Professionalism generally means getting the job done without letting your personal preferences sway you.
So a lawyer lays her personal hate on a long-time criminal to defend him to the best of her ability.
An NHL hockey player plays his best no matter what city he’s traded to.
And a doctor treats a gang member or a sex worker without letting her own dislike of their lifestyle influence her diagnosis and treatment.
Likewise, I’ve always believed that professional journalists should report the facts impartially, without letting their own political biases sway their reporting.
Fox News blew this principle into space. But I shouldn’t suggest that Fox did it alone. It has been known since the rise of newspaper empires a century ago that newspapers have their own prejudices. Republican or Democrat in the US. Liberal or Conservative in Canada.
Talk Radio made no attempt to hide the presenter’s prejudices. Fox News has taken talk radio to the extreme.
Alternative news networks on the Internet claim to be free from the influence of company owners and advertisers. But they have their own prejudices. A non-profit service railed against the alleged misdeeds of Hunter Biden, the president’s son, while completely ignoring allegations against Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law. Another does exactly the opposite.
In fact, journalists are never completely impartial. When we do interviews, when we do research, we choose the quotes, the incidents, the stories that we use.
They serve as examples that represent the whole story as we see it.
Ideally, they point to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
But I wonder, is professionalism limited to just reporting accurately?
Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones spent 10 years claiming — over and over again, on TV, in newspapers, on social media — that the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting was a hoax, the bereaved parents were just actors.
A Texas court recently ordered Jones to pay the parents of a boy killed in Sandy Hook $45 million in damages.
Was it enough for journalists to accurately report his claims? Should they have questioned his “facts”? Or completely ignored?
A long time ago, when what is now Editors Canada was still in its infancy, we hosted a workshop on professionalism.
The executive asked a hypothetical question: “If you were asked to edit Hitler’s Mein Kampf, what would you do?”
As you can imagine, the discussion was lively. Even hard. Editors tend to be hyper rational most of the time. But some of the editors were Jewish. Their families had suffered under Hitler’s regime. You couldn’t be academically dispassionate.
As I recall, the positions were broken down into four general responses.
• First, you refuse to even touch the job.
• Second, accept the job but sabotage it.
• Third, accept the job and correct grammatical errors, but no more.
• Fourth, accept the brief and make the book as powerful and compelling as possible.
We never reached a consensus.
All four are legitimate answers. Although theoretically only the fourth would count as impartial professionalism. It is not for an editor—or a doctor, an engineer, or a lawyer—to act as judge or jury.
I have chosen all four of these options at various times.
I have turned down commissions and manuscripts that I did not wish to be associated with. I consider that the most honorable option.
I took commissions, but then changed the text until it said something different than what the author originally intended.
(No, I am not proud of having done it. I contend that I had no choice; I followed orders. Even though I recognize that Hitler’s henchmen used the same excuse.)
I have accepted jobs where I have changed the text myself as little as possible. The author was responsible for the content. I just fixed minor errors – spelling, punctuation, grammar – that would have embarrassed the author if published that way.
But most of all, I hope I tried to make the finished product as good as possible. Even if I didn’t always agree with the author’s opinion.
I thought that would be professional.
Now, years later, I wonder if I had a distorted perspective.
Are a doctor’s medical skills completely divorced from a doctor’s personal beliefs?
Should a lawyer have to defend a client she knows has committed atrocities?
Is it enough that journalists report unadulterated what they know to be untruths? Or do they also have a professional obligation to challenge lies?
Jim Taylor is an author and freelance journalist for the Okanagan Center. He can be reached at: [email protected]