2/9/08

Editor: Journalists dump neutrality for ideology

Wow. Those caucuses sure did raise heart rates in Colorado, including right here in the Rocky Mountain News newsroom. I know this may come as a surprise to some, but journalists are human. Which means they can feel the urge to participate, to share their views, to stand up for what they believe in when the opportunity arises, as it did Tuesday night. Should they?

My answer to that question, I hope, tells you a lot about how I see the role of a journalist and the necessary sacrifices that come with the job. I hope it makes clear what you should be able to expect from journalists at the Rocky, whether you're the subject of a story or a reader.

No, journalists should not get involved in politics, even if their main assignment has nothing to do with the subject. They shouldn't vote at a caucus, they shouldn't put a candidate's sign on their lawn, they shouldn't slap a bumper sticker on their car. They should do nothing that would give others the impression that they can't be trusted to strive for neutrality in their coverage.

Some argue that I go too far, that my view asks people to give up a constitutional right to free expression. My response: Of course journalists have the right to express their opinions. But if they do, they must also be prepared to accept the professional consequences.

Imagine if a reporter stood outside the Capitol on his day off with a sign protesting abortion or joined a rally advocating the legalization of drugs. It would make it impossible for him to be perceived as fair in his coverage of either issue. At the Rocky, he immediately would be barred from having anything to do with related stories.

That doesn't mean that reporters can't feel strongly about issues. However, I believe they need to be able to set their feelings aside when gathering the news. If they can't be open to differing views, they need to recuse themselves, no matter their expertise or record.

It's hard to imagine good journalists who don't pride themselves on placing the importance of accurately representing the views of others higher than the need to interject their own points of view.

There's a place for the latter kind of journalism, of course. But at a general-interest newspaper, it's the realm of columnists and editorial writers, not reporters and editors.

That's why, as a company, we hold journalists to different standards from other employees.

Our policy on political involvement says: "Journalists and others working in newsrooms must abide by a more restrictive standard (than non-journalist employees), given the disinterested neutrality from which news organizations must work. They must not serve in elected or politically appointed positions. They must not participate in political fundraising, political organizing, nor other activities designed to enhance a candidate, a political party or a political-interest organization. They must not make contributions of record to political campaigns nor engage in other such activity that might associate an employer's name with a political candidate or a political cause."

When you go to a caucus, you're expected to publicly express your support for a candidate. Under our policy, that means it's not a place for journalists. I extend my thinking to my entire staff - sportswriters and copy editors, too, for example - because today you never know who we're going to need to cover politics. This campaign season likely will see reporters from features, business and sports involved in political coverage and editors from throughout the newsroom working on everything from voter guides to coverage on Election Night.

My position triggered a grievance, then a threat of an injunction, from the Denver Newspaper Guild, which represents many of our employees.

This column isn't meant to explore that dispute in particular - which by the way was resolved amicably. Its intent is to give you an understanding of the journlistic values I hold dear - even if we sometimes fall short in the execution.

I have heard of at least one editor who so keeps himself above the fray that he doesn't even vote. I think that's going too far. However, I can tell you that I would never register as a member of a political party or participate in a caucus or even a primary.

Which brings me back to what you should be able to expect from a Rocky journalist's coverage: impartiality, neutrality.

If we don't hold to those values, the damage to the public trust will be inestimable and irrecoverable. Limiting our political activity is a small price to pay for the privilege of doing this work. At least that's the way I see it.

(rockymountainnews.com)

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