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.
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.