossi wouldn’t even vote for that reason.
I wasn’t nearly that pure when I was a full time professional reporter. I voted.
But I refused to sign petitions, sport political bumper stickers or put campaign signs in my yard. I still do.
What prompts this observation is the editor’s note that I put at the end of today’s feature on Great Lakes Echo: Great Lakes Echo Editor David Poulson is a member of an advisory board for Michigan Sea Grant.
The story includes a perspective from an official at Michigan Sea Grant. And while I’ve never had anything to do with formulating that perspective, I figured it best to disclose that relationship rather than risk someone charging that Echo has a bias in reporting the issue.
Rossi would have said that wasn’t enough – and that if I wanted to edit a story involving that organization, I needed to quit even that advisory role – which amounts to attending one meeting a year.
But things are never that simple. For one thing, the journalism produced by Echo is just a part of my greater role at Michigan State University. Membership on this board is an important service relevant to that broader role.
And times change.
Nowadays, Rossi’s view of objectivity is thought by many journalists and others as overly purist, impossibly difficult and perhaps counter productive. Part of that stems from the proliferation of people who now view themselves as journalists – people who very much have a point of view and aim to advance it. Part of it stems from a recognition that a journalist can – maybe should – have a life other than journalism, a life that informs their reporting.
And a good chunk of it is recognition that quitting organizations is no guarantee of ideological purity. The idea is that we all have biases, and about the best any journalist can be expected to do is to strive to manage them.
Part of managing them is disclosing when they might be perceived as a problem.
Transparency is the new objectivity. That’s a journalism aphorism nowadays.
Still, I carefully weighed writing that disclosure. One concern is that it may cause readers to perceive a bias that wouldn’t have occurred to them. Several people I discussed this with thought that I may be overthinking things. I wonder if I’m sparking an unfounded concern that might not otherwise occur to a reader.
Ultimately I figured that you can never go wrong by disclosing too much.
But during this information revolution where journalism is undergoing profound transformation, redefinition and evolution, I wonder, “What would Lou do?”
Perhaps newsroom ethics should not be anchored in a long ago television show. But questions of objectivity, bias, transparency are relevant to the journalism of any era.
David Poulson is the editor of Great Lakes Echo and the associate director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism A version of this column appeared on GreatLakesEcho.org