Covering Stewart & Colbert “responsibly”

With the Stewart/Colbert rallies just days away, news coverage of the event has spiked. But among this coverage of the event itself are the attempts of news organizations to delineate the “proper” boundaries in covering – and having their reporters attend – the rallies. The Washington Post and NPR, for example, have both banned their reporters from “participating” in the event, although it remains unclear what this means. For Washington Post reporters, they can “observe” the event but not show support, whereas NPR is trying to discourage attendance altogether.

I find the stances taken by these news organizations troubling and irrational, to say the least. Although I can understand that they are trying to maintain perceptions of objectivity, encouraging their reporters to skip an event of this magnitude won’t help their reporting at all. Good journalism requires context and understanding, so being a part of society should come with the territory. Furthermore, if the rallies are as large as suggested by Facebook attendance – 220,000+ attending the Rally to Restore Sanity and another 90,000 attending the March to Keep Fear alive – a few extra reporters probably won’t stand out. Having a policy that discourages them from headlining the event is one thing, keeping them out of the crowd is another. The Washington City Paper has it right in their memo, which makes fun of these ridiculous restrictions that are impossible to understand or follow.

Well, I’ll be able to experience the event firsthand – and keep my eyes open for any covert “serious” journalists who are “observing” rather than “participating” in the event. I myself plan on using a “participant-observation” model for the experience – or in other words, having a great time soaking up the experience. I’ll be relying heavily on social media – much like the event itself – and hope to blog about my experiences there, as well as use Twitter to post updates on my journey half-way across the country. So stay tuned for updates!


  1. I have to say, I have a very different take on the stance NPR has taken. I do question their choice of language, as well as the degree to which they restrict action, but I do truly enjoy seeing a dividing line being placed between the press and those they cover. Particularly in light of the incestuous ties between Fox News and the Tea Party/GOP. Will NPR staffers attend the rally? You bet your ass they will. Will they attend the rally as NPR staffers? I’d guess not.
    It’s really this blurring of personal and private life that I think NPR management is concerned with. It is increasingly difficult for any organization not to be categorized in some way, and for journalistic organizations this is a particularly troubling issue. As I said above, I respect NPR for tackling this issue head-on, and hope that they are having on going discussion of how to best maintain both actual and perceived impartiality without overly restricting the speech and actions of the employees.
    Additionally, I have to wonder if the intent was to convey the managements classification of these events under these guidelines, as it does represent something of a gray-area? Is this a political rally? A publicity stunt? A comedy show? All of the above? Because, as an employee of NPR who voluntarily submitted to these ethical guidelines when hired, it may be difficult to know where the boundaries are at times.
    Interestingly though, in the choice of language and examples used NPR may actually be categorizing itself, or at least the majority of the staff, undermining the intent of this message.

    And yes, good journalism does require context and understanding. But taking part in an event is not necessary for either. I can develop the same, if not stronger, sense of context and understanding by interviewing multiple people on both sides of an issue rather than participating and relying on my own experience and views. Even the combination of the two will shade the issue at hand, as my own experience and concretized views stemming from the event will distort my ability to understand the other viewpoints.

    In the end, good journalism must be impartial and intelligent. NPR and the Washington Post are merely seeking blindly towards this goal, which will be a painful process, but is so much more preferable than the alternative (I’m looking at you Glenn Beck).

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  3. Well, at least we’re on the same page – the one that says the strategies being pursued by NPR and The Washington Post are likely to be counter-productive.

    I think you hit on a really important point: that the blurring of lines between personal and professional is increasingly a problem for journalists. They’re expected to use social media, like Twitter, to become more accessible and relatable to their audiences. But at the same time, reporters are supposed to avoid any utterances which may permit others to accuse them of bias. A difficult position, to be sure – what can I say that is interesting and relevant but also completely non-committal?

    And you are most definitely right – you don’t need to attend the rally to understand context. But interviews are shaped by context – and getting to talk to people, even in a non-professional sense at a rally – might produce an entirely different experience than talking even to those same people the next day or the next week. The ability of individuals to reconstruct their realities is not to be underestimated! Inserting the journalist’s perspective into the process adds a new element, but is it an element that should entirely be avoided?

    And I do want to agree on one point: that journalism has to seek methods by which to achieve perceptions of credibility and unbiased reporting and open discussion is a good start. But infringing on reporters’ personal lives, including discouraging attendance of a “cultural” phenomenon, whether political, social, or comedic, is the wrong way to go.

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