Journalists Seeking Public Office: paper

Journalists Seeking Public Office: What Are the Ethical Issues?

Panel report by
Ken Regan (chair), Scott White, and Ivor Shapiro
With research provided by Christine Dobby
Approved by the Full Committee on October 27, 2010

If a practising journalist seeks public office, what effect does, can or should that choice have on his or her ability to continue or return to his or her work? This practical issue raises other, perhaps more philosophical, but no less relevant questions.

The first is:

  • Do journalists have a democratic right to participate in the public / political process, including running for office?

There have been numerous examples of journalists seeking public office. Some relatively notable ones include:

  • Ralph Klein – as a Senior Civic Affairs reporter for CFCN Television and Radio in Calgary, Klein was able to use his position to significantly raise his public profile and reputation. After 11 years Klein left his reporter position to run for mayor, and won.
  • Peter Kent – the Global Television VP for news first ran for the federal Conservatives as a candidate and lost. He returned to Global – still in a senior editorial capacity. He ran in a different riding and won the seat

Fundamentally a journalist has and should have the same democratic right as any citizen to seek public office or express personal beliefs, including political ones. Journalists are not expected or required to take some vow of political chastity when they take up the profession.

The real question becomes: if and when they do exercise their fundamental political rights, do journalists have special responsibilities as journalists to their employers, peers, or the public? The short answer seems to be: “yes.”

Much of what a journalist does is report on, chronicle or comment upon the activities and behaviours of others, including on occasion, the political activities and integrity of individuals, governments or organizations. The journalist’s works are by definition public and therefore can directly or indirectly influence other people and society’s perception of his/her subject.

If a journalist engages in outside political activity or espouses a particular political viewpoint, this activity could create a public perception of bias, or favouritism that would reflect on the journalist’s work as well as on the media organization for which he or she may work. As a result, many media organizations have policies to govern a journalist’s engagement in outside political activity.

For example, “The New York Times Company Policy on Ethics in Journalism” recognizes employees’ rights to engage in civic and political processes (such as voting), but states:

69. The good name of our company and of our business unit or publication does not belong to any of us. No one has a right to exploit it for private purposes.
Accordingly, the company applies limitations to other kinds of political engagement:
89. Journalists do not take part in politics. While staff members are entitled to vote and to register in party primaries, they must do nothing that might raise questions about their professional neutrality or that of our news operations. In particular, they may not campaign for, demonstrate for, or endorse candidates, ballot causes or efforts to enact legislation. They may not wear campaign buttons or themselves display any other insignia of partisan politics.
90. Staff members may not themselves give money to any political candidate or election cause or raise money for one. Given the ease of Internet access to public records of campaign contributions, any political giving by a staff member would risk feeding a false impression that we are taking sides.
91. No staff member may seek public office anywhere. Seeking or serving in public office violates the professional detachment expected of a journalist. Active participation by one of our staff can sow a suspicion of favoritism in political coverage.
92. Staff members may not march or rally in support of public causes or movements or sign advertisements or petitions taking a position on public issues. They may not lend their names to campaigns, benefit dinners or similar events if doing so might reasonably raise doubts about their ability or their newsroom’s ability to remain neutral in covering the news. Neighbors and other outsiders commonly see us as representatives of our institution. [For additional info, see: http://www.nytco.com/press/ethics.html.]

In Canada, The Canadian Press policies state:

Outside work must not reflect negatively on the company’s reputation, nor the reputation of the employee involved. Work that compromises or is perceived to compromise the objectivity of our employees will not be permitted. For example, it is not permissible to work for politicians or take writing, broadcasting or photographic assignments with commercial organizations or lobby groups. Neither is it permissible to sell expertise on how to deal with the media.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation policy reads:

The CBC/Radio-Canada must not only be impartial, it must also project an image of impartiality…. Employees assigned to information programming areas are limited in engaging in political activity, as they have the potential to influence or appear to influence politically related programming.

