Saturday, May 22, 2010

What an American journalist in China during the 1930s and 1940s...

...can teach us about objectivity.

I learned earlier this week that a research paper I submitted to the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication national convention, which is scheduled for later this year in Denver.

My paper examines the writings of journalist Edgar Snow, and how he came to understand that objectivity could not serve him as he reported from China in the 1930s and 1940s. Snow dealt with conflicting journalism values as he told the most complete story he could of a nation and a people that over time he came to love. Did his personal attachment mean that Snow was no longer objective? Yes, if one uses the classic definitions of the term. But was he a better journalist because of it?

If the answer is yes, then it provides an important lesson to the journalism industry, journalism educators, and the journalists of tomorrow. And if the answer is no, Snow’s example is nevertheless a valuable lesson for aspiring journalists because it demands that closer attention be paid to the notion of objectivity.

The paper draws a couple of conclusions, and the following might be the most important one:

"Objectivity does matter, and it is important. But Snow also reminds his readers that there are times when objectivity is not enough. A journalist does not need to get as emotionally involved in reporting as Snow did to recognize that being detached and neutral is not always possible. (A comparison to the loud, partisan and often personal attacks that substitute today on cable news networks for political commentary will not be considered here; such “reporting” makes no pretense of caring about being objective.) More importantly, remaining factual accurate but emotional barren ensures that reporting will not be complete, will not tell the fullest story possible, and will not benefit the audience, which relies on journalists to be their eyes and ears in places they cannot be."

I might update the paper before presenting it in August; I received valuable comments from the reviewers.

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