One of the puzzles the 21st-century has put to journalism in general and reporting on the environment in particular is this: How does one who cares about the planet report on issues without becoming a shrill advocate, boring, or just plain repetitious?
The hopelessly muddied word “objectivity” is no help here. Objectively speaking we as a species are changing the planet hugely every single day of the year, but that is no more newsworthy on this particular day than the fact that airplanes landed safely.”Fairness” as a concept isn’t much better, because — as many estimable reporters and editors have pointed out — the concept of “fairness” led to countless stories in which the vast majority of scientists who believed in global warming were outweighed in the public mind by the handful that didn’t. (That mistake is now known as “false balance.”)
Most troubling of all, it’s pretty clear from looking at website traffic that the environment is much less interesting to most people than celebrity, Hollywood, politics, pets, television, or even (God help us) Bratz. Statistically speaking, one cannot really justify giving a lot of coverage to the planet – even though we of course depend on its health for our very survival.
An editor named Gil Thalen, formerly of the Tampa Tribune, as quoted in the irreplaceable The Elements of Journalism, has an answer to this question.
Thelen has described the journalist’s role as that of a “committed observer.”
What he means by that, Thelen explains, is that the journalist is not removed from the community. Journalists are “interdependent” with the needs of their fellow citizens. If there is a key issue in town that needs resolution and is being explored by local institutions, “we have a commitment to reporting on this process over the long term, as an observer.” It would be irresponsible to cover the issue haphazardly – or ignore it because it seems dul.. The journalist should be committed to helping to resolve the issue, Thelen argues, and the way he or she does that is by playing the role of the responsible reporter.
Thelen’s ideas are echoed in the words of other journalists [Ed. Note – who were interviewed by the authors] as well, who talk about the press creating a common language, a common understanding, or being part of the glue that defines and holds a community together.
This is the proper understanding that many journalists have about the role of Engaged Independence.
Not sure if this phrase is sexy enough to stick in the memory, but in my life the concept makes sense. Reporters are committed to the nation – and the truth. Not an easy role to play, but a crucial one. And as The Los Angeles Times continues to commit suicide – firing another 300, cutting another section, and bleeding out all over the public square – understanding these principles becomes more important than ever, because finding a business model to replace the newspaper ain’t gonna be easy.