Nothing is quite so uncomfortable to a journalist determined to be fair, balanced and objective as to get drawn into a story he or she is reporting. Such reporters typically desire to be flies on the wall, not objects of attention.
But it can be oh-so-tempting to come down from that wall. Tipsters want to enlist you in their impassioned cause against injustice. The mayor asks you to pull a punch or two, you know, in the name of cordial relations. High school football fans expect you to root, root, root for the home team.
No small part of the temptation is the knowledge that no matter how detached one remains from a story, someone is going to assign you to a team, anyway. Some people will incorrectly assume that if you’re not for the local high school football team, you must be against it. Or that asking questions that make them uncomfortable isn't you doing your job, it's you declaring war.
Such was the case Nov. 19, when reporter Casey Conley was dutifully tweeting and taking notes at a Beaufort County Elections Commission hearing. He was there to cover a protest of County Councilwoman-elect Cynthia Bensch’s eligibility to represent District 7 — a protest that ultimately was denied. After Bensch finished the arguments that would sway the commission, she tried to call Conley before the board to testify. The Island Packet was biased against her, she asserted, and said the editorial board’s endorsement of her general-election opponent Dan Duryea proved it. (She failed to mention that she twice backed out of editorial-board interviews before the endorsements were made or to explain what bearing that bias, even if it existed, had to do with her official address, the location of which was the point of the hearing.)
A classic case of the Observer Effect, I suppose. The debate between commission members about whether Conely would actually have to testify -- eventually, it was determined he did not -- dragged on long enough that we could not ignore the deliberation in our news story. As such, the Packet uncomfortably, if indirectly, acknowledged that by reporting a story, we had become a small part of it, however reluctantly or unwittingly.
In the instance of Bensch's residency, we have simply gone where responses to reasonable questions take us, thus far without drawing conclusions. In other instances, we have been more assertive — for example, when compliance with the S.C. Freedom of Information Act is at issue.
An example was our story this past summer about the Beaufort County School District’s failure to turn over an email critical of then-superintendent Valerie Truesdale as part of a FOIA request filed by the newspaper. By the time we wrote the story, we had received copies of the email from other channels. That left the district with some explaining to do about why it was not one of those channels ... but no way for us to write around our own involvement in the story. Similarly, financial and governance problems with the nonprofit Strive to Excel program at Hilton Head Island High School led to FOIA disputes that injected us, to some degree, into our own coverage. Our scrutiny of the organization also quite likely explains subsequent inquiries by the S.C. Secretary of State and Attorney General's offices -- another example of influencing a story by writing it.
Of course, such outcomes are sometimes unavoidable. Neither are they inherently incompatible with an aim to remain objective -- which does not require us never to arrive at a conclusion, only to consider all relevant information before doing so.
Relevant to stories about the school district and Strive was an understanding of FOIA that is informed by case law and opinions issued by state attorneys general. Relevant to our coverage of questions about the addresses of elected officials — which would include similar questions about state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, also pressed by an election opponent — are election laws and principles of representative government that newspapers have historically help guard.
We might prefer to remain flies on the wall, for objectivity’s sake, but sometimes, we’re either dragged into the fray or enter it voluntarily, if unavoidably.