White Line Fever column: Why reporters end up writing about themselves and their opinions


AS a young reporter at Australian Associated Press, there was one word I was taught was a complete anathema: “I”.
Agency reporters regularly mock newspaper columnists and gonzo journalists making themselves the centre of the story. It is drilled into you from the get-go that people want information, not confessionals and that self-obsession is one of the worst sins.

Here I – yes ‘I’ – am 30 years later writing a column in which I (there I go again) have used that word five times by the end of the fourth sentence! I’ve just finished a book, which the kind folks at Scratching Shed – and their colleagues at Stoke Hill Press in Australia – will foist upon you mid-year.
What’s changed?
I can only speak as a rugby league journalist here when I say that when you observe and faithfully record events over a long period of time, you would have to be complete dullard not to actually form opinions.
You make a living telling the public about the bravery and skill of the players but also parochialism and self-immolation that beset the sport. You stick around longer than just about any administrator or coach; they come and go and sometimes there is no corporate memory. The same mistakes are made over and over again.
Now, if you are covering something like Industrial Relations or local council you can just keep reporting on these things ad infinitum, collect a cheque and head to the pub. But if you are covering something that you would patronise in your spare time anyway (believe me, that can be a blessing and a curse), you start to think your perspective can benefit someone.
It starts to feel like a duty to offer your perspective, not an indulgence. Not to do so would be an abrogation of a moral responsibility.
But it’s still a big leap to actually doing it – to sitting down and trying to share your opinions with the world at large. It happens organically; at least it did with me.
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I had sports editors try to make me more opinionated at least half a decade before I was willing to do so. My reasoning was that if the people I am covering know my opinion on something, they either will or won’t talk to me based on their own view of that issue. I feared being a columnist would blunt my effectiveness as a reporter.
One of the first opinion pieces I remember writing was about the decision to shut down the Perth Reds as part of the Super League-ARL piece deal in 1998. I was so incensed I stopped off at Mick Simmons in George Street and bought a Reds jersey on the way to work, put it on over my collar and tie and typed with gritted teeth as soon as I sat down at my desk.
Two of the accusations I’ve fielded since I started writing these sorts of stories regularly are 1) “You’re self-obsessed” and 2) “You’ve got an opinion on everything and responsibility for nothing”.
In both cases: guilty.
You write three or four columns a week, you do a podcast and you’re trying to become an author. Self-obsession helps in these pursuits. If you don’t like that, you wouldn’t have read this far and that would be completely fine. It’s your choice as well as being mine.
And if you have to have responsibility for something in order to pass opinion on it, no-one would be holding anyone in power to account. And that brings corruption. Having an opinion on something and not having responsibility for much is actually a well established role in society, going back millennia.
What’s that other saying? “Some people do, others talk”? I don’t do, I talk. I’m finally comfortable with that.

Filed for: FORTY 20 MAGAZINE

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  1. Good one Steve
    Bill Allen will be looking down on both of us puzzled why after three pars there’s still no quote


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