Warm hearts or bleeding hearts?

Pam Frampton
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When journalists sign up for a cause

"Journalism's ultimate purpose (is) to inform the reader, to bring him each day a letter from home and never to permit the serving of special interests."

- Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, former publisher of The New York Times

Reading this quote from Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, you might think he was warning journalists about the perils of losing sight of objectivity in their daily work.

In fact, do a little research on Sulzberger, and you will learn he is chairman emeritus of the Fresh Air Fund, a charity that provides summertime recreational experiences to underprivileged kids in New York, and that The New York Times was public in its support of this group under Sulzberger's tenure.

Is that wrong?

Well, it depends on who you ask.

There's been a lot of healthy discussion in this province lately about the role of the media and whether journalists should be advocates.

Some columnists and commentators have criticized the CBC for its turkey drives and pancake dinners held to combat hunger and homelessness, while others have offered kudos.

There are mixed views.

Some readers may have wondered whether The Telegram gave up too much ink to its recent Warm Hearts campaign in support of Iris Kirby House.

Writing in his Meeker on Media blog, hosted by The Telegram's website, Geoff Meeker posits the idea that in getting involved in charity efforts, the media is trying to fill cracks in the system that are actually someone else's responsibility and that instead we should be raising awareness of the systemic problems at play.

Meeker was writing about the CBC, but his argument is applicable to any media outlet that wears its heart on its sleeve:

"I don't mind if they publicize events - that makes total sense -but if they want to champion the hungry and the homeless, they should shine a journalistic light on the extent and causes of these problems, and bring pressure to bear on those responsible and accountable for these societal ills," he writes.

He's got a point if media outlets are ignoring the bigger picture, but I'd argue that in most cases, it is the fact that a journalist or media organization has examined a societal issue that leads to the desire to get involved philanthropically.

It was a detailed series on domestic violence written by Telegram reporter Tara Bradbury that led her to come up with the Warm Hearts campaign, not the other way around.

The efforts of Tara and her team, as well as local dancers, comedians, musicians and patron Lynda Boyd from "Republic of Doyle," elicited thousands of dollars in cash and personal care items and warm winter apparel to a shelter for women and children.

I think that's something everyone involved can be proud of, and I see nothing wrong in keeping readers abreast of the campaign's progress in The Telegram and on its website.

If we ran a front-page story every day on Warm Hearts, that would be another thing, but being accountable to readers whose generosity you have tapped into, by offering updates, is appropriate.

In the case of the charities close to the hearts of those at the CBC - and in the interests of disclosure, that's my husband's employer - I'm sure it was an awareness of the issues that prompted the drives for food and shelter.

And just because a media outlet holds an event in response to community need does not mean objectivity or the ability to conduct investigative reporting has gone out the window. If there were serious allegations about the charities we supported, we'd attempt to uncover those stories with as much fervour as we collected pyjamas or served pancakes.

Journalists are part of the communities they find themselves in. While reporters have to be careful not to blur the lines between objectivity and subjectivity when it comes to fair and balanced coverage of the issues of the day, there are some motherhood issues we just can't ignore.

Hunger, animal abuse, homelessnesss and child exploitation exist all around us. As journalists and responsible citizens - particularly in a close-knit, sparsely populated province like this one - we may feel an obligation to help where we can. The key is not to forget our main roles as journalists: to observe, educate and inform.

I don't think we've lost sight of that here.

Even journalists working in war zones or famine-stricken areas - surrounded by people they don't know speaking languages they don't understand - will tell you it isn't always possible to remain detached.

In a Feb. 8 piece for J-source.ca: The Canadian Journalism Project, titled, "We're only human: the case for altruism and advocacy journalism," Rhiannon Russell recounts the experiences of various foreign correspondents - some of whom stuck strictly to their role as observers and others who found themselves crossing the line.

Russell writes: "When Sue Montgomery of the Montreal Gazette was reporting from Haiti after the earthquake, the nation was so decimated that Montgomery found herself helping - stitching a man's wound, feeding another, and helping a woman give birth in one of the medic tents. ..."

Should she just have stayed on the sidelines and observed, or was her reportage the richer for having been part of the experience?

In same article, Ryerson journalism prof and former Globe foreign correspondent Paul Knox talks about some of the philanthropic work undertaken by The Toronto Star and how it sometimes generates its own headlines.

Perhaps he puts it best.

"(The Star is) creating news," he is quoted as saying. "There's no question.

"As long as they're being transparent, it's up to the audience to judge whether that's what they want from their news outlet."

Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram's associate managing editor. She can be reached by email at pframpton@thetelegram.com. Twitter: pam_frampton

Organizations: New York Times, CBC, Fresh Air Fund Iris Kirby House The Star Montreal Gazette

Geographic location: New York, Haiti

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Recent comments

  • Duffy
    March 12, 2012 - 13:22

    It is a real world out there and Reporters, like everyone else, have prejudices that cloud the way they write their stories and live their lives. The same goes for newspapers, radio stations and television stations atitudes - it is life. And folks that is why you consider only about 75% of what you read as the true facts.

  • Paddyjoe
    March 11, 2012 - 09:34

    You make some good points Ms. Frampton but I still think it preferable that the media highlight problems in society and bring pressure to bear so that appropriate institutions will feel compelled to address them. What makes shelters for women and children more worthy of the telegram support than the Canadian Cancer Society or the John Howard Society? Will the Telegram do the same for these? Finley Peter Dunne is quoted as saying, " journalism's goal is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable " The Telegram, and you, yourself, do a good job in this regard-----I don't feel that its necessary nor appropriate for the Media to be directly involved in charity initiatives.

  • Colin Burke
    March 10, 2012 - 09:20

    This reminds me. While a fairly young court reporter, I once paid a lawyer (not very much) to represent a young man whom I feared was about to get a raw deal in a case I was covering, and continued to cover that case without disclosing my interest to anyne at all. It never occurred to me until now to question that line of conduct. (The accused got what I thought was fair treatment, and no one questioned my reporting on the facts; hardly anyone ever did.)