Gongol.com Archives: August 2021

Brian Gongol

August 4, 2021

News "I can't be a part of the story"

One of the finest subtle jokes packed into the magnificent first season of "Arrested Development" is the reaction of news anchor John Beard -- playing a fictionalized version of himself -- witnessing an incident at a restaurant and dashing out, mumbling that he "can't be a part of the story". It's a hilarious sendup of the classic image of news reporter objectivity: Anchoring a news report on the incident later, the para-John Beard attributes the reporting with the well-worn "sources say". ■ On one hand, the notion of strict journalistic neutrality and objectivity has always been more of an ideal than it has been a perfect standard for reality. A person cannot report events without observations, and observations are inevitably influenced by prior experiences and pre-existing perceptions. But there are ways and standards of trying -- even if only asymptotically -- to approach objectivity. ■ One of those, of course, is to avoid being part of the story. Unfortunately, though, the neutral voice of a third-party observer of events is rarely as engaging as someone's first-person account of events. Some writers are good enough to overcome the limitations of that objective voice, but it generally takes a long period of apprenticeship to develop the skill, and extra time to apply it each time a story is written. ■ The Internet doesn't tend to reward that extra time, and the Internet is where so much news is now engaged. The result is that we are awash in first-person narrative reporting -- from travel to natural disasters, from the "access journalism" of politics to reporting deliberately intertwined with the reporter's identity. ■ In some cases, first-person accounts can lend necessary color to a story, or offer grounds for a journalist's analysis. In the case of a regular columnist, first-person accounts may paradoxically be the most effective way to establish credibility -- particularly if a column depends upon the columnist being "one of us" among his or her audience. But there's a lurking danger if every journalist is just waiting to unleash their inner Hunter S. Thompson. The danger is that the "I" can become more significant than the subject of the reporting itself. ■ "News" is anything that materially changes our understanding of the status quo. Lots of other things -- specifically, "events" (things that merely have happened) and "information" (things that inform us without any particular effect on our understanding of the world) -- are often reported alongside news, and can fill the gaps when there isn't enough news to fill a 30-minute television broadcast or a 32-page newspaper edition. Our problem is that a first-person narrative of events can easily seem like news, particularly if the experience was new to the reporter. But it's not the same. ■ The temptation to report those "I" events might be diminished if the standard practice were to replace every instance of the word "I" with "your humble correspondent". Such an archaic-sounding construction might be a helpful reminder that "news" is inherently a matter of "we", not "I". News is about a communal understanding of what is and what has changed in ways that we (as communities, both large and small) need to know. ■ As more and more attention is given to the fragmentation of news audiences, the easy short-term answer is to dig deeper into first-person accounts -- and it's not helping matters that the employment situation of many journalists has become so precarious that they have to "build personal brands" as an insurance policy against unemployment. But the long-run answer lingers somewhere down the path of hearing less from "your humble correspondent" and more from the practiced voice of a shared understanding of what really matters.