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SPJ Ethics Committee Position Papers
Political Involvement

The SPJ Ethics Committee gets a significant number of questions about whether journalists should engage in political activity. The simplest answer is “No.” Don’t do it. Don’t get involved. Don’t contribute money, don’t work in a campaign, don’t lobby, and especially, don’t run for office yourself.

But it’s a bit more nuanced than that. These are the most pertinent parts of the SPJ Code of Ethics:

— Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived
— Remain free of associations that may compromise integrity or damage credibility

While those are the most directly relevant provisions, the following also apply, but in different ways:

— Disclose unavoidable conflicts
— Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable
— Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context
— Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection

Objectivity in today’s superheated political environment may be impossible, but impartiality should still be a reporter’s goal. Even those who are paid to have opinions — columnists, editorial writers, talk show hosts, bloggers (OK, maybe not always paid) — should at least be aware of all relevant points of view.

Skeptics of journalistic objectivity are quick to point out that some publishers and owners of news media outlets may not follow the rules they lay down for their employees. A few get more deeply involved, and they may contribute to candidates. Is this ethical? It’s at best a double standard, and a questionable practice. But at the very minimum there should be public disclosure — in their own media — when media magnates get politically involved in this way.

Reporters covering politics are at the other end of this spectrum of what may be tolerated. For them, almost no political activity is OK. Some reporters interpret this as meaning it’s off-limits even to register to vote as a Democrat or Republican or third-party member. Some take it to extremes and even decline to vote in a general election. Those are extreme positions, and unnecessarily prim. The proof of a reporter’s impartiality should be in the performance.

Families and close relationships create another set of ethical dilemmas. If a reporter’s spouse, family member or other relative — or even a close friend — runs for office, the reporter should not be covering the campaign. The same is true if a spouse or relative is working in a campaign. Issues campaigns — public referendums, bonding for public works projects, tax questions, etc. — are less likely to be considered partisan than candidate elections. But even here, a reporter covering a campaign shouldn’t take sides.

For political reporters, yard signs, bumper stickers and even campaign buttons should be considered off-limits. For a broader range of journalists — whether they’re covering politics or not — political activism should be avoided. The editor/publisher of a Denver newspaper once told his employees not to attend a concert whose proceeds were being donated by the band to a candidate for the U.S. Senate. That applied to all employees, from newsroom to mailroom.

Many employers’ codes of ethics are much more specific than SPJ’s code about their employees’ involvement in politics. The SPJ code is merely advisory, but a journalist can be fired for violating an employer’s ethical rules. NPR’s code, for instance, says quite bluntly that “NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies” concerning issues that NPR covers — which is pretty much everything.

Newspapers, in particular, have a longstanding practice of endorsing candidates in competitive political races. Although some readers think these endorsements signal a bias in the publication’s news coverage, SPJ encourages editorial pages to promote thoughtful debate on candidates and politics; letting readers know through endorsements which candidates share the newspaper’s vision is part of that discussion. Part of an editorial page’s responsibility, though, to take every appropriate opportunity to explain the firewall between news and opinion.

Reporters are not columnists or editorial writers. SPJ’s recommendation is that reporters not take a position on an issue, or in a candidate race, that they are covering. They may do so privately, but they definitely should not do so in a public or visible way.

Ironically, journalism is a profession protected by the same First Amendment that grants to all citizens the right to run for office or to support, by word, deed or cash, the people they would like to see elected. But journalists who want to be perceived as impartial must avoid any display of partisanship.

This statement expresses the views of the SPJ Ethics Committee. It was written for the committee by its vice chairman, Fred Brown, who covered state and national politics and government for nearly 40 years for The Denver Post.

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