Commentary: Human First, Reporter Second

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, October 2, 2009
I was drawn to the journalism side of Steve Lopez's story - what moved him to drop his "just the facts ma'am" professionalism and become a friend to a mentally ill homeless man, and then a fierce advocate for people with mental illness.

“What about your duty to maintain objectivity?” I asked him. He was defensive at first. He told me this was the first time he'd become emotionally involved in a story. As a columnist he had more license to write opinion; he wouldn't want a regular reporter to become an advocate for some contentious issue.

Then he paused and said, "But the first duty of a journalist is to be human."

When I was a TV news reporter, I did a series of stories about pregnant farm workers exposed to pesticides, and the birth defects they attributed to that exposure. I remember becoming emotionally attached to one woman in particular, and to her baby, born with no arms and single flipper where his legs should have been.

I admit - I was less than objective when lobbyists for chemical companies argued against more rigorous testing of pesticides.

I think reporters need to be clear headed and fair. Skepticism is useful, and fact checking essential, but some of the best journalism is committed by reporters who become emotionally attached to their stories.

Ginger Rutland writes for The Sacramento Bee opinion pages.