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SHOULD JOURNALISTS VOTE?

by Alicia C. Shepard
Feb 20, 2008

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Alicia C. Shepard

Standing in line to vote in Virginia's primary on Feb. 12, I was at ease because in my state, one doesn't have to declare party preference when you register. But then I got to the head of the line.

"Republican or Democrat?" the clerk seemed to bellow. I hesitated, looked around, and then leaned in close and whispered my answer.

I'm not going to tell you what I said because I am a working journalist.

As a journalist, I follow NPR's ethics code: No money to candidates. No signs in my yard or bumper stickers on my car. No canvassing or attending campaign rallies unless I'm covering them.

In today's world, where "solid majorities" criticize the press for political bias, inaccuracy and failing to acknowledge mistakes, according to a 2007 Pew Research Center report, it's best not to tip your hand and reinforce the perception of political bias, whether it exists or not.

The issue of journalists and politics is a thorny one with more questions than answers. But the bottom-line is that NPR journalists — especially its political team — can't do anything that tries or even appears to try to influence other people.

That raises the question, then, of who is a journalist? Is an NPR digital media technician or a librarian a journalist? In my view, anyone who works for NPR, in any capacity, represents the institution and should refrain from overt public displays of political preference.

But is that fair to an NPR security guard or payroll specialist? Decidedly not. And probably for that reason NPR doesn't agree with me. Its ethics code does not include administrative or technical staff (engineers, for example) from news, programming or online.

NPR's policy does cover everyone involved with putting out news.

The Friday before Washington state's presidential contest, NPR editor Kate Concannon called. Could she participate in the next-day's caucus? In some states, caucus participants go to one side of the room to state their choice, making their preference clear.

In early February, NPR's ethics policy wasn't refined enough to provide an instant answer. Ellen Weiss, NPR's vice president for news, was torn. Journalists are also citizens who want to participate in the political process.

"To be honest, I would feel far more comfortable if the answer for NPR was a straight no,"Weiss said in a staff memo. "Attending a caucus could raise all sorts of questions about your impartiality as a journalist and could damage the reputation of NPR as an institution. But I also realize it is a right to participate in our democratic institution."

For Concannon, this would be the first time she could participate in a caucus where the outcome mattered. However, Weiss concluded in her staff memo that "If participation in a caucus requires you to speak, to advocate one way or another, to bargain or do anything that marks you out beyond being present, that would violate our existing ethics policy."

Concannon actually could take part in her state caucus because a rule allows the debate-shy to mark a slip of paper to vote. But she decided against it.

"For one thing, it's highly unlikely that I won't be editing at least one political piece in the coming months!" said Concannon by email. "I'm sad I won't be able to participate. It's such a wonderful example of American democracy and, as a new citizen, something I've never had the opportunity to do. But, I understand the issues."

In may seem like a silly sacrifice to not vote or not declare your political allegiance. But it is not. In choosing to become a journalist, one gives up a certain degree of participation in the public space because journalists' credibility is their most important asset.

Certainly journalists have political leanings. But they need to keep their views to themselves and bend over backwards to be impartial. The Washington Post's executive editor Len Downie famously never votes though he doesn't impose the same rigidity on his staff. NPR's managing editor, Brian Duffy, never votes either.

A listener has a right to expect that NPR reporters Mara Liasson, David Greene, Scott Horsley or Don Gonyea who are covering the campaign are not advocating for a candidate but simply providing accurate and fair information.

If a reporter covering one candidate had a lawn full of signs for that candidate, or for an opponent, would a listener not rightly question his or her impartiality?

The same holds true for journalists making campaign contributions, especially since political contributions are public record.

Last June, MSNBC investigative reporter Bill Dedman delved into Federal Election Commission public records and discovered that 143 journalists made political donations from 2004 through the start of the 2008 campaign. "Most of the newsroom checkbooks leaned to the left: 125 journalists gave to Democrats and liberal causes," wrote Dedman. "Only 16 gave to Republicans. Two gave to both parties."

Included in that 143 were two prominent NPR reporters. Newscaster Corey Flintoff gave $538 in December 2003 to Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. When NPR Pentagon correspondent Guy Raz was at CNN in June 2004, he gave $500 to Democratic Sen. John Kerry. Both CNN and NPR prohibit political activity.

Flintoff's wife made the contribution, "but it was on a joint account, so my name showed up on it." He now follows NPR's ethic's policy, even though it does not extend to family members.

Raz told Dedman in an email, "I covered international news and European Union stories. I did not cover U.S. news or politics." Now that he's at NPR, Raz covers the Pentagon, which clearly involves U.S. news and politics. His experience illustrates why journalists — no matter what they cover — shouldn't caucus, canvas or donate money.

It doesn't matter how neutral journalists are, or how hard they work at being fair. If their political leanings are made public, it will invariably color how a source, a listener, or an online reader will perceive their reporting.

"Once it's out there, you can't take it back," said Tom Bullock, senior producer of NPR's election unit.

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What do you think? Should journalists be able to caucus? Should they donate money to politicians? Does it matter? Read Politico's Should Journalists Vote? Yes, No, Maybe, and feel free to comment below.

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