What If There Was No Destiny?

barbara destiny kalia

Barbara, Kalia, and Destiny outside their home in North Carolina in 2012. Photo by Pat Walters.

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Sometimes, I wish there was a quadratic equation for journalism ethics. Just plug in the variables and the equation spits out the answer: “No. Don’t do that — ever.” Or, “Yes. This is allowed in this circumstance.” Wouldn’t that make ethical decision making easier?

Take, for instance, use of the pronoun “I.” In so many cases, using “I,” is verboten. Yet, with greater frequency, “I” appears in more and more pubic radio journalism. Seems like “I” now exists in a gray area — perfect for the ethics quadratic equation.

But, what about personal opinion? Isn’t that forbidden? I don’t hear too much of that. It appears that line is relatively clear. But, then again…

Listen to the Radiolab story featured on this edition of HowSound. It’s called “What If There Was No Destiny?” The line on opinion is blurred slightly in this story when reporter Pat Walters says: “I asked Barbara about some of the things she said because, to be totally honest, they kind of turned my stomach.” And, there’s more. You’ll have to listen.

After you do, will you please apply your quadratic equation for ethics to this and let me the answer you arrive at?

Cheers, Rob

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8 comments to What If There Was No Destiny?

  • Brian

    Pat Walters’ story feels like a post scrip to a controversy that already played out in the news. Where Barbara and Destiny are in their lives is beyond Barbara’s controversial campaign and objectivity doesn’t seem required or appropriate for the piece. With this context, Walters has much more leeway in how he can become a part of the story. He may be a character in his piece but he does not compete with the protagonist – a presence that would cross the line for this story. Rather, his presence is a stand in for the listener who may have heard the story or knows of it outside the context of Barbara’s and Destiny’s lives.

  • Michael

    “As soon as a Journalist arrives he changes the story”- an old quote that rings true with this debate.

    It’s silly to think that reporters and their personal experiences don’t influence their subjects and the stories they tell. While this might be ideal it’s not realistic.

    In many ways its more honest that Pat included himself in the story and put forward his own ideas and opinions. Its a form of transparency and declaration of interest not generally seen in reporting.

  • I think it is often good for the perspective of the journalist to be expressed openly. Every journalist has a view on their subject matter. They express it in the questions they ask and in the tone of their voice. Simply verbalizing it can be good too. I would rather hear it expressed than to know it is there, but be left with the impression that it is being hidden or suppressed.

    Obviously, it can go too far. The reporter has to attempt subjectivity … but they are human. An occasional reminder of this doesn’t hurt.

  • Brock Lueck

    I thought this was a particularly interesting topic, that I think about a lot. In the past, I have had Rob’s earlier podcasts from the SALT Institute in my ears – in which I got the feeling he was pretty strict about this kind of thing. What was the piece that involved the sound effect of the cash register brought in after the original recording?! Anyway, I agree with the general feeling that it made sense in the context of this story to allow Pat Walters to insert himself into the piece (and usually do to greater or lesser degrees). He seemed to do it respectfully which is important. I think culturally that the notion of the absolutely neutral Objective Voice has become increasingly under threat, and that is a good thing. At the end of the day, facts are still important, but (as discussed in the podcast), I would rather know the bias of the person relaying the information. It puts greater responsibility on the receivers of information to be critical listeners/readers/watchers, but that is ultimately more democratic (I think). For instance, here in the UK newspapers are more ‘out’ about their political positions than in the States. This has it’s own problems, but again, I would rather admit subjectivity and try to work out how we view something accordingly – it feels more honest.

  • Great show, fascinating topic. Students are told ‘don’t put yourself in the story unless you’re more interesting than the subject’ (which is rarely the case – none of us are). Following this piece, that needs an addendum: ‘…unless you can make the subject more interesting.’

    As Michael says, Pat was honest, he revealed the ‘I’ in the story (oftentimes, it’s concealed) but he also used his opinions to evoke a more emphatic response.

    It’s like when someone tells you something during an interview and you say “really?!?” and they tell it to you again with more emphasis and elaboration. Of course, it’s the second answer which will make it into the final piece.

  • Josef Svenningsson

    Thank you for one of the most well-produced and interesting episodes of How Sound!

    I agree with previous comments that it is a matter of transparency for a reporter to be honest about his or her feelings. Totally objective reporting just doesn’t exist. The case of the final scene in “What If There Was No Destiny?” is particularly illuminating. Another reporter might have said almost the same thing as Pat said but left out the personal feelings. But with Pat explaining his feelings there is a sense of honesty in the reporting and i feel that it’s rather less manipulative that trying to sound objective.

    Also, about the “turned my stomach” quote. In this case I think Pat used his gut feeling to ask the question is such a way that it would produce the most interesting and truthful response from the interviewee. And indeed, his question opened up the whole conversation and produced the most interesting moment in the interview. Did Pat step on the line? Yes, but with very good reason.

  • rob

    Just a quick thanks to everyone for posting thoughts. Much obliged. And, thanks, too, for listening! — Rob

  • Jon

    I agree with what everyone’s said here. I’m curious about the SALT Institute podcasts mentioned above – it seems these days that everybody is pretty much inserting ‘diegetic’ sound into stories anyway, and really, have been for ages. But as much as journalists and producers (and aficionados) are aware of this, I suppose a majority of ‘end user’ listeners are still largely in the dark and some might be offended to know it was happening (although, given the quality of most news media etc, I struggle to imagine that many people caring).

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