What are we to make of the absurdity emerging from the Miami Herald, where an editor has apparently told his staff that they’d better not purchase tickets to political benefit concerts, because such activities will taint the sanctity of their news-gathering enterprise?
I’ve never understood the sort of journalistic code of ethics — now prevalent in many American newsrooms, particularly those owned by big corporate chains — that requires newspeople to pretend that they are not human beings with brains and beliefs and emotions and lives. The logic of these rules — that, for instance, forbid reporters from participating in political rallies or contributing to campaigns or otherwise behaving like normal, politically engaged citizens — seems to stem from fear. The editors and publishers who promulgate them are worried that, if critics of their institutions get hold of factual evidence that reporters actually hold their own opinions and beliefs, those critics will be able to argue that their news reports are biased. This is the sort of fear that drives executives insane, since — despite decades of effort — no American corporation has yet figured out how to find that ideal Employee With No Mind of His Own, and a newsroom is the last place you’d want to hire him, anyway.
This issue, of course, leads one deep into the swamp of the hoary debate over “journalistic objectivity.” Me, I can’t imagine how any thinking journalist or reader in 2004 can imagine that it’s possible for a reporter to so thoroughly suppress his individuality and experiences that he can provide an account of events that’s unshaped by who he is — or that, were it possible, such an account would be desirable. But others disagree, and in fact I hear the “lack of objectivity” charge today less often from journalists than from consumers of journalism, who have — sadly but understandably — taken the profession’s traditional avowal of objectivity at face value, and then become outraged at its failure to achieve that pristine state.
For clarity here, let’s distinguish between the unattainable standard of objectivity — a scientific absolute poised as subjectivity’s opposite — and the entirely attainable, and laudable, standards of fairness and accuracy and honesty and transparency that any journalist of good mind and heart will subscribe to. Fairness: If you’re presenting one side of a story, you owe it to your readers, your subjects and yourself to weigh the other side’s case. Accuracy: Observation should always trump preconception, and you just don’t publish something that you know is untrue, even if it helps make an argument you cherish. Honesty: You do your best to present the truth as you have witnessed it and understand it, knowing that your witness and understanding are shaped by who you are, yet also knowing that honesty will sometimes require you to report things that make you uncomfortable or call your own beliefs into question. Transparency: You do your best to avoid financial conflicts of interest, and where you have an unavoidable interest in a story you’re covering, you reveal it up front.
These principles seem so simple and obvious to me after a quarter century of writing and editing that when I read something like these words from the Miami Herald memo, my eyes roll: “As you know and understand, it is improper for independent journalists — which we are — to engage in partisan politics or to advocate for political causes. In this case, buying a ticket to any of these events is tantamount to making a political contribution, which is prohibited by the newsroom’s Guidelines on Ethics.”
Where to begin here? Note how the newspaper has revised the concept of conflict of interest — which should apply to situations where an individual can improperly gain material benefit in the course of pursuing her professional responsibilities — and turned it into a stricture demanding that all reporters neuter their civic selves.
Sure, any “Guideline on Ethics” ought to forbid journalists accepting contributions (i.e., bribes) from politicians — that’s a conflict of interest! But if you accept the logic that a reporter contributing to a political campaign constitutes a conflict of interest, you really can’t avoid insisting that the reporter, um, not vote, either.
If you believe that a reporter who contributes to a political campaign can’t write about politics, you’ve set an all-consuming trap for the entire journalistic enterprise. Your rule will keep widening its net: If buying a ticket to a political benefit is verboten, since the money from the benefit will end up in a campaign’s coffers, then the reporter should carefully refrain as well from buying a movie ticket from any studio that has used its profits to make any sort of political contribution. For that matter, better stay away from buying any product from any corporation that has chosen to give dough to any candidate. If you pay taxes, you’d better think twice about writing about any arm of the government to which you’ve contributed. And so on.
It’s hopeless; the Herald’s staff might as well take vows of poverty, chastity and silence — and leave their paper’s columns blank. (Meanwhile, of course, these corporate codes of ethics never seem to apply any strictures to the folks who own the papers — and who have far more substantial interests that tend to be far more conflicted.)
Alternately, American journalism’s managerial class could accept that reporters are people with lives — and that their best bet at salvaging their profession is to start from that point, rather than desperately run from it. The vitality of the blogosphere offers one hopeful sign: here’s a model of journalism that rests on a foundation of openness, individuality and participation. But the Miami Herald’s code of ethics probably bans blogging, too.