How involved should journalists be?

This term we’ve been studying media law and ethics, which is undoubtedly the most applicable and important course I’ve had so far. Perhaps it should be the only course.
For our assignment we were given a simple task: Watch two movies, pick a topic that speaks to you and write like a boss about it. Even if you aren’t interested in journalism, State of Play and especially The Bang Bang Club are great films and definitely worth a watch.

I pose a simple question, but one that opens up a whole quagmire (our media law lecturer’s favourite word!) of issues. I thought I’d share some of them with you, and I would really appreciate some input on this one if you have a sec to spare.

Old newspaper

I ask, can involved journalists still be credible journalists?

Many people, myself included, go into the profession because they see it as a vehicle for change. Journalists attempt to change perceptions, communities and crises through their work, and to do that you have to get awfully close to a whole lot of stuff. The notion of an objective ‘view from nowhere’ journalist is not only outdated, but unrealistic. Journalists will always tend to get into issues and people’s faces (and a little bit of trouble) to get to the good stuff.But how far is too far?

On the one hand, journalists get involved and implicated with the best-meant intentions. You’re passionate about a cause, you build up a connection to a source or you’re simply trying to heal rather than harm. This is all right and well, and especially close to my heart, but it brings up issues of bias and conflicts of interest. If I get close enough to help, will I still be far enough to report? If we’re not talking puppies or kids in need, but possible criminals and victims, should I even be the one to help?

On the other side, involvement can take on a darker shape that fuels the ‘shady journalist’ scenes in so many movies. You start with buying someone a meal for some info or or pretending to be their long-lost acquaintance, and before you know it you’re stealing evidence and making deals with crooked politicians. There’s a whole lot of grey area and ‘judgement calls’ when it comes to how far you should go to get that story. And once you’ve jumped over all the crime scene tape and dodged law suits, is the content you’re delivering still credible?

From the day you enter journ school, you get taught that credibility is everything. Once your audience stops believing and trusting you, it doesn’t really matter much how beautifully designed your page is or that you have the best grammar in the country. Your name is gold.
Unfortunately it won’t take the most doe-eyed newbie long to realise that there is a whole lot that can harm your reputation as a fair and accurate reporter.

Whether its having a too soft heart or not knowing where to draw the line, it’s in the nature of journalism to get involved. Should the public still trust the info and the journalist or should we stick to clean-hands journalism where all the info was found nice and ethically?
I’m afraid that may lead to a lot of boring weather stories on the front page!

Again, I would really appreciate your comments on this. It’s one of those issues that are never truly resolved but always worth the discussion.

If you’re at all interested in these kind of things, I deeply recommend Jay Rosen’s blog.

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