Journalists are human; that doesn’t make our work biased

Jesse James DeConto is a musician and writer in Durham.
Jesse James DeConto is a musician and writer in Durham.

We’ve talked a lot about journalistic integrity at my house this summer. My daughter Rose was a youth reporter at WUNC, working on a story I got to preview (pre-hear, really) at Motorco one August evening.

There I ran into a former media colleague who said his own daughter had declined what seemed like a fantastic summer job in journalism. “I can’t be that objective,” she told him. She founded the Communist club at her elite Northeastern liberal-arts college.

Rose shares that anti-capitalist bent (as do, you may have heard, many of her generation), but questions of bias turned out not to be quite that simple for her. The producers actually pushed her to include more of herself in the story than she’d wanted.

These youth-reporters aren’t precisely reporting news but serving WUNC listeners by bringing younger and more culturally diverse voices than you might normally hear among the professional staff. Sharing of themselves in the tradition of “New Journalism” (not so new anymore) is a way of connecting NPR’s older, whiter audience with teenaged demographics that trend purposefully toward communities of color.

Rose was the only white teen among this year’s crop. What she brought was her interest and connections with the LGBTQ crowd at Durham School of the Arts and beyond. She wanted to tell the story of a queer teen in Durham, and that’s where the fascinating challenges of journalistic integrity emerged.

Trying to avoid the clichés of trans “transition” stories, Rose aimed to present her friend and role-model Claude as a person, beyond their sexual identity – as a musician, an aspiring engineer and a just-plain funny person. Like any good editor, though, her mentors pushed her to keep the audience in mind, knowing that the trans experience would still be foreign and unfamiliar to most listeners, and she’d have to acknowledge that.

She and I had manifold conversations about how to navigate being faithful to your subjects and sources, telling their stories as they tell them, while also keeping in mind the people who are hearing the stories – their own vantage points and the biases that will make them more or less receptive to your story. At the end of the day, I told Rose, your editors are trying to help you get your story heard, rather than ignored or outright rejected because it creates too much cognitive dissonance.

Telling stories is a delicate art, a negotiation among storytellers, their subjects and sources and their audiences. Journalists across the U.S. and around the globe work extremely hard to strike the right balance.

Based on my own experience, I’d say we’ve been under attack for nigh on a decade now, and some historians trace it back to Watergate, when Nixon’s Republicans realized they were going to have to undercut the credibility of the press if they were going to regain the public trust. Long before Trump’s Twitter, I was watching the way Internet trolls could make editors dance by accusing reporters of bias. It impacts the way we cover the news, trying not to provide evidence of “the liberal media.” We end up with a lot of not-very-useful she said/she said reporting in an effort to show we’ve consulted “the other side,” even if the other side is doing nothing more than denying the facts we’re reporting.

Now, in the Trump era, when the trolls have entered the mainstream discourse, our fact-finders are walking on eggshells. I had opportunity to reflect on all of this again on the eve of Silent Sam’s toppling. I’m on The New York Times’ stringer list for assignments in North Carolina, and they needed someone to report directly from the scene.

Within a few minutes on campus, I was interviewing Michelle McQueen, a black woman in her 50s, and Evan Dunn, a white kid from Salisbury entering his senior year. They’d never met, but they were celebrating together, hugging and taking selfies in front of Sam’s empty pedestal.

Toward the end of our interview, Michelle asked to take a selfie with me. I don’t know if it was just the rapport we’d developed or the fact that this was a momentous occasion and she wanted a photo with a newspaper reporter. My humanity took over, and I posed for the photo because a nice lady asked.

I don’t think you have to stop being a Democrat or a Republican, an Anarchist or a Suburbanite, to be a good journalist. I don’t think you have to avoid taking photos that might be used to show you’re biased (for celebrating Sam’s fall, maybe?). For good measure, to round-out my he said/she said/he said round-up, though I didn’t find any Silent-Sam supporters at McCorkle Place all afternoon, I contacted the conservative Carolina Review for a hot-take from a 21-year-old Libertarian who mused on preserving ancient artifacts from the slave-holding Greek Spartans.

Armchair media critics like to ask, rhetorically, how many newspeople are Democrats or Republicans. I say it doesn’t matter. My colleague’s teen could be a Communist and also careful, fair and balanced in reporting. My kid could identify with her queer friends and also communicate clearly with a mostly cis-het audience (look that one up; it’ll be useful in communicating with “the youth”).

If you want to talk about bias, fine, but find evidence for it in the work. Don’t dredge up a person’s background or political affiliations. That’s just an ad hominem attack, it’s a logical fallacy, and I don’t think we should abide it in public discourse. It doesn’t tell you anything about whether or not a journalist’s work is objective. Journalists are human, and of course we have biases; there are editorial processes in place to hedge them in. If you convince every human who has political beliefs that they can’t report the facts, you’re going to very successfully erode the free press. Hmm. Come to think of it, it’s almost like someone’s doing that on purpose.

Jesse James DeConto is a musician and writer in Durham. Contact him at jesse@pinkertonraid.com. Listen to his daughter Rose’s story here: bit.ly/2N8dxC8

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