Reporting or Commentating?
Social scientists have long called attention on limits of being objective. Everything gets filtered through the eyes of the observer. In our current environment, there is nothing subtle about this. Those relaying the news most often come at us with a viewpoint about what the news means. Columnists are supposed to have views, News writers are not. Headlines—often written by persons who did not write the story—are also a rich source of viewpoint. In some cases, they reflect a slant that the news story does not support, and the reporter did not intend. With social media, the stories that go vviral are rarely ones seeking a neutral perspective. Is reporting a lost art?
I recently read a book by a reporter, Nina Totenberg who covers the Supreme Court for National Public Radio (NPR) which offers a hopeful glimmer. Dinners with Ruth is about friendships, including hers with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She speaks of how friendship runs deeper than ideologies and how she and Ruth managed to have a deep personal relationship without ever crossing a line to talk about a court case. I do worry about this but like the fact that deep friendships can cross such lines.
One passage in the book sticks with me. From watching government as a young intern, Nina writes: Very quickly, I knew for sure that I wanted to be a reporter. I was much more interested in watching what went on and telling people about it than I was in fighting for any cause.
This is an important distinction. Reporters are in the business of informing. Those with a viewpoint in the business of persuading. I love it that some people still want to grow up to just focus on what the story is rather than tinting it with what it means. This is not easy given the pejoratives we read and hear about people who are successfully neutral. Why aren’t you in the game? Don’t you have a viewpoint? How can you just stand on the sidelines and watch?
Anthropology is one of the few disciplines that puts a premium on watching. The minute the viewer enters the fray, they change both what is happening and their view of it. Totenberg reminds us that watching is an honorable if ever-more-scarce profession.
I am prompted to put more weight on those whose passion is telling me what is happening than on those whose view is either limited or expanded by the pre-existing condition of fighting for a cause.