SHOULD JOURNALISTS VOTE?

Standing in line to vote in Virginia's primary on Feb. 12, I was at ease because in my state, one doesn't have to declare party preference when you register. But then I got to the head of the line.

"Republican or Democrat?" the clerk seemed to bellow. I hesitated, looked around, and then leaned in close and whispered my answer.

I'm not going to tell you what I said because I am a working journalist.

As a journalist, I follow NPR's ethics code: No money to candidates. No signs in my yard or bumper stickers on my car. No canvassing or attending campaign rallies unless I'm covering them.

In today's world, where "solid majorities" criticize the press for political bias, inaccuracy and failing to acknowledge mistakes, according to a 2007 Pew Research Center report, it's best not to tip your hand and reinforce the perception of political bias, whether it exists or not.

The issue of journalists and politics is a thorny one with more questions than answers. But the bottom-line is that NPR journalists — especially its political team — can't do anything that tries or even appears to try to influence other people.

That raises the question, then, of who is a journalist? Is an NPR digital media technician or a librarian a journalist? In my view, anyone who works for NPR, in any capacity, represents the institution and should refrain from overt public displays of political preference.

But is that fair to an NPR security guard or payroll specialist? Decidedly not. And probably for that reason NPR doesn't agree with me. Its ethics code does not include administrative or technical staff (engineers, for example) from news, programming or online.

NPR's policy does cover everyone involved with putting out news.

The Friday before Washington state's presidential contest, NPR editor Kate Concannon called. Could she participate in the next-day's caucus? In some states, caucus participants go to one side of the room to state their choice, making their preference clear.

In early February, NPR's ethics policy wasn't refined enough to provide an instant answer. Ellen Weiss, NPR's vice president for news, was torn. Journalists are also citizens who want to participate in the political process.

"To be honest, I would feel far more comfortable if the answer for NPR was a straight no,"Weiss said in a staff memo. "Attending a caucus could raise all sorts of questions about your impartiality as a journalist and could damage the reputation of NPR as an institution. But I also realize it is a right to participate in our democratic institution."

For Concannon, this would be the first time she could participate in a caucus where the outcome mattered. However, Weiss concluded in her staff memo that "If participation in a caucus requires you to speak, to advocate one way or another, to bargain or do anything that marks you out beyond being present, that would violate our existing ethics policy."

Concannon actually could take part in her state caucus because a rule allows the debate-shy to mark a slip of paper to vote. But she decided against it.

"For one thing, it's highly unlikely that I won't be editing at least one political piece in the coming months!" said Concannon by email. "I'm sad I won't be able to participate. It's such a wonderful example of American democracy and, as a new citizen, something I've never had the opportunity to do. But, I understand the issues."

In may seem like a silly sacrifice to not vote or not declare your political allegiance. But it is not. In choosing to become a journalist, one gives up a certain degree of participation in the public space because journalists' credibility is their most important asset.

Certainly journalists have political leanings. But they need to keep their views to themselves and bend over backwards to be impartial. The Washington Post's executive editor Len Downie famously never votes though he doesn't impose the same rigidity on his staff. NPR's managing editor, Brian Duffy, never votes either.

A listener has a right to expect that NPR reporters Mara Liasson, David Greene, Scott Horsley or Don Gonyea who are covering the campaign are not advocating for a candidate but simply providing accurate and fair information.

If a reporter covering one candidate had a lawn full of signs for that candidate, or for an opponent, would a listener not rightly question his or her impartiality?

The same holds true for journalists making campaign contributions, especially since political contributions are public record.

Last June, MSNBC investigative reporter Bill Dedman delved into Federal Election Commission public records and discovered that 143 journalists made political donations from 2004 through the start of the 2008 campaign. "Most of the newsroom checkbooks leaned to the left: 125 journalists gave to Democrats and liberal causes," wrote Dedman. "Only 16 gave to Republicans. Two gave to both parties."

