OLD Media Moves

Do you know me? A biz journalist unexposed in India

September 5, 2012

Posted by DeanRotbart

To what extent, if any, do mainstream journalists owe the public details of their personal lives, when their backgrounds might influence the prism through which the journalists filter the facts at hand?

Would you prepare differently to be interviewed by an influential writer if, for example, you knew that he or she has ties to one of America’s wealthiest family dynasties?  Or that when the journalist was only 13 years old, the future health reporter’s mother died of cancer?

Perhaps, and I say this in all sincerity, it makes no substantive difference.

The journalist – who has been accredited by his or her own news organization and thus is presumptively qualified – will still cover the story.  And the facts won’t change, just because the journalist’s wealthy step-mother is a great granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil.

In all but the most extreme cases, it is not possible to prove categorically that a journalist’s personal life or upbringing is currently influencing his or her work product.

One theoretical test might be to compare the output of several journalists on the same beat in an effort to detect an otherwise unexplained bias.  But how would we know, even if such a bias is observed, that there is a direct causal link to the journalist’s private life?

The fact that personal journalism bias can’t be empirically measured, however, doesn’t mean we should ignore the phenomenon altogether. When a company’s reputation or market value is on the line, I always believe it prudent for corporate communications executives to study up on any journalist who will be interviewing senior executives – looking for hints of how and why the journalist might perceive the situation at hand differently than other journalists on the same beat.

Case in Point: Gardiner Harris – Business Journalist Abroad

In May of this year, Gardiner Harris, 48, became The New York Times’ new foreign correspondent in India.  Harris, who joined the Times in 2003, previously covered public health, drug and food safety, and the pharmaceutical industry.  On the pharma beat he was a dogged reporter – often investigative in his approach – and unafraid to take on hot-button topics, such as the question of whether there is a link between childhood vaccines and autism.

In a blog post introducing himself upon his arrival in India, Harris acknowledged, “I have an unusual expertise for a foreign correspondent.”

Harris’s background is, indeed, unusual – the likes of which most story subjects in India have very probably never encountered in the form of an American journalist.  Yet the Timesman’s public disclosure of his special qualifications left out a few of his most distinctive circumstances.

“I have been writing about science, medicine and food for more than a dozen years, most recently at The New York Times and before that at The Wall Street Journal, and I plan to continue writing about these subjects while in India.  I have been a business reporter, so India’s economic story is a natural one for me,” he explains.

Harris also notes that this is his first time in India and that he finds the complexity of the country – with its many languages, dialects and distinct cultures – paralyzing.  “I’m fairly religious, and I would love to explore the spiritualism that has made India a destination for pilgrims for thousands of years,” he divulges.

“On a personal basis,” Harris adds, “I’ll be looking for some tennis partners and people who will befriend my wife, an artist, and my two boys.”

Harris pats himself on the back for his revelations, noting: “In the brave new world of journalism, I think there are virtues to openly acknowledging what I don’t know and inviting the reader on the journey of discovery with me.”

What personal information Harris more closely guards – and what doesn’t appear in any “official” bio that I’ve located of the influential business journalist and novelist – I suspect would actually be of much greater interest to those he’ll be meeting and interviewing during his South Asian sojourn.

I’ll acquaint readers with that Gardiner Harris in my next column.

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