Evaluating print and broadcast news in the San Francisco Bay Area from A to F.

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Should a journalist be fired for taking part in a political protest?

Henry Norr

 

The San Francisco Chronicle and its former technology, columnist Henry Norr, reached a settlement on Jan. 5 over the paper's dismissal of Mr. Norr last April, after he was arrested in a protest against the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The core journalism issue at the heart of the dispute is not settled, however: How much of his or her individual right to free speech must a journalist surrender to avoid harming the newspaper's reputation for objectivity?

Should journalists be forbidden to take part in public protests on any issue? Do they give up their freedom of expression in order to avoid the reality or appearance of a conflict of interest between their personal beliefs and their need to be neutral as journalists?

Journalists Shouldn't be Activists

Chronicle Public Editor Dick Rogers addressed the issue in an April 3, 2003 column titled "Credibility at stake." Here's an excerpt:

Newspapers have a big problem: A lot of people don't believe them. In a major report four years ago, the American Society of Newspaper Editors found that 78 percent of survey respondents said there's bias in the media, 77 percent said that newspapers pay far more attention to stories that support their views, and about half felt that some interest groups get a "special break" in news coverage while others can't get fair treatment.

Over the years, to counter such perceptions, newspapers have developed ethics policies that guide the behavior of their staffs.

If you ask most journalists whether they could take part in a political event, then come back to the office and do their jobs fairly, they would probably say yes. But it's the wrong question. Instead, ask them this: If you become a political advocate and then try to write even-handedly about your passion, will readers think you and your paper are fair?

Based on the thousands of e-mails I receive from readers on both sides of many controversies, the answer would likely be no.

For that reason, newspaper policies often are strict. Some say flatly that you can't engage in partisan political activity that could create a conflict of interest or the perception of a conflict. Period.

It's important to understand that it's not a matter of which side a reporter takes. Pro-war, anti-war. Pro-choice, anti-abortion. Pro-gun, anti- gun -- it's the advocacy, not the position.

You can't always avert conflicts by assigning staffers to safe topics, especially with an all-consuming story such as war.

Journalists do a lot of soul-searching in their quest to stay on the right side of credibility. One former Bay Area editor refused to register to vote lest readers mistrust his work. For most of us, that goes too far, though many newspeople won't sign a petition, plant a political sign on their lawn or engage in debate at their city council.

If it were up to me, I'd take a cue from the Old West hotels that told gunslingers to check their weapons with the front desk clerk. Only the sign over the entrance to The Chronicle would read: "Check your activism at the door."

Restrict free speech as little as possible

To be successful, a news organization must be seen as impartial -- on nobody's side but the public's -- on its news pages. Editorial pages are another matter; opinion is expected there. So let's acknowledge at the start that if a journalist is -- or even appears to be -- affiliated with one side of a controversy that he or she shapes coverage of, the newspaper risks its credibility with readers on the other side.

What happened at the Chronicle was a collision between two of the most cherished and foundational values of journalism: free speech on the one hand and independence -- freedom from real or apparent conflict of interest -- on the other.

But when two core values are in conflict, is the complete subordination of one to the other the only choice?

News organizations should take a cue from the Supreme Court. The high court is often faced with difficult decisions between two competing social values. The court devises guidelines that balance the rights of criminal suspects and the need for efficient police work, for example, or robust public discussion on one hand and protection from defamation on the other.

News organizations can do the same.

In fact, because freedom of speech underlies freedom of the press, news organizations should take greater pains than any other institution to minimize censorship.

In large newsrooms with reporters covering specialized beats, that's not hard to do. Someone like Henry Norr, who writes about personal computers and Palm Pilots, is unlikely to cover the politics of the war against Iraq. Since his biases about that war are publicly known, editors would avoid assigning him such stories.

Likewise someone who openly takes a side for or against abortion, shouldn't be covering that political struggle. A journalist who marches for gun control, shouldn't be reporting on that issue.

News executives would be within their rights insisting that journalists who shape coverage of particular issues refrain from public demonstration of their views about them. But otherwise, journalists should be as free to exercise the rights of citizens as any others who care passionately about the future of the community.

 

Ready to make the call?

Vote below. If you're still unsure what you would decide, consult the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists.

 

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A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle

Hearst

San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

 

Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

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