I didn’t believe in objectivity when I was a reporter and I do not believe in it now. Objectivity is the Great Myth of modern journalism, up there with foreign correspondent being a “glamorous occupation” and Fox News being “Fair and Balanced.”
Reporters can’t be objective because they are human. They have feelings, emotions and opinions that don’t stop when their fingers touch a keyboard or when the camera’s red light goes on.
We accept this from professional journalists as a fact of news media life. So why do some hold citizen journalists to a higher standard?
Here’s a case in point – literally. Lance Dutson, a writer who runs the Maine Web Report blog, is being sued by New York advertising agency Warren Kremer Paino Advertising (WKPA). The agency, which handles advertising for the Maine Office of Tourism, alleges that Dutson’s blog “contains numerous defamatory statements designed to blacken WKPA’s reputation, expose WKPA to public contempt and ridicule, and injure WKPA in its business and profession.” The Media Bloggers Association, of which I am a member, is assisting with the case (the MBA has more information about the case and pending legal battle here).
I haven’t followed the case or know enough about Dutson’s character to make an informed judgment. But I do know a thing or two about First Amendment rights and journalistic principles.
Professional journalists do (for the most part anyway) exercise something more important than objectivity, and that is restraint. The good ones work within the invisible boundaries that separate the reporter from the rabble-rouser, the journalist from the loose cannon. You can call Tom DeLay a crook as long as you also call him “Mr.” DeLay and back up your claims with facts.
Some citizen journalists are motivated by making an impact on their communities, by lending a different perspective on an issue or simply by sharing and adding their voices to the discussion. But they are not restricted by the same boundaries that restrict the professional. Restraint is an option, not an obligation.
Dutson may have been motivated by other factors, I don’t know. He certainly could have exercised more restraint in his choice of words (for example, he could have said the Maine Office of Tourism was “wasting,” not “pissing away” tax money). But he did not appear to unduly harm and he did not break the law. He acted well within his rights as a journalist, a citizen and as an American.
What Dutson said about Maine government and the contractors it pays with public funds doesn’t matter. What does matter, however, is defending his right to say it without personal or legal prosecution. It matters to Dutson, and it should matter to us all.