At this year’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, the President introduced himself with a not-so-subtle poke at the Washington press corps: “I am Barack Obama. Most of you cover me. All of you voted for me.” The joke elicited hearty laughter, but it also cut uncomfortably close to the bone at a time when many people regard the news media as politically biased, inaccurate, and out of touch.
Click here to read the version of this article that appeared in the Fall 2009 print edition of Nieman Reports.This dour assessment of journalism’s credibility—documented in the 2009 Pew “State of the News Media” study—follows a nearly 20-year-long decline in the public’s esteem for the press. Myriad reasons exist for this collapse, but a factor consistently overlooked involves the ethical dilemma—and a dispute among journalists – that lies at the heart of the President’s joke: where do journalists draw the line between objectively reporting on how well our democracy is functioning and personally participating in it?
Those who favor a more inclusive and engaged personal approach, melded with greater transparency, are still in the minority. “What this new ethic asks the reporter to do is to be honest in disclosing his or her point of view, his or her biases, his or her affiliations. Then in writing or producing his or her story, make it very clear that is the perspective from which it has come,” explains Marc Cooper, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California.
For a profession that has spent the past four decades constructing an ever more complex ethical architecture upon the ideals of objectivity and political neutrality, the prospect of replacing that foundation has, perhaps not surprisingly, gained little traction. In fact, New York Times standards editor Craig Whitney dismisses this idea out of hand in an interview, laughing as he says: “You can make the argument that disclosing would be better. I don’t know if that’s true and I don’t want to find out by trying.”
Today, broad restrictions are reserved for conduct that is already either unethical or illegal outside of the newsroom (e.g. misrepresenting someone else’s work as your own or using privileged work information for unfair financial gain), while behavioral rules, such as those involving conflicts of interest for specialized beats, tend to be narrowly drawn. Yet when it comes to the exercise of constitutionally protected political free speech, this even-handedness all but disappeared.
Journalists’ Free Speech
In handling editorial employees’ right of free speech, nearly all major news organizations now regard employment and political activity to be mutually exclusive. An extreme minority of journalists has even sworn off voting altogether, even though no newsroom forbids reporters to vote. But in this era of Facebook and cell phone cameras, newsrooms have adopted a siege mentality, further circumscribing what is acceptable behavior for their editorial employees (and, by extension, those employees’ spouses and families as well). And though most newsrooms have been careful to include plenty of boilerplate language in their ethics codes that encourages, as The New York Times does, taking active part in the community, when they unabashedly equate making political donations or wearing campaign buttons with transgressions like plagiarism and insider trading, the real message being sent is unmistakably chilling. Nevertheless, Pennsylvania State journalism professor Gene Foreman, author of the 2009 book, “The Ethical Journalist,” supports this approach: “We have to be as restrained as we can in getting involved in community life,” he says. “You’re kind of giving [the public] a stick to hit you with” by divulging political opinions in today’s environment.
However, this notion of certifying journalists’ neutrality by concealing political opinions seems shortsighted and hypocritical because it creates a distorted ethical landscape. By choosing to push these opinions into the shadows, the press merely perpetuates a façade of fairness and widens its detachment from the public in an era where, ironically, it purports to hold itself more accountable to its readers and fights for more transparency from those it covers. In this distorted media landscape, a White House correspondent can cast a vote for Obama and socialize with administration officials at cozy, off-the-record events without the independence of his or her reporting being questioned. Yet, if this same reporter discloses his or her vote or drives a car with an Obama bumper sticker, the journalist’s reporting is now considered to be somehow tainted.
To the increasing numbers of news consumers comfortable with getting their news filtered through the openly partisan lenses of cable TV and the blogosphere, these ethics rules come across as increasingly hidebound and anachronistic. “The way journalism is moving, I think people are much more interested in having a strong point of view in their news,” says CUNY journalism professor and The Nation media critic Eric Alterman. “A much better question is how does it affect the journalism, because you can be an incredible partisan and still be very fair.” But to embrace Alterman’s interpretation is to challenge what has become one of the longstanding shibboleths of American journalism—the press as umpire.
Perhaps the clearest distillation of this ideal to appear recently occurred during the early stages of the 2008 presidential campaign. In June 2007, MSNBC.com investigative reporter Bill Dedman identified 143 working journalists—out of a total of roughly 100,000 nationwide—as having made campaign contributions during the previous four years. “Because appearing to be fair is part of being fair,” he wrote, these donors had essentially violated their journalistic duty to be impartial arbiters. “They have opinions, like anyone else, but they are expected to keep those opinions out of their work.”
Finding clear evidence of this last point would have been the equivalent of an ethical smoking gun, proof positive that newsrooms are justified in clamping down on the mere appearance of political bias, lest actual bias run amok within their news coverage. Dedman made almost no effort, however, to find evidence linking these donations to biased coverage. Neither did the Detroit Free Press, which tried to ban all political donations by employees after two of its journalists’ names surfaced in Dedman’s story. An independent arbitrator struck down the newspaper’s new ethics rule as unnecessarily broad and pointed out that despite the claim of harm to the paper’s reputation, Executive Editor Caesar Andrews had conceded that the paper “did not possess or even look for evidence that [the donations] compromised the Free Press’ integrity.”
