January 31, 2017

On Sunday, Robert Hernandez went on Twitter to share his thoughts as “a Catholic who believes in equal/human rights, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation.” He explained that President Trump’s executive order indefinitely blocking Syrian refugees from entering the United States and suspending immigration from several predominantly Muslim countries conflicted with his own religious beliefs.

Hernandez, a journalism professor at USC Annenberg, followed up with a question: “As [a] journalist, this has been a tough time. Do I watch and report or do I participate?”

His tweets came at the end of a week in which multiple nationwide demonstrations took place. In just nine days, millions of marchers took to the streets to support women’s rights, protest Trump’s Mexico border wall, rally against abortion, gather for abortion rights, and challenge the refugee ban.

Amid this protesting, journalists like Hernandez find themselves struggling to figure out where they fit in.

The longstanding guidance for journalists on demonstrations has been fairly straightforward: Don’t participate in marches, protests or rallies relating to topics your newsroom might cover. But, as NPR details in its code of ethics, the advice is more nuanced than that:

“There is real journalistic value in being an observer at public events such as a march or rally, even without a reporting assignment. But while we may observe, we refrain from actively participating in marches, rallies or public events involving political issues or partisan causes that our organization covers or may cover. Of course, the distinction between being a participant and being an observer can be subtle. But waving a picket sign or joining along in a cheer would be inappropriate. Again, we rely on your good judgment.”

As with many codes of ethics, NPR suggests a case-by-case basis: “Since the nature of each event differs, it’s wise to discuss these matters ahead of time with supervisors to figure out where ethical pressure points may exist or emerge. If attending such an event as an observer, take care in behavior, comments, attire and physical location not to reflect a participatory role.”

NPR is more straightforward with its social media guidance. Journalists are advised to “refrain from advocating for political or other polarizing issues online” and directed not to “express personal views on a political or other controversial issue that you could not write for the air or post on NPR.org.” That guidance, which is similar across many news organizations, can be challenging given the never-ending political conversation on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

But what about journalists who don’t work at NPR? While some newsrooms have offered guidance related to events such as the Women’s March, the frequency and volume of demonstrations and political discussion require deeper action. It’s incumbent on U.S. news organizations to take a fresh look at their codes of ethics and provide clear and updated guidance to their journalists.

The responsibility lies with managers, too. Bosses should communicate guidance to their teams and provide opportunities for their employees to share their concerns, no matter their political or religious beliefs.

Consider a Muslim journalist whose family may be impacted by the ban — can she join the airport demonstrations? Does newsroom guidance apply to the reporters who cover women’s issues or immigration? Is it political to say that climate change exists? And what about the Trump voter who wants to correct the misconception that all journalists are liberal?

Questions like these require open and honest discussion with higher-ups. Now more than ever, journalists need a safe, neutral space to talk through what’s happening, and a newsroom office is a better venue than social media.

Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all guidance for political participation. What makes sense for Washington Post staffers may be different than for people who work at Vox Media. For newsrooms with unclear or outdated guidance, reporters can play to their strengths and ask questions about what is and isn’t allowed. It’s the duty of leadership to provide direction, especially in such a fast-paced and demanding news cycle, and staffers should demand it.

The deeper problem, as Hernandez articulated, is that many journalists feel like they’re not contributing to the current political dialogue. They worry that sitting out demonstrations or staying silent on social media may signal compliance or complacency. In a “pics or it didn’t happen” culture, what can journalists show?

As 1A host Joshua Johnson offered to Hernandez, “Reporting is participation — incisive and meaningful.” Focusing on the facts, accurately reflecting citizens’ views and holding elected officials accountable are all core tenets of journalism and directly contribute to democracy.

Andrew M. Seaman, ethics committee chair for the Society of Professional Journalists, echoed those thoughts on Twitter the following day. “Journalists, I know some of you may want to protest, but you’re much more useful producing great journalism,” he wrote.

And those who don’t report on politics (though that distinction might be murky) or work outside editorial can always support stressed-out colleagues, build tools to better inform readers, push for internal and external transparency, voice concerns and so on. No matter the position, everyone in journalism has the potential to play a vital role in democracy right now.

“Journalists are inside the action,” Johnson added. “Let’s not miss our chance to do good.”

Correction: A previous version of this story miscounted the marchers who have turned out in support of various causes over the last two weeks. They number in the millions, not the hundreds of thousands.

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Katie Hawkins-Gaar was Poynter's digital innovation faculty member. She ran the Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media and was one half of the duo…
Katie Hawkins-Gaar

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