Monday, October 19, 2009

Does virtue hinder objectivity?

The importance of objectivity in reporting has been taught to us over and over in our journalism education. But can a reporter’s personal ethics hinder his or her ability to write a story or cover an event?

Merrill phrases the dilemma in this way: “Does a journalist’s concept of virtue override his or her purposeful attempt to be even-handed and as objective as possible?” (p. 71)

Merrill describes what he calls “communitariansim,” and believes that it is increasingly being incorporated into mass communication disguised as a type of civic journalism. He defines communitarianism as “widespread participation in the intra-public ‘conversation,” and believes it is biased by its very nature.

To illustrate this, he gives the example of the media giving priority to marginalized portions of society. It can be seen as a media bias, but one that is justified by a moral imperative to empower the less fortunate and weaker portions of society. (p. 70) In this view, being just is more important than simply informing the public.

But beliefs on what is just and unjust are extremely varied and dependent on personal belief systems. Merrill outlines several of the ethical concepts and frameworks proposed by some of the most prominent and important philosophers.

Both Aristotle and Socrates stress character-driven virtues. “Being virtuous as opposed to simply following rules. Aristotle’s rational person is happy, and a happy person is virtuous. His concept of happiness is what we mean by ‘living well.’ This would include such things as performing virtuous acts, and enjoying one’s social status. Virtues are acquired through practice; they become habitual.” (p. 76)

The ethical principles outlined by Immanuel Kant are more duty-based. “[Kant’s] moral person would be one who followed a predetermined maxim or principle that would assure the person’s intrinsic worth. But it is not trying to be happy, said Kant, but living the kind of life whereby a person deserves to be happy. The virtuous person, for Kant, was the duty-bound person who followed principle without trying to predict the consequences.” (p. 76)

John Stuart Mill argued for a principle of utilitarianism. His idea was that the moral worth of an action or decision is determined by the amount of happiness it gives to the largest amount of people, or maximizing utility. Mill “exemplified those who would act so as to spread happiness as broadly as possible.” (p. 76)

Merrill advocates for a kind of fusion of all these ethical concepts. He promotes “care for [a journalist’s] own character and constant self-improvement, while at the same time evidencing deep concern for the improvement and happiness of others.” (p. 77) To me, this seems like the most logical approach.

Merrill also asks, “How does the reporter maintain respect for the factual, for impartial, for neutral reporting and at the same time the value of personal perspectives, opinions and feelings?” (p. 74)

He applies Nietzsche’s “Dionysian” and “Apollonian” tendencies to journalism in an attempt to illustrate the need for balance between the objective and subjective role of a journalist.

The “Dionysian” journalist is one that is passionate and subjective. To me, this seems like the writer writer, not just simply regurgitating facts — it’s the artistic aspect of writing. The “Apollonian” journalist is more neutral and straightforward, taking a kind of “just the facts ma’am” approach. It’s more scientific and mechanical than artistic.

Merrill says the reporter needs to find some combination of both tendencies, to “recognize the value of both antinomies—and the weaknesses of both… Needed is the recognition that subjective structuring of and sensitive emphasis on facts will make a neutral and cold story more realistic and truthful.” (p. 74)

I agree with Merrill when he advocates self-improvement and care for your own character while being compassionate and concerned for others. It’s a noble goal, but one that may be more idealistic than pragmatic. I also agree that a scientific but somewhat artistic approach to reporting is important. Neutral, merely fact-based reporting is often dry and boring, but reporting that is too flexible and subjective can be overly sensitive.

So, “Does a journalist’s concept of virtue override his or her purposeful attempt to be even-handed and as objective as possible?”

I still don’t know. I don’t think there’s supposed to be an answer really. I understand how having strong feelings about an issue can sometimes get in the way of reporting, but I don’t think being a virtuous person means you can’t be a reporter. If anything, I think you could argue that the journalism industry needs people who value virtue now more than ever.

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