Here, I include my inquiry and the response from the NSA of Canada on some problems that came up when I was asked by my editor to report on political meetings. For a long time I refused outright to cover partisan meetings. I have been a Baha'i since I was 17 years old, and I would rather roll around in slimy worms than go to the sort of political meeting I was being asked to attend and, worse, publicise. On the other hand, I had to balance my reluctance with the admonition in the Hidden Word, "Deny not My servant should he ask anything from thee, for his face is My face; be then abashed before Me." (Baha'u'llah, AHW 30). My poor editor was often pressed and in great need for coverage of these meetings.
To: Office of External Affairs
7200 Leslie Street
Phone: (905) 889-8168
Fax: (905) 889-8184
I am a Baha'i working part time stringing for a tiny local newspaper called the Dunnville Free Press (http://www.
thefreepressnewspaper.com/). I have been offered and refused to write several articles that I deemed too controversial, including one about the deed to the land which native extremists occupied, a half built housing project in Caledonia, that received national publicity several years ago. Still, almost all the assignments lately seem to be either about partisan politics or sponsored by a political party. I include a link to the latest, a copy of which I have put on my blog and Facebook page.
Many articles are handed to me at the last minute, sometimes, as with this one, the meeting is already in progress when I get the assignment. I am asked to report on what happened, not to editorialise, but, as you see in this, my opinions tend to seep through anyway.
I would appreciate some specific advice as to what to avoid in this job. If you wish, I can take out the word "Baha'i" in my blog. Instead of "I am an essayist specialising in the Bahá'í Principles" it could say something like, "social and political principle." That might de-emphasize the partisan nature of the work I am being asked to do.
Letter from NSA on reporting political meetings
To Mr. John Taylor
Dear Baha’i Friend,
We are writing in reply to your email of 28 February 2015 regarding your work as a part-time journalist. You express concerns regarding writing assignments that deal with partisan politics and other controversial subjects. We regret the delay in replying.
Because you are reporting on partisan politics or controversies in no way implies that you are participating in partisan politics and those controversies, however distasteful you might find them. Your work of reporting should aim to be as factual and unbiased as possible, reporting on the public comments and actions of political leaders and politicians – however partisan those remarks may be, they are not yours. This reporting, then, does not constitute your participation in partisan politics but rather the exercise of your professional responsibilities as a journalist.
Of course, the work is challenging, and perhaps your own opinions and political views – for we all have them – can seep into your articles but that is one more spiritual effort that must be made as every kind of employment involves some different areas of spiritual challenge – but such work is, after all, worship. The effort to adopt a neutral and observational perspective is one that represents a particularly demanding spiritual challenge in an age when there is so much discourtesy, uncivil language, petty-mindedness and outright egoism.
You would have to try, of course, to avoid repeating calumny and backbiting, slander and rumours, and stick simply to reporting on statements and public behavior without editorializing as so much so-called factual journalism currently does. Naturally, as a Baha’i you would want to observe the most positive facts, not the most negative, report on statements which may well express principles and concepts related to the public good, avoid dramatizing or even writing about conflict, argument and dissension and seek to find the best of what politicians say, as well as the best of what the other side says. Should your efforts to write, fairly and through your own eyes with justice and equity in your reporting, and your editor or supervisor begins to feel you’re not writing well, then perhaps an eventual change of employment would be necessary – not by your choice but by your supervisors. At the same time, we believe as long as you are working for the paper, you should make that distinction between reporting and expressing a partisan opinion. Then in reporting you should strive to report well on the positives, on the constructive side of issues, for most politicians, however self-interested, motivated by party interests or plain ego, also have within themselves some measure of positive intention and good will. It would be that which you must try to bring out, and see what articles are generated as you try to incorporate into your methods different Baha’i qualities and ways of working.
If you make an effort to pray and reflect on a few Baha’i principles that apply to the stories you must treat, then your reporting may take on a freshness and a kind of personality that could evoke admiration from readers and editors alike as it would begin, as you learn, to distinguish itself from the more negative style of reporting all around us. We understand it would not be easy, but think of reporting on civility and courtesy, on constructive and positive statements or actions, on gestures of politicians that are noble, and serve the community, ones that might help educate the public – looking even to the most unattractive public figure to sometimes, however rarely, do something positive.
As for your idea of changing the name of your blog, we leave that decision entirely to you as personal blogs, an activity the Baha’i Internet Agency of the Universal House of Justice has encouraged, are not to be reviewed. Believers should be more active, as you are, with on-line writing that reflects something about the Faith, and we have been asked not to review such blogs but to rely on the maturity and wisdom of the friends as they give expression to their creative ideas.
We realize this note may not be of sufficient help, but the House of Justice has, itself, encouraged us to put aside dichotomies and to embrace the complexity of social situations and learn to exercise patience and forbearance in the face of ambiguity. But do continue to make the distinction between partisan activity and reporting on partisan activity.
With warmest Baha’i greetings,
Gerald Filson for the
Office of External Affairs