If there’s one quote that sticks out to me in Samuel Freedman’s first chapter of Letters to a Young Journalist, it has to be the following: “If you can’t be a person, then you’ll ultimately be less of a journalist.”
Freedman brings up a good point here. As journalism students, we are always taught to be objective our fair in our reporting, that we need to maintain a wall between the subject and ourself. This is true to an extent. Maintaining that boundary with sources is part of being professional. But should it go as far as to remain emotionless when a source begins to cry?
Freedman addresses some of these questions in the ”Temperament” chapter. I think Freedman’s example of the Times reporters who sometimes cried after covering families affected by 9/11 is a good example for when journalists can be more human than normal. It’s an unusual story that can make every person involved in the story emotional.
As journalists, we’re supposed to write engaging stories that are meant to humanize subjects. How are we expected to do this is we ourselves can’t act human also? A journalist can’t get to know a subject for a feature story if the journalist doesn’t connect with the subject at some human level.
It’s like the story about the 700-pound man and reporter Mike Sager. Sager may not have known as much detail as he did if he wasn’t the source’s friend at some level. I think if we expect to get to know intimate details about an individual’s life, we have to be able to act human as well.
This is something that can only come with experience. Yes, there are many times in journalism when it is necessary to be very professional. But there are almost just as many times where we need to lower some of that emotionless professionalism to connect with our sources. If done too much, our ethics can be compromised. You don’t want to become too attached to the source because that could effect the fairness or objectivity of the coverage. The key is to find a balance that will reveal enough about the source without compromising any objectiveness and cloud the journalist’s judgment.