Monday, February 8, 2010

Can A Reporter Get Too Close To A Story?

By GARY BAUMGARTEN
Paltalk News Network


The public editor at the New York Times is recommending that the paper's Jerusalem bureau chief be reassigned because his son is now in the Israeli army. How can the father be objective, the editor asks, with a son in harm's way? I understand the concern, but where does one draw the line?

It's not unusual for editors and assignment desks to send black reporters out to cover the African American community. Hispanics to cover Latinos. Arabs to cover Arabs. And Jews to cover Jews. The theory is that they have a better understanding and probably have greater access to those communities. But how objective then, based on the public editor's recommendation, are these reporters?

What about women reporters covering women's issues? Ex-jocks covering sports?

Handicapped reporters covering the disabled? It sounds a bit absurd, but it's a fair question, if you follow the logic offered by Times public editor Clark Hoyt.

What about the time-honored tradition of using indigenous reporters to cover events in other lands? Should Iraqis be precluded from reporting from Iraq? Afghans from Afghanistan? Iranians from Iran?

Doesn't it really come down to the integrity of the reporter? Presumably, Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Ethan Bronner has strong feelings about the positions the Israelis take on issues that he is covering. His job is to put those feelings aside and be objective. Does that suddenly end when his son joins the IDF?

To be fair, Hoyt is not questioning Bronner's objectivity. He's raising questions about perceptions. But perhaps he's creating the perceptions himself. (It should be noted that the pro-Palestinian Electronic Intifada site was first to raise the issue.)

During the Vietnam War, when the draft was in place, I'm sure there were reporters whose sons were called to serve. Were there calls for them to stop writing about the war? I don't recall that there were.

Either the people you hire are objective or they are not. If they are, they use their personal experiences to enhance their reporting. They draw upon them to ask insightful questions.

Hoyt says he isn't calling into question Bronner's integrity here. But, sadly, because of this suggestion, his integrity is being questioned. Questioned without foundation.

That's the kind of sloppy reporting that, as the newspaper's ombudsman, Hoyt is supposed to be guarding against.

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