News literacy: Should reporters keep their political leanings secret?

Thursday, February 9, 2017
The life of a political reporter can be lonely.

Unlike most jobs, the people you work with aren’t friendly coworkers.

If they’re not your competitors trying to scoop you (or keep you from getting a scoop), they’re most likely the people you’re supposed to be covering critically—candidates, elected officials, their staffers.

But those are the people you see on the job every day. And as in any job, you can’t help but develop … feelings … about these people and their policies: That one’s smart. This one’s kind. That one’s cruel. This one’s ambitious. That one’s an idiot.

Journalism scholars have recognized that inevitability. New York University professor Jay Rosen says the work of journalism requires journalists “to form judgments.”

And yet the news industry has traditionally required reporters to suppress those judgments—at least in their reporting, and frequently in their personal and social-media lives.

To protect a reputation for impartiality, many news organizations forbid reporters from revealing how they vote or from donating to political causes.

In the internet age, though, that practice has come increasingly into question. In 2013, Glenn Greenwald (who broke the story of Edward Snowden’s revelations regarding the extensive surveillance practices at the National Security Agency) championed more comprehensive transparency for journalists in a piece for The New York Times:

“Honestly disclosing rather than hiding one’s subjective values makes for more honest and trustworthy journalism.”

In October 2016, less than a month before the presidential election, a Center for Public Integrity report found “several hundred news professionals” had aligned themselves with Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump “by personally donating money to one or the other.”

The Center noted that “the vast majority” of journalists don’t give money to politicians. But it found that, of those “people identified in federal campaign finance filings as journalists, reporters, news editors or television news anchors — as well as other donors known to be working in journalism” who did donate to a presidential campaign, more than 96 percent went to Clinton.

In response to that report, Jonah Goldberg wrote for the conservative National Review:

“The idea that media bias is nonexistent is ludicrous. …

“One of the reasons I like good opinion journalism … is that it doesn’t hide from the fact it is making an argument. You know where the author is coming from, and you can take that into account as he or she marshals facts and evidence for his or her case. …

“I understand bans on reporters giving to campaigns, but we should understand what those bans are: a means of hiding the political leanings of reporters from readers and viewers. This lack of transparency benefits news organizations, but it really doesn’t fool anybody — except maybe the reporters themselves.”

What do you think of the tradition of forbidding reporters from donating to political campaigns? Does that add to transparency or conceal reporters’ biases?

What do you think of Goldberg’s suggestion that journalists stop hiding their conclusions about candidates and issues and instead be more open about their political leanings?

Related reading in the Washington Post: Democratic and Republican doctors treat patients differently.

[Originally prepared for the Center for News Literacy at the Stony Brook University School of Journalism, February 2017.]

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