Newsweek's Sarah Palin Cover is Good Journalism

Many years ago, when the idea of women in professional roles in business was much more novel that it is today, magazines were eager to profile female pioneers. As a very young managing director in one of the then-prominent management consulting companies, I received lots of requests for interviews.

One of the first was from a major, serious business magazine. The writer conducted a lengthy interview on topics ranging from the nature of the work I was doing with my clients, my observations on key trends and evolving issues, the challenges of diversity in the workforce, and yes… a then-hot button of topic of women traveling. (For those of you too young to remember, this was an often-stated objection to women entering the business world: who knew what might happen if women were allowed to travel around the country with male colleagues!)

I waited eagerly for this very important profile to be published. When it ran, the sub-head was: “Business Woman Enjoys Clean Sheets.” The gist of the story left the impression that busy female executives have no time for housework and escape to hotels for a respite of cleanliness (presumably leaving their poor families in squalor).

I admit I had casually mentioned, as the interview was winding up and my hair was down, that there were some plusses to traveling — for example, I enjoyed the occasional opportunity to visit new places and stay in nice hotels with starchy linen sheets. The sheet part turned out to be the only point from our lengthy interview that made the cut.

I learned a critical lesson about the media — one that Sarah Palin really should have learned long ago. Good stories have a point of view. They are not rambling accumulations of every possible fact and detail. Information that is not relevant to the particular story is not used. Context is not necessarily provided. This is the hallmark of good journalism, not bad.

In my case, the journalist was writing a story about the difficulties women in business experience while traveling. That was the point he set out to explore. He didn’t include our lengthy discussion that might have positioned me as bright or thoughtful — that was not the topic of that particular story.

I understand and respect this. My kids sometimes complain that I leave out a lot of context when I write posts here (primarily the explanations behind the stories I tell you about them). I agree that I do — if it’s not relevant to the point I’m making. I don’t intentionally distort the facts, but I don’t necessarily surround them with extensive explanatory context regarding why they got into the predicament they did. It is not relevant.

The blogosphere has been filled with people from every political persuasion, including many liberal democrats (even the ladies on The View) arguing that it was inappropriate for Newsweek to use a photo of Palin that had been taken for a runners magazine on its cover. By doing so, they argue, Newsweek demonstrated bias.

In my view, Newsweek published a story expressing a provocative point of view — one you may or may not agree with — that raises interesting issues in a compelling way. The photo they chose is an apt illustration for this particular story.

Choosing information or photos to support a particular story is not (certainly not automatically) a demonstration of bias. ABC’s Evening News has a “Person of the Week” feature in which they only discuss the individual’s positive characteristics. No one worries that they don’t also say, “of course, this person has also done a few bad things in their life.” Are they biased? No — they are focusing on the facts that are relevant to the point they’re making.

The bottom line is that the control we have over the way we are portrayed is limited to our choice over what to express or make public in the first place. Once we have said something or posed for photos in a particular outfit, the information is fair game. To think that writers will not use any available information to support the point of view expressed in a particular story fails to grasp the fundamental nature of good journalism.

As individuals, we need to recognize that there are some aspects of our life that we just shouldn’t make public, if they conflict with the image we want to have portrayed. You may view it as unfair; I view it pragmatically as the reality of an effective fourth estate.

Sarah Palin should not pose in any outfit she feels fails to present her as a serious political thinker, if that’s indeed the image she wants to portray. I don’t care if the photo is for her child’s nursery school bulletin — once it’s out there, its public and fair game for re-use in a context for which it was not intended.

And believe me, I’ve never spoken of my love for hotel sheets again. Uh, until now.

Originally posted here, by Tammy Erickson @ Harvard Business Publishing