‘Objectivity is the foundation of all the work a journalist does’

Phil Ponce speaks about the importance of unbiased reporting after 4 decades of working at WTTW

By Richie Requena

Phil Ponce retired from Chicago Tonight earlier this year after more than 30 years reporting, hosting and paneling for the show. The veteran says he is somewhere in the baseball idiom of “going, going and gone,” but not quite gone from the world of journalism. Ponce after all, is still lecturing on interviewing at the University of Loyola.

As a host, Ponce has been able to hold balanced conversations on politics and hold fire to the feet of guests who would rather not directly answer his questions. Ponce leaves behind what his colleagues call “a face” on the Mt. Rushmore of Chicago Tonight, interviewing notable guests such as then senatorial candidate Barack Obama, Elmo and Rita Moreno among others.

I reached out to Ponce, who now gets to enjoy his time off to be with his family, about objectivity in journalism; and how the lens of objectivity has changed over time. With objectivity, comes credibility, says Ponce. “If you’re perceived as non-objective, then I think you lose your main thing which gives you professional (credibility.)”

Ponce says that the opinion of a reporter should try to stray away on how they cover a story. “The focus should not be on the reporter the focus should be on the story the reporter is covering. If you are seen as a non-objective reporter, then all of a sudden, you’re no longer relevant.”

Ponce broke down the three things he did while at Chicago Tonight to make sure his reporting is free of bias. Doing the homework, being aware of your own biases, and having your work looked over.

Doing the homework

“I tried to understand a topic, so I know where (the) landmines are, in terms of where the different viewpoints lie, what the different arguments are,” said Ponce. Ponce says this has been able to help keep it balanced. I can only imagine how important it is to know “where the third rail is,” as he put it.

Being aware of your own biases

 “All of us have biases. We live in a culture that has biases in so many different areas… stereotypes about race and ethnicity, religion, social class,” said Ponce. “We’re not immune to the culture. We have downloaded biases and downloaded stereotypes and downloaded prejudices because that’s the nature of the culture.”

“And if anyone says, ‘Oh, I’m completely unbiased  and I don’t have any prejudices’ —-  I don’t buy that. We can’t help it, we live it, we are of this culture. The thing that’s important is to be aware of it, know when you’re wrong, and check yourself.”

Have your work looked over

 “One of the things we do at Chicago Tonight is we share our questions with who will produce the segment.”

“It’s a system that helps make sure that we’re balanced. It’s not a foolproof system, but it’s a pretty good system.”

Ponce was open to talk about a time where he felt that he was not fair enough. In a 2015 panel he did with then mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, Ponce drew groans from the crowd when he began a line of questioning with Garcia about his son being involved in a street gang.

Ponce spoke to John Kass after the panel saying he “missed the mark” with the line of questions he had and told me he “went overboard” with it. He said he apologized on air for it and to Garcia as well. He said, “People are judged over the course of a career and there will be scar tissue along the way, but you’ll learn from it.”

“When you mess up, say you messed up. It’s not that hard,” said Ponce. “You can always do a follow up piece, or do an editorial note in retrospect, (say) we missed some points in yesterday’s article.”

Being mathematically objective may not be attaining, says Ponce. “But day in and day out, if you are attempting to do your job in a good faith way, I think you will be serving the profession and our audience as well.”

 

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