Avoiding even a hint of bias

Does being a journalist require checking one’s constitutional rights at the newsroom door?

It depends on the newsroom.

The quest for objectivity in news coverage, in practice and particularly in perception gets a lot of our attention at The Plain Dealer — especially around election time, when so many people are attuned to nuances of bias.

So we need to take particular care that the people who bring you this coverage can never be seen as personally participating in a campaign, and we need to make certain that we avoid real or apparent conflicts of interest.

The recent ethical travails of our electronic brethren at MSNBC and NPR have spawned an interesting national conversation on the subject:

• MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann drew a two-day suspension last week after his bosses discovered that, during the recent campaign, he had donated $2,400 each to three Democratic candidates, in violation of NBC’s rules.

• NPR attracted attention when CEO Vivian Schiller informed the news staff that they were not to attend comedian Jon Stewart’s Oct. 30 “Rally to Restore Sanity,” unless they were covering it.

In the newspaper world, both of those would not even need discussion.

It is a cardinal rule in most newspaper newsrooms — it certainly is here — that anyone who has anything to do with political coverage cannot work for a campaign or donate money to it. Yet there was Olbermann, expressing astonishment that anyone would object.

Well, OK, you say, but Olbermann isn’t really a journalist; he’s a commentator. And that’s true. Anyone who has listened to him for five minutes doesn’t have a shred of doubt where he stands. He doesn’t have any objectivity to compromise. But he does operate out of a newsroom, after all, and anchored the network’s Election Night coverage. And it was interesting to learn that the policy he violated was not necessarily even that he donated money to a campaign, but that he didn’t receive the blessing of his bosses before he did it. (In case you’re wondering, conservative Fox TV news doesn’t even have that caveat regarding political donations by its staff.)

The odd thing about the NPR edict was that it was considered controversial at all. NPR didn’t do anything more than most newspapers routinely do. In fact, The Washington Post, The New York Times and others similarly discouraged their staffers from attending the rally, lest they be perceived as participating in a political event led by the conservative-bashing Stewart. But only the NPR decision got the man-bites-dog treatment.

The Plain Dealer, like most newspapers, has a list of ethical guidelines developed over the years:

Editors, reporters, photographers and others involved in the news operation must avoid political or governmental activity that they might wind up addressing in their jobs. They can’t run for office, of course, or volunteer for political candidates or organizations, or donate to campaigns, or display yard signs or bumper stickers espousing candidates or political issues. They can’t participate in rallies or give speeches supporting political candidates or issues.

Those are all freedoms that people in most professions take for granted. No medals are requested for the newspaper folk who eschew them routinely, but it’s worth pointing out occasionally.

Metro Editor Chris Quinn says that most of the time the guidelines aren’t necessary.

“I can’t think of a single time when I’ve become aware of a conflict and had to call a reporter in and talk about it,” he said. “In fact, whenever there’s a disagreement, it’s the opposite — a reporter will be worried about a possible conflict and there isn’t one.”

It’s true that often enough, reporters and editors will overcorrect to avoid the appearance of bias. Lots of them won’t vote in primaries because they would have to publicly pick a party. Some won’t vote at all, believing that subconsciously that could influence their coverage.

When Olbermann was on his enforced sabbatical, an online petition went viral and produced 300,000 virtual signatures from his supporters.

Somehow, I don’t anticipate thousands of readers ever signing a petition that asserts a newspaper reporter or columnist’s right to donate to a candidate in a race the newspaper is covering.

People expect a higher ethical standard from newspapers. It’s a challenge we gladly accept.

This column was originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Nov. 13, 2010.

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