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All the News That's Fit to Print
Deadlines & Diversity:
Reviewed by Renée Eaton
"We work in a craft governed more by instinct than by rules
who could argue that a review of our ethics and standards has ever
been more urgently needed than right now. Our readers and viewers
have never had more reason to question the value of the material
offered up to them in the guise of news and analysis. Especially
in the electronic media, the only frontiers being blazed these days
are of bad taste, hyperbole and, occasionally, outright fraud"
(Preface, Arthur Kent).
Deadlines and Diversity is an exclusively Canadian book
exploring the issues of journalism ethics. A collection of case
studies, first hand accounts, and essays by journalists and academics,
it is recommended reading for anyone involved with or concerned
about the news media. The editors offer "an alternative approach
which takes journalistic realities as a starting point
is a real-life context in which to examine ethics."
Accuracy, accountability and trust are held up as key journalistic
principles for journalists, yet some argue that the idea of objectivity
in news gathering and reporting ignores the fact that a journalist
engages in a forum with key players and the community while investigating
and reporting a story. There is also a strong tradition in journalism
of editorial reporting, where the journalist makes his or her own
opinions known and offers them for debate. Two essays in Deadlines
and Diversity explore the dichotomy of objective and subjective
reporting. Valerie Aria discusses the reality and value of the journalist
as both observer and participant, and Conway Jocks explores the
most subjective of journalistic forms, the editorial cartoon.
The contributors show that the ideal of objectivity is a simplification of a process that involves much more than reporting the facts. As the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci said, "Today's history is written the very moment it happens. It can be photographed, filmed, recorded It can be transmitted immediately through the press, radio, television. It can be interpreted, heatedly discussed What other profession allows you to write history at the very moment it happens and also to be its direct witness? Journalism is an extraordinary and terrible privilege." Journalism is both objective reporting of, and an active agent in, the historical process. Inherent in Fallaci's quote is that accuracy and truth telling should uphold this privilege. And that the journalist's role in history making should be acknowledged in the reporting itself.
According to Valeria Alia, "Reporting is not just about collecting
'facts' and accumulating 'sources.' It requires descriptive powers,
investigative skills and an ethnographer's attention to context.
It often involves participant observation, removing the pretence
that the researcher (or journalist) can or should stand antiseptically
Alia suggests that the journalist's role in news gathering has
striking parallels to that of an ethnographer. Rather than effacing
herself for the unattainable ideal of pure objectivity, the journalist
declares herself to be an active observer and participant in a particular
experience or culture, reporting to the public, in the words of
James Clifford, that "You are there, because I was there."
As a participant, a journalist acknowledges that it "requires
a certain humility, a willingness to learn new information and an
awareness of one's limitations." Though the journalist's credo
of uncovering 'the truth' is tantamount, as an observer, an ethnographic
approach incorporates the reality that the truth is really an arena
of multiple truths, taking "several reporters' voices to tell
the whole story. Sometimes it takes the combined voices of insiders
There is another benefit to being both an active participant and observer. Pursuing and interviewing key people and the 'hard data' involved in a news story is obviously important for accuracy. Yet, as Stevie Cameron discovered during her years as an investigative reporter, sometimes softer approaches provide information otherwise missed. By presenting a "quieter and less obtrusive" journalist's self to the world she is observing, she can establish greater trust and improved access to information. By simply "hanging around" she can learn more from "hairdressers and cooks" than the day's power brokers. Through the exploration of journalist as active participant and observer, Alia convincingly argues that the truth is better served by acknowledging the journalist's role in the social arena and presenting the many voices that make up the news or issues of the day.
"You have to be a political analyst, an artist, a caricaturist,
a humorist and a journalist - all five. The only difference between
New York Times columnists James Reston and an editorial cartoonist
is that Reston doesn't know how to draw" - Israeli cartoonist
The editorial or political cartoon, often viewed as entertainment
form, is the most subjective form of journalism. Editorial and political
cartooning challenges the journalist's traditional credo of objective
and balanced reporting. Cartoonist Conway Jocks describes his own
dilemma as a "rabid liberal" and journalist, working within
a subjective form. For Jocks the liberal approach of fair play and
the journalist's credo of objectivity are challenged when he draws
an editorial cartoon. "Closer examination made me realize that
[the liberal ideals] of absolute 'fair play' was not part of the
editorial cartoonist's rules of engagement which begin with 'A for
Ambush.' My dilemma had to be uncompromisingly resolved in favour
of the cartoonist's point of view...Editorialists operate from a
position of bias or, editorially speaking, 'righteous bias' - they
fight perceived wrongs." The editorial cartoon can fight the
good fight but at the expense of objectivity. For Jocks, there is
a freedom in this subjectivity. One of the reasons why a cartoon
is such a powerful journalistic vehicle is that the form has very
few ethical or moral restrictions applied to it.
As Jock argues, it is through the process of elimination that the
cartoonist's ethical standards are uncovered. The threat of libel
appears to be one of the most pertinent constraints. Yet, as has
been proven in the courts, politicians are considered public figures
and therefore not generally granted rights of privacy. Editorial
or political cartoonists can use the defence of "fair comment"
against any threat of libel. A cartoonist can "attack, charge,
ridicule and caricature any official or public figure with impunity
unless the cartoonist states an untruth in the process." For
Conway Jocks the ethical limits for editorial cartoonists: "lie
somewhere short of graphic depiction of murder, cruelty, pornography,
obscenity, racism or treason." The value then, with editorial
or political cartooning, comes from the cartoonist's point of view
and the freedom in how the subject matter is presented. A cartoon
makes us laugh and engages us in a debate, not only with the cartoonist,
but in the public forum as well.
In a media world where print and broadcast tabloid formats truncate the presentation of information in a way that leaves 'the news' as empty as cotton candy or as skewed as a court proceeding without all parties being present, the phrase "journalism and ethics" appears to be an oxymoron. This book reminds us that a continuing discussion about the ethics involved in investigating and reporting a news story and how the news is presented should continue to flourish.