Political activities by staff

This section addresses these ethical issues:

The traditional approach of journalism in Western societies has been that journalists must abstain from direct political activity. Most mainstream media organizations bar employees from such activities. The SPJ Code of Ethics says that journalists should “avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.” The New York Times ethics handbook says that staff journalists are “entitled to vote,” but warns them off anything more involved. “Journalists have no place on the playing fields of politics,” the handbook states, and then iterates a laundry list of political no-nos for its writers: no campaign buttons, candidates’ lawn signs or political donations, among others.

A thread of U.S. mainstream journalistic opinion has gone as far as saying that journalists should not even vote because it would compromise journalistic integrity and independence. In 2008, an Alabama newspaper reporter wrote: “A vote is an overt political act that I cannot perform … . Voting, pure and simple, means taking a rooting interest.” That same year, perhaps in response to critiques that journalists were supporting candidate Barack Obama, a Politico journalist wrote: “I’m part of a minority school of thought among journalists that we owe it to the people we cover, and to our readers, to remain agnostic about elections, even in private. I figure that if the news media serve as an (imperfect) umpire, neither team wants us taking a few swings.”

Yet such extreme hands-off positions are not the norm in many parts of the world. Journalists, particularly in countries that have been under dictatorial or autocratic rule or in emerging and young democracies, have blended journalism and activism for many years. It is easy to find examples in countries such as Russia, Ukraine, Israel and Syria, among other places. And journalists for ethnic and cultural minorities also frequently present themselves as activists for their groups.

A key question you must face in determining whether you permit yourself to be politically active is determining your ultimate goal and approach as a journalist. If your goal is, as The Associated Press puts it, “to report the news fairly and accurately, uninfluenced by any person or action,” would your activism and affiliations compromise your efforts as a journalist? What would you do if you learned that an organization in which you were active was misusing funds or abusing its employees? Would you report it yourself, pass along the information to another journalist or not report it?

If you’re a “point-of-view” journalist, or you think your primary goal as a journalist is to correct what you perceive of as wrongs in your society, up to and including removing your country’s government, how does that affect your political activity?

Do you feel that you can remain a credible journalist if you participate in political activity? You are a citizen and have rights. In an age of social media, do you feel that supporting a politician or cause on your Facebook page is an acceptable and discrete form of communication that should not compromise your journalistic integrity? Media watchdog groups are quick to jump on alleged bias in the coverage of activist journalists. Are you willing and able to make and defend those distinctions?

Another key question for the politically activist journalist is the degree to which she or he discloses that activity. How much would you require of yourself? How much would you require of others? Disclosure of political donations? Must you disclose your choice in the election booth?

However you might decide to limit the political involvement of staff members, an ethics code cannot cover the political interests or activities of a journalist’s spouse, parents or adult children. Here, most news organizations say handle these matters with disclosure, assignments and common sense. For instance, if a spouse makes a donation to a political candidate, that journalist might be barred from covering that race (or politics in general). And the organization might make a point of disclosing the contribution and relationship in a story listing notable donations to candidates. But if a sports writer who isn’t covering politics has a spouse who displays a political bumper sticker on a car, and the journalist has to drive the spouse’s car a few days because the other car is being repaired, that’s probably not a big enough deal to disclose or require use of a rental car.

The main author of this section is Alan D. Abbey of the Shalom Hartman Institute, with a contribution from Steve Buttry.

See also the modules in this project on “Community Activities,” Social Networks” and “Personal Ethics Statements by Staff.”