Journalistic Guidelines On The Campaign Trail

On Sunday, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama spoke at the UNITY convention in Chicago — a conference for journalists of color held every four years. NPR Ombudsman Lisa Shepard discusses the ethical issues that arise for journalists covering political campaigns.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is Talk Of The Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington broadcasting live from the new Newseum in Washington, D.C., in the Knight Studio.

(Soundbite of audience applause)

NEARY: And now, this past Sunday, the presumptive Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama, spoke at the UNITY Convention in Chicago. That was a conference for journalists of color, held every four years. Although many of the 6,000 participants had left by the time Senator Obama arrived, nearly 2,000 remained and he was greeted with cheers when he took the stage.

(Soundbite of cheering)

NEARY: An earlier panel discussion addressed the question of whether journalists should applaud the presidential candidate. Here's what reporter Lori Waldon from Milwaukee had to say.

Ms. LORI WALDON (Reporter, Milwaukee): There's a part of journalists here where some things you check at the doors and some things you don't. And I think that people were so proud.

NEARY: Today we're going to talk about the relationship between journalists and political campaigns. Where do you draw the line on the participation of journalists in the political process, and what do you expect? As always, you can join the conversation by calling 800-989-8255, or you can send an email to talk@npr.org.

Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor, is still with us, and Lisa Shepard, NPR's ombudsman, is also joining us here at the Newseum. Good to have you with us.

LISA SHEPARD: Nice to be here.

NEARY: Now, Lisa, you were in the audience when Senator Obama appeared at the UNITY Conference, and you raised the question about whether it's appropriate for a group of journalists to cheer or give kind of a big ovation to a presidential candidate. Why? What was your concern?

SHEPARD: Well, my concern was that a lot of people were talking about this at the convention, whether or not minority journalists, who were understandably proud of Obama, would show restraint. And the reason to show restraint is that journalists need to at least give the perception that they are being fair and that they don't have a bias. And so the actual clapping would indicate that there was a bias towards Obama. I should say, that there is a big difference between respectful clapping, which journalists may do when the president walks in the room or at other places where a political candidate shows up, and cheering.

NEARY: So in your opinion, then, did the group act appropriately in the end?

SHEPARD: Well, I would draw attention to the fact that there were minor - there were lots of journalist there, but there were also Citizen journalists, that's a whole new world, there were family members, there were exhibitors there. So it's hard to know exactly who was clapping. You know, reports afterwards said that some - many journalist ran up - well, I actually saw a journalist run up and, you know, tried to get his autograph, and someone said, oh, I touched him, I touched him. And I think it's unfortunate but it's inappropriate.

NEARY: Was that the only time you've ever seen that? I mean, at other events, and, Ken, I don't know if you can join in here, where you're not covering the candidate for your news organization or just seeing them, maybe as a citizen, have you seen journalists act sort of over the top?

RUDIN: Well, there are some famous stories of - I think it was an ABC reporter who was playing tennis with the first President Bush, you know. I think it was Dora Smith, who later wound up working for the administration. So I don't think it's a new phenomenon, but I agree with you that it's disheartening.

NEARY: Disheartening.

KEN RUDIN: Well, disappointing to see - in our profession, I mean - I mean, our job is to really bring you the campaign coverage unfiltered - not unfiltered, but also without the personal biases that may creep in. If you have - if you're playing tennis with somebody or saying, I touched Barack Obama, I think it goes beyond journalistic practices.

NEARY: And we should say, Lisa, that NPR has some pretty strict guidelines on this. Maybe you can outline what our guidelines are that may also apply to other news organizations.

SHEPARD: Well, NPR has a code of ethics, and the code of ethics is very clear that journalists can't run for office, they can't give political contributions, they can't put science in their front yard, they can't put bumper stickers on their cars. And all of this...

RUDIN: Sign a petition. They can't sign a petition.

SHEPARD: They can't sign petitions. They can't take advocacy roles. And all of this is trying to make it clear that as journalists, what we are doing is being fair and trying to give the best information without a filter. I like to say, just as an example is, David Green was covering Hillary Clinton. If David Green had - he was a correspondent at NPR - had science in his front yard for Obama, what - how fair would Hillary Clinton feel, or what kind of a fair chance would she think she was going to get if David Green was upfront about the fact that he supported Obama, which I'm not saying he does, I'm using that as a hypothetical.

NEARY: But is there a difference between applauding with enthusiasm at an event like the UNITY Conference and putting a placard on your front lawn? There is a big difference. Isn't there, or no?

SHEPARD: Well, I think in both cases you're showing your hand.

NEARY: OK. If you'd like to join our discussion, what do you think about this and the role that journalists play in covering campaigns and appropriate behavior and appropriate exhibition of their views, give us a call. The number is 800-989-8255. We're going to take a call now from Matt, and he is calling from Oakland, California. Hi, Matt.

