Journalists and the Mob

MCMTuesday, April 13, 2021
This post is the opinion of a straight white cis male on matters that deal with identity and experiences I haven't personally lived. As per my opinion policy, this is not meant to supplant more-relevant insights into these matters. If I am able to contribute something, cool. If not, feel free to ignore.

As a follow-up to my post about The Nevers I want to ramble incoherently for a bit about the burden and responsibility that journalists bear in the profession they chose.

To start, let me define the term "journalist", because my definition is probably broader than most people would assume. To me, you're a professional writer if you write and release your work to the world. Yes, the internet makes that so easy that basically anyone can do it, but that's exactly the point: anyone can be a writer if they try. The gatekeeping of yesteryear did nothing but amplify a subset of voices at the expense of potentially brilliant minds, so this current state of affairs, while still imperfect, is much better overall.

But with that freedom comes responsibility, especially for those writing for larger sites. Fox News and MSNBC have created this weirdly ambiguous journalistic state where opinion is mixed into actual reporting: the football players weren't kneeling in protest, they were [valiantly/unpatriotically] kneeling in [valid/invalid] protest. The story is given a spin, and suddenly facts stop being neutral, so it becomes reasonable to assume you can shop for your preferred facts the way you shop for your preferred soft drink.

A journalist's job is to inform the mob, not be of the mob. They have to look at the world with an investigative eye and report what they find as if they're not actually a part of the same society at all. That self-imposed distance is the closest thing we can get to true impartiality — an imperfect solution to the problem of "being human" — but it needs to happen all the same. Journalists report the facts, the mob interprets them as they see fit.

It's not easy, or likely fun. As a human being with skin in the game, it can be incredibly hard to detach oneself from the goings-on of the world, especially if you're personally affected by it. It's the same as doctors or lawyers: you're asked to set your sense of right and wrong aside to do the function society asks of you, even if you'd rather not.

You may hate the creator of a TV series to the point of being sick, but when it comes time to write a review of that TV series, you need to put your feelings into a box and analyze the work with a critical eye, not an emotional one. If the emotions are too strong for you to do that, you need to hand the assignment to someone who can, and write an opinion piece instead. Or, hell, even if you can be objective, you can still write a separate opinion piece, too.

Is it fair? No, not at all. Is it giving someone undeserving a free pass? Potentially, yes. But journalists — true journalists, regardless of their affiliation or standing — are in charge of documenting reality. Even for something as trivial as a TV review, the rules need to stay in place. The alternative is the further fragmenting of "fact" into isolated niches, and the erosion of whatever trust is left in the world.

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