Journalists, I always thought, were motivated by burning curiousity. They were folks who never took "no" for an answer, who defined themselves by a willingness to always question the answer in front of them, who wanted to go deeper for as long as their instincts told them there was a deeper answer to be found.
They wanted, above all, to learn how the world really works. They didn't care about gossip, or speculation, or high-flown chat. To me they were like the pioneer scientists and artists of visible daily life, brave investigators who not only were willing but positively eager to come across a new fact or detail that blew up all their tired old preconceptions -- as long as that detail paved the way to fresh understanding.
Today, I think I was naive. It's likely, I think today, that the average journalist's curiousity stretches medium far in one direction, but remains shallow in many others. I'm not sure that curiousity isn't basically dead in a lot of them.
What else explains the willingness of reporters not to test the assertions made by their sources, but rather just to listen to those assertions and to pass them along unquestioningly, especially buttressed with one or two other sources who provide some counterpoint or "balance" to the main source?
I hate to say it, but a lot of reporters, including me at times, have actually refrained from making that extra phone call, or making that extra trip, to interview someone for fear that the new information gained would actually wreck the story that I'd put together either fully on paper or in my computer, or constructed in my mind. New information can bust a frame mighty quick.
As a journalist, you get to hate people who get second thoughts, which generally mean considered thoughts, refined thoughts, deeper thoughts. If your sources have such thoughts, you generally hope they don't call, especially not on deadline. Too damn much trouble!
So there is actually a lack of curiousity -- an actual force that strongly opposes the relentless drive for answers that supposedly characterizes great journalism -- built right into journalism itself. I would say there is even a wilful lack of curiousity, a determination to stay in the dark, a cozy-safe sense of ignorance that reporters actually nurture within themselves.
Not that it's so comfortable that you don't feel the need to rationalize it, though. You say "I just don't have time to make the extra call, to make the extra trip. I have a deadline to meet." Or you say, "Hey, the guy gave me an interview, if he has second thoughts he can call me tomorrow," which usually never comes as the next day brings a whole new story to write.
Or you can say to yourself of your source, "He may have second thoughts, but he gave me the general outline of his position, and anything further will be frills and details." So you don't dig any further, and you don't listen, all the while feeling twinges of guilt. On the one hand, you feel safe because everything you put between quotes was actually said and thus is actually "objective." But on the other hand, you feel somewhere in your soul that your source's second thoughts may not actually be incidental but fundamental, and you are cutting him off.
The limits of a journalist's curiousity seems like an important issue to me. It's a question of what topics are in-bounds to cover and write about as a journalist, and what topics are out-of-bounds; and it's also a question of how deep a journalist is allowed to go, or is inclined to go, while reporting the in-bounds questions.
I got to thinking about this after reading some notes by Andrew Cline, in response to an essay on objectivity in which I wrote:
Are we served as citizens of a democracy when reporters feel their job is done, merely to report "both sides" of a given public issue? What if the reporter, himself or herself, was deeply convinced--or would be deeply convinced if he or she took the time to look into the issue more closely--that one or another of the side in the argument was right? That is, that one or the other side had the actual facts of the matter on their side? Would it be the reporter?s obligation then, to point this out?
Andrew then wrote:
Deeply convinced. Sound like bias? It should not. Wasn't Einstein deeply convinced about what his observations and calculations--an objective process--told him about reality leading to the Theory of Relativity? Wasn't Neils Bohr? Or Marie Curie? Or Richard Feynman? Or Stephen Hawking? Journalists convinced themselves, instead, not to search deeply for the facts or to evaluate according to the facts the assertions of their sources because this supposedly indicates interest.
Check out those words: "Journalists convinced themselves not to search deeply."
If that's true, STOP THE PRESSES!