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When Reporters Enter The Story, It’s Bad News

There was a time when news reporters did their job by interviewing sources. They competed with one another to be first on the street with the biggest news.

These days, reporters often interview other journalists — a practice that is often pointless and sometimes destructive, as the recent row between NPR and its former “news analyst,” Juan Williams, vividly demonstrated.

At NPR, Williams was supposed to provide objective interpretation of the news. This is basically impossible, though most journalists would tell you it is what they try to do. In his other job at Fox News, Williams was a commentator. NPR fired Williams after he made a remarkably silly and unfair comment about Muslims on Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor.” The firing, in turn, provoked a political backlash against NPR.

Well-researched news stories usually provide the facts about what happened, as well as an interpretation of why the event is significant. The facts about a house fire that kills a family of four can be objectively verified. But if the story probes for the reasons behind the deaths, objectivity gets trickier.

Maybe a fire station near the house was recently closed due to budget cuts. A why-did-it-happen story might focus on the mayor for proposing the cuts, or on the firefighters’ union for work rules that arguably made the cuts necessary, or on a bond issue for a new stadium that left the city too little money for fire prevention. It is unrealistic to expect a journalist to “objectively” evaluate these alternatives as though they were facts that could be determined as easily as counting the bodies.

Reporters are human. We all interpret information based upon our own values, judgments and experiences, none of which render us “objective.” Objective interpretation may be impossible. Journalists should not promise it, and audiences should neither expect nor demand it. What we can demand is fairness and transparency. A story that considers alternative causes for the fire deaths, and which evaluates the various possibilities using knowledgeable sources whose interests and biases are disclosed to the audience, is most likely to be fair.

Journalists are usually not experts in much besides the craft of journalism. Giving a reporter a title such as “news analyst” and asking for “objective interpretation” is setting that journalist up to fail. If he’s a reporter, let him report. If he is an editor, let him edit. If he is a commentator, let him comment.

NPR’s problem with Williams was not, or at least should not have been, that his particular comment about Muslims was unfair and silly. NPR’s real problem was that the roles of source, commentator and reporter are incompatible. Sources make news; reporters report it. Reporters strive for fairness, while editorial comments, stupid or otherwise, are often unfair, because they leave out valid points that can be made for the opposite position. Reporters should keep their personal opinions out of their reporting and, to maintain their audience’s trust, out of the public eye. My attitude, when I was a reporter, was that nobody was interested in my opinions. They did not belong in my stories. On the few occasions I forgot that rule, I usually ended up regretting it.

If NPR believed Williams’ role as a Fox commentator was inconsistent with his duties as an NPR reporter, it should have objected long before Williams made the particular remarks that became an issue. Turning a reporter into a news source or a commentator is generally a bad idea. But many organizations, probably most, do it nowadays. NPR itself is among them.

An example I found particularly irksome happened last year when Obama's then-Wall Street pay czar, Kenneth Feinberg, issued rules to restrict compensation of bankers at institutions that took TARP money. Instead of interviewing somebody in the industry who was actually affected by the rules, Michele Norris, a host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” interviewed New York Times business reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin. Sorkin, who was plugging his recently released book on the origins of the financial crisis, basically said the bankers had it coming. I thought the bankers should have had a chance to speak for themselves.

Williams straddled the role of source and commentator in his pivotal exchange with Fox host Bill O’Reilly. At the host’s prodding, Williams offered that “when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

Williams is entitled to get nervous about anything he wants. I find it odd that someone who built his career chronicling civil rights issues, and who probably would be dumbfounded if a fellow journalist said he gets nervous when he sees a black man in a dashiki, would take this particular stance. Apart from stereotyping, does Williams really think terrorism’s next assault on a U.S. airliner will come from someone wearing a burqa or a keffiyeh? I would be more worried about the terrorist who is skilled at blending into the crowd.

After he made this statement on Fox, NPR’s chief executive Vivian Schiller decided Williams was no longer fit to analyze the news. She wrote, in a letter explaining her decision, that Williams had violated his agreement “to avoid expressing strong personal opinions on controversial subjects in public settings,” which she said was “inconsistent with his role as an NPR news analyst.”

Anyone is free to give opinions about the news as a commentator. I'm doing it right here. My credentials, such as they are, are on my website, and anyone who reads this can decide whether my opinions are of interest.

So maybe we can divide the world’s population into three groups: sources, commentators and reporters. Sources provide facts or give interpretations. Their facts may be wrong or their interpretations self-interested, but a good reporter will always look for good sources.

Commentators give opinions. A good commentator will base those opinions on facts and will have the expertise and judgment to make those opinions worth considering. In this space, I try to be a good commentator. When journalists interview me, I try to be a good source.

The last and smallest group, the reporters, cannot move between roles as readily as I can move between commentator and source. A reporter’s audience must trust that she or he is always acting on the assumption I once used, that a reporter’s opinions do not matter. The reporter’s job is to be fair and accurate. Accuracy means reporting all the significant, verifiable facts correctly. Fairness means not taking sides, and it requires a clear presentation of the relevant perspectives so the audience can draw its own conclusions.

There is not much room in this scheme for reporters to interview other reporters. If we all understand our roles, we can avoid damaging episodes like the Williams affair.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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