Add another head-scratcher to the campaign season of scratched heads. Why on earth would journalists contribute to presidential campaigns — or any other campaign for that matter?
The Center for Public Integrity released a report today that shows a collection of journalists have donated nearly $400,000 to the presidential campaigns. Ninety-six percent of the money went to the Clinton campaign, the report said.
That’s about as basic an ethical breach as it gets and the fact that people will say it proves the media is in the pocket of the Clinton campaign shows the reason why.
Generally, the law obligates federal candidates only to disclose the names of people making contributions of more than $200 during a single election cycle, along with their addresses and employer and occupation. That means it’s likely that many more journalists have given the Clinton or Trump campaigns cash, but in amounts too small to trigger reporting requirements.
Together, these journalist-donors work for news organizations great and small, from The New York Times to sleepy, small-town dailies. While many of them don’t primarily edit or report on political news, some do.
And each news professional offers his or her own unique take on a basic question: Why risk credibility — even one’s livelihood — to help pad a presidential candidate’s campaign account?
One journalist, former ABC reporter Carole Simpson, says she’s a former journalist now and can do things she couldn’t do when she worked in the business.
But a San Diego news editor, who says he’s a libertarian, contributed to the Trump campaign because he’s got the right to.
Writer Reed Richardson says the report fails to indicate the scale of journalists contributing to political campaigns.
I calculated that by using the 430 donor figure CJR cites / (2,250 online journos + 27,870 TV/radio journos + 32,875 newspaper journos).
— Reed F. Richardson (@reedfrich) October 17, 2016
For the record, Minnesota Public Radio prohibits its news staffers from participating in party functions (caucuses, for example) or contributing to any campaigns.
MPR News staffers must keep their political views private. They may not seek public office. To do so would be to participate in the news instead of covering the news. It would also risk having the staffer’s political views associated with MPR, creating the perception of political bias. For the same reason, we do not participate in rallies or make appearances in support of a controversial cause or campaign. When covering political or partisan marches, we should be clearly distinguished as working journalists, with our credentials on display. Staffers may not raise money or contribute money to political or social causes that go beyond the groups described in the section headlined “Service in our communities.” We don’t advocate with yard signs or bumper stickers. In the event a staffer’s significant other wants to make a public political statement, a news leader should be advised. And even when our company publicly voices an opinion, MPR News staffers will maintain their journalistic impartiality.
One photojournalist said she contributed because it’s her freedom of speech. That’s true. Everyone has a right to contribute to political causes. No one has a right to work in a newsroom while doing so, however.
“It’s at best a double standard, and a questionable practice,” the Society of Professional Journalists says in its ethics guide on the question.
Many employers’ codes of ethics are much more specific than SPJ’s code about their employees’ involvement in politics. The SPJ code is merely advisory, but a journalist can be fired for violating an employer’s ethical rules. NPR’s code, for instance, says quite bluntly that “NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies” concerning issues that NPR covers — which is pretty much everything.
Newspapers, in particular, have a longstanding practice of endorsing candidates in competitive political races. Although some readers think these endorsements signal a bias in the publication’s news coverage, SPJ encourages editorial pages to promote thoughtful debate on candidates and politics; letting readers know through endorsements which candidates share the newspaper’s vision is part of that discussion. Part of an editorial page’s responsibility, though, to take every appropriate opportunity to explain the firewall between news and opinion.
Reporters are not columnists or editorial writers. SPJ’s recommendation is that reporters not take a position on an issue, or in a candidate race, that they are covering. They may do so privately, but they definitely should not do so in a public or visible way.
Ironically, journalism is a profession protected by the same First Amendment that grants to all citizens the right to run for office or to support, by word, deed or cash, the people they would like to see elected. But journalists who want to be perceived as impartial must avoid any display of partisanship.
It’s not known if any Minnesota journalists appear on the list the Center for Public Integrity used in today’s report.