Journalism Notes: Students go Gonzo for relativism

Nearly every semester I teach a basic news reporting class. For most of my students it’s their first taste of being put through their paces and cranking out stories on deadline.

They do one article a week – 350 words, at least one authoritative source, at least one additional source, a photo and a caption.

This keeps them hopping for about the first 11 weeks of the semester. So toward the end of the term, I like to shift gears a little bit and give them a book report.

They can choose a book about the craft of reporting and writing, or something on the state of the media, or an original work of longform journalism. I give them a list of viable options to read for their report, which includes authors like Clay Shirky, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, Nellie Bly, and Rick Bragg.

Also on the list is Hunter S. Thompson. (And readers of this post may rightly question if this is too strained a juxtaposition in a news reporting class.)

Invariably, the taboo cachet of Thompson lures many of my self-exploring young college students, enticed by his reputation for profane, drug-addled social commentary.

Frankly, I don’t have a problem with that. I get it. We’re all drawn to peek behind the curtain of the forbidden fringe, if only to catch a glimpse of understanding how someone like Thompson could manage even a semblance of basic daily functioning.

But what has struck me so profoundly is the degree to which Thompson’s eschewing of objectivity resonates with my students.

It’s like a late-adolescence reflex: “There is no such thing as true objectivity.”

Now, I have a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, so I can appreciate a meaty epistemological debate. But that’s not what seems to be happening in my students’ responses.

Instead, they’ve picked up on a threadbare, kitschy post-modern mantra that revels in subjectivity.

Throughout the semester I tell students in all my classes that journalism is in the business of “functional truth,” as Kovach and Rosentiel describe it in “The Elements of Journalism.”

We can put aside those lofty debates about “What is truth?” We can say with a functional certainty that the city council met, the police arrested someone, or the student government voted this way or that on some particular issue.

And my students nod in agreement. They understand this in practice. They genuinely agree that it’s important to get the facts right.

But then they read Thompson, and they just can’t help themselves. It’s like a collective “Amen, brother!” as all of those relativistic sentiments come flooding out of them.

This disposition has clear implications for those of us who believe in a true Creator. As proponents of absolute truth, we are troubled by the casual disregard of any objective standard.

We recognize that our personal understandings of truth are inherently limited and flawed, but we find it dangerous to suggest that there is then no fundamental truth to serve as our anchor in the universe and our experiences.

Like the captives in Plato’s cave, if we deny the external reality then we leave ourselves chained in darkness, assuming our shadows of perception are legitimate substitutes for truth.

But I think this disregard of even functional objectivity also has very immediate, practical implications. Journalists traffic in the currency of credibility. What are we to make of this if even the most basic news reports are cast off as irreconcilably subjective, biased and untrustworthy?

How shall we come and “reason together,” as God spoke through the prophet Isaiah? Where will we find our common civic discourse if we in the end we retreat to “your truth” and “my truth”? In the words of C.S. Lewis, “A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.”

Interestingly, Thompson himself didn’t deny absolute truth. He simply said it was a “rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.”

I can dig that. I dig Thompson. And I hope my students will grow to dig deeper in understanding the truth.

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Jeff Neely

Jeff Neely is an assistant professor of journalism at The University of Tampa, where he teaches courses in newswriting, feature writing, multimedia journalism and literary journalism. His research has examined the role narrative and literary journalism can play in broadening our understanding of various issues and experiences life brings our way, from identity formation to environmental ethics. He has also studied how youth journalism programs, where young people tell their own stories and those of their peers, can help strengthen local communities. He is currently working with local non-profit outreach organizations to build a youth journalism program called Tampa Youth Voice. Prior to entering academe, Jeff worked as a writer and editor for various publications in and around the Tampa Bay area, as well as a case manager and resource development specialist for the Florida foster care system.

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