Click here to read an extended, online-only version of this article.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 covered 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.
This dour assessment of journalism’s credibility—documented in the 2009 “State of the News Media” study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism—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.
This approach departs from the way most newsrooms operate today. Broad restrictions are reserved for conduct outside of the newsroom that is either unethical or illegal, while behavioral rules, such as those involving conflicts of interest for specialized beats, tend to be narrowly drawn.
Journalists’ Free Speech
In handling editorial employees’ right of free speech, nearly all major news organizations regard employment and political activity to be mutually exclusive. An extreme minority of journalists even swears off voting, yet no newsroom forbids reporters to vote. And in the era of Facebook and cell phone cameras, newsrooms are adopting a siege mentality as they further circumscribe what is acceptable behavior for their editorial employees. Pennsylvania State University journalism professor Gene Foreman, author of the 2009 book, “The Ethical Journalist,” supports such efforts: “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. A White House correspondent can cast a vote for Obama and socialize with administration officials without questions being raised about the independence of his reporting. Yet, if this reporter discloses his vote or drives a car with an Obama bumper sticker, his work is considered to be tainted.
In our digital times, news consumers increasingly seek news that is filtered through the partisan lens of cable TV and the blogosphere. Given this, these newsroom ethics rules appear anachronistic. “The way journalism is moving, I think people are much more interested in having a strong point of view in their news,” says Eric Alterman, City University of New York journalism professor and media critic for The Nation. “A much better question is how does it affect the journalism, because you can be an incredible partisan and still be very fair.”
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. He 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’s 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.”
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.
The Digital Push
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.
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 display when Mayhill Fowler, The Huffington Post’s citizen reporter who broke the Obama “Bittergate” story last April, got her scoop; as an Obama campaign donor, she was attending a private fundraising party closed to the press.
A demographic imperative will 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.
Mechanisms and platforms exist, even if the willpower doesn’t, to facilitate this ethical shift. On the Web, bylines 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. “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 article 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 other public behavior, 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 is the press’s authority; reporters having a personal point of view should not prevent them from doing fair and accurate coverage.
With an operating ethic of protecting reporters’ free speech, the tradeoff for journalists would be forgoing some measure of personal privacy. When they divulge information about their personal political engagement—or other potential conflicts of interest, for example—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, whose White House Watch column, the paper’s ombudsman wrote in 2005, made the Post’s political reporters uncomfortable because it was “highly opinionated and liberal.” Froomkin argued that he was just doing what journalists should do. Now, as Washington bureau chief for The Huffington Post and at the Nieman Watchdog Web site, Froomkin has observed that “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 was a 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” for this article.