Saturday, December 31, 2005

Now for Something Entirely Different

The posting found here have a narrow purpose. I discipline myself to try and stick to local, fiber-related events in this blog. I tried to not let Katrina and Rita take over this space during the time they took over our lives. That effort was mostly successful. I have also tried to keep my anger at the storms and the injustices suffered from New Orleans to Lake Charles from spilling over into anger at injustice done the people of Lafayette as they struggle to do nothing more than to take care of themselves. Arguably I have not succeeded quite so well there. All that's by way of a warning. What follows has to do with fiber and Lafayette only tangetially. Read on so warned.

An article in the Los Angles Times, reprinted in the Advocate this morning, occasions such reflection. That article's subject is the renewal of the Times-Picayune in the wake of Katrina. The paper has become a touchstone for those in New Orleans and its diaspora by taking on the role of a fearless advocate for the city's needs and its rebirth. The people have responded: the Picayune has recovered 80% of its circulation in a city that is far from recovering 80% of it population and its website is running at twice the pre-storm hit rate.

The subhead in the LA Times is "Advocacy reporting is making an auspicious return in New Orleans." The paper quotes LSU Journalism school's Tony Perkins saying "Objectivity is a fairly new construct in this business that has little to do with the quality of reporting" and the story proves his point. Or at least it proves his point concerning what "objectivity" has become in journalism: a synonym for a neutrality so carefully executed that no reader could tell whether the reporter understands the meaning of what he or she reports. That's a travesty of the real meaning of objectivity which has nothing to do with neutrality and everything to do with making sure that the real world, and not some fantasy is what gets reported. That sort of objectivity, to which real reporting should aspire, is a quality subordinate to the purpose of reporting. The purpose need not be brazenly partisan--it can and should include simply informing the public about what is objectively true on a topic of wide interest. But choosing what to report, out of the welter of things that could be reported, always implies a purpose.

The Times-Picayune has received a rare blessing: it now has a clearly understood purpose which objectivity can serve. It exists to serve its community and to help insure that community's survival. It is no longer burdened by any supercilious inclination to view objectivity as a purpose in itself. It makes for good, meaty journalism, journalism that has been noticed across the nation; a quality of reporting the Los Angeles Times story struggles to explain. The Picayune's desire to serve its community doesn't involve putting aside objectivity but recognizing that objectivity is that quality which keeps purpose honest. The LA Times says: "The newspaper's success in the face of disaster raises a question: Are objectivity and dispassion in journalism overrated?" That's almost the right question. What's overrated is dispassionate neutrality masquerading as objectivity.

The Picayune has pursued a fearless and objective reporting. It has "exposed poorly constructed levees, picked apart obtuse FEMA policies, debunked overblown claims of evacuation center violence, and traveled as far as the Netherlands and Japan to show how other communities have coped with flooding and disaster." And it has shown no hesitation in going after irresponsible politicians, overreacting citizens, the federal government, and sacred cows of all descriptions in a new-found determination to accurately and objectively report on whatever is necessary to inform the public of matters crucial to the survival of its community.

It's a lesson that Tony Perkins and J-schools across the country need to teach. And a lesson which local papers everywhere should take to heart. Stories are properly chosen by how much they could potentially mean to the betterment of your community. That does not mean reporting happy-making but insignificant fluff. It does mean fearlessly and accurately reporting on what is actually important--including that which makes for unhappiness and dissatisfaction--and making sure that the reader understands why what is reported is worth understanding. Good, powerful reporting flows from knowing why one writes and being fearless about pursuing that purpose.

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