October 24, 2016

A pair of stories broke last week that invoke a familiar question during election season: Should journalists put their personal political views on display?

On Wednesday, Facebook announced a new feature that allows users to publicly support any candidate for elected office. The endorsement can be shared publicly or privately depending on the user’s preference, and candidates can feature public endorsements on their pages.

Also last week, the Center for Public Integrity reported that journalists who made donations this presidential election did so overwhelmingly to Hillary Clinton — a total of 96 percent of $396,000. The story was fodder for critics on the right who leveled accusations of bias against the media and asked whether it’s prudent for journalists to publicly support candidates.

The clamoring over favoritism is only going to grow louder as Election Day approaches, so I caught up with Kelly McBride, Poynter’s ethicist and vice president, to ask how journalists should handle themselves in the run-up to Nov. 8.

If you’re a journalist, should you use that tool? Does it matter if your profile is public or private?

It does not matter if your profile is public or private. Facebook is your front yard, not your backyard. For most journalists, you should not use that tool. Most journalists work in a newsroom where there is an expectation where they will keep their political leanings private so that the newsroom itself can have credibility among a wide variety of political perspectives in the audience.

So even though I suspect it’s likely that there are very few journalists who think Donald Trump would be a very good candidate for the presidency, you still have to cover the next election. So I don’t think you want journalists to be revealing their political leanings this time around even though it’s probably obvious because it’s such a weird race. We have to anticipate a time when the race is going to be more closely contested and when both candidates will be fit for office.

What about this idea of journalists contributing to political campaigns?

This happens every time around. Four years ago, there were a bunch of journalists who were revealed to have contributed to campaigns, too. It’s the same principle, right? You really shouldn’t do it because it’s a public expression of your political leanings. And if you work for a newsroom that strives to have a neutral editorial position, you’re undermining your newsroom. So it’s really about loyalty to your newsroom as much as it’s about loyalty to an ideal.

Now, there are some newsrooms that don’t strive for that political neutrality, like the Huffington Post. And in those cases, I think all bets are off. I think that journalists who work for those newsrooms have a different set of expectations. The challenge is, journalists move around a lot from newsroom to newsroom. So even if you are working for a newsroom that is perfectly fine with you sharing your political views, your next newsroom may not be. And it’s hard to take things back once they’re out in the open.

What about transparency? There are many who say that journalists being open about their political leanings are actually being more honest with their audiences than journalists who maintain public neutrality.

There’s a conflict between transparency and loyalty to your newsroom’s business model. And if your newsroom has chosen a business model that favors neutrality, then transparency can undermine that. So I’m not saying that transparency isn’t good for the audience, because I think it is and I argued that in a book. But there’s a direct conflict between the value of transparency and the value of neutrality in journalism when it comes to the very specific application of how journalists are voting or who they’re supporting.

And as long as the guy signing your checks wants neutrality, you have an obligation to abide by that.

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