Off Message July 2007

Who Are We?

The flap over journalists making political donations confirmed the widespread suspicion that media outlets are hiding something. But it doesn't have to be this way.
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Last week, MSNBC.com had a little sizzler about journalists who have made donations to political candidates and causes. It identified 143 employees of news organizations who donated money from 2004 through the beginning of the 2008 presidential campaign. And the giving was decidedly in one direction. Reporter Bill Dedman wrote, "Most of the newsroom checkbooks leaned to the left; 125 journalists gave to Democrats and liberal causes. Only 16 gave to Republicans. Two gave to both parties."

None of this was huge news. When you consider the many thousands of people working for news organizations in this country, 143 is a pretty small number. And it's well established that journalists tend to be liberals. Still, the usual commotion ensued. Some, both inside and outside the profession, were outraged by the fact of the donations themselves. Conservatives leaped all over the leftward tilt.

Too bad this conversation is always so tightly focused on politics, because there's a much broader and more interesting question hanging in the background: Who are these journalists, anyway? Most are a mystery to their audience—the byline at the top of a story, or, if they're on TV or radio, the face or voice delivering the news. With the exception ofmedia celebrities, who are a pretty small class, they are unknown but for their work.

To the traditional way of thinking, this is a good thing: Journalism should not be about the journalists but about the stories themselves; the less we know about the people behind the news, the better. It's a philosophical position with practical underpinnings. In the world of 20th-century media, it would have been a pointless waste of precious space and airtime to give the reader supplementary information about the messenger.

But changes in both the culture and technology of news are undermining this conventional wisdom. In the ever-more-transparent world of media, there is a growing hunger for information about professional journalists. And it has become a lot easier to provide that information without intruding on the news itself.

On the cultural side, the public no longer buys into the idea that journalists can be impartial conveyors of information. Scandals at The New York Times, CBS News, and other elite outlets have demonstrated that the news class is not always as trustworthy as it claims to be. Through blogging, podcasting, and other kinds of "citizen journalism," some readers and viewers have become reporters themselves. In short, the curtain has been pulled back, revealing actual human beings.

To the extent that media outlets deny this by pretending that their employees have no views on politics and other topics—or that those views don't influence the coverage—they come off as charlatans. That's why, quite apart from the bias angle, the political-donations story made such a splash. It confirmed the widespread suspicion that media outlets are hiding something.

It doesn't have to be this way. Every news outlet of any consequence now has endless space online to offer supplementary information about the people who report, edit, and produce the news. Who are they? Where did they grow up? What did they study in school? Why did they become journalists? Did they ever work in politics or volunteer for a cause? If so, when and where? If the outlet's policies allow them to make political donations, list them.

Digital technology lets news outlets to do all this without affecting the news itself. The fact that Sally Reporter is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, has two grown children, once worked in public relations, and is passionate about "green" issues doesn't need to be mentioned in any of her stories. It can appear on a separate Web page, available as a link to her work and accessible to anyone interested in knowing more about the person behind the headlines. Sally herself should decide what goes on that page—it's her life, after all. I'd venture that the more open she is, the less likely that readers will be suspicious of her work and motives.

Journalists should be doing the exposés, not serving as the subjects of them. Come on, media, join the human race.

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William Powers is a columnist for National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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