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“Custodians of Conscience,” a timeless analysis

The Transfiguration of Objectivity
A review of: Custodians of Conscience by James Ettema & Theodore Glasser

If you’ve ever picked up a book, started reading and found yourself in a whole new world a few days later with what you’re certain is a broader vision – a book that leaves you spinning from the ride and reveling in the valuable morsels of wisdom that now have become yours – you will enjoyCustodians of Conscience. This is especially true for anyone looking for an angle on the very essence of what makes journalism a powerful societal tool and a darn tough job.

James Ettema and Ted Glasser spent a decade compiling interviews with journalists’ journalists – the ones seen not only by their peers but by awards organizations such as the Pulitzer, Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University, and Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), as exceptional at their craft. These interviews are coupled with excerpts from the award winning stories of those journalists and a critical look at the methodologies and practices that surrounded the making of those great works of investigative journalism.

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This text is timeless: still strikingly fresh in today’s atmosphere in which reporters of all walks are questioning what they thought they knew about the role of journalism in society and audiences are severely disenchanted with traditional journalism.

The book not only confirmed my hunch that investigative journalism is the most potent form of journalism, but took that premise deep within social philosophy, cultural studies, politics, and historiography to create a picture of this stringent form of journalism that touches base on a number of different planes but never stays long.

Glasser and Ettema address some of the oldest canons of journalism – and reveal them in the work of their subjects – but in the very same breathe as they critically deconstruct those norms in order to give way to an interesting new language about journalistic practice.

Familiar themes that have always run current in journalistic work: verification, truth, value, credibility, irony, objectivity, are here placed in new light by referencing progressive thinkers and notable authors in a variety of disciplines. The authors introduce and educate us on the application of terms like “the irony of irony” and “the transfiguration of objectivity”, moral discourse, public indignation, and solidarity.

The authors often compare journalistic writing to historical writing and explore it within a broad philosophical sense, looking to names like Habermas, Moynihan, Hilary Putnam, and most heavily to Richard Rorty for cues. One major theme involves the many and varied philosophies on the use of irony in communicating and how it can be both an essential and dangerous narrative tool for investigative journalists. The authors’ use of Rorty for the philosophy behind even slight nuances of language is exemplified by these lines from Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity: “Since truth is a property of sentences, since sentences are dependent for their existence upon vocabularies, and since vocabularies are made by human beings, so are truths.”

I was at first alarmed and annoyed by the authors’ repetition of lines, quotes, and excerpts from the investigative pieces they chose. But as the book goes on a pattern emerges, revealing that they are taking parts of the interviews with journalists, as well as parts of their award winning stories, and running them through several permutations, filtering them through several theoretical frameworks. This is highly effective, because at points I kept thinking, “Man! When I’m done with this book, I’ve just got to read the full texts of those investigative pieces!” But by the end I was convinced that I was intimately familiar with not only the entire text of those incredible reports, but with the whole mindset and methodology of those reporters as they worked – as well as the larger meaning of those techniques within the history of journalistic practice.

This interweaving of the interviews, the stories themselves and various theories that can here apply is not only incredibly successful, but it is also fascinating. The authors’ is an addicting form of criticism and insight – getting to the meat of the issues by diving into the tough subjects with an admirable tenacity and dedication. This is a read you can feel is important because of the gravity and complexity of the issues it tackles, the veracity of its arguments, and the seriousness of its charges for practitioners of this delicate craft.

“The work of these reporters calls us, as a society, to decide what is, and what is not, an outrage to our sense of moral order and to consider our expectations for our officials, our institutions, and ultimately ourselves” (Ettema & Glasser). The authors add, “In this way investigative journalists are custodians of public conscience.” From this definition Ettema and Glasser build up a series of questions about how that task is accomplished – beginning with the journalists’ construction of that moral order for the audience, who are often confused themselves about what is right and wrong. Reporters do this through use of a mix of narrative devices and journalistic practices that together make for a tenuous balance between fact and value (Ettema & Glasser).

“What we offer is not merely an argument that fact and value are interconnected but a close examination of how, exactly, they are interconnected in a particularly rigorous form of journalism,” (Ettema & Glasser). “We shall try to draw some conclusions about the sort of news value that might transcend objectivity as a basic norm…” The idea of pure objectivity in journalism has struck me and countless other journalists as problematic. For instance, the muckrakers of the Progressive Era (to whom Ettema and Glasser attribute the roots of modern investigative reporting) needed to establish their professionalism in the face of growing criticism of their craft, as pointed out by Miraldi in Muckraking and Objectivity. One way to establish themselves as such was to use scientific methods and techniques – “validated methods of presenting evidence” : “The science of journalism, as it began to develop, was objectivity” (Miraldi).

Objectivity is usually accepted as a shield that journalists can wield under attack: “I was just telling the truth, the facts.” However, Ettema and Glasser reveal to us how objectivity can be limiting and extremely complicated when doing investigative reporting. How can journalists telling moral stories of victim and villain stay completely objective in their attitudes and in the language of their reports? This issue is colorfully termed by Merrit in his book as “the uncomfortable armor of detachment” (Merritt).

In Ettema and Glasser’s book, these and other tough issues in journalism are dissected for the reader in complex, unforgettable ways. Custodians of Conscience is a book not for the faint of heart – the reports of public injustice, “tales of victims and villains,” (Ettema & Glasser) can be highly unsettling. For instance, the chapter using tons of examples from a story about rampant jail rapes will tend to turn the stomach, but perhaps shed valuable light on the importance of this kind of aggressive, skilled, difficult reporting. This book is a must read for any journalist starving for a critical framework through which to filter thinking about his own craft and a tough set of standards to weigh his practices and theories against.

References

Ettema, J.S. & Glasser, T.L. (1998). Custodians of Conscience. Investigative journalism and public virtue. New York. Columbia University Press.

Merrit, D. (1998). Public Journalism and Public Life. Why telling the news is not enough. Mahwah, NJ. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Miraldi, R. (1990). Muckraking and Objectivity. Journalism colliding traditions. Westport, CT. Greenwood Press.

Rorty, R. (1989). Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge, UK. Cambridge University Press.

Stanford University. Department of Communication. Theodore L. Glasser 

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