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The Role of the Reporter: partial transcript

April 7th, 2004 · No Comments

Last Monday, March 29, I attended The Role of the Reporter: Journalistic Ethics, Objectivity, Accuracy and Fairness.

This Bainbridge Island Humanities Inquiry Event was in the same series as The Impact of New Technology on the News Media .

Sponsors included the Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council and the Principia Club of the Olympic Peninsula. Co-presented by the Washington News Council. Funded in part by Humanities Washington.

Panel members:

Brad Knickerbocker, senior staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor(CSM)

Larry Johnson, foreign desk editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer(P-I)

Philip Dawdy, staff writer for the Seattle Weekly

Rick Jackson, instructor of journalism at Seattle Pacific University (SPU) and PhD candidate in Communications at the University of Washington.

Moderator: John Hamer, Executive Director, Washington News Council

Note: I apologize for the length of time it has taken me to post these notes since the session. Part of the delay is due to technical difficulties, including the fact that the room did not have any outlets. So after my 35 minutes of battery life, I had to switch to scribbling on paper. This delay cost me some time, accuracy and efficiency in posting. I will write here only the words I am sure were spoken.

This post contains a partial transcript of the session.
My next post will be more concise with analysis and selected quotes.

The evening began with each panelist giving a brief introduction:

Philip Dawdy (Seattle Weekly): … my job as a reporter is to figure out where there is some tension in the universe and find the truth and find the truth within a context…obfuscation all over the place – one of the challenges is getting good hard information…data where data doesn’t exist…you’d be shocked at how government agencies don’t want us to know doo doo …and then there’s the Seattle Police Dept but that’s another story…

…really the only job satisfaction you’re going to get in this field is hitting something big that makes a difference [to people] and getting things changed…

…ultimately that’s the big joy when you find something that’s wrong..and it changes as a result of what you’ve done…when it does happen it’s mighty sweet…

Brad Knickerbocker (CSMonitor): Bill Moyers [quote]– there’s nothing better than journalism to turn life into a continual course in adult education…

Life and the world are just so interesting and I get to scan over the top of it and meet fascinating people of all levels of society and character…go to fascinating places over the years and try to make some sense of it…
being very eclectic and promiscuous in what I can learn…is also the major burden of journalism..

Michael Kelly quote – every day journalists go out into a world of confusion and chaos…obliged to present the passing confusion in order…

a less eloquent [definition of] reporter is to explain things you don’t understand..you go from day to day and cover different things…

…I need to be in love with lanugage and literature and you have to be basically nosy – the two requirements to be a journalist…

the most important quality a reporter has to have is humility. you’re trying to explain what can’t be explained…you need to be humble about that.

Larry Johnson (Seattle P-I): I really love my job as foreign desk editor. I get paid to read 200 stories a day. They actually pay me to read. For that honor, I feel that the reporter should be the watchdog for the public. If the public is not aware of it then the reporter is failing them. My greatest satisfaction is when you do a story that makes a difference…that’s underreported or not reported at all in this country and there are a lot of them out there. I’m most dissatisfied with shrinking newspapers…it looks pretty gloomy…sometimes on any given day I might get 8 stories in the paper and a column of briefs – how are you going to inform the public when that’s all you get…I don’t see a solution in sight right now.

Rick Jackson (SPU-academia): I still remain a reader. I approach newspapers passionately…my appreciation for all that these three and others do. to bear witness in the world to what’s going on, to show us the things that are hidden and out of sight – to find the people who are overlooked, outside the circles of power, the full range of human experience…show us, not just tell us, what going on in the lives of the people, both in institutions and individual people…I never cease to be moved when I read the morning paper….but I still walk away amazed at how much I do learn and how hard people work to provide that….if this group in the room is representative of society as a whole, most of you don’t believe what we’re saying…most of you don’t believe [journalists]…we’re at a time when the disconnect between the public and journalists is enormously acute…

that disconnect both breaks my heart and leaves me asking is there an opportunity for journalists to connect to the public in new ways…

Moderator John Hamer (WA News Cncl) read a poll:

Report on Public Attitudes towards newspapers: Pew Center for the People and the Press

Public attitudes about the press have been declining for years
72 to 49%
those who think moral 54 to 39%
immoral 13 to 36%
try to cover up mistakes 13 to 67%
news organizations get the facts 55 to 35%
politically biases from 45 to 59 %

15 years ago most people saw journalists as moral, professional, help:
How do you explain the decline in respect for your profession?

Philip Dawdy (Seattle Weekly): …there’s been a lot of growth at papers known as an alternative weekly … they’ve become increasingly popular – our circulation has gone up 5 to 6 % in the past year…

Moderator John Hamer (WA News Cncl): …alternative and ethnic newspapers are the only ones growing in circulation nationwide…

Brad Knickerbocker (CSMonitor): …context of what’s been happening in politics and society at large…growing skepticism moving into cynicism whether it’s politics and politicians, religion and scandals involving Jim and Tammy Bakker…you can just go across the board and see a simliar sense of scandal…

Larry Johnson (Seattle P-I): The news has become an entertainment business…rightfully so, the public looks on us with skepticism…

Rick Jackson (SPU-academia): There’s a loss of proportion…the war in Iraq and Laci Peterson the same…you lose all sense of perspective…journalists have done a poor job explaining to the public how their business works…

[I had to leave the session for a few minutes]

Topic turned to scandals in journalism

Larry Johnson (Seattle P-I): …we’ve had this problem for as long as there’s been journalists…easier to catch these stories due to the Internet….

