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Like belly buttonsPosted Friday, January 4, 2008, at 5:23 PM
Opinions, it has been said, are like belly buttons -- everybody has one. If it were a condition of being a journalist that you have no opinions, there would be no journalists. On the contrary -- reporters sometimes have strong opinions. We have close exposure to government officials and to issues of public concern, for example, and it's only natural that we would have opinions about them.
What matters is not whether a journalist has an opinion, but whether he or she can put his opinion aside in the process of making sure that all of the stakeholders in a given story have their say. A good reporter can be fair to both sides even if she or he agrees with only one of them.
I once read, in a journalism magazine, a personal account by a reporter who would, in the grand scheme of things, probably be considered moderate-to-liberal. She was assigned to cover a speech by a well-known Christian conservative -- either Phyllis Schlafly or someone like Phyllis Schlafly -- with whom she sharply disagreed. She recognized her own potential bias and made a concerted effort to base as much of her story as possible on the speaker's exact words. Afterward, she drew praise from both sides -- the speaker's opponents and the speaker's supporters both said "you really showed her for what she is," and they both meant it as a compliment to the reporter.
My co-worker Brian Mosely worked for weeks researching a comprehensive series on the Somali immigration and the impact it had on the local community. It covered a variety of viewpoints. We've drawn criticism from both sides of the issue. Towards the beginning of the week, when Brian was laying out the Somalis' refugee status and quoting Catholic Charities about their work with the group, we were accused (viciously, in a couple of cases) of doing a puff piece and ignoring the problems. The last part of the series spoke in detail about the problems created by the Somali influx, and some readers (especially those who read only that last installment) accused us of doing a hatchet job and being closet racists.
Few, if any, of our critics have raised actual objection to any of the facts presented. (A few out-of-town Somalis have questioned whether this group or that one is part of the Bantu tribe, but Brian pretty much quoted the information he was given on that topic by Catholic Charities and other similar sources, which is all he had to go on.) Instead, they've grasped at straws in their criticisms of the series. One was upset that we would run a story about Muslims during Christmas week. Several, on both sides of the issue, have criticized us for interviewing source X when everyone should know that source X is biased.
But Brian pretty much talked to the people you have to talk to in a situation like this. If you want to find out how the Somalis got here, you have to talk to Catholic Charities. If you want to know the impact of Somalis on law enforcement, you talk to the police chief and the sheriff -- after all, they're the police chief and the sheriff. Even if they were completely off-base in their assessments -- and I doubt they're as far off-base as the most vocal Somali defenders have claimed -- their assessments would be newsworthy because they are the people in charge of local law enforcement.
Brian talked to a variety of people -- people who see the Somalis as noble victims trying their best to survive, and people who see the Somalis as an unwanted and uninvited hindrance. He quoted people on all sides of the issue, because that's what a reporter does.
Some of Brian's critics have cited things he's said in clearly-marked opinion columns, or in a personal blog which he hasn't maintained in years, as evidence that he's biased against the Somalis and therefore that the series must be biased.
As the editor responsible for putting that series on the front page of the Times-Gazette, let me say this: Hogwash.
Brian has opinions, to be sure. I don't always agree with them. Once, after Brian had written a number of columns skeptical of the existence global warming, I got a little fed up with him and decided I was going to interview a scientist on the issue. I called MTSU and asked the news and public affairs department to put me in touch with someone on the faculty whom I could interview about global warming.
I called the first of several names they gave me and ended up talking to a professor who is quite passionate about the issue -- but not in the way I was expecting. He believes, for mathematical reasons, that carbon dioxide could not possibly be responsible for the temperature changes being blamed on it by most other climatologists. He doesn't necessarily discount the existence of global warming but does not believe CO2 is responsible.
Well, I lived up to my responsibility as a journalist, set my own opinions aside, and reported what this professor had said. A few months later, on that same campus, Laurie David and Sheryl Crow appeared to talk about global warming, and I reported their words as well.
I believe the Somalia series stands on its own merits. Brian wears his political heart on his sleeve, much more than I do, but that doesn't mean that one of us is more biased than the other. As some have pointed out, a reporter who is open about his or her opinions gives you a chance to hold him accountable for what he does as an objective journalist. What matters is the work -- and in the case of the Somalia series, few have been able to fault the work. So, for whatever reasons, they've tried to shoot the messenger instead.
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John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette.