Should journalists vote?

It’s a question that consumes newsrooms at this time of the year.

Today, Rob Karwath, the editor of the Duluth News Tribune, declared in an editorial that journalists should not participate in caucuses:

But a caucus is different from an election. They are organizing meetings for political parties. Participants make a public show of support for a party and a candidate. No secret ballot here.

And there’s the problem. I don’t know any news organization that prohibits its journalists from participating in a traditional election. But when a public display of support is required, that’s different.

… and…

Some of you may find all of this over-wrought or even wrong-headed. But I hope it shows how seriously we take our ethics and credibility. Is it unfair? Perhaps. But when we decided to become journalists, all of us understood that we occasionally would have to refrain from exercising some of our rights as private citizens. In exchange for a “front-row seat on life,” as journalism is sometimes described, we have to stay off the playing field.

The MPR News policy is similarly clear:

The paid professional news people of any company in the APMG group of companies do not endorse, publicly support, or make financial or in-kind contributions to any candidate for political office. They do not actively participate in any partisan activity, including but not limited to, local and national political organizations and their activities (e.g., fundraisers, caucuses, straw votes), social action events, and public demonstrations that create a conflict of interest. All paid professional news people must be free of obligations to news sources and newsmakers that create a conflict of interest.

From a purely ethical point of view, the question of a public vs. a private display of allegiance to a candidate is problematic. It is dealing with the question from a matter of how you perceive it, and what you think of the journalism as a result of that perception. It operates with the assumption that the journalism itself is not affected by a reporter’s political bias, just whether you are allowed any evidence that it is.

Two years ago, the CBS News blog picked up the discussion, quoting Mark Halpern, political director of ABC News, in the “don’t vote” camp:

I don’t vote, because I think that just opens up the question of how can I say I’m being objective, and fighting for truth, if I’m making a decision about who to vote for in a presidential race.

And Brian Williams, NBC news anchor in the “I do vote” camp:

I’ve thought long and hard about this. I think it’s important to vote. People fought and died for the right to vote, and I don’t believe I forfeit my citizenship because I’m a journalist.

His MSNBC colleague, Keith Olbermann, had a retort in 2004:

I’m not political. I don’t vote — I don’t believe journalists covering politics should (and I don’t think the democracy would suffer if however many of us there are, recused ourselves). I have no more interest in the political outcome of an election than I did in the winner or loser of any ballgame I ever covered. I think transparency is vital; I think it’s also, in these super-heated political times, unintentionally inescapable.

Olbermann’s policy is more far-reaching than most. In Michigan, for example, some newsrooms were split on the subject when the primary election was held their last month. Some journalists in a Grand Rapids newspaper opted not to vote because doing so would then attach a public label to them, a label that isn’t attached by voting in the general election.

  • Apparition

    I listened to your conversation with Mary Lucia earlier this evening and after reading your post, I think that you bring up some good points.

    I think that the vast majority of people who get into news/reporting are passionate about issues that are effecting the country or the world. Politics is one of those forces that brings out the passion in people. Asking news people to not be involved in the political process seems extremely wrong to me.

    I understand trying to report news from a unbiased perspective and in principal that’s wonderful, but honestly every item that is chosen to be reported on will have some sort of political spin. I would much rather know where someone stands versus trying to find it through obscure clues in their writing/reporting. That would allow me to rationally look at the report and make ‘normalize’ it by understanding the viewpoint it is being represented from.

    Yes, you can go overboard and skew the news in order to try to change someone’s perspective, but let’s use Upton Sinclair as an example. He was definitely writing from a skewed perspective, but he was also able draw attention to the state of worker rights at the turn of the century. This just proves that you do not need to remain neutral to report news in order for it to be delivered properly to your audience.

    Asking news people not to participate in the electoral process is absurd. I am sure the established powers like that, “Let’s see how many passionate people we can eliminate from the political process because with voter turnout low, we only need to motive a small number of people to keep the existing power structure.” And I am not talking about any one party here, rather talking about the fact that about 40% of the population refusing to use their political voice already without being ‘required’ to remain silent.

  • Bob Collins

    If you look at the quotes of journalists from both sides of the issue, you’ll see a familiar theme: “perception.” They don’t even consider the possibility that the journalism itself is influenced by their political leanings. That’s one of the problems with the discussion, it’s more about perception than it is about the actual journalism.

    You bring up good points, Apparition. And you’re right, every chosen item has an inherent bias in it. That’s true for everyone, not just journalists, of course. So that leads to the second part of the “perception” question: should journalists tell you about theirs?