Should journalists never be activists?

The notion of objective journalism is a fairly recent development in the timeline back to the day John Peter Zenger crawled out of a cave and lit a fire. In the early days of American journalism, most newspapers picked a side and didn’t care who knew it.

But in the 40-plus years I’ve worked for newspapers, the abiding emphasis has been on removing biases from reporting on political issues, drawing a solid line between news reports and opinion columns and protecting the paper’s credibility through strict ethical barriers. Hence, when it comes to political activism, most U.S. news organizations have staff policies or guidelines similar to The Plain Dealer’s, which says, in part:

“You may not engage in political activities, work for political organizations or any branch of government, work for candidates for political office, work for politicians, or for other individuals or organizations that may create a conflict of interest or other impropriety or that may raise a question as to the newspaper’s objectivity.”

That doesn’t mean reporters and editors can’t hold opinions and express them privately — but it does mean they shouldn’t publicly support candidates, plant political signs in their yards, hand out door-hangers, donate money, sign petitions or march in advocacy parades.

Or, participate in political rallies and demonstrations.

It is this last activity that has some observers suggesting we rethink the heretofore sacrosanct separation of activism and journalism:

The conversation was spawned by a part-time Web producer named Caitlin Curran, who was fired from her job with a Public Radio International show called The Takeaway on WNYC in New York, for participating in an Occupy Wall Street demonstration Oct. 15.

Curran had been photographed holding up a sign with the uncontroversial message that it’s wrong for brokerage houses to sell mortgage-backed securities they know are worthless. The photo was reproduced on the web, went viral, and the show’s general manager fired her, citing ethics violations that most journalists would find instinctive and noncontroversial.

Not all journalists, however. Rallying around Curran came Conor Friedersdorf, who covers politics for The Atlantic, and New York University professor Jay Rosen, with his lively journalism blog,

Friedersdorf argued in a Nov. 1 Atlantic column that rules against participation in public protests are absurd, that readers and listeners know journalists have opinions and are not surprised to learn a lot of these opinions are liberal. He wrote the emphasis ought to be on the work the reporter produces rather than the fact she might participate in political rallies.

Rosen, interviewed for NPR’s “On the Media” last weekend, opined that so long as a reporter is transparent, what really matters is that “your stuff holds up under scrutiny, that it’s true and accurate based on fact.”

Rosen added that, “It might be a good rule for WNYC to not try to control the lives of people you don’t give health insurance to.”

That comment strikes at the heart of the debate.

The most precious thing that any news organization has to sell is its credibility, and that sometimes gets into the shadowy territory of the perceptions that readers and listeners have of their news source. If they see that reporters and editors and Web producers are political activists, our news consumers can easily begin to suspect that the stories are slanted to conform with those political views. Once that faith is lost, so is the reader.

News executives who insist that their employees do not become political activists are not trying to control their lives, but have every right to try to control the reputation of their newspaper or radio program.

Plain Dealer Editor Debra Adams Simmons said it’s unlikely that a Plain Dealer reporter would have been fired for doing the same thing Curran did, but there would be a decision to make about whether she could continue to cover political issues. “We pay our staff to be professional observers, not to become part of the story,” she said.

Managing Editor Thom Fladung goes further than most to not show bias: He doesn’t even vote. “Journalism is a privilege to do, so there are certain things you have to give up,” he said. “I take this seriously enough so that I’m willing to give that up.”

This is a complicated subject. I’d be interested in hearing what you have to say about it, and we’ll address it again in a future column.

This column was originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Nov. 13, 2011.

Comments are closed.