McGuire on Media

Independence of faction or are you a journalist forever?

Sometimes the mysteries of our own actions are illuminated by the actions of others. I have been operating with a set of assumptions about being a journalist that were seriously shaken yesterday morning when two colleagues reacted to a note I wrote. They reacted exactly as I have reacted for 35 years.

A little background is necessary for context. The Arizona Republic Tuesday reported that a bill that would allow concealed weapons permit holders to carry guns on college campuses advanced beyond a Senate committee on Monday. As a faculty member who teaches 87 students in a large theater setting, I hate the concept of this bill. Since the Northern Illinois University shootings I have been shamelessly focused on my own self-interest. I would be far more comfortable with metal detectors to keep guns out of classrooms than introducing more guns into the campus environment. I could write on and on about my opposition to the bill, but that is coincidental to my point.

Tuesday morning I wrote a note to three administrators and another note to four faculty members with faculty representation responsibilities. They all responded quickly and attentively. I am satisfied the matter will be addressed appropriately. That is also coincidental to my point.

My point is illustrated by responses from two faculty colleagues. 

“I’m just not very comfortable with the Cronkite School taking a stand on a political issue, no matter how valid, that doesn’t directly relate to journalism.” 

“But as a journalist I’m leery of expressing overt support for or opposition to any political issues, no matter how strongly I personally feel about them.”

The first comment comes from Kristin Gilger who has been out of a newsroom for five years.  I understand her reaction that the Cronkite School has to be chary of expressing political opinions. However, when we talked, Kristin went further and echoed the second comment which came from Steve Doig. Steve has been out of the newsroom for about 12 years. Both see themselves as journalists and thus ineligible to take a stand on anything remotely political.

Their reactions, Kristin confessed hers was “knee-jerk,” are very similar to where I’ve always been.  I never declared a political party as a newspaper editor, and I did not do so here in Arizona. That meant I could not vote in the recent Arizona primary. I always carefully avoided any community involvement outside of faith. I understood every action would be scrutinized by a reading public looking for some whiff of bias.  I took all those precautions to insure what Kovach and Rosenstiel call “independence of faction.” They call for an independence of spirit and mind rather than neutrality.

As journalists, Steve Kristin and I all practiced such independence with ferocity.  It was crucial to the  journalistic role our newspapers played in our communities.

The question that stared me in the face when I saw the responses from Kristin and Steve was this: Are we still journalists? Did we acquire a Scarlet “J” for our foreheads when we walked into a newsroom? Is it permanent or does it wash off after X number of years as a professor or Wal-Mart greeter?  When I talked with Kristin she acknowledged that being a journalist is a “way of life.” She contended her belief that she must be separated from anything partisan will always be with her. 

I pushed back and asked, “when does that become abdication?” I didn’t push back out of disagreement, but out of confusion. This “lay person” assimilation does not come easily.  Even though they reflected my own feelings, I admit when I read the comments from Kristin and Steve they struck me as odd and even a bit elitist.

Steve says some of his hesitancy to speak out on political issues is fed by the fact “I occasionally still do journalism.” He said he still does some newsroom work on a consulting basis. The more Steve talked the more his words seemed like Kristin’s. Objectivity, independence, non-partisanship become a personal choice we make because of all those years in the newsroom.  Steve said, “I guess it helps me maintain my own illusion of objectivity”

The more I talked to both Kristin and Steve, the more it became obvious to me that for all three of us the “non-political” position is part of own self-identification. The independence of spirit demanded by our days in the newsroom does “mark” us in certain ways.

And yet, I keep coming back to that abdication issue.  In this particular case involving concealed weapons on campus, I simply did not feel faculty were speaking out enough against this bill which, in my opinion, could put all of us in danger rather than make us safer as proponents contend. It became a case of that classic question: If I don’t speak who will? 

As a journalist I always had beliefs, but I knew I had to check my public behaviors at the door.  As a journalism professor I am much less sure of that.  I have a vague sense that taking the “non-involvement” stance when I am removed from making news decisions makes me more than a bit of a “copout,”  Yet, that “J” does not wash off easily. 

Thanks to Kristin and Steve for being good sports and engaging in this conversation.  I hope readers will do the same.