When — if ever — are journalists not full citizens?
The question comes up in two very different situations. One deals with objectivity and nonpartisanship in their profession; the other, a proposed federal shield law for reporters, involves their responsibilities as citizens. Both greatly affect how reporters, editors, broadcasters and bloggers do their jobs, and how citizens judge the value and reliability of the information they report.
In late June, MSNBC.com identified 143 journalists who had made political contributions as far back as 2004, as recorded by the Federal Election Commission. Most gave money to Democratic or so-called “liberal” causes. Fewer than 20 donated to Republican and “conservative” causes. A few gave to both sides.
American journalism is rooted in “journals of opinion” that were intertwined with Colonial and revolutionary politics and that flowered well into the 19th century. Bitter personal attacks and sharp-tongued articles about rivals, written under pseudonyms, were run-of-the-mill fare for readers of those eras. For a long time, many newspapers chose to identify themselves as “Democrat” or “Republican.” “Objective” newspaper reporting as a concept didn’t really develop until the 20th century.
So what’s the problem with reporters donating to political campaigns? MSNBC.com’s report suggested no illegality — in fact, the very transparency of the transactions was cited by some journalists who downplayed the idea they had done something wrong. Still, the report adds to the suspicions of those who see media conspiracy in news reports — particularly critics who see a liberal bias.
Some journalism-ethics experts and the Society of Professional Journalists praised the report. Andrew Schotz, SPJ ethics committee chairman, said that “contributing to a political cause clearly damages the credibility of anyone who professes to be a detached reporter of events.”
In the past half-century at least, most American news organizations either discouraged or banned political contributions and visible support, such as attending rallies (even on personal time), for those involved in related coverage. Such rules covered not just writers, but low- and high-ranking editors who handled such stories. The idea was that while opinion and even endorsement were appropriate for editorial pages, those working on “the news side” were to appear (and be) untainted and objective.
One former newspaper colleague of mine went so far as never to vote in primary or local elections, for fear that making a private choice might later bias his newsroom decisions.
Whether readers view such practices with skepticism or trust, far too many Americans don’t believe there’s a gap between “news” and “opinion”:
- A University of Missouri School of Journalism poll in 2004 found 74% said reporters tended to favor one side in covering political and social issues.
- In 2005, the First Amendment Center’s “State of the First Amendment” national survey found that 64% rejected the idea that “the news media try to report the news without bias,” and 65% agreed that “the falsifying or making up of stories in the American news media is a widespread problem.”
- In a survey released in February, George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet found that “83 percent of likely voters said the media is biased in one direction or another, while just 11 percent believe the media doesn't take political sides.”
Ironically, those results come even as the news media try to become more engaged with their communities — from organizing reader panels to inviting “citizen bloggers” and airing cell-phone video and Internet postings from eyewitnesses. Where once reporters and editors took pride in remaining aloof from those they covered, now “community journalism” encourages them to participate in town meetings.
The idea of journalists as neither more nor less than other citizens has legal ramifications too. A host of recent cases involving reporters and confidential sources have run up against a 1972 Supreme Court ruling that there is no special “privilege” for journalists summoned to testify before a federal grand jury.
A proposed federal shield law would relieve journalists in many cases from “every citizen’s duty” of testifying. It recognizes that the First Amendment role of a free press may — as with clergy, lawyers and doctors — create circumstances in which society benefits more from protected silence than from compelled disclosure.
For the public, the situation may appear confusing: Many journalists want to be a special class when it comes to sources, but some apparently also want to be “just like any citizen” when it comes to donating to candidates.
I don’t think journalists who in any way touch issues, political coverage or editorial leadership, or the public, can have it both ways. The special, constitutional role of a free press may well involve a need for a special “privilege” in some circumstances that goes beyond general rights. But that role also demands self-imposed restraints, even involving activities that are acceptable and even commendable for non-journalists. That’s not trading one right for another. Rather, it’s all about trust.
Nothing in the First Amendment’s 45 words compels Americans to believe what a free press reports. The news media themselves must earn that belief. And personally contributing to political candidates — whatever party or philosophy or motive stands behind it — seems a poor means of saying “trust us.”
Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22209. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.