In a manner of speaking, I grew up as a reporter. That is how I spent, or misspent, my youth.
I grew up hearing that reporters should be objective, but that objectivity was impossible. The wink and the nod, of course, was that you couldn’t help but be see a story through your own world view, which would inevitably taint how you presented the story. Of course, part of being an objective reporter, is never admitting to anybody, least of all yourself, that you are making subjective decisions about what to put in your story, how to weigh the value of certain facts and issues, and what turn of the phrase should be used to convey those facts.
This most subjective of exercises is referred to in the profession as the “editorial process.”
Here’s a little story to illustrate that point. Back in 1993 I was working for a California State Assemblyman named Tom Connolly. Now Mr. Connolly had once led a pretty wild life. Some of the facts of this life I knew and reported when he first ran for state Assembly in 1989. He had done cocaine excessively. What I didn’t know, and never reported myself, was that his excess included spending so much money on white powder that he couldn’t afford to pay his taxes. In no time, he ran up an $80,000 tab with the IRS (he also wasn’t paying his child support, and this was also a new fact to me, but that isn’t relevant to this vignette).
Tom decided to come clean with the voting public and admit all of his past misdeeds before the facts came out in a way that looked like he was trying to hide from his past.
One afternoon, Tom, myself and Union-Tribune political reporter Gerry Braun, sat down over chips and salsa and Tom talked. He revealed all. He held nothing back. He answered every question.
When the story came out the following Sunday, you would have thought Gerry Braun had uncovered all of this dirt on his own. The enterprising reporter.
I’m not saying he overtly claimed credit, but there wasn’t a hint in the story that Tom came through of his own volition. The story was “objective,” just not honest.
The story also contained this little gem about Tom’s back taxes: “It is a debt he won’t pay off in this century.”
Was that sentence objective? Well, if objectivity is judged by being factually accurate, it was accurate. At the rate Tom was paying off his debt, he was scheduled to even the books with the IRS in 2001 or 2002. But as any writer knows, certain words and phrases have connotation as well as denotation. The connotation of “in this century” is something far greater than eight or nine years. The reader’s mind can’t help but leap 100 years ahead.
Tom complained to Gerry Braun about this creative turn of phrase, and Gerry just laughed it off. He wasn’t bothered in the least that while factually accurate, he wasn’t being totally fair. I was appalled. Still am.
That said, I’m sure there are several sources out there, including former sources who read this blog, who could accuse me of the same sort of reportorial slight of hand.
When you’re in the business, you become inured to such subtle sins against objectivity. After all, objectivity, as we are taught, isn’t really possible.
I’ve been thinking more and more about objectivity recently, but not in the context of journalism.
Objectivity has become a big part of my life. In my hobby, baseball, I’ve been studying the theories of Bill James, which is primarily about looking at the game without emotional attachments, just hard numbers. When you look at the Game as a matter of statistics — and baseball reveals itself more through statistics than any other sport — you begin to shun myth, conventional wisdom and partisan prejudices. The game becomes about performance, not appearances.
And as a web application developer, I’ve been studying object-oriented programming, which is all about breaking down processes into key components and dealing with those components in rational, logical order. There is no subjectivity in programming. The idea is to build efficient performance and it requires thorough and disciplined analysis of a problem.
The nexus between sabrematics and OOP is that both deal with what can be seen and held — if not in the real world, at least in the mind’s eye. Neither skill can be practiced successfully without a high level of detachment.
As I delve deeper into objectivity, I am beginning to wonder if the big lie isn’t that journalists are objective when they aren’t, but that objectivity is impossible.
Objectivity may be difficult, require discipline and practice, but in news reports it might be easier to obtain than most journalists think. And what it may require is thinking more like an OOP programmer, or maybe a sabrematician.
I’m in no position to put this revelation into practice and test the theory, I just throw the idea out for others to discuss and think about.
Here’s an exercise for all of you reporters out there: The next time you sit down to write a story, instead of a traditional outline (if you outline your stories, which you should), model your story the way an OOP programmer would. Divide it into its class hierarchy. Figure out its objects, its states (how it exists) and its methods (behaviors, actions). Build your story around the objects, and make sure all states and methods are attributed. Every object should have at least one state and one method. This will help you, I think, see your story more objectively, and by including with every object a state and a method, you should ensure balance and fairness, and since the state and method rely on real, newsworthy objects, should help you keep your own states and methods out of the story. Finally, OOJ should help reporters focus just on the facts, analyze them deeply, and avoid the kind of subjective judgments that are more the product of laziness than good writing.
Here’s a book on OOP to help.
BTW: Gerry Braun is now the writing coach for the San Diego Union-Tribune. That’s probably a good place for a creative writer.