As a group of Herald Journal employees gathered around a computer screen last week to watch video of all the histrionics following the USU-Nevada basketball game, features editor Kevin Opsahl made a comment I found interesting.
“I just can’t get excited like that,” he said.
Kevin wasn’t talking about the players and coaches involved in post-game hostilities in the tunnel and locker room area. He was referring to the fans who rushed the court to celebrate the Aggies' go-ahead victory in the Mountain West Conference.
You know the drill: When the buzzer sounds, students leap from their seats and storm past police and ushers to get close to the players. Mostly, they jump up and down with their hands in the air and hug each other. It’s usually harmless but can sometimes get out of hand.
Anyway, I could relate to Kevin’s comment. I can’t get excited like that either. Never could. And then it struck me that all of us watching that video in the newsroom that day, a group of reporters and editors, share this personality trait. We are not excitable types.
It’s not that people like us don’t take an avid interest in things like Saturday’s big game and the bedlam that followed — we’re just not interested in the same way as participants. You might be this type of person too, which could qualify you for a job in our much-maligned but much-needed profession.
If you have a keen interest in politics but would never join a crowd of people chanting “Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!” you might be a journalist.
If you follow a certain sports team but feel no need to paint your face red and gold, cover your man-cave with pennants or go online to argue with the fans of rival teams, you might be a journalist.
If you can stand back and watch while everyone else is lining up to get autographs or selfies with this or that celebrity, you might be a journalist.
This last example is a very telling behavior for me when gauging whether someone has the right stuff to be in the news business. If a reporter just interviewed LeBron James, Taylor Swift, Mitt Romney or Beyonce for a news article and closes the encounter by getting a Facebook photo with their arm around the interview subject, they definitely don’t have the right stuff, in my opinion. It really irks me when I see this — and it’s done at all levels of the profession, from major news networks to tiny weekly newspapers in the boondocks. Curb your enthusiasm and do your job, I say. The news media is no place for adoring fans, partisans, promoters or hangers-on.
Real journalists are observers, not participants, and those few who do participate — like the late, great sportswriter George Plimpton — have the talent to look at themselves as objectively as they look at anyone else.
Many years ago I became interested in what are called the Gnostic Gospels, a collection of ancient scrolls found hidden in the Egyptian desert in 1945 at a site called Nag Hammadi. Among the scrolls was a text titled “The Gospel of Thomas,” which is alleged to contain the “secret sayings” of Jesus.
Authentic or not — which is of course a subject of much academic analysis and debate — the text contains one saying that has stuck with me all these years. It has stuck with me because it goes right to the heart of what might be called the journalistic character. It is simply: “Be as a passer-by.”
To me this defines people who don’t get involved with what is going on around them, and that is the ideal mindset, or vantage point, if you will, for someone trying to report the news.
The religious reference here might bemuse some readers, coming from Mr. Know-It-All “I’m So Objective” Editor Guy. But this actually presents a convenient opportunity to discuss another aspect of journalistic detachment — an aspect that could offend some readers.
In addition to not taking celebrity selfies, chanting campaign slogans or storming basketball courts, I don’t think journalists covering news should join in the prayers given at the opening of public events. Religious invocations are very common in Cache Valley government meetings, and when I’m present as a journalist at such times, I do not participate.
I apologize if this offends anyone, but the fact is this newspaper is a secular publication, as I believe all newspapers should be, and that means neither avowing or disavowing the existence of God or any one religion. We can quote other people about their faith, but our own beliefs are quite frankly irrelevant.
Does this mean newspaper reporters and editors can’t belong to a church? Certainly not, but when representing the newspaper, reporters need to set aside their religion in the interest of objectivity.
This is not that hard to do. You just put your beliefs on a shelf and do your job — no different than, say, a vegetarian grocery clerk ringing up customers purchasing meat at the checkout stand.
“Sorry sir, you’ll have to go to the next aisle.” (Not gonna happen.)
The same goes for voting. Journalists shouldn’t be expected to sacrifice this right as American citizens, but just like that grocery clerk, they must set aside their personal preferences when going about their jobs. And for gosh sakes, don’t be out there campaigning for a candidate either.
But, of course, all of this is easier for those of us who, like Kevin and me, tend not to get too excited about things. It also helps if you try to go through life as a passer-by.