Included in that 143 were two prominent NPR reporters. Newscaster Corey Flintoff gave $538 in December 2003 to Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. When NPR Pentagon correspondent Guy Raz was at CNN in June 2004, he gave $500 to Democratic Sen. John Kerry. Both CNN and NPR prohibit political activity.

Flintoff's wife made the contribution, "but it was on a joint account, so my name showed up on it." He now follows NPR's ethic's policy, even though it does not extend to family members.

Raz told Dedman in an email, "I covered international news and European Union stories. I did not cover U.S. news or politics." Now that he's at NPR, Raz covers the Pentagon, which clearly involves U.S. news and politics. His experience illustrates why journalists — no matter what they cover — shouldn't caucus, canvas or donate money.

It doesn't matter how neutral journalists are, or how hard they work at being fair. If their political leanings are made public, it will invariably color how a source, a listener, or an online reader will perceive their reporting.

"Once it's out there, you can't take it back," said Tom Bullock, senior producer of NPR's election unit.

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What do you think? Should journalists be able to caucus? Should they donate money to politicians? Does it matter? Read Politico's Should Journalists Vote? Yes, No, Maybe, and feel free to comment below.

Comments

 

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Howard Zinn said, "You can't be neutral on a moving train." Obscuring a bias is rather different than not having one, so I am not encouraged by the ethics code. (Where is the sunshine?)

I think everyone, myself included, is bias. I find the assessment that the Democratic Party is liberal lacking. While that may demonstrate my bias, it may also imply a bias in an "established" definition. I recommend Foucault. Keep in mind half our country does not even vote.

What is a "liberal cause"? Is supporting John Kerry liberal? In a 2004 debate, Kerry said with the military he aspired to be like Reagan. Today, we have to Democratic candidates that will not disavow a unitary executive or actually say the will no longer occupy Iraq; on Iraq they say we will pull out, but we will have troops there for sometime (indefinite). I wish NPR would make people define the term "America's interests" when they use it.

We can and should try to look objectively. Sometimes inter-subjectivity is confused with objectivity. One who cannot see their own biases have less hope of objectivity?

Also people can be bias about much more than politics.

Sent by andrew hennessy | 9:27 PM | 2-21-2008

Wow, you ignored Randy Cohen, NPR's ethically challenged ethicist commentator who didn't appear to know that moveon.org was a political organization.

Sent by Stu Pike | 2:08 AM | 2-22-2008

I didn't ignore Randy Cohen. Cohen is not an NPR employee. He had a contract but it was not renewed. The last time he appeared on air was in August 2007. NPR did not ask him to do any reporting. He actually is a full-time employee for the New York Times. Thanks for writing.
ACS

Sent by Alicia Shepard | 2:08 PM | 2-22-2008

As Mr. Hennessy stated, "Obscuring a bias is rather different than not having one." All journalists have political views and impressions; the question is whether those opinions are translated into a significant bias in their reporting. One can attempt to avoid any /overt/ bias, but that is unimportant. Ideally, reporters for a tight-knit organization will be able to honestly answer the question, "Are you significantly biased toward or against the candidate whom you are interviewing?" If the answer is yes, they should cover another candidate. It's that simple.

Sent by Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent | 2:42 PM | 2-24-2008

If NPR provides positive reporting about one candidate, let us say Hilary Clinton, and negative about another, let us say Barack Obama, are you not influencing people?
Or in a second case, if NPR provides 10 - 12 minutes of postive reporting on one candidate but barely mentions another, are you not influencing people?
Phil Walck

Sent by Philip Walck | 9:48 PM | 2-24-2008

What nonsense: it is every citizen's obligation to vote in a democracy. If you don't have an opinion thats not called unbiased, its being ignorant.

I am more concerned with NPR journalists that uncritically parrot political talking points even when demonstrated false, see Scott Simon this past Saturday with Daniel Schorr ("NYT timing suspect?").

I find it worse that NPR reporters on weekends pick up paychecks from Fox News a discredited right wing cheerleader, which consistently violates journalistic ethics.

