Posts Tagged ‘impartiality’


Sean Penn and a journalist’s identity

Sean Penn, interviewed Jan. 17 by CBS about his Rolling Stone article, raised an indirect question about the role of a journalist. (Photo: Sachyn Mital/Wikimedia Commons/CC license)

Sean Penn, interviewed Jan. 17 by CBS about his Rolling Stone article, raised an indirect question about the role of a journalist. (Photo: Sachyn Mital/Wikimedia Commons/CC license)

On a Thursday night in Santa Monica, California, Charlie Rose sat across from Sean Penn, cameras rolling. Penn was being interviewed for a 60 Minutes segment on CBS (which aired January 17th) discussing his Rolling Stone article on Joaquin Guzman, also known as El Chapo, the drug kingpin who was recaptured by marines in Mexico after escaping from a jail in that country.

Penn was under criticism for that article about the journalistic conduct that surrounded it, particularly the issue of allowing Guzman to approve the article before publication, an issue raised by my SPJ colleague, Ethics Committee chairman Andrew Seaman.

Penn said his article had failed because his story became the lead story, and expressed his concerns to Rose on the state of journalism in the United States.

“I’m really sad about the state of journalism in our country,” Penn said. “It has been an incredible hypocrisy and an incredible lesson in just how much they don’t know and how disserved we are.  [There are] journalists who want to say that I’m not a journalist. Well, I want to see the license that says that they’re a journalist.”

While Penn received a severe rebuke from the journalism community for his conduct (a rebuke even I would agree with), Penn indirectly raised the matter of the identity of journalists in the digital age, a debate that has been ongoing since the founding of the internet, and one that continues in an age where the influence of social media continues to make a profound influence on journalism and its future.

In the digital age, the line between news and comment, objectivity and activism, has been blurred. The pages of the internet contain a mixture of content from news organizations who have spent decades in trying to build a trustful rapport with audiences, as well as others who have an opinion and interests, and can use the medium of the web to express them, either through blogs or through web sites.

There are people who will argue that Sean Penn is a journalist, and that what he did sparked a conversation on an important subject. I agree with the latter — Penn did spark a conversation about the issue of drugs, but he only did so because he is who he is, not because he is a journalist.

What is necessary for our democracy to thrive is the need for journalists and the ability to practice our crafts, and to present both sides of the story, to provide an impartial picture on the stories that audiences, whether in the US or abroad, want and need to know about, to help them cope better. What also is necessary is the ability for people to stand up and say what they believe in, to invoke conversation, to analyze, and to ponder where the future leads. Indeed, the debate on who is a journalist and the broader role of journalism will continue, long after this story disappears from the headlines, and I welcome that debate.

However, for such a debate to take place is the necessity of the facts, not one fact, nor two, but all of them. Penn is more than welcome to make his views on the issue of drugs known, but if he is to report on it, he needs the facts to paint that picture, irrespective of how the subject will feel.

To quote C.P. Scott, an editor of the Guardian newspaper in Britain, “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” That is my philosophy when it comes to reporting. Perhaps Penn should adopt it too.

Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member and founder of SPJ Digital, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and is a contributing blogger to Net Worked on social media’s role in the future of journalism. 

Outside of SPJ, Veeneman is Long Form Editor and a contributing writer for Kettle Magazine, an online publication in the UK. You can interact with Veeneman on Twitter here.

The views expressed in this blog post unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SPJ Digital community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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