Over the course of my Community Engagement class this semester, we have been challenged to reject the “view from nowhere” — a position of supposed “objectivity” that purports to present an isolated series of facts without making a judgement call.
Our readings for this week included a piece from Trusting News Director Joy Mayer, where she called on journalists to be open and share with the public what motivates their work.
By sharing what motivates them, Mayer says that journalists can build bridges with the members of their community and have the community view the newsroom as an ally working towards a common goal.
This mindset is reflected by Jay Rosen, in his own piece for his PressThink project. When discussing bias in media, he took note of a disclosure page written by tech journalist Rob Pegoraro.
“Now that I know this about Rob, I can read his work through that lens. I don’t have to accuse him of a bias toward anti-trust concerns in tech policy because he already told me he leans that way. That’s transparency.”
It is in this mindset that reflect on my own views of various subjects — and I know that whatever my views, they did not come out of the aether and into my mind. Other people had to guide me to where I am.
In my case, it always comes back to my parents. They both worked in the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, where they met, began dating, and eventually married before having me. They would eventually leave the DA’s office in the 90s — Dad starting his own law practice specializing in criminal law defense and property law, Mom joining the Fund for Modern Courts and the Assigned Counsel Plan.
My father would often recount — and still does, to this day — the questions he would receive for leaving the DA’s office and becoming a defense attorney. “How can you defend criminals? Why are you helping people who broke the law?”
He always stood firm in his answer: because they are entitled to defend themselves from criminal accusations under the law. Despite the moral outrage of criminal accusations, the law requires that the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury that the accused is guilty and deserving of punishment — and the defense counsel must do their utmost to ensure that the accused’s Constitutional rights are respected.
I grew up viewing my father as a hero, fighting to keep prosecutors more concerned about winning from locking up innocent people. But my father did not mislead me about his career. It is not unlikely that some of his clients — many of whom retain his services as indigent defendants — are in fact guilty of the crime they committed. Yet, his job remains the same — defend their Constitutional rights and make the court prove that they are guilty beyond reasonable doubt.
As I have grown and gone into the world, I have seen that while my childhood view was simplistic, it was not unwarranted. New technology and passionate protests from marginalized communities have shone a light on the ingrained favor in the criminal justice system for police and prosecutors. Even as some prosecutors make use of the public persona of a reformist, prosecutors under their supervision continue to seek the most aggressive ends and tolerate unscrupulous methods of evidence-gathering by their police counterparts. What I have heard from my father about his last years as an ADA, I see reflected in news and social media.
That is the point-of-view take that I have in every story I have written about a criminal trial, about funding for a District Attorney’s Office versus that of the Public Defender’s Office, and about societal perceptions of police prerogatives.
It does not make me a less-trustworthy journalist to admit these things. It does not compel me to ignore statements or hide evidence, nor to make up statistics and quotes. A viewpoint that acknowledges the role of a criminal defense attorney makes me all the more watchful for attempts to erode that position in the justice system, and for those who feel the same — whether because they believe the system must be reformed or because they want to be sure a criminal trial as been done properly — it tells them that there is someone in the media taking their concerns into account.
No one accepts the journalist as the detached mind grabbing facts from beyond the veil; they know that everything comes from somewhere. Owning your viewpoint may not please everyone, but it will make it impossible for someone to turn you into someone you are not — a liar.