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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Journalists and Politics

It would be nothing short of astounding for a professional journalist to assume that entering a political campaign would be acceptable, ethical conduct, even in industries where some media organisations declare and promote bias.

The principle of impartiality and neutrality – the most basic requirement of a professional journalist would be breached. The principle of neutrality is a commonsense ethical principle that need not be codified; it is part of the toolkit that a professional journalist brings to the job.

Just as you need not have a published code of ethics to fire a plagiarizing or lying writer, you need not spell out the long-established ethical principle that journalists avoid conflicts of interest. Reporting on the news of the day involves reporting on the government and those who seek public office. Politics requires persuasive communication on the part of a candidate; how is the voter to choose wisely if he or she cannot be sure that the journalist seeking office or promoting the interests of a candidate will report honestly and fairly on both sides?

Here are quotes from the ethical guidelines of several news organisations which reaffirm an ancient – and commonsense – principle. The relevant passages are in bold type (my emphases):

While we should convey to our listeners that we have a stake in the well being of our communities, political activism and advocacy should be avoided. Where should the line be drawn? Sound Reporting [National Public Radio's handbook] lists the following activities as out of bounds for journalists: running for elective office, working in electoral campaigns, writing speeches for candidates, lobbying for candidates or ballot measures, and publicly endorsing candidates. Common sense also dictates that reporters avoid public expression of their political views, such as displaying posters and wearing campaign buttons, marching in rallies or writing partisan op-ed pieces. - Independence and Integrity: A Guidebook for Public Radio Journalism

We avoid active involvement in any partisan causes -- politics, community affairs, social action, demonstrations -- that could compromise or seem to compromise our ability to report and edit fairly. Relatives cannot fairly be made subject to Post rules, but it should be recognized that their employment or their involvement in causes can at least appear to compromise our integrity. The business and professional ties of traditional family members or other members of your household must be disclosed to department heads. - The Washington Post

Employees may not engage in activities likely to bring the Corporation into disrepute… Employees may not take a stand on public controversies if, by doing so, the Corporation's integrity would be compromised… In order to maintain their own credibility and that of the CBC, on-air personnel, as well as those who edit, produce or manage CBC programs, must avoid publicly identifying themselves in any way with partisan statements or actions on controversial matters. - Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know. Journalists should:
—Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
— Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
— Refuse gifts, favours, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
- Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ)

Journalists are expected to avoid any situations…(that) would present a conflict of interests with their work and assignments, and if there is a potential for conflict are expected to discuss it with their editors first. (Don't surprise the editors with community activism, and if you engage in activism, you can expect some limitations in the future assignments.). There is no prohibition against activism per se, and no limits on free speech, but journalists who become activist would be limited in their assignments to avoid an appearance of conflict. In some case the limitations could be very restrictive. - The Sacramento Bee

Manning Pyn, the Public Editor of the Orlando Sentinel favours the kind of ethical reminder that fits on a wallet card – as opposed to the 50-odd-page guidelines of the New York Times. Even in his seven commandments, it is easy to see a breach of conduct in at least two (if not more) commandments for the journalist as politician:

1. Don't accept free stuff.
2.Don't cover friends, family -- or enemies.
3.Don't use your position for personal benefit.
4.Don't make stuff up.
5.Explain where you got your information.
6.Don't steal other people's work.
7.Don't alter photographs.

And finally, I wrote these rules for Antigua's Observer Radio in March 2003, in the lead-up to the election campaign; part of an 11-page policy document for the station on political broadcasting:

During an election period, no member of staff of Observer Radio who is standing for Parliament may be allowed to broadcast for and on behalf of the station. Members of staff who are involved in political campaigns are expected to follow this policy but may continue to take part in broadcasts that are not ostensibly political, such hosting a call-in show, provided they do not engage in canvassing or the promotion of their campaign activities. Such members of staff are, however, prohibited from presenting any news broadcasts or current affairs or political affairs content, and where necessary must be clearly identified (newspaper editor etc.) - Political Broadcasting Policy Document, Observer Radio.

More on this later.