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Should journalists be allowed to contribute to political campaigns?

Posted July 23, 2004

Can journalists give money one day ...
Last week the San Francisco Chronicle placed its letters editor on paid leave after it learned that he had contributed to at least four politicians' campaigns since 2000. The paper's editors said they were investigating the circumstances surrounding the donations, which they said appear to violate the paper's conflict-of-interest policy.

... and take notes the next?

Some critics say it's unethical for any employee of a news medium to make a political donation. It could slant news coverage or at least give that appearance. Others say with equal conviction that the contribution itself changes nothing about the staff member's pre-existing bias, and that muzzling an employee's exercise of free speech outside work is offensive.

Consider yourself the executive editor. We've assembled arguments on opposite sides of the issue to help you in your decision. Read them and then make the call below.

Con: Fair, balanced and campaigning?! Journalists shouldn't finance politicians or causes

When reporters give money to politicians, they do three destructive things. First, they create the appearance of a conflict of interest, which hurts the news organization's reputation for fairness. Second, that perception of partisanship impairs reporters' ability to gather news from both sides of an issue. Third, appearances aside, journalists enter an actual conflict of interest when they make a political contribution. By literally investing in one side, they reinforce their own pre-existing biases.

The appearance of a conflict of interest is not the same thing as an actual conflict. Let's take the appearance first. In the news business, credibility is everything. Reporters and editors have an ethical obligation to reflect well on the news organization. If journalists are taking sides in partisan fights, that erodes the newsroom's claim to even-handedness in readers' eyes.

It also may limit access to news. If a partisan source -- say a candidate -- discovers that a reporter has given to an opponent, that candidate might think the reporter cannot be fair and refuse an interview. That harms the news organization and the reading or viewing public. Without that interview, the public loses a voice in a debate, exacerbating the effects of the original reporter bias.

Now, the actual conflict. The act of giving money binds people to a campaign, candidate or organization in a way that mere voting does not. Sending in a check or cash donation makes anybody -- journalist or non-journalist -- more psychologically allied with the cause. When you put your money on a horse, you tend to cheer for it.

Pro: Come clean with the public -- biases are human, and unavoidable even for journalists

Two principles are involved here: the honesty news media owe their readers and viewers concerning the political leanings of their staff; and journalists' freedom of political expression.

Journalists are human. Like everyone else, they have biases and preferences. Prohibiting journalists from contributing to politics won't change their political preferences. But it will hide their biases from the public.

Policies like those at the Chronicle only address the public relations problem that might arise from exposing the unavoidable subjectivity of news.

In the typical conflict of interest, the journalist receives something of value that might cause a slant in reporting. A campaign contribution goes the other way. The reporter gives money. The action merely reveals a pre-existing bias, it doesn't create a reason to shade the news.

Biases of journalists cannot -- and should not -- be eliminated. A smart, skeptical reporter will be well-informed, and thus likely to develop an opinion. Acknowledging that preference publicly guards against skewed ongoing coverage and gives the public more information with which to judge the facts.

Of all institutions, news organizations should be the last to restrict the citizen's freedom to speak out and support political causes. The same First Amendment upon which the press' livelihood depends also protects individual expression. What reporters and their families do with their own money ought to be their business. To argue that the press, but not journalists, ought to be free is to advocate a double standard.



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. Or reference the San Francisco Chronicle's code of ethics.


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