Does personality have a role in journalism?

Posted: April 13th, 2009 | Author: Tyler Dukes | Filed under: journalism | Tags: , , , , | View Comments

transparencyOne of the things I love about Twitter is how easily it allows users to quickly create a dialogue with the community. For journalists, it’s a casual way to solicit opinions, sources, feedback — anything of value, really, from the community they cover.

Twitter, even more than blogs, has been extremely effective at breaking down the wall that has existed for so long between the readers and the news gatherers, and I think it strengthens the community’s sense of trust in whoever it is they are following. That’s because the audience begins to realize that the journalist is, in fact, a person and a member of their own community (hopefully).

But Twitter creates a problem many old-school journalism professors warn students about — it lets personality show through writing. The old ideal — the concept of “fly-on-the-wall journalism” — dictates that journalists should be a bit like monks, declining to react to what they observe.

This, at times, leads to disastrous results.

It’s an effort to maintain objectivity, a commitment to working toward finding a practical truth (Notice the italics: Calm down philosophy majors).

Over at TechCruch, Brian Solis mused over the weekend about how the “statusphere” might save journalism. Some of the best journalists, he says, have taken to delivering their content directly to their audience in addition to interacting with them. His central thesis is this:

Personality + Insight + Promotion + Interaction = Visibility and Community

I think I agree with that. I’ve never been one who believes journalists should pretend they aren’t part of their community.

But I guess I haven’t always felt like that. I recently stumbled on something I wrote for the N.C. State Alumni Magazine back in 2006.

At the Technician, I’m just a byline. I’m the name my readers skip over as they move on to the photos, stories and, way more often than I’d like, the crossword puzzle. In fact, if I’m lucky, my readers won’t talk about me or my writing at all. If I’ve done my job, it’s the issue they’ll discuss, and the emotions and comments that follow will relate not to the way I write my story or the competence of the Technician‘s editors, but to how this information affects their lives.

That attitude seems like the right one — at least in my gut. It’s a bit unrealistic, but it seems like the thing to work toward.

But I think the danger is that readers may sometimes interpret that monk-like disinterest, even when it’s done well, as uninterest. That can make a reader feel disconnected, and that disconnect has translated into major problems from the news industry.

What do you think? Should we continue to persue stone-cold objectivity? Or should we strive to connect on some level with our readers? Is there a way to balance both?

  • Benny Mac

    In terms of writing style, I let my personality come through. But in terms of substance, I try to stick to the facts.

    However, in off-the-record conversations with sources, I do voice my opinion of certain tpoics with them to show that I am just not a stenographer, and they are not just a suit.

    It’s all about cultivating the source, which is an “old-school” reporting technique that technology tends to destroy. If I sit and Twitter or even e-mail a source, you lose face-to-face time, the nuance of conversation, like tone of voice or facial expression, and it tends to hide the source of information.

    How do I know I’m really talking to the chancellor through e-mail and not one of his lackeys, for example? Until I am sitting in front of him, having a conversation, you have to take tweets, IMs and e-mail with a grain of salt.

    Back in Stokes County, I had a candidate in a sheriff’s race that allegedly could not read. And when I tried to set up an interview, he would not meet with me face-to-face, but only take questions through e-mail.

    I reluctantly agreed, knowing in the back of my mind that it probably was not him responding to my questions in the e-mail. But I couldn’t get a face-to-face interview to test his literacy and verify without a doubt if he could read or not.

    (He ended up losing the primary. Back in 1982, he and his buddies stole a bunch of tractors and got caught.)

    How does this translate to readers? Better information to report on. And if you are a part of your community and people see you at events over and over again, they will know who you are and where you are coming from.

    Also, I kinda lean toward the gonzo school of journalism, where you are a participant in a story, whether you like it or not. Remember the Good Doctor: “There is no such thing as Objective Journalism …”

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