Opinion, please: reporters and political activity

The Virginian Pilot’s public editor Joyce Hoffman laid out for readers in her Sunday column the changes to the rules for reporters:

The Virginian-Pilot’s ethics committee last week upped the ante on the sacrifices newsroom staffers must face when it added bite to its Code of Ethics and Professionalism. The panel broadly defined a provision that forbids “participation in public demonstrations for political causes” to incorporate mere presence at a campaign event. The new language leaves no room for off-duty reporters to mutely observe political gatherings.

So if you see a reporter at a political event, s/he must be there covering the event, not as an individual citizen. Some see this as an unnecessary restriction:

“Total objectivity is a self-delusional fantasy,” he [pop culture writer Malcolm Venable] said.

Others see it as OK:

“Overall, I don’t believe that being restricted from strictly political events that I am not covering makes me a lesser citizen or journalist, even if it is an annoyance,” [military affairs reporter Kate] Wiltrout said.

Hoffman disagrees with the new policy:

I wholeheartedly embraced these rigid guidelines as a political reporter in the 1980s – including the decision to forgo participation in primary elections in Pennsylvania rather than declare my political affiliation. Today, they strike me as overly restrictive, given my sense of the obligations a democracy places on every citizen and my desire to experience first-hand the history of our times.

Rather than restricting folks, I’d like to see more transparency, i.e., just tell me your biases up front and I’ll read what you write with that in mind. Support offshore drilling and writing about it? Tell me. Against universal healthcare and writing about it? Tell me. It’s not like your biases aren’t going to come through in the article.

This is where the MSM could learn something from the new media. We bloggers do that all the time – if I attend a Republican event, I’m going to report it through my Democratic eyes, despite any effort I might make to be unbiased. Likewise, if JR attends a Democratic event. Readers know where we’re coming from.

So what do you think? Do you agree with the new policy?

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13 thoughts on “Opinion, please: reporters and political activity

  1. I see no reason for the media to be under tighter restrictions than government employees. If the Hatch Act restrictions are good enough for the feds, it should be good enough for the “Fourth Estate.”

  2. Any citizen who relies on the MSM for information is a fool; a dangerous fool whose ignorance imperils our collective LIBERTY and the future of this self-governing Republic.

    Phony-baloney ethics codes by corporate run media are just window dressing of the sort only corporate staff can dream up.

    There has already been enough research to reveal that the “main stream media” is populated by over ninety percent, self described “liberals.” The bias in the MSM is readily apparent to even the most distracted among our citizens. The current Obama love-fest in the MSM is a prime example of the absence of objectivity by the majority of these so-called, journalists.

    The corporate minders can put as much lipstick on their credibility pig as they want, but it is still a pig.

  3. How about just full disclosure after every article? “Joe Blow is a died in the wool Democrat, always has been, always will be”? That is what they do with stock analysts: “Full disclosure, my company owns this stock and we will continue to purchase it in the future…”

    Otherwise, I agree on this issue 100% with J. Tyler.

  4. There aren’t any died in the wool Democrats at the Virginian-Pilot. They might as well let them attend political events; we know their biases by reading their slanted coverage. Still waiting for them to cover the “scandal” of Ken Stolle’s use of the City seal, by the way, the same way they so solicitously did for Bobby Mathieson. Or better yet, to give us the true story of Thelma Drake’s education, or lack thereof, as well as her unwed-motherhood and business ties and interests. Or even better yet, to get Kerry Dougherty off her high, high horse and reporting both sides of a story, for once, including all the facts, not just the supposed facts that she believes support her argument. While we are at it, maybe they could tell us a little bit about Bob McDonnell, other than what a great guy he is. And stop regurgitating Regent press releases.

  5. Of course not, Alice. This is just much ado about people who don’t really have any power, to provide cover for those that do. I worked for a newspaper association one summer in law school. Did I spent my time researching press freedoms, or writing guides on how to file FOIA requests? No. I spent it lobbying against the estate tax, which would hit many of the member newspapers’ owners.

    Similarly, as seriously as the Hatch Act is taken by the rank and file Federal employees, it’s the appointees that have nonetheless worked hard to turn the Executive into one giant campaign arm of the GOP.

  6. Reporters should have the the right to go to any event they fill like going to off of their working hours. The Virginia Pilot is saying to their employees (reporters) that they have no right to assemble. Do they still have the right to vote or does the Pilot insist they not vote also.

  7. As if to prove my point, today Kerry decides that there may never have been an American politician with deeper character flaws than John Edwards. Our designated op-ed “liberal,” Maureen Dowd, not only agrees, but throws in the word “solipsism.” Thanks, Mo, now I gotta go look it up.

    All of which begs the question, what about John McCain? Who paid off his handicapped ex-wife? Where did the money come from? Why haven’t we heard a peep from his many kids? Or even a peep about his many kids? What effect did his philandering and treachery have on them? Supposedly even Nancy Reagan wouldn’t speak to McCain because of the way he treated Carol. And what about Tailhook?

    The silence of the MSM on McCain’s obvious character flaws reminds me of when they accidentally mentioned the five (5) DUIs Bush and Cheney share between them shortly before the 2000 election, then promptly buried that story in another series of diatribes about Al Gore’s outfits. Locally, it’s the same reason that Thelma gets a pass on her checkered past, while we hear that a retired police officer is a criminal because he (gasp) displayed his badge with a City seal on it on his website for about 12 hours total.

    Go to all the political events you want, guys, it won’t convince us of your bias for a minute. Your writing already does that.

  8. It’s madness, and it’s really for the paper’s protection rather than improving journalism. If Sally the reporter isn’t allowed to go to her NRA rallies, is that going to make her any less pro-gun? Of course not! The fact that Jim isn’t allowed to go to his Save the Woodchucks dinner won’t make him any less pro-woodchuck.

    What it does is prevent people from accusing the paper of bias, because they saw Sally at the NRA and Jim at the Woodchuck Society.

    I think that you’re right about simply being honest about biases. If your newspaper contains, either in the article or even just online, a bio that says “Sally is a lifetime member of the NRA, and killed herself a bear when she was only three,” then we know when we’re reading her report of the NRA rally that she has a bias. Similarly, when she reports on the deadpan reception Jim Brady’s wife receives and focuses on the counter-demonstrators, we know why.

    Ah, well …

  9. I think it would be better if journalists simply disclosed their personal slant rather than hide it through such restrictions. Perhaps they could take the Enhanced-Precision Political Quiz ( http://tinyurl.com/hcxu3 ) and post the diamond with their Dot in it next to every article they write.

    Then we would at least know where they start from in evaluating a story.

  10. I don’t know that a political leanings disclosure is helpful. What’s more useful to me is a sense of the intellectual honesty of a writer, and that’s not something that can be easily distilled (I assess that on my own, over time and occasionally via the endorsement of those that I trust).*

    It’s really not that hard to write a fair analysis of something without resorting to your own personal biases. Most any law firm has the full range of political beliefs among its lawyers, yet any of a dozen representing that range will write remarkably similar analytical memos on any subject you pick.

    * – for Don.

  11. What is helpful is an educated readership. I doubt there is a contributor to this blog who cannot read a couple of articles about national issues and determine the reporter’s political leanings. However common such a skill may be amogst us, it seems to be rare in the rest of the population.

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