Should Journalists Show Their Political Biases?
The very first thing you learn in a Journalism Ethics seminar or course is that you keep your feelings, thoughts, and opinions strictly to yourself - absolutely no questions about it. To report news in a fair, balanced, and untainted light, you yourself must be as clean as the words you put to paper. Like good scotch, the news is best when served straight.
But times have changed since the days when everyone got their news from the newspaper. The introduction of the web and the infamous blogosphere has made anyone with WiFi publishable to the masses. With no filter, anyone can read whatever anyone puts up. The availability of more partisan content has increased the audience's appetite for it. The openness of the web is a great thing, but also may be a curse as well.
Social media plays a huge role as well, since Twitter makes journalists more personal and accessible to their audience beyond what they publish or put on air. With this increased interaction, it makes it easier for journalists to let their personal opinions slip past the cool exterior of ethical impartiality.
And it's kind of funny, considering that journalists are champions of free speech, and yet their own free speech is highly curbed. Take Stephanopoulos for example: The man can't make a donation to the Clinton Foundation and moderate a GOP debate due to the obvious conflict of interests that it presents. Some journalists have even reportedly sworn not to vote in elections, even though it's not a newsroom policy.
But will mandating bylines to read, "by Julia Arciga - Democrat/Republican/Conservative/Liberal/Libertarian/Independent" make journalism better? This article from Nieman Reports says yes, arguing that by knowing journalists' political affiliation, "the public will be able to assess the full dimensions of the news it receives." The more transparency of who's behind the keyboard and camera, the better.
So if major news organizations are able to put their opinions out there, what makes them any different than a shmuck in Ohio writing a blog? The Nieman article says this:
"News organizations should realize that what sets their content apart is not their staff’s eschewing of a campaign yard sign, but how they employ their skills to produce better reporting. Credibility is the press’s authority; reporters having a personal point of view should not prevent them from doing fair and accurate coverage."
While the journalist behind the Nieman article makes a plethora of good points, I think he's wrong. (This being a blog post on my personal site, I think I'm allowed to say my opinion on here.) In the above quote, the author said that "credibility is the press's authority," and he couldn't be more correct. The only things separating a professional journalist from an Average Joe blogger is where he gets published and the official press pass on his lanyard. In this industry, credibility is everything.
The disclosure of political affiliation would corrupt the very credibility that professional journalism is built on, and I wholeheartedly believe that. How can the reader know the article she's reading or the piece she's watching isn't biased when she knows the journalist's political leanings? Giving room for journalists to say what is "right" and "wrong," or as the article puts it, "seeking and conveying what is found to be true," blurs the line between news and opinion in a very dangerous way - especially in the political arena.
People who don't see it my way would say that, in the pursuit of fairness, journalists are lead to "artificial 'balanced' reporting and sound bite symmetry ('he said, she said')." And they have a point, but I think the "he said, she said" game is far less of a concern than mixing opinions in your news. It's more about the principle of it all, rather than it's practicality. Would you trust a referee who is openly a fan of one of the teams that is playing during a baseball game? Absolutely not. Same thing goes with journalism and wrestling with putting facts to paper.
In the past, I've been very open and loud about my political leanings and it has not affected any of my hard news reporting whatsoever. But as I'm entering the professional arena of journalism, (I start my summer internship next week - yikes!) I think it's important and imperative for me to be as impartial as possible from here on out.
The world is complicated enough, and the stuff that needs to be covered news-wise is even worse. The introduction of open political biases would make things even more complex, for newsrooms and readers alike. A journalists' job is simple: Collect all the facts and state them in a digestible manner for the reader. The reader then takes the facts and forms their own opinions from there. A journalist's duty is to educate, not editorialize.
So I'll be taking that scotch straight, please.
"Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light."
- Joseph Pulitzer