Elections always raise ethical questions, and the SPJ Ethics Committee hears a lot of them.
Editorial endorsements by newspapers, lack of coverage for third-party candidates, breaking stories close to an election – all of these things make some of our readers and viewers suspicious or angry or just unsettled.
Reporters have the same feelings. So do journalism students.
A student at Ithaca College wanted to know if there’s a code of ethics about endorsing candidates, and whether it was ethical to endorse in judicial races if there was a possibility that judge might be hearing a libel case against the endorsing newspaper.
And, while we’re on the subject of judges: A broadcast reporter wanted an opinion on airing a story about delays in hearing court cases. The reporter’s supervisor wanted to wait until after the election.
Gary Hill, chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee, and I both advised getting the story out as quickly as possible.
You don’t want to break a story like this on election eve. That definitely would be seen as an attempt to sway the election. You need to allow some time for public discussion.
Reporters, no matter how hard they try, are never going to uncover everything that needs to be said about an issue. There has to be an opportunity for the public, in its wisdom, to respond, consider and debate.
But back to the original question – endorsements.
Most newspapers consider that to be an important part of their editorial policy – to endorse the candidates the editorial board feels will best serve the interests of the community, as those interests are defined by the editorial board.
Sure, it’s self-serving. And it sometimes confuses readers, who don’t understand the care that ethical publications take to establish a sharp distinction between their opinion and reporting functions. Part of the reason for that confusion is that newspapers don’t do a very good job of explaining themselves.
As for endorsing judges, there’s no more of a conflict there than in endorsing a politician who introduces an open-records bill.
Hill pointed out that the SPJ Code of Ethics makes it clear that endorsements have to be clearly labeled as editorial, and that news reporters have an obligation not to let those endorsements shade their coverage.
The Code says journalists should “Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.”
Endorsements make some reporters uneasy. They believe it makes their job harder, because even supposedly sophisticated political operatives will think the reporter is under instructions to make the paper’s endorsed candidate look good.
As Hill pointed out in one of his many replies to election-season queries, fair coverage is a difficult task.
That includes what to do about third-party candidates. “It is not the responsibility of the media to create political movements, but it should be plugged in enough to cover them as they emerge,” Hill said.
Minnesota, where Hill works, has had one of the most famous and successful third-party candidates, Gov. Jesse Ventura. Colorado, where I work, gave Ross Perot 23 percent of its presidential vote in 1992.
Third-party candidates are becoming increasingly important. Most media outlets these days make an effort to include the minor parties in their election guides, Web sites and candidate lists.
But it’s a chicken-and-egg problem: Until they get a significant share of the vote, third-party candidates aren’t going to get much media attention. And until they get more media attention, they aren’t going to get much of the vote.
It’s pretty clear that reporters covering politics should avoid becoming party activists, and they certainly shouldn’t run for office. The SPJ Code of Ethics also reminds journalists to “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”
Does that mean reporters shouldn’t vote? I think not.
A few very influential media figures disagree, but over a quarter-century of reporting on elections, I have always voted – even for candidates I have covered. (Which means, of course, that I had to vote against other candidates I had covered.)
Your rights and obligations as a citizen don’t change because you’re a reporter. Well, maybe they change a little, but it’s important not to think that you are somehow above it all. The important thing is to keep bias out of your reporting, to treat all candidates fairly.
To avoid voting is too often a cover-up, so if people do accuse you of bias – and sometimes legitimately – you can always say, “Moi? Biased? How can that be? I don’t even vote. I am soooo dang pure.”
A reminder: The Sigma Delta Chi Foundation has approved up to $12,000 – or $1,000 for each of SPJ’s 12 regions – to help defray expenses in connection with SPJ’s first-ever Ethics Week in late April.
The Ethics Committee still needs to figure out exactly how this will work, but most likely applications should go first to regional directors, who will forward them, with recommendations, to the ethics committee.
The money can be used to help pay expenses of bringing in an expert to talk about ethics, or it can be used for some creative program that costs money. It can be used for regional conferences (ones that happen near late April) or for chapter programs.
Start thinking about it now. Be creative. Be timely. The committee hasn’t set deadlines, but the timetable probably will require that regional recommendations be in committee hands by early February.
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.