When Does The Reporter Matter?

I had a great discussion today about when it is appropriate for a reporter to share their perspective and when it isn’t, and what gets lost in the middle.

Have you seen Restrepo? I watched it before I went to Iraq. I knew what I would be going to do would be far different, but it was eye-opening and daunting to see just a month before my trip.

But ultimately it was disappointing. I didn’t think it told the story as powerfully as I expected. In a few weeks of covering war reporters send back stories about firefights and death. After a year with these soldiers I was expecting an opus. In that respect the film fell flat.

Now I haven’t read War, the book-version of the movie. Perhaps the written word caught what the video couldn’t.

I did, however, read The Forever War, an immensely powerful book that floored me page by page. It isn’t an opinion-free report from the front lines. It is full of emotion, and deadness inside, that tells a different story than the battlefield reports.

Is that what reporters are supposed to do? Are they supposed to give you the feel of the place, or just report the facts? What I came back from Iraq with was far more in depth than what made it into my radio reports. This blog, in fact, got more of a taste of what the real Iraq (that I saw, and as I understood it) was.

I guess that’s what I expect from the best reporting, but it isn’t something I yet feel comfortable doing. This American Life, for example, gets beyond what the story is into its meaning. The best reporting by The New York Times or The New Yorker does too. But that isn’t something reporters can take lightly. To get beyond the facts, so people can understand the story, is not easy. It isn’t everyday journalism. It’s far too easy to become partisan at that point, to tell the story from a liberal or conservative viewpoint that in fact does no one any good. But that’s what real journalism does — it takes the reader, viewer, listener to whatever the story is and really brings them it. It helps them to understand what it is they are learning, and what it really means.

I think about all the stories I read and saw and heard about Iraq before I went there, and about how little I understood when I landed. That was because too much of the journalism world is about the simple facts, instead of delving into the complex ones. Complexity doesn’t fit well into a half-hour news cast, but it is the way of the world. It is what reporters must tackle, and at the same time do it fairly.

It’s a documentarian perspective, brought to the mainstream. Don’t just tell people. Help them understand.

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