MATT (Caller): Yes. Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I wanted to comment that I think it's ridiculous for us to assume that journalists don't have a point of view. I mean, they're citizens and they vote like anyone else, but I think the danger lies is when a journalist does beat the drumbeat for a particular candidate or government. For example, would be Judith Miller's coverage for the New York Times in lead-up to the war. That's when the contract, I think, is breeched. But I don't see any problem with applauding a candidate yet still being critical of that candidate and actually asking them tough questions.

NEARY: Lisa.

SHEPARD: I just go back to a big difference between respectful clapping and cheering enthusiastically for a candidate. I understand the dilemma. I mean, this is a moment of great pride, especially at the UNITY Convention, which was the grouping of, you know, four different ethnic journalists who are, you know, very proud. And I would be proud, too, if a woman were running for president, but I would still have to restrain myself.

NEARY: Do you think that given the historic nature of Senator Obama's campaign that black journalists are being held to a higher standard on this than journalists may have in the past?

SHEPARD: I would hope not. I would hope that, you know, journalists as journalists are being held to the same standards. What do you think, Ken?

RUDIN: I agree with you. I was thinking of another thing. What happens if a spouse puts a sign - wants to put on a sign on her lawn, which is my lawn, too, or bumper stickers, things like that. What happens there?

SHEPARD: I would think that you give up certain rights when you are journalist and if you are married to a journalist. I mean, this is a continuous problem. If you are married, if you are a journalist and you're married to someone who's working in the campaign, that's a problem, too.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call now from Joy. And Joy is calling from Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Hi, Joy.

JOY (Caller): Well, hi. I just wanted to take exception to what Lisa first said about the journalists having to have at least the perception of no bias. What they have to do - what a journalist has to do is present the news to the nation without bias. And it's not that they have to have a perception of not being biased. Perception is going to be in the eye of the beholder, and contriving to have an air of not being biased is contrived. It's not the thrust of the job. The job, being professional and unbiased, doesn't prevent the journalist from being a human who has opinions.

NEARY: So do you think, then, it's OK to be professional and put the news out there but still show how you feel about something?

JOY: I think that that's appropriate because I think a journalist would have opinions, especially if, as most journalists covering a single topic or a range of issues, like in a campaign, they would be more well researched on certain items, they would have opinions on it in their personal lives and should be able to have that time to express themselves while still presenting the news without bias.

SHEPARD: I think the problem is that journalists enjoys such a low credibility that, you know, journalists have to do as much as possible to appear credible, and any time a bias comes out, I think it undermines the credibility.

NEARY: Joy, I'm curious. Do you like watching some of the - particularly the cable news programs where you do have anchors and hosts and reporters sometimes who really do show what they're thinking about the news? Is that - do you prefer getting it that way?

JOY: Well, actually, no. I think a lot of what goes on on the cable news channels is opinion masquerading as news. And I don't fault these people for having opinions. I just think there is a line between opinion and news.

NEARY: OK. Well, thanks for your call, Joy.

JOY: Well, thank you.

NEARY: And I wanted to read this email. This is from Jeff in Columbus, Ohio. And he says: "A question I always ask that white journalists never face is, am I a black first or a journalist first? I am a journalist who has an Obama '08 bumper sticker on his car and wore an Obama button on his lapel during the UNITY Convention. I am able to separate my political views from my professional responsibility. Additionally, don't forget, John McCain was invited to appear at UNITY, and blew thousands of minority journalists off.

SHEPARD: I would say that that's true for Jeff, and yet if somebody sees that button on his lapel, they're going to think, oh, well, you know - especially if you are someone who works in the McCain campaign. I would ask Jeff, how would they possibly feel they were going to get a fair shake from him?

NEARY: So it's really a question of how the public is perceiving your behavior.

SHEPARD: Right. I mean, it was mentioned before perception and it's unfortunate, because quid pro quos are rarely proved but the perception is often there that causes the problem.

NEARY: All right. I think we have a question from the audience. Tiffany?

TIFFANY (Audience Member): Yes. Hi. My name is Tiffany Wenn(ph), and I'm from Newark, Delaware. And I just wanted to ask, when Senator Obama was overseas on his tour, a lot of network news anchors went along and they did their entire news shows, you know, broadcast abroad, simply because they were trailing along. And I just wanted to ask, do you think that was a legitimate reason for them, you know, the large news anchors to be abroad or was there a hint of journalistic favoritism present?