Sent by Ron Gordon | 8:51 AM | 2-25-2008

"What nonsense: it is every citizen's obligation to vote in a democracy. If you don't have an opinion thats not called unbiased, its being ignorant."

Mr. Gordon, I wasn't suggesting journalists shouldn't vote. I believe they should not make their preferences public.

Can you be more specific about the Simons-Schorr concerns?
Alicia Shepard

Sent by Alicia Shepard | 12:58 PM | 2-25-2008

"If NPR provides positive reporting about one candidate, let us say Hilary Clinton, and negative about another, let us say Barack Obama, are you not influencing people? Or in a second case, if NPR provides 10 - 12 minutes of postive reporting on one candidate but barely mentions another, are you not influencing people?Phil Walck"

Mr. Walck, Clearly what the news media covers and what it doesn't can influence the public. That's why mainstream news organizations, such as NPR, bend over backward to try to fairly cover the news. When Sen. Obama first announced his candidacy, NPR did a number of stories on that and was accused of favoring Obama and ignoring Sen. Clinton and Sen. Edwards, Rep Kucinich etc.

But in fact, as I see it, NPR was covering the news -- and at that point, it was big news. Sens. Clinton/Edwards etc were not. Is that bias? Do you have to run a story on Sen. McCain if Gov. Huckabee is dropping out?

Everyday, news editors are faced with trying to be fair and informative. All I can do is assure you that with three decades experience, I have never seen a mainstream news organization try to intentionally influence an outcome. That is advocacy journalism, and there is most definitely a place for that. But not at NPR.

Sent by Alicia Shepard | 1:08 PM | 2-25-2008

I was a newspaper reporter for 20 years and have been a free-lance writer and news junkie ever since. ABSOLUTELY journalists should vote!!! We're the ones who know (in detail) what's going on. However wearing political pins on the lapel is out. If a reporter is covering politics he/she should never reveal his/her political inclinations.

Sent by Carol Mahnke | 12:48 PM | 2-26-2008

"Everyday, news editors are faced with trying to be fair and informative" (Shepard). Sure, and some people/ideas are never let in the door. I hear "surge." I do not hear "escalation." I hear "war," and I do not hear "occupation." I hear "change in strategy" when it was a change in "tactics." One could make a case for bias in all the above terms, but we hear some and do not hear others.

"If a reporter is covering politics he/she should never reveal his/her political inclinations" (Mahnke). That sounds like a good policy for a report, but it does not sound like the most efficient way let the public now about a given individual's potential bias. This is NPR (public). You are talking about obscuring information that could confirm a bias; that is CYA. If there is Truth, acting like a lack of knowledge eliminates that Truth is far fetched.

Some people, because of their bias, you will never convince you are objective. Others can look at you just as objectively you aspire to look.

Ron Gordon has good points.

Sent by andrew hennessy | 7:15 PM | 2-26-2008

"I wasn't suggesting journalists shouldn't vote."

What's the headline at the top of this blog posting, . . .

"SHOULD JOURNALISTS VOTE?" and the hyper link is to an article who's author brags that he doesn't vote.

You asked the question.

Sent by Ron Gordon | 10:43 AM | 2-27-2008

I asked the question to see what others think. I think they should vote. Just keep it to themselves. One of the hyperlinks was to a Politico article where 3 different journalists there had 3 different opinions.

Sent by Alicia Shepard | 11:18 PM | 2-27-2008

When babies are about eight months old, they develop "object permanence", the ability to understand that just because they cannot see an object, doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Can you please write a news article about the exciting world you and other journalists live in, in which turning out the lights makes everything disappear?

Are you amazed when you wake up each morning and turn the lights back on that all of your favorite objects have magically reappeared, and in the same location that you left them?

How do they do that?

Maybe you can explore this on Science Friday.

My suggestion to NPR: hire reporters that are intellectually older than eight months old.

