Relationships and responsibilities

Thinking Out Loud

Posted: Sunday, February 23, 2003

Consider this a renewal of our vows. It's good, I think, to revisit the reader-newspaper relationship, to remind ourselves of our role and our roots.

Thinking Out Loud

Steve Reed is managing editor of the Empire. He can be reached at streed@juneauempire.com.

We are an independent newspaper. That's the only kind to be. And, it is not enough to proclaim our independence in the "meaningless repetition" referred to in the Bible. And it isn't enough to say it. We have to lace up our Nikes every day and just do it.

A newspaper's independence is centered on the newsroom. Journalists may have many relationships, including friendly ones - even friendly ones with people in power. But a friendly relationship is not a partnership. And, a friendly relationship is not quite a full-fledged friendship. Resisting friendships strains human nature; the reasoning behind the journalistic reluctance isn't always clear (even to us).

Friends tend to go out of their way for one another. If we do journalistic favors for our friends, we are, by definition, "playing favorites." And that, by definition, is not fair to everyone else who is not the recipient of special treatment.

Fairness and accuracy form the foundation of a newspaper's credibility. A newspaper's credibility is its life's blood.

Therefore, journalists' relationships require a delicate balance. It is virtually impossible to avoid making friends. Ideally our friends are not newsmakers. As we learn every day, however, newsmakers are everywhere - in the pulpits, coaching youth sports, providing security at department stores, keeping the books for festivals, and filing documents at the State Chamber of Commerce. All innocent enough on the surface, huh?

So we keep our distance and risk being perceived as aloof, which is better than being perceived as unfair.

The relationship between newsroom and government is more - I almost said "clear-cut." Better not take that path through the forest. Let's just say the relationships between journalists and elected and appointed officials and bureaucrats must be arms-length.

Running with the bulls has its allure. But it also risks having our credibility impaled or trampled.

Government officials seldom invite meaningful accountability. They have been known to become a tad peeved if journalists, on behalf of the citizenry, dare to check decisions and relationships for possible conflicts of interest. (OK, OK, I, too, have been known to get on my high horse when our work is questioned.) The result seldom is a mutual admiration society. But it need not be automatically and purely adversarial.

Some journalists, like other folks, are political junkies. Newspapers must continually take the pulse of reporters to make sure the journalists are operating on behalf of readers and not sliding into the role of pal-consultant-imagined kingmaker. We must remain outsiders. The moment a journalist becomes intoxicated with proximity to the politically powerful is the moment that journalist should be reassigned.

Journalists should seek only the respect, grudging or otherwise, of politicians. We do not need government's permission to do our jobs. We are watchdogs, not lapdogs.

We watch on behalf of all, but especially on behalf of those without voice, access, wealth, privilege or power.

That said, we err grievously if we use our news pages to influence political decisions or to control outcomes. Democracy is messy, outcomes are uncertain. Our role is to inform; the people will decide.

I've been a journalist for 33 years. Over time, I've settled on one short set of words to summarize the approach I espouse on behalf of those in my profession:

There are no embarrassing questions, only embarrassing answers.

The Founding Fathers understood that when they put Congress on notice regarding the sanctity of free speech and a free press. And if you doubt Congress was put on notice, please reread the First Amendment.

Steve Reed is managing editor of the Empire.



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