Even while I pursued Bachelor’s degrees in both journalism and political science at a liberal arts college, I maintained a belief that I could be an objective journalist. I could remain neutral in the face of crisis, despair, and injustice.
My idea was simple: if I could always treat sources like humans - fallible, yet inherently good - I could walk the thin line between objectivity and subjectivity with a humanistic buffer to fall upon if I stumbled.
I graduated from Indiana University, and studied the work of famed World War II correspondent, Ernie Pyle. This was a man who could tell a story, and he won the hearts and minds of several readers of Scripps Howard Newspapers. He even won a Pulitzer Prize for his wartime works, an industry tip of the hat to a helpless writer trapped in a helpful reporter’s body. In the span of one year, the number of newspapers that distributed his columns jumped from 42 to 122.
Through his descriptions of landscape and people, he transported you to the battlefield. In his subtle sidebars, he would reveal an observation about the lives soldiers were living. He detailed small interactions, such as the sharing of cheap cigarettes during slow times when battle was the last thing on the young men’s minds. One column described a journey he took with two officers to a cactus patch on the Tunisian front, a new post U.S. forces had established and which German dive bombers were most interested in attacking after they’d driven them out of Faid Pass.
“When I came into this cactus patch the officers whom I knew, and had left only four days before, jumped up and shook hands as though we hadn’t seen each other in years. Enlisted men did the same thing.”
“I thought this was odd, at first, but now I know how they felt. They had been away - far along on the road that doesn’t come back - and now they were still miraculously alive it was like returning from a voyage of many years, and naturally you shake hands.”
In this excerpt from one of his many columns covering the second great war, Pyle steers away from best practices commonly approved by reporters. He doesn’t immediately address the who, what, where, when, and why. The answers to those questions are revealed in chronological order, dependent upon the timing of when Pyle himself learned of battle updates. He makes assumptions about how the soldiers feel, departing from the general guideline that reporters should only make note of how sources act. This could be construed as his way of providing context.
The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics states that reporters should “provide context” and “take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing, or summarizing a story.”
Pyle’s writing style was novel then, but it’s even more rare now. The 24-hour news cycle and fierce competition for digital views has created an unsustainable mainstream news production schedule that is slowly degrading the public’s trust in our institution.
I propose that reporters and news organizations small and large should not shoot for objectivity as the end all be all. Instead, we should look at those characteristics that made Pyle such a beloved reporter and make organizational and structural changes that support those characteristics.
There are three reasons Pyle is a shining example of journalistic integrity and a standard by which modern journalists should measure themselves against:
1. Space and time: Pyle allowed enough time for him to craft a story in the appropriate amount of space. In the digital age, it would seem as though space does not have a limit, but when you consider that the average attention span is 8 seconds or less, you realize space is just as precious as it was when newspapers were predominantly in print form. I would encourage newsrooms to develop a tiered system for reporting news, where breaking news is limited to facts and shared on social media platforms with mention of the fact that the story is developing. A brief overview story with bulleted “information checkpoints” would follow soon after, with a longer and thoroughly-researched and sourced piece would serve to provide additional context. All of the content related to one piece should be hosted on a story landing page for readers to explore at their leisure. Some stories won’t need to be treated this way, but for those with mass appeal and affect, this will be crucial to allowing for fact-checking on the part of the public.
2. Specificity: Pyle started the nation’s first daily aviation column as a reporter for the Washington Daily News. It’s said that every day after working at the paper, he would visit Washington D.C.-area airfields and smoke cigarettes with leadership and frontline workers alike. The concept of journalistic beat is still widely practiced in large newsrooms, but as those newsrooms shrink, reporters start wearing more hats and diluting their coverage of issues and topics. Also, the tightened deadlines for submitting stories can be limiting to a reporter’s ability to create a bond with sources that is deep enough to inspire trust. I would suggest that newsrooms take greater responsibility in training their teams to build trust and relationships with sources in accordance with the SPJ Code of Ethics.
3. Point-of-view: Pyle was adept at writing like a river, flowing between first, second, and third person, a writing tactic typically cautioned against in journalism schools. In his columns, however, his point-of-view comes across as observation instead of subjectivity because he doesn’t assert that any one sentence in his piece is true. He simply makes an observation based on his surroundings and the behaviors of his sources, which can sometimes speak louder than the words they share in exchanges with Pyle. I would challenge reporters to play around with this idea of sharing a point-of-view through observation, not assertion, and test public response to it.
I truly believe the majority of journalists don’t go into the profession intent on deceiving people. Most reporters, most American reporters, become journalists because they believe they are essential to democracy. They are the watchdogs of the elite for the electorate.
But even more so, journalists become journalists because they believe in the power of story - not merely fictional narratives where the characters are exaggerated, never matching up to reality. In journalism, the characters we report on are authentic, putting on display all of their rights and wrongs.
The goal of journalism, no matter what “brand” of it a reporter specializes in, should be to give a voice and a framework to those people he or she reports on. If we want Ernie Pyle quality and accuracy from our mainstream reporters, we need to change the standards and expectations of journalists.