Dedman told me that to focus solely on the fairness of journalistic output misses the point. “An umpire only has to cheer for the Red Sox during the game once to call his objectivity, his independence, into question,” he contends, in drawing the analogy that many make of the press as serving the role of an impartial umpire. “It matters how he performs his job, yes, but it also matters that he appear not to take sides.” But as both his own and the Free Press examples demonstrate, even when it is in the best interests of a story or a news organization to examine both, there still exists a powerful tendency to let appearing to be fair become the de facto lone standard. This has perhaps never been truer than now, when withering newsroom budgets and unprecedented staff cutbacks have left few mastheads with barely enough time to get a newspaper out the door or a broadcast on the air, let alone to consistently parse their news coverage for creeping bias.
The Digital Push
Over time, the veneer of political impartiality devalues reporting and marginalizes the press’s fundamental role in our democracy. This stance leads to artificial “balanced” reporting and sound-bite symmetry (“he said, she said”) rather than what the reporter’s role ought to be—seeking and conveying what is found to be true. Earlier this year, on his blog PressThink, Jay Rosen wrote “He Said, She Said Journalism: Lame Formula in the Land of the Active User.” He observed that “Any good blogger, competing journalist or alert press critic can spot and publicize false balance and the lame acceptance of fact-free spin. Do users really want to be left helpless in sorting out who’s faking it more? The ‘he said, she said’ form says they do, but I say decline has set in.”
In Rosen’s view, the Web’s decentralized and horizontally-connected ethos provides a healthy counterweight in giving citizen-generated reporting and partisan bloggers the same potential reach as established news organizations. As these unrestrained voices build audiences and gain legitimacy, newsrooms adapt; many now invite contributors from outside of the newsroom to post stories and images to their Web sites.
“It’s just an inevitable evolution,” says Amanda Michel, editor of distributed reporting at ProPublica. Michel, who spent most of 2007 and 2008 directing The Huffington Post’s OffTheBus coverage of the recent presidential campaign, acknowledged in a recent Columbia Journalism Review article that citizen journalism won’t replace what traditional newsrooms do anytime soon. “But if taken seriously and used properly,” she notes, “this pro-am model has the potential to radically extend the reach and effectiveness of professional journalism.”
As this happens, tensions inevitably develop between the newsroom’s strict ethics rules and the absence of similar standards for contributed content. This disparity was on full display when Mayhill Fowler, The Huffington Post citizen reporter who broke the Obama “Bittergate” story in April 2008, got her scoop; as a Obama campaign donor, she was attending a private fundraising party closed to the press.
A demographic imperative will likewise accelerate this change as those who’ve grown up with the Web’s ethos of interactive opinion-sharing, much of it political in nature, get involved in reporting news. Given this trend, news organizations ought to figure out ways to be more accepting of journalists’ civic engagement and develop strategies to be transparent about it. Doing so would also help in repairing the press’s tarnished reputation. “A stronger rapport with the public won’t solve journalism’s crisis by itself,” Michel wrote in CJR last year, “but it could be a central component of the solution.”
Mechanisms and platforms exist, even if the willpower doesn’t, to facilitate this ethical shift. On the Web, bylines already link to short bios; in these, personal disclosure statements could appear to reveal a reporter’s work history and educational background. If such a declaration is especially pertinent to a story, it could be prominently displayed in much the same way online corrections are now handled.
Embracing transparency is not an endorsement of an ethical free-for-all, however. “Common sense would rule out clearly unacceptable situations—a newspaper’s political writer working on a campaign, say,” wrote Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, in an American Journalism Review essay on this topic. “But transparency would clear the way for reporters who wish to work in a battered women’s shelter or maybe even that technology writer protesting the war in Iraq.” In essence, newsrooms would treat editorial employees’ political activity no differently than any other public behavior that might arouse a conflict of interest, such as attending religious services or investing in real estate.
News organizations should realize that what sets their content apart is not their staff’s eschewing of a campaign yard sign, but how they employ their skills to produce better reporting. Credibility rather than a vast publishing infrastructure is the press’s authority today; reporters having a personal point of view should not prevent them from producing fair and accurate coverage.
With an operating ethic of protecting reporters’ free speech, the trade-off for journalists would be forgoing some measure of personal privacy. In a digital age where information is the coin of the realm, asking reporters and editors to publicly own up to their biases or beliefs is fairer to all parties involved. When reporters divulge information about their personal political engagement—or other potential conflicts of interest, the public will be able to assess the full dimensions of the news it receives.
Letting go of this fear of public awareness of reporters’ political engagement and leanings won’t be easy. This spring The Washington Post fired Dan Froomkin, a political blogger who’d written for its Web site. As Froomkin, who works now as Washington bureau chief for The Huffington Post and at the Nieman Watchdog Web site, observes, “the sense that if you have a belief that you publicly espouse you can no longer be fair about reporting a subject is problematic. Reporters have beliefs, they have values—the key is for them not to let those beliefs unduly affect their reporting.” There are principles, he says, that journalists should stand for—accountability, transparency, fair play, human rights—and “there’s nothing wrong with journalists wearing those values on their sleeves.”
Reed Richardson is managing editor at Touchpoint Media. He is a former U.S. Army officer and voted for Obama. Gene Foreman, former managing and deputy editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1973-98, generously shared portions of his recently published book “The Ethical Journalist.”