The following is CBC’s Corporate By-Law No. 14(3)3 under the heading “Officers And Employees”:

(3)(a) No employee who is employed by the Corporation on a full-time basis as a producer, a supervisor of news or information programming, an editor, a journalist, a reporter, an on-air personality, or who is a designated management employee or primarily responsible to represent the Corporation in its contact with the public, may, subject to subparagraph 14(3)(b) or (c), take a position publicly in a referendum or plebiscite, actively support a political party or candidate, stand for nomination as a candidate and/or be a candidate for election to the House of Commons, a provincial legislature, the Yukon legislative assembly, the legislative assembly of the Northwest Territories, or a municipal or civic office… [For details, see: http://is.gd/c32pu … or … http://is.gd/c32pu ]

And at National Public Radio, the policy says:

NPR journalists may not run for office, endorse candidates or otherwise engage in politics. Since contributions to candidates are part of the public record, NPR journalists may not contribute to political campaigns, as doing so would call into question a journalist’s impartiality in coverage.
In virtually all media organizations that have established policies governing political activity, there is an expressed concern about how such activities by journalists could impugn or call into question the impartiality of the journalist and/or the media organization for which they work.

This raises the question:

  • Do news organizations have a right to protect their brand, even to the extent of prohibiting the exercise of individual employee rights?

A media company’s brand, like that of any corporation or business, has real value. It is the company’s primary identifier and public representation. Any action or activity that undermines the integrity of the brand can have an affect on the company’s standing within the broader community and by extension, the company’s value and fortunes. This in turn can affect the fortunes of those working for the company, those investing in the company, and so on.

The supposition contained within various media policies and guidelines is that if a journalist does seek public office, or demonstrates an opinion or personal support for a political issue, candidate, party, policy or philosophy, that it impairs their ability to be impartial, or at least taints the public’s perception of their independence.

In a 1984 exploration of political activity by journalists, from both an ethical and legal standpoint, Andrew MacFarlane and Robert Martin argued that fundamental democratic rights should ultimately trump an employer’s right to curtail such rights. They wrote:

The other justification advanced is the one to which we take special exception. Journalists must not engage in political activity because this would tend to compromise their appearance of objectivity. The standard laid down by the Louisville, Kentucky Courier Journal and Times makes the point:
“We must not give any person reason to suspect that our handling of a story, editorial or picture is related in any way to political activity by a member of the staff (Hulteng, 1981, 73).”
A basic right of the citizen is denied the journalist in order that appearances may be maintained.

MacFarlane and Martin went on to conclude:

The politically active journalist can create problems for an employer. The task of deciding when political involvement affects work will be a difficult one. This fact provides neither ethical nor practical justification for the denial of rights which is inherent in the a priori prohibition of political activity.

They also however made a case for remedying the issue:

In arguing against the a priori curtailment of journalist employee’s right to exercise their citizenship obligations as they perceive them, we are appealing not only for ethical reasonableness, but for the application of common sense. The argument, from a management perspective, is: ‘What are we going to do if all our editorial people start running for office and addressing political rallies?’
The first answer to the question is, of course, that all of them will not, no more than will all of any other category of employees be politically active.
Secondly, however, where there is no prohibition against political activity, some journalists will undoubtedly become involved. This, in turn, will require editors and newsroom executives t o decide whether there is a genuine threat to a particular reporter’s effectiveness or whether the reporter’s copy continues to achieve an acceptable standard. But, and this is crucial t o our argument, the standard applied should be one of fairness, not objectivity.
To concentrate on the reporter’s work, rather than political allegiance, will undoubtedly require more subtle decisions on assignments, and on journalists’ writing, by editors and executives. Reporting has to be seen to be fair, not in order to accede to a spurious notion that journalists be objective, but because the journalism they produce must be of the highest quality. (“Political Activity and the Journalist: A Paradox,” Canadian Journal of Communication, 1984 10:2, 1-35.)

