In pondering the aging question: “Do I want to know what a journalist thinks?,” I remember the first time I watched a news reporter cry on national television while reporting live.
At the time, I had no idea I was witnessing one step in a meandering movement we now generally recognize as the transformation of journalism.
It happened in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in 2001. Two days into the vertigo that seized the U.S., CNN’s health reporter, Elizabeth Cohen, joined the comprehensive coverage. She reported from Lower Manhattan, not far from what would later be called Ground Zero. With her camera person, Cohen set up in an area overrun by photos of people who were missing after the attacks. There, families converged, gripping the pictures of their loved ones for everyone to see. Approaching one after the other, Cohen asked them to share a little about why they were there and to tell viewers about the people in their photos. One after the other, their stories came.
A time to cry
I sat captivated by what unfolded, unable to hold back the tears.
That’s when I noticed Cohen’s eyes were welling. She listened to people’s pained accounts and offered sympathetic words. She started sniffling. When the camera panned to her face, there was no hiding that Cohen, too, was crying.
Despite the emotional impact of the moment, the professionalism of this award-winning reporter remained. Cohen threw back to the anchors in studio. Maybe she felt she needed to compose herself, or maybe her time ran out; but suddenly it didn’t matter. From the producers in the control room the order reached the anchors’ ears. I imagined it was something like: Stay on Cohen. The network bounced back to this still shaken journalist within seconds. She was given more time to hear from more people.
I remember thinking: She is actually crying with them. Amazing. The anchors and even Cohen seemed surprised. Of course given what was happening, she was one of many reporters visibly affected by the loss from that historic event. And the network—amplifying important information on the missing—was indeed reporting. Still, perhaps there was something else: producers seemed to realize that viewers would get more from the engaging realness in Cohen’s work. Cohen moved on at CNN and is now a senior medical correspondent and author of The Empowered Patient.
Got to be real?
That realness continues to thrive today in journalism. Now, it’s no longer taboo for a reporter to react to the very news he’s reporting. Now we’re up to our ears in journalists interviewing other journalists, and anchors seem more free to give their take on a news item. Despite its increasing practice in North American news, the phenomenon of journalists sharing what they think is still evolving.
Industry veterans, followers and fans debate this marked departure from old-school journalism, even as I type. To simplify, the arguments go something like this:
- Tweet much? More journalists are welcoming the idea of sharing with their news consumers how they report, why, and even what transpires behind the scenes of their day-to-day work.
- And stay out: Some news folks believe that a journalist’s role is to provide the report clean, without interjection of the reporter’s own opinion.
- Objectivity rules: Others go further and insist objectivity is the most effective method in separating informative journalism from biased reporting—that dangerous place one-sided reporting can lead news consumers. Some of these hardliners argue that no one should care what the reporter thinks, nor should they want to see the journalist’s reaction.
What do you think?
Over the next few posts, allow me to share perspectives of journalists who, in their work, added something significant to the discourse on realness versus objectivity; or what I like to call: the inside versus outside journalism debate. Your thoughts are welcomed.