My new favourite TV show is “Political Animals“. It revolves around the professional and personal life of a female Democrat who lost her party nomination and became the secretary of state in the new administration instead. This woman, by chance, also has a philandering husband who was the former president of the United States. To avoid libel suits from the Rodham camp, the producers threw in a divorce from the former president, a former Vegas show girl for a grand mother and hot twin sons (one is gay and a repeat druggie while the other works as his mother’s chief of staff and is engaged to an Asian girl).

Arguably the most important theme of the show is the relationship between people in positions of power and journalists who have the power to put them there or, just as quickly, pull the rug out from under them. Aka, the demigods with a pen (or in today’s world, the laptop) for a weapon.

What concerns me about journalism as a profession is the gray line between its work life and real life. Good journalists listen attentively, query empathetically and sense the nuances in the subject’s body language. These are also the characteristics of a good, responsive friend, someone you’d trust to divulge everything with.

I have a few good journalist friends for precisely these reasons and I also had the opportunity to observe their transition into their work selves. In my experiences so far, this transition is unfortunately an instantaneous drawing close of a cold, steely curtain. The case-by-case, give-and-take understanding of a normal human interaction vanishes and is replaced by the rigid professional norms that attempt to capture the delicacies of interpersonal interactions into a thick binder of professional standards of conduct.

One such norm I learned is that a journalist can video and audio record without permission from the subject, provided that the journalist and his or her supervisor deems the recording to be the only recourse in protecting the well-being of the public. This policy didn’t sit well with me the first moment I heard it but my protests were beaten back with the evidently righteous example of “Do you think someone producing counterfeit medication would admit his actions if I just asked him?”. However, I do not think arguments are best advanced with obvious examples. Null cases that prevent further debate on basis of morality alone are the game pieces of the uneducated. Unfortunately, I’m still often the kid at the playground who knows she was wronged but cannot think of a snappy comeback in time and could only puff her cheeks with indignity while tears well up in her eyes. This time, to maintain an agreeable atmosphere in the car, I got bullied into joking that perhaps I was a criminal in a previous life hence all my skirting around the pursuit of justice.

Over the next few days, I continued turning the question over in my head and building upon my initial arguments and I can now put into words what causes me unease with the current practice: What right does a handful of individuals (the journalist and his or her supervisors) with similar backgrounds (mostly white, middle-classed) and professional goals that often have a conflict of interest with the well-being of the subject (break big stories and break them first) have to dictate the future of the subject? Apparently, the journalism profession could also reveal the names of suspects if, again, these small, unrepresentative individuals deem it’s for the good of the public.

Even if evidences could be ruled to be out of consideration in a legal proceeding, even if the name of a suspect could be cleared when the actual offender is apprehended, certain scarlet letters can never be removed. In a legal proceeding, there is either a jury representing the demographics of the population or at least a lawyer advocating the defendant’s perspective. Before a dispute even makes it to the legal system however, journalism seems to grant one individual with the “professional” jurisdiction to decide the future of another. To me, this is the original seed of injustice and has the potential to harbour demigods.

In conclusion, I’d like to emphasize the above was the opinion of a layperson upon first examination of the issue. Contradicting opinions are welcomed as this is a topic I could stand to be educated in.

One comment

  1. Monica Ayala-Talavera · August 21, 2012

    Rose I love all your posts, you have a very clear and insightful way of writing and this is no exception. I hope I am one of the close journalism friends you refer to at the beginning – although I don’t think you’ve ever really seen me in action just yet.
    I actually really agree with you on the fact that some names don’t deserve to be dragged in the mud. I worked at a news organization that published a “crime photo slideshow” – basically they posted a photograph of all the people arrested in the area with a short description of their “alleged crime.” They key word here is alleged. In journalism we argue that as long as we include these “safe” words, it’s OK to publish a person’s face and name (and in some instances even their address) associated with a crime, but I disagree. I couldn’t bring myself to publish these posts because these people have not been convicted YET. We don’t know if they are for sure guilty just yet, police are humans and they make mistakes too. At least in America, the justice system works more in a way to keep innocent people out of jail than it does to put guilty people in it (if that makes sense) and we should be proud of that, but these journalism practices forever associate the individual with the crime – if they are found innocent later on it will only be a “demi-innocence,” if you will, since their reputations have already been damaged. And this, surprisingly enough is considered libel.
    Now, in the case of public figures my opinion gets a little fuzzy, I think when the press wields its power over pointless figures like Kim Kardashian and Kanye West it’s almost bullying and quite frankly doing absolutely no service to the public, but keeping public figures like politicians and powerful businessmen who hold the power to change many lives in check is the reason why journalism exists. Are there some journalists who abuse it? Absolutely, journalists are humans too. Journalism is a profession just like any other where some individuals are just better than others. Furthermore, public figures like politicians and businessmen have made the clear and conscience choice to be in the public eye and with that accept all the responsibilities that come with it, like facing the wrath of the press, to which I say if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen. But I fear more if the day comes where there is no one to keep figures of public interest in check. I’m afraid in this case we’re left choosing between the lesser of two evils – when you’re dealing with humans there will never be a perfect solution because we are not perfect.

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