Sent by a fond listener | 2:59 PM | 2-28-2008

You are obligated to vote, rights come with responsibilities. Should you keep your thoughts and opinions to yourself? Good luck with that. Look up Army Regulation 600-200 Command policy and what it says about participating in or being part of political groups or organizations.

Can you think of a group of people that who the president is impacts more, yet they not only vote but have voting officers assigned to each unit to insure that everyone is given the chance to vote. Maybe that is what journalist should do, assign someone as your voting officer and get everyone an absentee ballet then you culd vote and no on e would know.

Sent by The George R Bauer II | 1:32 PM | 3-5-2008

No, they shouldn't caucus, just as NPR and other news outlets should cover caucus results as if they are primaries. Caucuses are basically party conventions held at local sites, whereas primaries are elections where you vote anonymously. The media does a great disservice by giving such prominence to activist events such as the Iowa caucuses. Look, I already know that most NPR people are Democrats, so I don't think whether they vote or not is going to affect any bias they may bring to their reporting, but in caucuses, you are publicly advocating, and to me that is too much. I'd rather just not know. I don't see how voting gives you any more incentive to inject bias into reporting; you still in your heart are wishing for a certain outcome whether you vote or not. Because primaries in many places are the de facto general election, I don't buy the idea that they are party exercises.

Sent by caucusphobe | 5:14 PM | 3-5-2008

Glad you asked the question, because I forsook the traditional media in favor of NPR and NPB, wanting to form my own opinions not on spun news and soundbites. Until this election, I have been royally rewarded. What is it about this election? People are not very effective at disguising their candidate of choice. Are your reporters so young and inexperienced that they haven't learned the art of putting their own feelings aside?
Today on NPR, two biased panelists were asked to give the majority of comments: 1 caller (who didn't think Obama's speech was wonderful) was grilled. Yet callers praising Obama were glorified. By all means vote-just don't make it sooooo obvious who you are voting for by trying to convince me to vote for them as well.

Sent by sandra longley | 12:31 AM | 3-19-2008

I would like to respond to Ron Gordon's comments about NPR commentators taking paychecks from Fox News.
When I first saw Mara Liasson and Juan Williams on Special Report with Brit Hume I was surprised. I have always respected NPR for the balance it displays, but Fox News only claims.
Since then I have watched Juan Williams become a fixture on Fox. He has descended from the relative legitimacy of the Special Report to the political entertainment masquerading as journalism of Sean Hanity's television show. He has defended Bill O'Reilly by comparing David Letterman to a serial killer.
Then yesterday I heard Juan Williams on Sean Hannity's even less journalistically reputable radio show. Along with Niger Innis, Juan Williams piled on as Sean Hannity attacked Reverend Jeremeiah Wright and Barrack Obama. Mr. Williams may believe what he was saying, but it sounded to me like he was carrying Sean Hannity's water.

Sent by Dave Noble | 11:28 AM | 4-29-2008

Ignoring Barack Obama's plethora of gaffe's, missteps, and flip-flops, and crowning him as the Second Coming of Christ is by no means being fair and objective. Neither is highlighting McCain's age as the one and obvious reason not to vote for him, or calling Bible-believing Christian Conservatives "radical nuts", or ignoring the successes of the American forces in the war on terror, deeming the deaths of our soldiers as "dying in vain for an unjust war for oil". I could go on and on with numerous other examples of one-sided journalism, but you get my drift.

Sent by Stacey Hanrahan | 10:21 AM | 6-28-2008

Of course journalists should vote!!! While I think it is important to have integrity, I, as a journalist, have realized something since I was in high school: there is no such thing as objectivity in journalism.

I cannot tell you the number of times I've heard my colleagues, professionals who work for a well-respected news source, have allowed their personal feelings to seep into their stories. Journalists decide which adjective to use, which verb to omit, which spin to put on a story.

The "objective" story is presented from their point of view. So there goes that argument. Now what is missing is integrity!

Sent by Lovely Lady | 10:20 PM | 8-8-2008