RUDIN: Well, you could also make the case that when you saw Barack Obama in Berlin, 200,000 people came to see him. He is - look, let's face it, it's a phenomenon, and obviously, we in the journalism field wrestle everyday with whether we've gone from cheerleading - from reporting and covering to cheerleading. But obviously, this was big news. Obviously, he met with heads of state in all these countries, which is pretty unusual for a presidential candidate. You know, I mean, if you're a president, that's one thing. So I think it seemed like it was little - I mean, obviously the McCain people - it's kind of funny. The McCain people are complaining about the favoritism by the media and McCain has benefited from favoritism from the media for so many years.

But look, this is a phenomenon. Let me just say something that Lisa said earlier. You don't have to be a woman or an African-American to feel pride at a Hillary Clinton campaign or a Barack Obama campaign. Anybody who studies politics or has covered politics as long as many of us have, we appreciate the fact and appreciate the history of the moment, the fact that we have an African-American nominee, a woman who came very, very close.

So it's not just blacks and women who feel that, but again, for a journalist to sit at a convention and wear a campaign button, I don't know how you take off that button and do your job and separate that from your personal life.

NEARY: I just want to remind our listeners that you are listening to Talk of The Nation from NPR News. You're going to say something, Lisa?

SHEPARD: I was just going to say that you don't stop being a journalist, ever, really. No matter whether you're involved with your school board, or - you know, anytime someone asks me for to donate money, I say, no, I can't, I'm a journalist.

RUDIN: But you do give money to NPR?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHEPARD: Sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: That's the right answer.

NEARY: All right. Here's an email from Jennifer. It says: "Is this really inappropriate? What if all the journalists who clapped don't even cover politics? Does that matter at all? I also find it somewhat suspicious that minorities are so readily accused of bias but not white journalists."

SHEPARD: Well, I think that white journalists are just as capable of being accused of bias as any journalist.

NEARY: I guess the point is that it came up in the context of the UNITY Convention, and has that - have you ever been in a situation...

SHEPARD: It actually came up. I should add that. Because in 2004, Senator Kerry came to speak at the UNITY Convention and journalists clapped enthusiastically for him. Bush also came to that convention and there was a lukewarm response. So there was a precedent that people were concerned about journalists showing their bias at the convention that had occurred in 2004.

RUDIN: I think one of the reasons Fox News exists is because of the perception among many Conservatives that the media has a liberal - have a liberal tenant.

NEARY: Absolutely.

RUDIN: And it has nothing to do with the UNITY Conference, although we are focusing on that today. But if you look at previous years, it's always been discussion about whether the media is biased or not, and that goes well beyond the Obama candidacy.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call. We're going to go to Mike. He's calling from Detroit, Michigan. Hi, Mike. Mike, are you there?

MIKE (Caller): Yes. Yes, I am.

NEARY: Go ahead.

MIKE: Yeah. I'm 60, and I remember a time when you did not get a bias in news. I don't know, there was some sort of a doctrine, I mean, it truly was fair and balanced. And I wondered what happened to that, you know, and kind of just expanding on what some previous callers have said. You know, you have entire networks, like Fox, basically devoted to Republican politics, and almost all of talk radio. You know, what happened to that? And I think that would solve it if we went back to the situation we had previously.

SHEPARD: I can answer that easily, 24-hour cable. The fact that all that time has to be filled, and one of the easiest, cheapest ways to fill is to have people talking about what they think. And so the - even though Fox News actually has a very small audience, still, compared to the networks, they have a huge megaphone. They get to talked about in the networks. The newspaper reporters write about them. So many people probably don't even watch Fox, but they still know what Fox is doing.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call.

MIKE: Thank you.

NEARY: Just one other question I have that's come up that - you know, there are some journalists, I think Lynn Downey, the retiring managing editor - that's the correct...

SHEPARD: Executive editor.

NEARY: Executive editor of The Washington Post, you know, has said that he doesn't even think he should vote.

SHEPARD: That's right, because he says he doesn't want to take the time to research the issues to make a determination so he just tries to stay out of it completely. I think that's going too far. I think that journalists are citizens...

NEARY: Thank you very much. I'm glad to hear that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: From our ombudsman, that means I can vote.

SHEPARD: One of the interesting things - I write a weekly column at npr.org/ombudsman, and I asked that, should journalists be able to vote? And the issue came up about journalists and NPR editor participating in a caucus where you have to publicly display, you know, which side you were going to support, and NPR is very clear that no, you cannot participate in a caucus.

NEARY: I just have to read this one last email. "Have we forgotten? When both John McCain and Barack Obama spoke before the national press corps(ph) this spring, John McCain got a standing ovation and a box of doughnuts. Barack Obama got a mild hand clapping."

(Soundbite of laughter)

So I guess it can go both ways.

SHEPARD: Absolutely.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for being with us. Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. And Lisa - Lisa is - Lisa Shepard is the ombudsman for NPR. I apologize. And I'm Lynn Neary, and you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

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