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Thinking about Impartiality

January 3, 2009

A thousand coffins outside the White House in Washington DC.

I thought I’d start with a story. One of the first reporting assignments I ever went on was a protest march in Washington DC, to mark the death of the one thousandth American soldier in Iraq. It was 2004, a few months before the Presidential election between George Bush and John Kerry. I was doing an internship for a pretty radical community radio station in the city, and they asked me to go along to the demo.

The protesters had gathered at Arlington National Cemetery, the home to so many dead soldiers from so many different conflicts. The plan was to march with one thousand coffins from there, through the streets of the city, to the White-house. There, the black draped coffins, each bearing a red rose, would be laid on the grassy field.

I was anything but impartial that day…

Now, I was anything but impartial that day. I felt that the war was wrong – I’d demonstrated against it in Scotland, and was still felt deeply frustrated that we hadn’t been able to stop it from taking place. So I was half there as a protester myself. I even offered to help carry one of the coffins, when it seemed that there wouldn’t be enough people marching.

I recorded and interviewed many people – particularly the families that had lost children. One of them was Cindy Sheehan, who had had lost her son, Casey, just a few weeks before hand. She went on to become the US’s leading anti-war activist.

Not everyone that day was protesting against the war. Near to Arlington, in particular, a small cluster of women – perhaps four or five – waved patriotic placards against the peace protest.

I spoke to one woman, who told me that her husband had been buried in the cemetery ten years ago.

She felt that the protesters didn’t have a right to use those symbols of soldiers deaths for their own political ends. I interviewed her, but didn’t use her clips in the final piece.

Looking back, that story, and the way I approached it, still makes me think about my role as a journalist, about strong beliefs, and about impartiality.

Here are some points worth discussing.

Impartial Means or Ends?

Is being impartial about the end product? Or is it about the process, the way in which we work through a story? Does it mean making sure that your story is balanced between opposing points of view? Or can we make a judgement call?

Veteran reporter Charles Wheeler seemed to think so when he was interviewed by the Today programme. (8.20 am)

Can you have strong beliefs and still be impartial?

I think the key thing is having an open mind. We all have our different backgrounds, beliefs and prejudices, which we bring to bear on stories. They affect our choice of questions, our choice of people to interview, and our construction of stories. But by being self-aware, self-critical, and open to persuasion, you can move beyond that position into something new.

The alternative is either not to have beliefs and opinions, or to pretend that we don’t.

How involved should you get?

I know now that I wasn’t really working as a journalist that day in Washington DC. I was there to promote a cause that I felt was right. I was blending the role of activist and journalist. Now, I think it’s important to be clear about your role as an observer and a chronicler of events. Only in exceptional circumstances should you become involved in events, when your human reflexes take over.

But I still think it’s important to be passionate about issues, particularly war and injustice – to be able to recognise them for what they are, and to be able to tell people they are happening without sitting on the fence.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. tommytonkins permalink
    January 8, 2009 12:50 PM

    I’d go beyond saying it’s important to be passionate about issues, I’d say it’s essenatial.

    I guess the whole issue of impartiality is one we should all be trying to come to terms with and, depending on an individual response, could stem back to how that individual defines journalism.

    Are we, as journalists, there for all the people? Or just for those who have views close to our own?

    There are stories all around us and I think one of the most important skills we can learn is having the ability to find those stories and communicate them to the world in the clearest and most interesting way.

    Maybe this means on occasions we have to put on a front and, while still being true to our beliefs, not letting the rise to the surface so they prevent us from getting the story out.

    And I think you touch on all of this in the post really well. If the end product is impartial, but acheived by biased means, is that ok? I’m not sure to be honest.

    And, to throw another question in, can we forget about impartiality in the face of wide spread injustice? Surely then it becomes our duty to speak out and inform people on what is really happening.

    Without wanting to drift to far into the realms of cliche, I think we must, at all times, stay honest to ourselves because if we don’t, how can we hope to be honest to anything else?

  2. February 8, 2009 12:08 PM

    Hey Tom,

    There was an interesting comment piece in the Indepedent yesterday about the changes in war reporting and morality vs impartiality – thought you might like a read:


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