It is not difficult to find alleged infractions against journalistic independence. An article from the Harvard Nieman Reports accused modern journalists of catering to sources for the sake of fostering mutually beneficial relationships. Another, from a European news site accused journalists of lacking independence when they are embedded into military units.
But the reality is that most journalists rely on situations like those above to get the job done. While the first situation, especially if the relationship leading to withholding information from the public to protect a source, can be difficult to defend, I find it difficult to find a better solution to the second. We want war reporters, but we simply can’t afford to have each newspaper employ a personal guard for every reporter they send.
Good relationships with valuable sources are often also necessary. Many a story has been phoned in by an insider with whom a journalist had gained trust. Without that familiarity, some stories would never happen. In my personal experience, I was assigned stories over older, more qualified journalists because I knew an acquaintance.
I particularly like how our text, The Elements of Journalism, clarifies and defines journalistic independence, calling it an “independence of mind.” So yes, journalists can have friends, and sources, and even expect to be sheltered by troops of their own nationality when in danger. So long as they remember to where their professional loyalty is owed—to the citizens.
In my mind, independence of mind refers to the vast skepticism the best journalists either posses from birth or develop early in their careers. Journalists question everyone, and everything. They maintain an independence from herd-like thought, and dare to point out when society is following itself off a cliff. They maintain independence from those they cover when, in essence, they are in the world, but not of it.
That’s not a trait most humans are at ease with. Yet many journalists seem to enjoy swimming upstream. Like our text says, “Anyone can be a journalist, but not everyone is.”