Long-time readers of NewsCut and its predecessor, Polinaut, know that I’m conflicted when the subject of the political activities of journalists comes up. I’ve long considered the claim of “objectivity” to be fraudulent. Humans aren’t objective. Rather, journalists should strive for fairness. No need to go over it again. You can watch the whole argument here.
All that said, we have to acknowledge that trust is the real currency of journalism and if people think you have a horse in the race, that currency is devalued. I admit to being troubled by all of the journalists who’ve fled to a few “news” websites in town and declared their political allegiances. Maybe they’re fair, but I don’t trust what they’re writing. I don’t know what they’re holding back. So I stop reading them.
That’s why the situation in Wisconsin is troubling — more and more journalists don’t “get” that point and more and more journalists aren’t conflicted by it.
Today, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s media critic reports that all of that city’s TV stations have staffers who signed petitions to recall Gov. Scott Walker. The revelation comes on the heels of the one that staffers at Gannett news operations in the state — 25 staffers — signed the petition.
There’s no question that many journalists have political leanings of one kind or another. But having them and actively participating in political activities are two different ethical standards.
The Journal Sentinel defines the differing opinions:
Objectivity is in the DNA of veteran journalists whose ethical guidelines prohibit everything from yard signs and bumper stickers to signing petitions. A political reporter once told me this was the reason he didn’t vote.
But in a digital age where biased information is commonplace and reporters are also bloggers and commentators, such “extraordinary measures may seem a bit quaint” to them and the audience, said Erik Ugland, associate professor of broadcast and electronic communications at Marquette University, who teaches media law and ethics.
Does it matter anymore? We presume it’s easy to forgive active political participation by a journalist if it’s on the side of the politics of the people judging. But what if it’s not?