Objective Journalism?

With rise of blogs and social media, there’s an entire subculture of journalism about journalism, which I find annoying — but strangely captivating. So I’ve decided to add to it. Let’s start with the editor’s note that kicks off the brand-new March issue:

There’s a story in this issue that deserves a little bit of background.

In a piece titled “Revival,” Miriam Durkin, who was the longtime arts editor of the Observer before retiring last year, profiles Theatre Charlotte and its executive director, Ron Law. This story comes from two places. The first was a conversation I had last year with a local arts leader. At the time, the arts community — and, in lockstep, the media — was gearing up for the opening of what was then called the Wachovia Cultural Campus — the South Tryon Street complex that includes the Gantt Center, the Bechtler, the Knight Theater, and the new Mint. In a contrarian moment, this person suggested that we take a look at one of the city’s older arts groups. As an editor who likes to zig when others zag, that struck me as a grand idea.

Theatre Charlotte was the natural choice. At eighty-two, the community theater is the city’s oldest arts organization. Located in a plain cinderblock building in Myers Park for the past sixty-eight years, it was once the only theater in town. Now, it’s one of many, existing in the imposing shadow of the Blumenthal. The past two decades have been a financial struggle. But over the past five years, behind Law’s energy, enthusiasm, and creativity, it has been experiencing a mini revival. Durkin spins the tale starting on page 37.

What I like about this story is that the hard work at Theatre Charlotte has been done with neither fanfare nor public assistance. On Tryon Street, after all the grants and tax dollars and capital campaigns are tallied, a brand-new museum (the Bechtler) will end up with a $5 million endowment and NC Dance Theatre with an $8.5 million rehearsal facility. That’s $8.5 million for a building that, essentially, is not open to the public. While I believe, and have written, that the arts facilities campaign is a brilliant, game-changing move for Charlotte, I still find it odd that the city’s oldest arts group, which serves 12,500 citizens a year, has been left to plow ahead on its own, with only the Arts & Science Council as a partner (albeit a valuable one). Odd, but also refreshing.

But I said this story comes from two places. Five years ago, as Theatre Charlotte’s incoming board president, I served on the committee that made the recommendation to hire Ron Law. I then served alongside Ron as board president for two years. So I saw this story unfold firsthand. I haven’t been involved with the group since 2008, but I still hesitated to assign this story. Journalists are taught to remain objective, to not get involved with the stories they report. While I did not report this one, I did edit the story, and I was a part of it at one point. But then I said the hell with it. A story’s a story. And part of the problem with journalism today is that so many journalists have removed themselves from so many stories that they don’t know what is really going on out there.

But now I’m onto a larger topic. Let’s take this online, shall we? Check my blog Trade & Tryon for more thoughts on the state of journalism. I hope you’ll share your thoughts, too.

So. Objective journalism. In the mid  to late 1990s, when I started at the magazine, I believed wholeheartedly in the concept of objective journalism. Our job was simply to report both sides of the story, then let the reader decide. In the early 2000s, as I settled into the editorship of this magazine, I became less convinced. If we know something to be true, yet don’t share it because we can’t find a source willing to say it, are we really serving the reader by not writing it? Also, the old "report the facts and let the reader draw the conclusion" stories are boring. A magazine gives one the freedom to play around with that concept. In the proper hands, point of view is a wonderful, compelling thing.

At the same time, I gradually became more involved with the city, going through Leadership Charlotte, serving on a few boards and committees. I’ve always been a person who gets involved. I like to be near the action; I like to help. And, because I tend to show up at meetings, I often end up in some sort of leadership role. I felt, and still do on occasion, an internal conflict with this. How can I objectively report, assign, and edit stories on the city if I am also involved with the city? I probably overcompensated at times — when I served as president of the board of Theatre Charlotte, that fine organization did not get much coverage from this magazine.

But gradually I’ve come to understand something. The best way to understand how a city works is to get involved with it. You can’t figure it out from the sidelines. I think we’re a better magazine because I’ve served on a few boards. I think our magazine has a point of view that serves it and the reader well. That said, I try never to lose sight of my position. First and foremost, my job is to edit Charlotte magazine, to tell stories about and interpret this city for our readers to the best of my abilities.

There are a ton of journalists out there who will say that what I’ve written is heretical b.s. (Len Downie, the longtime editor of the Washington Post, says he never voted because he wanted to remain objective.) That’s cool. It’s a big world. I’m confident in the accuracy of my own ethical and moral compass; I’m confident I know a good story when I see one. I also know that the concept of objective journalism is a much more nuanced and complicated one than I’ve indicated here. Here, I’m only discussing different ways to find and tell the truth. What "the truth" means is a topic for another post (or this high-minded essay, which is actually pretty interesting.)

But I’m curious to know what you think. Is there such a thing as objective journalism? Is Charlotte magazine objective? Does knowing my personal background (even a little bit of it) change what you think about our stories? Is it all Obama’s fault? Or Rush Limbaugh’s?

Categories: The Buzz, Trade & Tryon, Trade & Tryon > Media