Keeping Reporter Opinions under Wraps

I’ve worked my entire career among journalists. By and large, they are fun and interesting people with active curiosities and intellects. They are of a certain type, as are members of any other self-selected group, and they share certain values and biases.

Politically, journalists have a strong tendency to be liberal. This is shown in opinion surveys and in any frank conversation you’re likely to have with a reporter.

Characterizing the politics of any other profession would be no big deal. It wouldn’t scandalize the military to say that most servicemen and women are politically conservative. But journalists don’t like to talk about their political opinions because they aren’t supposed to have any. They are supposed to be fair and objective.

In fact, reporters are so loath to be seen as biased that they go to great lengths to conceal their political views. Take, for instance, National Public Radio’s code of ethics. Scroll down to the section called politics, community and outside activities.

There is says, “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.”

Voting, on the other hand, is not part of the public record, thanks to the secret ballot. So NPR journalists are allowed to vote. Or are they?

When I first starting working in public radio, I worked for a small station in Iowa City, Iowa. I began there in 1988, the year of a presidential election and the Iowa Caucuses.

Here’s how the Iowa Caucuses work.

You go to some school gymnasium with other members of your party. At some point, a person says, “Everybody supporting Michael Dukakis stand under the basketball hoop. Everybody supporting Jesse Jackson stand under the scoreboard.” And you do it… right there in front of everyone else with your bare face hanging out.

The public not only knows which party you support, they know who is your favorite candidate. It’s not very private and, I assume, off-limits to anyone who works for NPR news.

I have two problems with the approach of NPR, which, by the way, is the network my public radio station is a member of. First, it denies its employees the right to be citizens who are fully involved in American democracy. Giving money to candidates and causes is as important to the process — maybe MORE important — than casting a vote.

Secondly, the NPR policy does nothing to guarantee that a reporter is free from bias. It only tries to pretend that reporters are unbiased by concealing their political views.

Clearly, news organizations need to enforce some standards when it comes to their journalists’ public image. You can’t be a vocal, high-profile member of a controversial cause, and then expect it won’t get noticed and won’t bring into question your ability to cover the issue.

My voter registration status has always been “decline to state,” when asked to name my party. Common sense demands that you keep a low profile when you work in this business.

But to say the only democratic activities you can be involved in are those that are fully shrouded in secrecy;  I think that goes too far. I also find it amusing that a profession, which is dedicated to promoting openness and transparency, is so devoted to secrecy when it comes to its own political views.

You can have political opinions and remain dedicated to your craft. And being a professional journalist means you get all sides of the story and allow your readers to reach their own conclusions.

But reporters do have values, they do have opinions and they do make judgments. At the very least, we have to decide what constitutes a good story or a legitimate point of view, which is worthy of our coverage.

Let me just say that every profession has a political culture, and the journalistic culture is liberal. That may be good or bad or indifferent, but it’s the way it is. And I don’t see the point of trying to deny it.

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2 Comments on “Keeping Reporter Opinions under Wraps”

  1. tomfudge Says:

    I’m sure the federal funding of public radio makes it hyper-sensitive to being seen as politically bias in one way or another. This is one reason why some people have argued NPR would be better off if it cut its ties with the federally-funded Corporation of Public Broadcasting and raised all its own money. The only problem with that is many small public radio stations, in rural markets, would be very hard-pressed to go it alone and give up the CPB funding. For the time being, I think federal funding is a necessary evil if public radio is going to be present throughout the country, and not just in large urban centers. -TomF

  2. George Drake Says:

    Dear Tom,

    One wonders if you are not held to a higher standard because of the “P” in NPR. You do work for Public radio and since some of your funding comes from tax money, Congress is highly sensitive to political bias. Of course it doesn’t help that Republicans are convinced that NPR has a Democratic bias ( which it seems in this election cycle NPR is working hard to overcome.


    George Drake

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