Another election season is upon us, with its inevitable ethical questions. Most of those questions involve journalistic fairness and independence.
Fairness and independence are related, but not identical. The assumption is that independence is essential to fairness. But, like all assumptions, this one deserves to be examined.
A couple of incidents during the summer illustrate the assumed connection – and how it can create problems.
The Boston Globe reported in July that a number of journalists had contributed to political candidates’ campaigns. This is not a good idea, and it is unquestionably a bad idea for anyone who’s actually covering politics or editing copy about government and elections.
In Bay City, Mich., an assistant metro editor was suspended because there was a sign in her front yard promoting a candidate for the local county commission. The candidate was also her husband.
These two cases illustrate two extremes. In the first, the reporters, editors and others showed poor judgment in contributing to the war chests of people their media outlets were reporting about.
In the other, management went too far, I think, in asking an employee to mask what should be an obvious and reasonable bias.
The Boston Globe’s stories got widespread attention. Allan Wolper, ethics columnist for Editor & Publisher, went so far as to blame the journalists’ bad judgment on civic journalism.
“Reporters, in this age of Civic Journalism, are reminded daily that they are members of the community and must interact with the people they’re covering,” Wolper said. “So news folks are interacting – with their checkbooks … .”
Globe reporter Bill Dedman had discovered – from campaign filings that are public information – that several journalists contributed to the campaign of Robert Reich, a Democrat, for Massachusetts governor. One generous scribe even wrote a profile about Reich that appeared on the same day her contribution to his campaign was deposited.
This is clearly unethical. You should never be writing news stories about people to whose campaigns you have contributed. (For the financially challenged, this is also a good excuse for not writing checks to political causes or even charities.)
But what about, for example, a restaurant critic contributing to a legislative candidate’s campaign? What about a sportswriter? Or a layout designer? Or the owner of a newspaper or television station?
Don’t they have what the U.S. Supreme Court has defined as a First Amendment right to free expression by writing checks to the candidates they want to support?
And what if a copy editor’s spouse is running for office? Shouldn’t he or she be able to give something other than moral support? In fact, is moral support OK?
Consider the case of Jalene Jameson, assistant metro editor for features at the Bay City (Mich.) Times. She was put on unpaid leave July 18 after refusing to remove a sign from her yard that supported her husband’s candidacy for county commissioner.
The Times prohibits its journalists from running for office, working on campaigns, making political donations or displaying campaign bumper stickers or yard signs. “We think this is a pretty fundamental point, that journalists in the newsroom need to maintain objectivity and remain nonpolitical,” said Times Editor Tony Dearing.
Jameson’s husband, Rik Hayman, a former journalist himself, felt “The newspaper shouldn’t be able to keep me from putting up a sign in my own yard.”
But after Jameson’s employer said her insurance and other benefits would be cut off during her suspension, Hayman moved the sign to a supporter’s yard next door. And his wife went back to the features desk. They were still not very happy about it.
“She is going back to work under protest, and I’m taking the sign down under protest and under duress, frankly,” Hayman said. By the way, he finished third in the three-way primary.
Sometimes the ethical boundaries are not sharp and inflexible.
SPJ President Al Cross, a political writer himself, told the Hotline, a Washington-based daily report for political junkies, that journalists who contribute to political campaigns damage not only their individual credibility, but also the credibility of the whole business of journalism.
“My personal view is that if you’re in news, you shouldn’t take sides in political races, even those you’re not covering,” Cross said. It creates “a perception problem for your employer,” he pointed out.
But Cross also takes “a somewhat milder view” than SPJ Ethics Chairman Gary Hill, who doesn’t think journalists should make any contributions to political candidates. Cross says “that if you’re an opinion journalist, you should disclose any contributions or work for candidates, parties or causes that you write about.”
And we all know that many media owners seem to have no difficulty sharing their wealth with candidates they support.
While it’s clear that reporters shouldn’t contribute to the campaigns they are covering, some of the other situations are not so clear. Even here, it’s hard to condemn everyone who declines to accept absolute noninvolvement as an ethical necessity.
One of journalists’ least admired tendencies is total avoidance of anything that smacks of commitment. It doesn’t strike the public as the ultimate in fairness. More likely it will be interpreted as the ultimate in arrogance.
And isn’t it possible that journalists’ credibility suffers more when they conceal their preferences than when they own up to them?
Fred Brown, co-chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee, recently retired as political editor of The Denver Post. He is organizing a project to study media and government ethics.