Journalistic Obligations

Two weeks ago I was working on a piece about Russ Feingold and the Get Afghanistan Right coalition, and I interviewed one of GAR’s leaders, Seminal blogger Alex Thurston, for it. As he was providing answers to my questions, he posed one to me: "Is there any conflict here between your role as a journalist and your role as a proponent of escalation?" I ran into some busy periods, including with a John Brennan story, a Blackwater Xe story, another Afghanistan story and then with Netroots Nation, but I’ve been thinking about the question ever since and should just put my thoughts on the blog already, as I’m not going to get any less busy anytime soon.

Notwithstanding my perspective on his characterization of my views, it’s the right question, and one that every journalist should not only face, but ask him/herself directly. All of us develop views on the stuff we cover. Those opinions can run hotter or colder, but it’s a bit naive to suggest they don’t exist. I elect, whenever I develop what I consider a strong opinion, to put it out there, so readers can see for themselves what my slants are and factor that into their assessments of my work. Others take a different approach, but I consider it due disclosure. But that should only be the start. Basically, I think I owe my readers and yourself a more-thorough interrogation of the things you believe than the things you don’t believe. Anything less and you become complacent and self-satisfied and, worse, unable to see additional angles to stories that make for more holistic journalism. And if you’re going to choose this life and this career path, it must be because you think discovering things and thinking about them is valuable, because there sure as fuck isn’t any money in this business and there never will be ever again. So how can you not confront what you believe — or what you think you believe?

Well, fine, you say. That’s a nice bit of moral preening. The question was if there’s a conflict between advocating X and covering the dude who advocates not-X. And?  I suppose my bottom-line answer is that there’s only a conflict if I do my job poorly — or, more precisely, if I approach my job poorly. There’s no reason an honest journalist can’t fairly report and analyze and critique the views of those s/he disagrees with. Sources have the right to expect that kind of fairness — not to expect positive coverage, but fair and thorough coverage — and journalists have the obligation to provide it. I expect my work to be judged according to its fairness and diligence, and I have to either stand by what I produce along those lines or not publish it. Basically, the day I accept that there’s an inherent conflict between what I believe and what I report is the day that I should stop doing this job.

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Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman