Monday, December 17, 2012

Occupy Journalism

In the 2003 Gulf War, over 700 journalists were embedded with our military units. This created an ethical dilemma. Since the military controlled where journalists went and what journalists saw, our military could influence what journalists wrote. Many argued this was a bad idea, that journalists must remain independent and objective.

An interesting ethical problem, but consider the next step of journalists actually helping our soldiers fight the enemy. That’s what Boston Herald reporter Jules Crittendon did while embedded with snipers. He pointed out three “fuckers” (his words) that the snipers had missed, which the snipers then blew away (“blew away” being the appropriate term to describe what a .50 caliber sniper round does to the human body). This is the grossest violation of journalistic ethics, not only causing readers to question the journalist’s objectivity, but putting in harms way all other journalists covering the conflict.

Soon after the start of the Occupy protests, Wired Magazine hired writer Quinn Norton to “embed” herself with the protesters. What happened at 2pm was just the show for the onlookers and tourists. The “real” Occupy was what happened at 2am. Staying overnight with the protesters, to see what was going on from the inside, could have made a fascinating story.

...but only if she maintain journalistic integrity. Quinn Norton failed at that. The stories she filed with Wired didn’t even maintain the pretense of objectivity. She wasn’t a disinterested observer, but a champion of the cause. She called her writing “long form literary journalism” but it didn't have the journalistic ethics of objectivity, impartiality, and fairness. What she wrote made supporters of the cause cheer, but made non-supporters turn away.

At the start of her “embedded” experiment, she promised she’d get the story of the other side, like that of the police. She noted how difficult it was to get the police to comment on the record. There is a reason for that: the police recognize that most journalists are enemy combatants. Norton proved this to be the case. She didn’t faithfully tell their side of the conflict, but instead twisted things to fit her narrative of oppression and despair. In her final piece, she says “The police were cocky and condescending in ways I found shocking”. That’s an arbitrary judgment that says little about the police and a lot about Quinn Norton. It’s a made up statement designed to further her narrative. This style of reporting makes it even less likely that the police in the future will go on the record or trust journalists to faithfully report their point of view.

The police do indeed deserve a lot of criticism. But here’s the thing: the protesters themselves contributed to the conflict with police. Protesters deliberately pushed things in order to play the victim. The protesters I talked to measured the success of marches by how many people got arrested. I overheard protesters planning on mass arrests before the famous Brooklyn Bridge incident where 700 protesters walked out onto the bridge blocking traffic. Indeed, Norton herself measured Occupy victories in terms of action by the police.

In her final piece, Norton criticizes those pushing live video streams from their cell phones, saying “The livestreamers got drunk off their modicum of fame, behaving as tiny entitled prophets to the movement”. Translated, this means “How dare they report on themselves when it’s we, the professional writers, who are entitled to be prophets of the movement!!”. The biggest thing about Occupy wasn’t their cause, but the shift in technology, and how little the mainstream media mattered. Occupy became famous on its own, through Twitter, Facebook, and the blogs – despite inattention from the media. Most of the photos you’ve seen, even from mainstream sources, have come from cell phones. During the standoff between the police and protesters, both sides pointed cell phones at each other, both sides committing to show the world what was going on, without the filtering and reinterpretation imposed by the old media. Cops won’t talk to biased journalists, but they will post their own photos of the events.

It’s hard to see partisanship and bias on your own side. That’s why you should sometimes listen to the other side. No, it’s not for balancing opinions, but learning the fallacy of propaganda. You should watch Fox News evening programs, especially Sean Hannity. The way he offends you is exactly how many see Norton’s flowery rhetoric.

Even if you want Norton’s partisan efforts to succeed, that cathartic propaganda you enjoyed turned away the minds you want to change. The only people who read past her first paragraphs where those who already agreed with Norton. That’s why objectivity and balance matter: you can only change minds if the reader trusts you, and actually reads what you write. Like a war correspondent attacking the enemy, partisanship erodes not only trust in your own writing, but contaminates all other journalists covering the same topic. Embedding with Occupy could’ve been a great story, but Norton's effort ended up as a missed opportunity.


Anonymous said...

I agree whole heartily. After reading only a small sample of her articles, I knew where she stood. Objectivity was out the door from the beginning, but then true journalism isn't really to be found in the main stream media anymore. I'd rather read the news from someone that is "just a blogger" than these so called "journalists".

Anonymous said...

Good God, you're kidding. It's WIRED magazine, not a real publication. The whole notion of embedding isn't conducive to objective journalism - on the battlefield or in a protest movement. In fact, I have no idea what I would expect from such a venture, because the point of a protest is the protest, not the time spent making the signs or plotting strategy.
Do you know what the word "Eulogy" means, by the way?

Anonymous said...

> In the 2003 Gulf War

Oil War II