News outlets need political activity policy

Periodically, some event happens that reminds the world at large that journalists are just normal people.

Periodically, some event happens that reminds the world at large that journalists are just normal people.

Sometimes, this comes in the form of pictures of your blow-dried local anchorman being hauled to jail for a DUI; but more often, it comes when supposedly impartial reporters allow their personal feelings to seep out.

The latest reminder of the media's fallibility came in the form of an investigative story published by MSNBC on June 22, which detailed 143 journalists at major news organizations who had made political campaign contributions since 2004. They include reporters, editors, columnists, and critics at national newspapers, TV networks, magazines, Web sites, radio stations, and wire services.

And to further reinforce the stereotype, 125 of them gave exclusively to Democrats or liberal causes, while only 16 gave to Republicans or conservative causes.

Is this behavior out of bounds? Virtually everyone agrees that reporters covering the political beat shouldn't make contributions, and few on the list were actually political reporters. But does it really matter if a travel columnist gave $2,000 to Bill Richardson or a copy editor gave $200 to John Kerry?

Yes, says Kelly McBride, journalism ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute.

"It absolutely matters. Because even if you're not covering the political beat, it's very hard to get away from covering political issues," she says. "You can be writing about food, you can be writing about technology, you can be writing about pop culture, you can be writing about schools - and you will inevitably run into an area on your beat that has political consequences."

McBride points out that "the standard in the industry is avoiding conflicts of interest" and posits that all campaign contributions create conflicts of interest because they amount to a public profession of bias. The onus for solving the problem, she believes, rests on the news organizations themselves.

"I'm a little disheartened that the newsrooms have not risen up and said, 'No, we won't take this,'" she says. "It is every news director's and editor's job to make the policy clear and to make sure the employees understand the policy."

For others in the industry, though, the controversy seems rather small. David Henderson, a former CBS Network News correspondent who went on to hold corporate and agency PR positions, says that while donating to candidates "clearly shows partiality" and is "not smart," it is not the most blatant abuse the press corps is involved in.

"I weigh that against journalists... who don't ask the tough and valid questions because they feel they won't be recognized next time [in a news conference]," he says. "Now, what's worse?"

Henderson represents the view that contributions are less insidious than other journalistic flaws, which undermine the very substance of the news itself. "This is not so much an investigative piece as a trivial piece," he says.

Between the extremes of full prohibition of campaign contributions and full permission lies a murky middle ground that shifts based on philosophical questions of who really counts as a journalist. Opinion writers can make a good case that they state their biases up front and make no pretense of objectivity; likewise, writers on far-flung beats can plausibly argue that their choice in the state Senate race isn't relevant to their reporting on the local elementary school's latest play.

But to the extent that the mythical monolithic "media" cares about its own reputation, it would be wise for news organizations to have a clear dialogue with their staffers about their policies regarding political involvement.

Without that, you get comments like the one given to MSNBC by Ann Goldstein, Democratic contributor and copy chief at The New Yorker, perhaps the most prestigious magazine in America: "I've never thought of myself as working for a news organization."

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