Forum Explores Journalistic Independence, War and Politics

According to Edward Wasserman, rather than strive to act independently, journalists should find the “ethically permissible” conflicts of interest among contemporary journalism’s necessary dependencies and obligations.

Wasserman’s remarks led a panel discussion about the challenges of remaining independent when covering war and politics at the Silha Center’s Spring Ethics Forum.

The forum, held April 24, 2008 at the University of Minnesota’s Nolte Center, featured a panel of veteran Twin Cities-area journalists with experience covering combat, natural disasters, and national and international politics.

Wasserman, the Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, was the evening’s featured speaker. Wasserman has written and edited for The Miami Herald and held leadership positions at Media Central LLC, the (Miami) Daily Business Review, and Primedia Inc., among others. He has extensive writing and editorial experience in covering economics, politics, and media organizations.

In his opening remarks, Wasserman discussed conflicts of interest he considers “endemic” to the field of journalism, including pressure to favor advertisers, “sucking up to sources,” and pandering to the public. “Acting independently is impossible, because journalism is practiced within a nexus of dependencies and obligations,” Wasserman said. Instead, conflicts of interest should be “managed carefully and zealously and candidly” by journalists and media organizations through “in-house discussion,” altering assignments or rotating beats, and recognizing and acknowledging the conflicts for what they are, he said.

The panelists shared their own experiences covering war and politics and their perceptions of contemporary ethical dilemmas for journalists.

Sharon Schmickle, a reporter for MinnPost.com, said the pressures on independence for reporters in war zones can be similar to those reporting on Washington politics. She related the story of a colleague from The (Baltimore) Sun who said that when he is embedded with troops in Afghanistan, he writes “I am not one of them” on his notebook every day. “I have to tell you,” Schmickle said, “the same thing is true on Capitol Hill.” She told the story of how she insisted on calling the late Sen. Paul Wellstone “Senator Wellstone,” instead of his preferred “Paul,” as a way of preserving her independence as a journalist.

Eric Black of MinnPost.com contended that a journalist’s quest for a “defensible appearance of objectivity” interferes with seeking truth and reporting it. Although balance can be a journalistic virtue in covering politics, Black said, “when it becomes microscopically measuring the inches of copy given to the two parties in a campaign, it’s going to invariably create a weaker piece of journalism.”

Gary Hill, communications director for the office of the Majority Leader at the Minnesota Senate, said the problem of journalistic “groupthink” can be as much a threat to independence as other outside forces, citing the “boys and girls on the bus” mentality of political correspondents following campaigns.

Richard Sennott, a photographer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, recalled being smuggled into Iraq before the 2003 invasion in the bottom of a potato truck. Sennott acknowledged the problems associated with trying to act as an independent “participant observer” while developing close relationships with subjects.

Questions and comments from the audience of 95 were wide-ranging, including the challenges of remaining independent when the human impulse would be to help those in need, as well as the April 2008 revelation by The New York Times that “military analysts” for the major media corporations were little more than Pentagon mouthpieces.

Members of the panel said that they were not immune to emotion when working in combat or disaster situations, but had to see it as part of their work and embrace the idea that their work could and would do something positive for victims of disasters or war. Wasserman said that journalists should not distort the professional obligations of objectivity or independence to allow them to act independently of their “obligations as a moral person.”

Panelists agreed that the scandal surrounding the use of Pentagon-groomed analysts was troubling. Schmickle said that she always assumed that information provided to her by the military when she was embedded would serve the military, but that the media’s use of experts was ultimately more deceptive. The use of such experts by news organizations was a “cheap way” to cover the war, Schmickle said. Hill derided the practice as “horrific, cheap, and tawdry,” saying, “The networks let their guard down and allowed themselves to be used in a horrible fashion.”

According to Wasserman, the news organizations who used the military experts “didn’t have any illusions about getting objective commentary from [the experts], … they wanted more praise and upbeat stuff to keep the administration at bay.” Wasserman continued, “they slipped this new category in on us, called the ‘news consultant’ or ‘news analyst,’” which is “dangerous” because it carries more authority than a reporter or source, but is not as scrutinized.

For more on The New York Times story on military analysts and its fallout, see “Times’ Story about Military Analysts Makes Ripples, Not Waves” on page 13 of this issue of the Silha Bulletin.

The forum was presented by the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law and the Minnesota Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and co-sponsored by the National SPJ in honor of its annual Ethics Week observance. The Silha Center is supported by a generous endowment from the late Otto Silha and his wife, Helen.

– Sara Cannon
Silha Center Staff

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