The Importance of Reporting
©2007 Doug McGill
The key to good citizen journalism is reporting – bringing to readers ever-more-accurate descriptions of the world around us. The basic building block of such reportage is facts, i.e. verified observations.
In this sense, journalism is fundamentally distinct not only from fictional writing but also from persuasive writing, which is increasingly the dominant mode of media communication today and includes political speeches, talk shows, press releases, advertisements, special-section newspaper articles (“Home,” “Style,” etc.), and most of the writing on personal web logs or “blogs” on the Internet.
The promise of real journalism therefore is that it gives readers and viewers not a fantasy, a vacation, a pitch, or an argument, but a factually-grounded report. A report should make the reader feel that he knows more about the world and how it works, and that he can therefore use that information to become a better citizen and person.
In this sense, a potential pitfall for beginning citizen journalists is precisely the pre-existing beliefs they have about the civic and personal issues that matter to them most. They will have a natural and precious desire to share their experience, their knowledge, and their passion for peace and justice and democracy with others.
But the very strength of these beliefs can be a problem if the citizen journalist doesn’t remember that it’s always her first job to report as opposed to argue or give opinions. Reporting means observing the world and listening to the views of others with an open mind, and then reporting those observations and views as accurately as possible.
This does not mean that a journalist – professional or citizen – should not have a point-of-view. To the contrary, a point-of-view is necessary in order to shape the facts gathered in your reporting. A point-of-view can include opinions but is always much larger than that, including everything about you that is relevant to the article you are writing. So depending on the article, the point-of-view you need to explain to your readers may include the neighborhood, city, or state where you live, the place you grew up, your economic status, your race, your professional affiliations, your gender, your hobbies, etc.
Your personal opinions, beliefs, and emotional feelings are often so strongly felt that they seem to be co-equal, or even larger than, your point-of-view. But from the reader’s perspective, they never are. From the reader’s perspective, your personal opinions and feelings are only a small part of the much larger perspective from which you write.
Therefore, no matter how strong your opinions and feelings, your first priority as a journalist is to subordinate them to point-of-view. Not to erase them, which would be impossible and undesirable, but simply to subordinate them to the much larger and more important needs of the reader and of the world. Reader want, expect, and deserve that.
F or every article you write, then, prepare yourself to go out into the world to observe and listen carefully, with an open heart and mind.
Subordinate your own emotions and beliefs to what you see and hear, then record your observations as accurately as you can. A kind of humility is needed. You and your readers both know that your point-of-view will shape everything you observe and report. So don’t pretend you are being “objective,” everyone knows you can’t be. Rather, divulge your point-of-view humbly – including your opinions if they are relevant -- as part of your best attempt to accurately record what you observe as a journalist. That’s the best you can do.