Reporters and their politics

GEORGE-STEPHANOPOULOS-618On Twitter, Bryan Navarro wrote to me: “Is it OK or not OK for journalists to donate to politics? What about publicly expressing any sort of political opinion?”

Good question, Bryan. I debated answering this on Twitter, but realized that my opinion on this would only fit into a Norm Macdonald-esque tome. So here are my thoughts:

In high school, I had a social studies teacher named Mr. Dyal. He was an inspiration to me. He challenged me (and all of his students) to do great things, and made us think differently about the world.

At the end of the school year, he would close his class by encouraging us to make a difference in the world. “Experiment in this fragile experiment called democracy,” he would say. “And vote.”

Mr. Dyal knew that every voice makes a difference. We have the power to change things through our decisions.

To me, it shouldn’t make any difference that you are a reporter.

I have heard arguments that journalists shouldn’t even vote in elections, in order to preserve their objectivity. Some have argued that just the act of voting influences the way they view a story, and damages their credibility.

I think that’s a bit extreme.

Journalists are still human beings. We want the world to be a better place, and ensure our future and the future of our children. And in the U.S., we have the ability, because, like Mr. Dyal said, every vote counts. If we take a strict stance of non-interference, I don’t believe that benefits the bigger picture. As citizens, we have a right to vote, and I believe it’s our duty to exercise that right.

To those that would say voting gives reporters a bias, I would counter that everyone has a bias. We all have opinions on things, either positive or negative. And as my broadcasting professor Dan Garrity once put it, we can never eliminate our biases, only identify them. If reporters admit their personal biases to themselves, it reminds them and pushes them to be as unbiased as possible in their own reporting. I may agree with Candidate A’s platforms, but I’ve still got to interview Candidate B for my story on the 6 p.m. news, and I’ve got to make it fair. As reporters, we have a higher responsibility to our audience.

But that higher responsibility comes with limits.

While I disagree with the idea of a journalist not being able to vote, I do think they need to take reasonable precautions against publicly siding with one side or the other.

Journalists live in a world of “full disclosure.” We want records unsealed, information made public, and questions answered. Reporters shine a light on the dark places of the world to help people stay informed.

But we shouldn’t shy away when that light is shined back at us.

Being a journalist means living up to our responsibility to our audience. Like it or not, we’re not private citizens anymore. We are public figures, trusted with sharing information fairly and accurately. And when journalists get close to a story, whether it’s financially or ideologically, they should disclose that fact to their audience, too.

George Stephanopoulos is going through this identity crisis right now. Stephanopoulos, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton and now chief anchor of ABC News, has admitted to donating $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation between 2012 and 2014. Even if his intentions were pure – he said the donations were to further the causes of AIDS research and deforestation – Stephanopoulos should’ve recognized that his involvement in the charity would call his reporting on the Clintons into question. His previous work with the Clinton administration complicates it more. But what’s more, he didn’t disclose this information to viewers until now.

The magnifying glass is on him right now. Despite all of the work he’s done at ABC News, his credibility is being called into question.

And in the end, our credibility is all we have. Being a fair reporter means sacrificing your ability to publicly support or oppose something. If you strongly feel something is wrong, do your diligent reporting and let the facts of a story prove it (or allow the facts to change your mind). Our responsibility is to inform our audience as clearly as we can. If something is interfering with your ability to be impartial, it should be avoided. And if you are unsure whether you’ve crossed a line, your audience should know, to help them understand the whole picture.

Vote at the ballot box, but not in the press box.

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