Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Over the years I've become quite friendly with many professional journalists. It's interesting that two of my best friends are journalists and they both have told me, "the only bad thing about becoming your friend is that I can't write about you any more." As a blogger, I don't think I have any trouble writing about my friends if I explain my relationship. The issue of professionalism aside, I think the first person tone of blogging makes it easier to write about your friends in the context of providing information. It's probably much harder or impossible to write about your friends objectively in third person.


Maybe you should have more European journalists as your friend :-)
I know the American hang-ups with 'objectivity', but I agree with our - and Jay Rosen - take on this. When becoming friends with people stops you from doing your work as a journalist, there is something very wrong.

hmmm... Joi, you'll have to define first the notion of friend. For example, between Canada and France, the notion of Friendship is completely different. It's a lot more casual all over america. People are called friends when it's about someone you know.

Writing about someone else friends or not is very hard. The person always interpret your writing and sometimes reproaches you something that you didn't mean in the writing. It can be very painful. :/ I have experienced it a few times.

Have to agree with Fons - it's not the friendship that's the problem, but the American myth of journalistic objectivity. Cast that one off and operate under a policy of full disclosure, and it's really not a big deal.

Objectivity is not a myth. I've been a journalist for 35 years now. We have two styles here. The old objective style which stands apart from the story and the personalities and tries to be as factual as it can. The other style, originally called "Personal Journalism" and pioneered by old Hippies like Warren Hinkle at Ramparts Magazine in the 1960;s, looks a lot like bloging--but better edited. This has now morphed into "creative nonficiton" which uses the techniques of the novelist to tell stories which are actually true. The objection to these styles comes when the story becomes about the reporter rather than what the reporter is writing about. It's the "There I Was Surrounded" school of narrative, which predates bloging but has the same spirit.
Objective journalism tries for a balance. It tries to tell all sides of a story. It can be tainted by bias, either overt or covert, but it is at least a search for the truth. Personal journalism and bloging are usually simply an expression of a point of view. As for covering friends, we've all had that experience, where you come to like someone a little too much and shy away from the hard questions that must be asked. At that point it's time to get out of the way and let someone else take up the work. Reporters have no friends.

The biggest problem with the US myth of journalistic objectivity is not the reluctance to write about one's friends -- it is the style where a journalist brings a quote from "both sides" of an issue and considers this "balanced coverage." With this myth, the journalist avoids responsibility for evaluating the truth of either claim.

Reporters who cover politicians or companies are vulnerable to being seduced by charm and power. I was an industry analyst for a while and when I moved into industry, it was rather bracing to see the level of calculation that went into seducing analysts.

At the same time there is value to journalists who know their domain; and that entails getting to know the people and culture. A lot of journalism is very shallow - journalists cover many topics on deadline and don't have the time to do much besides sort through press releases and get quotes. Dan Gillmor would not be a better journalist if he understood less about Silicon Valley culture.

"The Myth of Objectivity" is an interesting construct. It's academic with little relationship to the real world and it has a foundation in Marxist theory, which is where the term "disinformation" also comes from. I saw a lot fo this in the 1970s, when lying for the good of the cause was fashionable...and that was the ethic of presentation in several tech fields I have covered as a reporter. Hype and sanke oil. Part of the job is to expose such tactics.
One of the reasons that reporters should have no freinds among those that they cover is that friends tend to think you are their personal publicist. And act accordingly. Not only do they want to shape the coverage, they want you to collaborate in the lie. When you decline to engage in such ethical errors, then you are likely to be accused of "going after" someone or being "out to get them".
No one can be perfectly objective, of course, but this is the goal. Yes, publicists try to buy good will in various ways, ranging from a free pen to a free lunch, to, in a few rare cases, junkets. It seldom works. Intelligent reporters know this and use it as an opportunity to gain better access to the facts. But the rule is multiple sources, not single ones. The line between reporting and publicity is a fine one, but it is there and is generally observed by those of us who think of Journalism as a profession rather than just a job.