MacFarlane and Martin suggest the issue is not whether some “ideal” of objectivity is jeopardized by a journalist seeking public office, thus potentially damaging their employer’s reputation or standing, but rather a more pragmatic one of, are there means to allow journalists to exercise their democratic right to seek public office, without having to leave their employment or interrupt their career? The onus, they seem to say, is on the employer – and to some extent the journalist—to work it out in a manner that prevents problems.

On the other hand, and despite what MacFarlane and Martin suggest vis-à-vis managing political activity by journalists as opposed to prohibiting it, an expose published by MSNBC in 2007 illustrates the vulnerabilities inherent in political activities by journalists and how it can bring unwelcome or disquieting notoriety to the journalist and his/her organization, both within the public and the professional realm. (See: “Journalists dole out cash to politicians (quietly) / msnbc.com” (updated) June 25, 2007, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19113485/.) Here are some excerpts:

“Our writers are citizens, and they’re free to do what they want to do,” said New Yorker editor David Remnick, who has 10 political donors at his magazine. “If what they write is fair, and they respond to editing and counter-arguments with an open mind, that to me is the way we work.”
The openness didn’t extend, however, to telling the public about the donations. Apparently none of the journalists disclosed the donations to readers, viewers or listeners. Few told their bosses, either. … Several of the donating journalists said they had no regrets, whatever the ethical concerns.

A few journalists let their enthusiasm extend beyond the checkbook. A Fox TV reporter in Omaha, Calvert Collins, posted a photo on Facebook.com with her cozying up to a Democratic candidate for Congress. She urged her friends, “Vote for him Tuesday, Nov. 7!” She also gave him $500. She said she was just trying to build rapport with the candidates. (And what builds rapport more effectively than $500 and a strapless gown?)”

Clearly, political activities by working journalists inherently have the potential to raise questions about conflict of interest, questions about political or other independence and influence, and questions about impartiality. When such questions arise about individual journalists, they could by extension raise questions about the journalist’s employer, potentially affecting the integrity of the company brand. Therefore, the panel concludes that a media organization has a right to protect the integrity of its brand by imposing limits on certain activities, including political activities, of its employees. When a journalist signs on with an employer, they accept an obligation to know, understand and adhere to that organization’s policies governing political activity.

However, to support the right of an organization to establish policies in this area is not altogether to surrender the freedom of a journalist to express political views and conduct an active political life. Many journalists do not work for news organizations, and those who do so retain the right to question the reasonableness of their employers’ policies. A news organization’s interests are not identical to those of individual employees, and blanket prohibitions and guidelines may not do a good job of addressing nuanced questions, such as:

Should distinctions be drawn between running for a major office, running for minor office, and other expressions of political views (i.e., signing a petition)?

and:
Should distinctions be drawn between journalists who report “political” news and/or events, running for office, and others?

There would seem to be a substantial difference in implications between the case of Global-TV executive Peter Kent seeking federal office twice, on one hand, and that of Sean McCormick, anchor for Rogers Sportsnet, who is seeking a municipal seat in Toronto. (“Rogers Sportsnet anchor running for Toronto council,” The Globe and Mail, May 6, 2010.) But that difference is not necessarily definitive on the ethical question. There is some distance between McCormick’s “beat” and the office he seeks, but a conflict isn’t unimaginable, given how closely tied professional sports and civic government can be at times.

Does the ethical question or its relevance increase as the distance between the journalist’s beat and the public office narrows, or is the issue’s relevancy a constant? These are reasonable questions, as is the question of whether running in a political campaign is substantively different from, for example, signing a petition.

This panel was unable to identify clear criteria for resolving these questions of degree. Running for major political office would seem to constitute an obvious and intuitive conflict of interest either for a reporter who covers politics or for an editor, producer or executive who influences coverage decisions. Similar conflicts might not arise if a columnist with well-known opinions, or an arts critic, runs for school trustee or posts a lawn sign.

The panel concludes that journalists should not feel subject to a blanket profession-wide prohibition on political activity, but that journalists and their employers if any, should seek a nuanced understanding of the actual and perceived conflicts of interest that might arise in the particular situation, and a reasonable approach to managing these conflicts.

To what extent is there a professional consensus on this matter?

