My role as a journalist

Posted by Ryan Jerz on Wednesday August 23, 2006.

Near the end of my three week summer session, our class was asked to ponder a question. As journalists, would we rather act as advocates for a position, or would we rather act as referees in a discussion, ensuring all sides are represented equally and fairly? That day, I actually went home and thought about it, but we never discussed it again in class.

A focal point of those three weeks, and certainly gong forward, was John Dewey. Dewey was a philosopher that spent a lot of time trying to figure out why people thought what they did and how to make the public better overall. He thought that the point of democracy was to make you a better person. As a result, Dewey felt like journalists should be advocates for a position. If they were not, they wouldn’t be interesting, and they wouldn’t fully engage their readers. Our program plans to follow that way of thinking by making the public interact with us on our way to, hopeully, solving some issues surrounding the Lake Tahoe environment.

The question remains a very tough one for me. Journalists rely on the public’s emotion to get a reaction to a story. When I wrote of the Pulitzer winner the other day, it was about blogging. But an underlying theme to his talk was that he just wants to get the facts out there. And I’m sure he’s right. He also, despite his resistance to this, is a major advocate for environmental issues. Sure, he goes out there and wants to tell the world what’s happening in a factual manner, and he doesn’t want to advocate any particular position, but by simply deciding that a story is worth spending time on, he’s already become an advocate. Plus, he’s happy that based on his stories, laws have been changed for the better. So while he may not believe he is an advocate, or he may not intend to be an advocate, the fact remains that he’s an advocate.

Where do I fall? Well, I don’t want to be an advocate, either. Right now, I simply don’t know enough to be one. But I have to believe that at some point, I’ll figure out that one or more issues are worth advocating. Whether it’s the way TRPA operates, or it’s the way certain property owners are behaving, or it’s that far too much traffic is allowed, or whatever, I’ll figure it out. But that’s not the whole story.

Since I began writing about things like local politics, my biggest task, as I saw it, was to remain completely fair. While I interjected jokes and opinion in what I wrote, the bottom line was that I spent more time trying to keep everyone in check than I did advocating a position. Because of that, I was accused of either being, or working for, about four different political candidates, all of whom had opposing viewpoints. I started to take pride in that. The sign of a good journalist is to piss off all sides, right? Well, I was getting good practice.

The point I’m trying to make is that I prefer the role of a referee. I love standing in the middle and making sure everyone is being honest with one another. In a game like the political one, somebody has to be making sure that the facts are straight. I’m sure I wasn’t perfect at it, but I tried like nobody else at the time.

To finish this program, each person has to complete a project that brings a new form of journalism to the table. It has to be interactive, it has to level the playing field between the public and the policymakers, and it has to inform. I’m sure there’s more, but I can’t think of anything else. What I’ve found is that my project ideas really have nothing to do with taking any sort of position. Mine are designed to bridge the gap between the public and the policymakers through new ways of spreading knowledge. It’s almost like I’m detached from the emotional trigger that journalists try to hit. Maybe everyone else’s project ideas are the same at this point. I don’t know. I find I’m searching for the ever-elusive “fairness” that lacks in so many policies, and if I can just make it so everyone knows everyone else’s motives, we’ll have taken a step in the right direction.

Can I just be an advocate for fairness?

Ryan JerzRyan Jerz is an all-around good guy who wants people to eventually refer to him as "that dude who climbs mountains."

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