In journalism, caring about who wins

Margaret High, a reporting intern at the Whiteville News Reporter this summer, tweeted that about the Whiteville vs. Ledford high school baseball state championship. Margaret is a student of mine at UNC-Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism. She’s also from Whiteville.

My response to her tweet was something along the lines that, in most cases, good reporters should care about who wins when they write stories. Then, several people chimed in to say that in community sports coverage, it’s OK to be a “homer.”

That’s true, but that’s not what I meant. I meant that it is worth caring about who wins in virtually every story. And yes that seems to violate the “objectivity” credo that clouds discussions about newspaper journalism. (And here we get to think about “Transparency is the new objectivity” again! More about that in a moment.)

Read her tweet and put the emphasis on “care” rather than “who wins.” The difference is significant. Why is it OK to be a homer in community sports? Because the community cares about its team and what its team does and doesn’t do. This is true with most stories outside of sports, too.

Most stories only have one “side” to be on — the readers’ side. Reporters should care that readers’ interests win. And their reporting should reflect that.  A toxin found in the drinking water serving 250,000 people? An abducted 7-month-old child found? N.C. on the short list for Army Futures Command? State legislators move to protect industrial hog farms from lawsuits? Schools damaged by tornado won’t open in August? If you care about your readers – if you know what motivates them and what they care about – you generally know who and what should win. (In the stories above: clean water; the child’s safe return; getting the futures command; protecting residents’ rights; getting schools opened.)

Magazines have approached reporting and writing this way for years. Next time you browse through a paper or news website and ask yourself: Which “side” of the story benefits readers or the community the most? I’m betting the choice is easy. And the stories will be better. Reporting is sharper and writing more genuine.

I’m not talking about editorializing. I should repeat that for those in the back: This is not about editorializing. Caring about who wins doesn’t mean you ignore everything else, and it doesn’t mean you create “fake news.”

In 2009, David Weinberger wrote a post titled “Transparency is the new objectivity.” “At the edges of knowledge — in the analysis and contextualization that journalists nowadays tell us is their real value — we want, need, can have, and expect transparency. Transparency puts within the report itself a way for us to see what assumptions and values may have shaped it, and lets us see the arguments that the report resolved one way and not another.”

Before that, in 2005, Dan Gillmor argued that objectivity should be replaced with thoroughness, accuracy, fairness and transparency. And in each category, he insists on involving readers. “The first rule of having a conversation is to listen — and I know I learn more from people who think I’m wrong than from those who agree with me.” And thoroughness “means, whenever possible, asking our readers for their input.”

Thoroughness, accuracy and transparency are simple concepts that everyone should agree on. Fairness, as Dan defines them, is more complex.

“Fairness means, among other things, listening to different viewpoints, and incorporating them into the journalism. It does not mean parroting lies or distortions to achieve that lazy equivalence that leads some journalists to get opposing quotes when the facts overwhelmingly support one side….We should be aware of what drives us, and always willing to listen to those who disagree.”

(I’ve omitted important concepts for the sake of brevity. You should read the whole thing. It’s not long.) On virtually every story — certainly in sports, features and general news — following these principles makes stories — and writers’ motivations and biases — clearer. The only obvious exceptions are those stories where there are distinct sides — I’m thinking partisan politics. There, reader interests can be harder to delineate. (It’s still doable, though. That’s a different, longer post.)

Trust in journalism is at an all-time low. People think journalists are out for themselves, like to tear down things, and have no sense of decency. One way to claw back some trust is to show we care about what readers care about, and we write it from that vantage.

Doesn’t it seems natural that Margaret would write about Whiteville baseball from a Whiteville perspective? My sense is that if more reporters approached their stories that way, newspaper journalism would be much more interesting.