The reporter is not your friend

[Originally delivered as a speech on World Press Freedom day]

The reporter is not your friend—and you should be glad of that.

Well, okay, the reporter can be your friend, but she’s the honest friend who tells you yeah, your butt does look big in that. He’s the friend who stands between you and that bully and says, ‘You don’t have the right to speak to her like that!’ And then turns to you and says, ‘And neither do you.’

The reporter is the friend that tells you what your other friends are saying about you. Whether you want to hear it or not.

The reporter is the friend who tells you what you did was wrong, and who still visits you in jail. They don’t hate you when you don’t agree; they don’t like you just because you do.

It never struck me until I started working at a newspaper just how it felt for people to see their name in the headline. Good news or bad, it’s a shock.

And it never struck me until I started working at a newspaper just how it felt to put your name in the byline day after day. By far, the response to the work we do at the Daily Post is positive. But when the response is negative, you feel it deeply.

A good reporter never makes assumptions about anything. So when someone questions something they wrote, there’s an in-built tendency to relitigate every single tiny detail, again and again. There’s often a tendency to push back, too, to defend not only what was said, but the right to say it.

Whenever we write a headline that we know people won’t like, it takes a conscious effort to phrase it just right. People talk a lot about objectivity; they talk even more about bias. Unless the story is merely factual, it’s often very difficult to get the headline, the lede and the supporting details just right.

Is the balance sufficient? Are we fairly reflecting the credibility—or lack thereof—of the source(s)?

All too often, we are faced with the prospect of representing views or opinions that we don’t share, that are unpopular or even reprehensible. But if the story is noteworthy, and it is in the public’s interest to know about it, we have a duty to print.

This means printing material that offends, sometimes personally, sometimes publicly. When a prominent group, for example, subscribes to an immoral and even potentially illegal policy, we cannot hide that fact just because it might reflect poorly on them. Nor can we let our own personal feelings about the story colour the piece.

That said, objectivity does not mean acquiescing to words and deeds that are immoral or illegal. Getting ‘both sides of the story’ is not nearly the Holy Grail that some people think it is. We don’t have to get the robber’s side of the story to report that a robbery took place.

We don’t assume that the accused is guilty unless convicted, but that’s a different issue. If we can verify that a robbery took place, then we report it.

Another common dilemma: Have we allowed the fact that the other party refused to comment imply that they’re wrong in any way? This is a particularly difficult aspect to the ‘both sides of the story’ issue. Just because someone refused to talk to the press cannot for a moment imply that they’re wrong in any way. And when someone tries to litigate their conflict in the media, it can sometimes seem that the one who complains the loudest is the ‘most right’—if that makes any sense.

Ideally, all parties participate equally in the creation of a story. Ideally, this leads to a dialogue that informs the public and motivates them to responsible action. Ideally, we’d all get a pony.

Responsible, respectful reporting is just as painful for some as the most lurid tabloid Murdoch-isms. We don’t print stuff just because people want to see it. That’s just gossip. But we don’t NOT print stuff just because some people don’t want to see it. That’s not respect, that’s censorship.

Choosing what’s noteworthy and in the public interest does involve trying to decide whether people will read a story or not. But sometimes it’s necessary to print the story whether people want to see it or not.

Last week, our coverage of the 7.3 earthquake that rattled shelves in Luganville stores reached over 80,000 people. Our reports on the West Papua Independence march reached nearly 20,000. Our story about a young woman who jumped to her death from a moving bus reached a little over 6,500 people.

There’s no moral in this—just an observation that people’s engagement with news doesn’t always equate with its importance. But here’s the thing: even if the numbers were inverted, we would still have printed every one of those stories exactly as we did.

The reporter may want to be your friend, but not enough to take a step back from the truth. You may not always like what you hear, but you should be glad that someone is willing to play that often-unwelcome role.

Happy Media Freedom Day, Vanuatu. We’ll understand if you don’t buy us a shell.

… And your butt looks fine in that, by the way. This time.

Dan McGarry

Media Director