Freedom of political expression

Do journalists forfeit their right?

Should journalists be allowed to take part in political activities? What if a reporter’s beliefs interfere with objective coverage?

By Deni Elliott

P.S./Elliott is a monthly column written by consulting editor Deni Elliott. Elliott is executive director of the Ethics Institute, Dartmouth College.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 6 (September 1989), pp. 1,8.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.


Do the protectors of free speech have an obligation to stifle their own political voices?

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services has touched off an ironic debate on this issue in many newsrooms. In at least one case, it cost a reporter her job.

In reaction to the court’s decision, Vicky Hendley, an education writer for the Vero Beach (FL) Press-Journal sent letters of protest to the 160 Florida legislators. She included a tiny copper coat hanger in each envelope “to make sure that the letters weren’t just looked at by an aide and thrown away.” Hendley completed her project at home and didn’t identify herself as a journalist in her letters.

Pensacola News-Journal reporter saw the coat hanger on a legislator’s desk and decided that there was a story in Hendley’s unique statement.

He called her for an interview.

Hendley was surprised that her political statement got so much public attention. “That’s what citizens should do,” she said, “write to their legislators.”

She was even more surprised when she got fired. “My former employer didn’t think it was ethical for me to talk to another reporter,” she said, but maintained that she did not violate the company’s conflict of interest policy because education was her beat, not abortion.

“If it was a school issue and I wrote a letter to school board members, I think that there would have been a conflict of interest because I deal with these people on a professional basis.”

Richard Wagner, Managing Editor of the Vero Beach Press-Journal, said that Hendley stepped over the line of permissible activity when she became a news source. “It’s very difficult to separate your profession from your political life when you grant interviews to other news organizations,” he said. Political activity stops being personal business when it calls the newspaper’s objectivity into question.

Everyone involved agrees that organizational credibility and the individual’s right to expression are important. The disagreement is about how to balance the two. And, in the battle, important issues are being ignored.

Those who want to maintain an appearance of objectivity for the news organization create policies that fail to address what to do when reporters’ feelings really interfere with dispassionate coverage.

The public knows that reporters may hold strong political views even if they don’t march in demonstrations. Professional commitment to provide balanced coverage is what keeps reporters’ political views out of the news columns, not apathy.

But professional commitment may not always be enough to overcome emotion. Every reporter should be allowed one moral conflict of interest.

Hendley said that abortion is hers, that she had told her employers about it, and that it is unrealistic to expect reporters to be objective about every issue.

“Someone who’s been raped may not be able to do a rape story; someone married to a city council member should not cover the city council.

Editors should give reporters a chance to be human,” she said.

But it doesn’t follow that reporters should be allowed to express their views through non-journalistic political statements. Journalists already have a unique forum in which to express their judgments.

Journalists are, by profession, civic and political activists. They bring matters of importance to public attention and frame the public debate. The question is not whether journalists should be allowed to participate in public political activity, but whether or not they should be allowed to exert influence in public arenas beyond the one they already control.

Because of the potential for exploitation, the answer has to be “no.”

A cause that has a reporter or columnist or editor in its ranks gains credibility through the journalist’s association. Even if the journalist-activist wants to maintain a low profile, no one could blame the organization exploiting the PR value of having a local anchor or well-known columnist as a supporter.

Journalists cannot remove their professional cloaks when they leave the newsroom. No good journalist is ever completely off-duty.

Who would have sympathy with a public official who assumed that some important announcement was off-the-record because a reporter happened upon the story at a party rather than in the office?

Journalists cannot drop professional affiliation when it is convenient for them or for their cause. People who wish to work on behalf of a particular cause should work in public relations or advocacy groups, not for the news media. Journalists should confine their public voices to their own professional arena.

For further analysis of this issue, see “Agreeing to disagree.”