Empathetic Journalism for the Right
Jeff Jarvis

Right wing Conservative White Guy here. Do I get angry? Yes. I also get silly, happy, profound, serious, and occasionally even romantic. The narrative of the angry white right wing conservative is getting real old. Please lose it.

Your thesis basically says “how can we bring those Conservative White Guys in to our way of thinking?” The answer is quite simple: YOU CAN’T. Journalism shouldn’t be about persuading anyone about anything.

Did it ever occur to you that maybe, just maybe, journalists and the practice of “journalism” might be the problem?

First, most journalists are deeply ignorant of technical things. We technically educated, experienced people see that. It happens nearly every time I read a report about an accident in a mine, industrial plant, or aircraft. I also have issues with reporting on physics, chemistry, computing systems and networks, farming, the environment, and so on. It seems that most journalists still live deep in cities where they have no experience doing much of anything, except writing. Journalists are very good at writing about emotional pablum.

Why is this? Look at the well that schools of Journalism draw from. It is all from the Humanities, and damned few with any technical experience or education.

There are notable exceptions. For example, Brian Krebs is a fantastic journalist of the inner workings of Internet Security. Kim Zetter from Wired is another very competent journalist who, because she writes about little else, seems to have learned quite a bit. When it comes to military reporting from the inside, Michael Yon seems to get it better than anyone I’ve read. Why? Because these people get in to the technical details and get dirty.

Unfortunately, those are the notable exceptions. The vast majority are people who don’t know the difference between an aerodynamic versus an engine stall in an airplane.

With ignorance of this level on something we do know a lot about, how can you expect a technocrat like me to trust them when they write about other things? You have to show some expertise on the subject you write about or nobody will take you seriously. Specialize and learn your subject, or go write fiction.

Second, I disagree with every Journalism school there ever was about neutrality in reporting. Journalists may try to be fair, but they’re never neutral. Nobody is neutral. If you were truly neutral, your reporting would be boring, unreadable, and unworthy of anyone’s attention. Thus, Fox News “Fair and Balanced” is wrong. But so is the New York Times “All the news that’s fit to print.” There is so much that the NYT doesn’t write because it doesn’t fit their narrative.

Even when they’re fair, reporters need to figure out what to write and what to leave out and when to write certain facts together and when to keep them apart. This inevitably leads to a point of view, if not exactly a bias. A good reporter will indicate that frame of view where he or she is writing from. But unfortunately many do not. And so, with the vast majority of reporters in news rooms all members of the same political party, even when they want to be fair, they’re still writing from their point of view.

My advice: DON’T HIDE IT. I know that most of the “news” I hear on the radio is written by members of the Democrat National Party. This doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is when they attempt to say that somehow that point of view doesn’t matter.

I’ll read accounts on Al Jazeera about the goings on in the Palestinian Territories. I know that I’ll get a biased point of view, just as I would if I read about the same thing in the Jerusalem Post. Please don’t patronize me while attempting to hide your politics, philosophy, or lifestyle. It doesn’t invalidate your reporting. Hiding that information DOES. Unsigned reports from AP or Reuters? I’ll pass. I have no idea who the writer is. It’s rarely ever good for much besides a headline and even that is often suspect. They go to the bottom of the reading pile.

Third, there are no bad news sources. There are thin news sources and slanted news sources. Remember when the Bill Clinton sex scandal first broke? Do you remember who broke it? Yeah, it was the National Enquirer. And I remember many journalists giggling whenever they referred to “that supermarket tabloid rag.” And yet the story was real.

Thus my third piece of advice: Don’t sneer at other news sites. You know who looks bad when you do that? You do. Do I know these news sites are slanted? Maybe, and maybe not. It’s not your job to tell me which news agency is level or not. That’s MY decision. I look at the source of the account and I decide whose side of the issue they’re on.

When I was a child, I used to listen to shortwave broadcasts from around the world. In particular, I’d listen to Radio Netherlands, Radio Moscow, The BBC World Service, and Voice of America. This being during the cold war, you’d hear a number of different perspectives reporting the same story. It taught me that I could get useful information even from very slanted, biased sources such as Radio Moscow. But you had to be a careful consumer. Sometimes, they’d actually have an interesting slant on the same events.

Journalism has got to graduate to a new platform: One based upon gathering information about a whole story from a certain perspective. If I want the breaking news, I’ll read the sources themselves. They’re all posted in real time on the internet these days. I may not know enough to be critical of one view versus another. That is what I trust my journalists to do. Sometimes their stories hang together very nicely. Other times they don’t.

Again, it’s not about lying; well, sometimes it is (Jayson Blair, Dan Rather, Katie Couric…), but I expect that most people who call themselves journalists don’t. It’s about a point of view. You have always had one. Put your name on your stories, let the public know who you are, tell it like you see it, and let the chips fall where they may.

The days when you had to confine yourself to a narrative or what some editor driving a desk in a large office would accept are over. We now have access to the same facts that you do. It is your job to document a coherent perspective on what happened. Your editors are not your gatekeepers any more. You can publish anything you want to. If you’re wrong in any way, your readers won’t be shy about telling you.

Welcome to the rough and tumble world of REAL Journalism.

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