Brad Knickerbocker (CSMonitor): I don’t think it’s necessarily gotten any worse. Internet is both a blessing and a curse…allow for much easier investigation…ability to follow up.

Philip Dawdy (Seattle Weekly): [shared personal “2-degrees” of separation story between him and Jayson Blair and then went on to discuss what plagiarism he had seen]

We had two cases within two months of kids from college lifting stuff off of bands’ web sites…something weird in society today…passing stuff off as their own…
I don’t care if you’re Jayson Blair or the garbage man: you should be hanging with the same values on that.

Rick Jackson (SPU-academia): This is an enormous battle we’re fighting. What qualifies as plagiarism. What qualifies as honest research. I’m sure I’ve failed to catch cases of plagiarism [ at the university]. At the college level [we’re] faced with having to re-educate them[students].

Moderator John Hamer (WA News Cncl) quoted Jim Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly:

What is really unusual in our line of work is that people can’t get back at us.

Then Moderator John Hamer (WA News Cncl) posed the question: do they [the press] need outside accountability?


Brad Knickerbocker (CSMonitor): I think we are more accountable…rarely do I write a story when I don’t hear from someone. I welcome it. I think it is wonderful. I almost always respond to them. I’ve gotten some really good sources through emails. [He wrote a story on Columbine]…still exchanging emails with people I’ve met…one of the real blessings of the Internet.

Philip Dawdy (Seattle Weekly): It doesn’t make me more accountable…I have to look at myself…I love getting stuff from readers…It’s a spectacular way to get in touch with what you don’t know..in that regard the Internet has been a blessing.

Larry Johnson (Seattle P-I): I get email all the time as foreign desk editor…people point out [mistakes] immediately. If I miss something, the readers let me know.

Rick Jackson (SPU-academia): I think the conversation you are having with readers changes what acountability means…accountability is something you acknowledge in how you [interact with people]…what you are doing in responding to readers is vitally important.

Moderator John Hamer (WA News Cncl) changed topic to the consolidation of the media.


Larry Johnson (Seattle P-I): …journalists are lazy…unless you have competition you’re not going to have good journalism.

Philip Dawdy (Seattle Weekly): Life doesn’t have to be streaming images all the time.

Brad Knickerbocker (CSMonitor): [The Christian Science Monitor] is not a religious publication. Twice I’ve worked as editorial writer…never any influence [from the church] on what we editorialized, on what position we wanted to take.

When you become multi-media entity it can stretch your resources thin. It was expected that reporters from the Monitor become TV reporters. We were all sent to charm school. We got radio coaching. It was expected we’d do this in our spare time.

…A new generation of journalists trained to be multimedia….it’s easier to rant on about opinions than to do reporting…analysis includes a good perspective not just sounding off…

Q (audience): Are American journalistic standards universal? Do foreign journalists have to adhere to the same standards?

Moderator John Hamer (WA News Cncl) : Technically, journalists do not *have* to follow any standards. *Urged to* [would be a better term].

Larry Johnson (Seattle P-I): …I’ve seen some of the stories on-line and I’m jealous. Sometimes they are better written and cover issues the the U.S. ones don’t cover. Even the British press has more of reporter’s opinion than we could get away with in this country…


Q (audience): re: Balkanization of media

Larry Johnson (Seattle P-I): One of the biggest failures of the media was that they didn’t challenge Bush to present evidence…I think they need to point the finger at the media…

Q (audience): [My disillusionment began when I attended] a ralley for Kerry [that seemed] entirely orchestrated for media…bandwagon effect…very little independence it seems…the power they have to choose what to include…what’s being included is far more narrow…

Rick Jackson (SPU-academia): I would like to hear a lot less about strategy. I want to understand more about Kerry and what he stands for.

Brad Knickerbocker (CSMonitor): The way to fix it is don’t read it…if you really are interested in finding out what has molded their character, you can read it…my point is if you want to find out about that stuff, it’s there…the biggest challenge to consumers of news: it’s easy to become cynical…if you really want the good stuff, it’s there…

Philip Dawdy (Seattle Weekly): Probably 90% of what passes for political journalism is done by morons who have never read the Federalist Papers, who wouldn’t know the Magna Charta if you put a gun to their head, haircuts in suits regurgitating for the camera what they learned from the Kerry campaign…

Q (audience): How do you decide what gets put in [the paper]?

Larry Johnson (Seattle P-I): It’s whatever I like. We do surveys. We know what readers like but we try not to give them just what they like….


Q (audience): How do you overcome bias?

Larry Johnson (Seattle P-I): Most journalists are trained to try to be fair. When I write, I try to avoid loaded words…

Rick Jackson (SPU-academia): I think of objectivity as a discipline…you approach it as an intellectual discipline…am I willing to be self-aware enough?..challenge myself to look at all the things…verify everything…could I put myself in their shoes and convey that to some degree?

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