It appears, based on even a cursory survey that many of the world’s major and smaller media outlets have some measure of policies relating to outside political activity by their journalists. In addition to those cited already above, the Los Angeles Times, The British Broadcasting Corporation, the Guardian Newspaper, Christian Science Monitor and many, many others have policies governing the issue. Many reflect a common theme – the importance of restricting individual political activity in order to maintain journalistic and organizational integrity, and thus preclude any real or perceived conflicts which might cause a diminishing of reputation or brand of the media organization involved.

While these media organizations’ policies are mostly reasonable, in principle, they do not speak the last word on journalists’ own ethical choices. More to the point might be the fact that there is no record of these policies being opposed either by employees or by other journalists as individuals or groups. On the contrary, the CAJ’s ethics guidelines unambiguously support a line being drawn between journalists’ professional identity and their political views:

… There is a tradition in Canada of media organizations that support and advocate particular ideologies and causes. These ideologies and causes should be transparent to the readers, listeners or viewers. Journalists for these organizations sometimes choose to be advocates or are hired to be advocates and this too, should be transparent.
In our role as fair and impartial journalists, we must be free to comment on the activities of any publicly elected body or special interest organization. It is not possible to do this without an apparent conflict of interest if we are active members of a group we are covering.
We lose our credibility as fair observers if we write opinion pieces about subjects that we also cover as reporters.
We will not hold elected political office, work as officials on political campaigns, or write speeches for any political party or official.
Editorial boards and columnists or commentators endorse political candidates or political causes. Reporters do not.
We will not make financial contributions to a political campaign if there is a chance we will be covering the campaign.
We will not hold office in community organizations about which we may report or make editorial judgments. This includes fund-raising or public relations work and active participation in community organizations and pressure groups that take positions on public issues.

The panel is not certain that so unambiguous a line is universally justified, but we note that the professional consensus on the matter appears to be quite strong. Journalists, therefore, are advised to proceed with caution when considering political involvement.

If a journalist decides to seek public office, or otherwise engage in political activity, what does he/she need to consider?

The panel suggests that journalists who might wish to engage in any political activity do the following:

  1. Consider carefully the possibility that, in the near or distant future, the activity might hinder their actual or perceived ability to conduct independent reporting.
  2. Familiarize themselves with and understand any company policies governing such activity and be prepared to adhere to such policies.
  3. Inform their employers, if any, of their intentions.
  4. Publicly declare any real or potential conflicts.
  5. Determine, in advance, specific options for re-entering the workplace (such as reassignment if that is a legitimate or agreed upon option), in a manner that will mitigate or preclude real or perceived conflict or questions of bias resulting from the political activity.

Conclusion

There is irony in all of this careful consideration of political disengagement in that some media organizations and their owners publicly engage in direct and indirect political activity on a regular basis without apparent consideration or concern about it reflecting poorly or otherwise on their organization, its product or its employees.

There is also, within the profession and society, considerable and legitimate debate about what “objectivity”, “impartiality” and “independence” mean within the context of journalistic activity and whether they are practical or achievable standards or criteria by which to measure our profession. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel even suggested, in their influential The Elements of Journalism (2001 and 2007), that the “lost” concept of objectivity has become a “muddle” and “trap” best avoided altogether; instead, journalists should be expected to maintain an “independence from those they cover” and practise a “discipline of verification”. Some have called this discipline an “objective method” or, in Stephen JA Ward’s words, a stance of “pragmatic objectivity.”

However, as chroniclers of history who help citizens make well-informed choices, working journalists bear the burden of a higher public expectation that they submit personal bias and political view to the demands and disciplines of their work. And, perhaps that is exactly as it should be. A range of independent, unencumbered and trustworthy media is a valued asset in any democratic society.

If journalists accept that the “objective method” contributes to the public trust, and that “impartiality” is not just a noble ambition but a relevant goal to honour our democratic responsibility, then it is important to strive to preserve the integrity of the ideal – even if it may sometimes mean voluntarily surrendering some personal freedoms.

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