Conflict is essential in pretty much all storytelling and among one of eight news values journalists consider when covering a news story. We must weigh relevance with significance in an effort to prioritize what matters to the audience. The Confederate statue debate definitely falls in the category of conflict and could be covered from any number of angles, fiction or non-fiction. It’s a lesson not lost on most of the television and film students I teach, despite the barrage of opinions they see on television and in social media.
When it comes to capturing conflict on camera, gut instinct can be a good rule of thumb for a reporter or filmmaker. However, what a journalist “thinks” under the guise of his or her own opinion, bears little or no relevance to what should be conveyed to viewers. With all the outrage over the recent events surrounding the Charlottesville KKK rally and the national discussion about whether Confederate statues should stay or go, having to teach and in some cases re-teach journalistic ethics and the role mainstream news coverage is supposed to play, hasn’t come without its challenges. One of my recent first semester assignments centered on conflict reporting, in this case the statue conflict. There is something about stories of conflict that bring out passion, reflecting the very best and very worst in people. Journalist and non-journalist wannabes alike were instructed to put opinion aside and think objectively. Their task was to capture and cover a publicized 10-day, 110 mile march that wound its way through Virginia and Washington, D.C. by a group calling for the removal of all Confederate statues. Students were to videotape interviews and gather facts from each side of the argument, whether they agreed or disagreed personally, and let the stories unfold on their own. Despite some initial grumbling, I reminded them, they must cast aside their own opinions. In this scenario the camera, as an extension of the storyteller, acts as a mere observer. The reporter, if present, is a facilitator.
A general rule of thumb is that no matter how inflammatory, seemingly heinous an act or event, what a journalist might think about one side over the other, that is to be voiced by representatives of each side not the journalist. It might sound old school, but news gathering organizations are responsible for presenting and reporting history as it unfolds, that’s it. It’s assumed we all know, or should know this. Clearly, not everyone does. Yes, it’s become much more challenging for legitimate news organizations to compete for space and eyeballs among popular opinion bloggers, fiery columnists, cause driven documentarians and wanna be viral wonders who fill the airwaves. Problem is, the mainstream media’s audience is not and should not be the same. They compete with one another not bias. Reporters have to stop getting sucked into voicing their views among opinionated debates. There’s nothing worse when a professional journalist blatantly seasons his or her reporting with subtle or not-so-subtle commentary. Even worse, are instructors and advisors who feed the bias rather than delineate between what’s news and what’s opinion. It can pose quite a dilemma, and a lot more confusion, for students new to journalism who can’t or won’t discern the difference.
It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that while this generation is now growing up in a much more inclusive and racially mixed society with more coverage reflecting that, racial tension is still not so far removed. Like many adults, these young adults also have strong opinions and are quick to want to voice them. That’s fine, in context, but having an opinion doesn’t give one license to share it on a media platform where bias has no place. Just as one of my reporter mentors, rightly, admonished me when I was a student early in my journalism career. If this essential media competency isn’t instilled early, ignorance or deliberate intention is guaranteed to poison the well. I remind those pursuing objective (not to be confused with opinion) journalism that balance is essential and personal bias is a no-no. Furthermore, we can all learn something when we listen to a viewpoint we may have never heard before. We don’t have to agree, we just have to listen, report and let the audience decide for themselves.
Admittedly, as I watched some of the national news coverage on the statue controversy it became clear to me that this was a course lesson even some seasoned journalists are failing and need to repeat. That said, when all was said and done, my students’ short film reporting assignment didn’t disappoint. It is my hope that by starting with the least of these media observers, we can still salvage the best of what makes news worthy.