Great journalism – impartial but not neutral?

It’s sad in some ways that a lot of great writing and journalism has been inspired by tragedy and loss, but at the same time, it often allows some good to come out of the events by providing insight and inspiration. Three articles I’ve read recently reinforced that, along with also highlighting an interesting point from a book I’m currently reading on media ethics which states that journalism should be impartial but not neutral.

The mainstream media has been full of coverage of both the tragic events in Oslo, and the death of singer Amy Winehouse at the age of 27, with the usual mix of straight news reports, opinion, and a particularly horrific example of someone trying to cash in on search traffic on the Huffington Post. I’m not going to dignify it with a link, but using the example of Amy Winehouse to supposedly illustrate lessons for small business owners is pretty bad, compounded by the fact it’s not a great article, and the author has claimed she wasn’t aware of the term ‘linkbait’ despite running a marketing and PR company for about 9 years.

Out of all of the mainstream media coverage regarding Amy Winehouse, it’s telling that the best article has been written by comedian and actor Russell Brand, who covered both his personal relationship with the singer, but also the treament of addiction and addicts by society. Published on The Guardian website, it’s received a lot of respect for the way he tackled the subject.

At the same time, I caught up on two posts by Christian Payne – sadly within the last month, two pilots he’d flown with, interviewed and got to know have both died. One heroically saved the life of his passengers, whilst the other worked for the Kenyan Wildlife Service to help prevent animal poaching amongst other duties. Christian’s articles are even more touching due to the fact that he’s also an accomplished photographer and interviewer, and his photos, videos and audio interviews with each pilot helps us to know them posthumously.

Journalism: Impartial not Neutral

Both authors knew the subjects of their articles to some extent, and that personal insight and knowledge of the subject (and in Brands case, his own experience with addition), gives an additional impact to stories which elsewhere would be a straight news report. I’ve also been involved with reporting on the deaths of people I knew via my work, including former colleagues, and to be completely neutral about it would be impossible.

But all three articles, and hopefully my own, do provide impartiality – Christian is not writing his posts for a news organisation, but for his personal blog, and doesn’t have the editorial restrictions he might have done for a media organisation, but as an experienced and talented media creator, he’s done a great job of sharing his reaction, the background of the people involved, and also leaves us feeling sad about the loss of the two men involved, but inspired by what they had achieved.

Neutrality is defined as refusing to take sides or make a judgement. Impartiality is defined as making decisions based on objective criteria rather than bias or prejudice. We can say that the loss of those in Oslo, Amy Winehouse and the two pilots is tragic for all of us for a number of reasons, and be thankful that there are those who can provide the context and insight into the reasons why.

On one hand I do worry that resource and time-stripped media outlets chasing page views via attention-grabbing breaking news and linkbait headlines mean that these types of article will be increasingly harder to find. On the other, I’m thankful that the availability and access to self-publishing, combined with the recommendation of social networks, mean that they’ve never been more accessible to us all online. The rise of content farms and the mishandling of increased knowledge of analytics, SEO and digital marketing means that far too many writers and journalists are pursuing the wrong things, and perhaps we should all try and do something as engaged readers to encourage others to be more active in highlighting and sharing writing which is really giving us something valuable, rather than simply regurgitating links almost mindlessly to increase our own audience on social networks?