Honesty is the best journalistic policy

La Presse’s Paul Journet has a story on a journalist for TVA, Karine Champagne, whose three sons attend École Horizon-Soleil. That’s where a 12-year-old boy with a congenital heart defect died after being shoved on the schoolyard by an 11-year-old girl.

Champagne acted first as a mother, giving interviews to journalists complaining about the school’s response to the incident. The next day, she talked about the incident on TV as a journalist.

The article presents this as a journalistic faux-pas, but I’m not so sure. Is it wrong for a journalist to report on something merely because they’ve expressed an opinion about it?

It’s an issue I’m wrestling with, as I both comment on and write about stories that interest me. I try to keep an open mind, I welcome opposing viewpoints, and I like to learn new things. I believe in respecting conflicts of interest (so, for example, I won’t write about a family member’s business without disclosing the relationship), but does having an opinion represent a conflict in itself?

A Wired article explores journalists who blog, and a key sentence in it struck with me:

Reporters are people, too (really), and just because they express opinions doesn’t mean their reporting should be dismissed out of hand, as long as they arrive at their conclusions honestly, through rigorous reporting.

Honesty is something I think has been forgotten in all the talk of journalistic ethics. It means a lot of things:

  • Explaining how you come to your opinions instead of hiding them
  • Being honest to yourself by accepting the fact that you might be wrong
  • Not pledging allegiance to any one group or cause, surrendering your objectivity to the whims of their leaders
  • Not being afraid to disclose things about you that may affect how your reporting is perceived
  • Being self-critical, and being able to admit to yourself when your objectivity has been too tarnished by personal involvement in an issue that you can’t tackle it fairly as a journalist
  • Not being afraid to bite the hand that feeds you (a rule broken by many journalists who keep quiet about their employers for fear of being fired)
  • Allowing people who disagree with you to speak for themselves

I’m sure there are others.

I’m not one of those “objectivity doesn’t exist so don’t bother” people. I believe in fairness, and in not allowing your opinions to interfere with your journalism when you write about an issue. I believe in asking questions to learn instead of talking to people you already agree with. But I also believe that people can only believe what you tell them when they can trust you. And in order for them to trust you, you have to be honest.

The most important thing you have to be honest about as a journalist is how you think.

But enough of me. What do you think? Am I completely wrong about this?

3 thoughts on “Honesty is the best journalistic policy

  1. blork

    In a case like this, it’s less about the fact that she had previously expressed an opinion as it is about the fact that she has an emotional involvement with the story.

    Even then, it’s only a problem if she doesn’t disclose her involvement, or attachment, to the event. “Disclosure” should be the word of the day in conversations about this, because that’s what everything hinges on.

    In other words, if she did disclose that she’s the parent of a child who attends that school, then there should be no problem. If she did not disclose her involvement, then it is a problem.

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  2. Fagstein Post author

    Agreed on both counts (though I’m not sure if it was necessarily “emotional” to criticize a school for something, and it’s hard not to get emotional about a case like this).

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  3. blork

    The emotional involvement I’m referring to is the fact that her child attends the school where something terrible happened. Ergo, as a parent, she has a DIRECT emotional involvment in the fallout of that event. E.g., concern about her child’s reaction to it, concern about her child’s safety, a personal reaction to how the school treats her child, etc.

    Her emotional involvement is greater than yours or mine simply because of the proximity of the event to her own child. That puts it on a different level.

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