When politics and the press meet, everyone seems to get a little uncomfortable. But how removed from the political arena do we really expect our reporters to be, and how does that rule apply to the rest of media? It’s a debate that is beginning to get more attention as it is revealed that at least 25 Wisconsin reporters signed petitions to have Republican Governor Scott Walker recalled from office.
According to Romnesko, 25 news employees of Gannett newspapers had their names discovered among the massive list of voters who believe Gov. Walker should be recalled from office. The employees said that they considered signing to be a private event, like voting, and that it shouldn’t be considered an ethical violation.
Gannett disagrees. “Our journalists are expected to provide you with the clearest picture of the news as it develops — with objectivity and impartiality. And, as readers, you must be able to trust that your newspaper is providing you the most complete picture, without bias of any kind….We now are in the process of taking disciplinary measures and reviewing supplemental ethics training for all news employees. The principle at stake is our belief that journalists must exercise caution and not cause doubts about their neutrality, especially at a time when the media is under a microscope and our credibility is routinely challenged.”
None of the news staff involved, according to the Green Bay Press Gazette, actually report on the race, or politics, or have any say over political stories at all. But that hasn’t stopped the executives from declaring that they will be punished for their actions.
It’s one thing to try to protect a publication from all potential claims of bias, even if the steps taken are very extreme. But Gannett, like many news sources, appears to have a policy for staff that doesn’t match up with the policy for management or owners. While reporters, editors, photographers and such are utterly forbidden from any move that could potentially look like politicking or party or candidate preference, the management and owners are busy contributing to political candidates and causes of their own. In fact, as much as conservatives complain incessantly about the alleged “liberal media,” a study of corporate media owner campaign donations has proven that wrong. The media owners and executives tend to donate more regularly to Republicans, or, at the very least, whomever is in office at the time.
So where does it end? It’s one thing to be unable to donate to candidates or drive a car with a party bumpersticker when you are a political journalist. But signing a recall petition with millions of other signatures, especially when you happen to write for the sports page? Is that really some sort of ethical violation?
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