January 28, 2020

What if your boss told you that you weren’t allowed to vote?

If you’re a journalist, it’s not unheard of for your manager to rule out this basic civic right. A core journalistic value is objectivity, and voting in a primary that involves publicly declaring yourself a D or an R compromises the public perception of a journalist’s neutrality.

Every four years the journalism profession has this argument. As primary season barrels toward us, these disagreements are heating up among journalists who advocate for participating, even if there is a public record of affiliation, and those who believe we should willingly sacrifice our right to vote in primaries for the sake of keeping our politics private.

Who’s standing on solid ground and who’s distorting the ethical reasoning? While many people have a knee-jerk reaction to this question of journalists voting in primaries, sorting through the layers of complexity takes time.

The big and small of it

There are two problems when it comes to journalists publicly declaring their political party affiliation via primary voting.

A small problem is that the political party affiliations of individual reporters will be revealed and a critic may expose a reporter’s political leanings. That might lead some audience members to doubt your commitment to balance. But remember, journalistic objectivity is about the process, not the person. If the reporter’s work is good, then the criticism will be muted.

The bigger problem is that the political leanings of an entire newsroom staff might be outed, exposing the failure of some (many) companies to recruit a politically diverse workforce. That is a big problem, particularly if you work in a newsroom where the staff’s political views diverge in a significant way from the population they serve.

Most of journalism’s focus on diversity is justifiably on race, ethnicity and gender, where newsrooms continue to struggle to reflect the makeup of the American population. We know even less about political diversity because it’s harder to measure. Unless, of course, journalists were widely voting in primaries and someone was pulling those voting records. In which case it would be very easy to measure.

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Defend the journalism, not the journalist

The same defense is available to a news organization that’s available to an individual journalist: If the process that creates the journalism is objective, then the criticism is unfounded. Still, it’s easier to defend an individual story than it is to defend an entire news product.

Judging from the shifting opinions I’ve encountered throughout my personal career, what I hear from my Twitter feed and my extensive conversations with journalists everywhere; those who favor journalists voting in primaries are more numerous and significantly louder than those who oppose. This evolution seems to be picking up speed. But it’s not without nuance. After I posed the question on Twitter last week: “Should journalists vote in primaries? Go.,” the initial response reflected the discussion journalists generally have. But after 24 hours the conversation devolved into indignation and snark. “Should food journalists eat? Go.”

At the same time, a handful of seasoned journalists reached out to me directly to express their dismay at the ability of some of my followers, many of them professional journalists themselves, to recognize the nuances of primary voting, something most journalists wrestle with from their first job onward. I know I did.

My journey as a voter in red and purple states

As a college intern in 1988, I was eager to participate in my first presidential election and dismayed to learn I couldn’t have a primary ballot because I dutifully registered as an independent in my home state of Ohio to avoid revealing any political bias. Ohio has since switched to an open primary, meaning any registered voter can request a ballot, making the primary more accessible to more citizens. But there’s a catch. In most open primary states, there is still a record of which ballot you pulled.

From Ohio, I moved to Idaho, where my editors explicitly forbade me from caucusing, because that is clearly a political act. Even back then, I didn’t fully accept that reasoning. While caucusing is clearly more public than primary voting, it’s still the same result: You’ve cast a vote to help a political party nominate a candidate for president. And the harm to a journalist who participates is potentially the same: her political leanings are revealed.

After I moved over the state line to Washington, I was again advised to avoid the presidential primary elections, where Democrats had one system and Republicans used another. And now that I live in Florida, the primary is once again out of reach, because my registration reads NPA (no party affiliation.) I’m not an independent because I’m afraid of making my politics public. I’m an independent because I’m exasperated with the two-party system.

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Journalism is political activism

My choice to be an independent is a political statement and it makes me more like the general population in America than joining either party. Gallup tells us that more Americans (44%) identify as independents than as either Democrats or Republicans (28% each). Yet the nominating process is reserved for the minority who affiliate with a party. American elections are indeed structured to preserve the two-party system.

The trend for both parties, but more profoundly Democrats, has been to move from a tightly controlled caucus system to closed or open state-run primary ballot. This year, 32 states are holding primaries for at least one party. (Government workers are equally wary of having their affiliations publicly available.)

No employer can prohibit an employee from voting — that’s illegal. But a news leader could restrict a journalist’s work to non-political topics if that journalist violated company policies that forbid public declarations of political views and affiliations. In most newsrooms, ethics policies instruct journalists to avoid giving money to political causes and candidates, to refrain from displaying signs in their yards or cars, and to steer clear of participating in political demonstrations.

Anyone who votes in a primary is required to reveal which party they’re supporting. In a closed primary, voters must declare themselves a member of the party — and have the information appear on the voter registration. In an open primary, election authorities maintain a public record of which ballot you requested. While your actual vote is secret, that ballot you pull is a public record.

I’ve never heard of a reporter taken off a story, let alone fired, for voting in a partisan primary. And my anecdotal sense is that not many bosses feel passionately attached to enforcing such a policy. It’s mostly an idle threat.

Getting down to it

Still, across U.S. newsrooms, some news executives are going to discourage journalists from participating in the primary election. Those who do are failing on three levels.

First, it’s a journalistic failure. A news leader who encourages her staff to avoid a primary is ignoring the difference between personal objectivity, which is impossible, and objectivity of the reporting process. This in turn accelerates the oversimplification of journalism values.

It’s also a weak, short-term fix to the long-term diversity problem that plagues the entire industry. As a profession, only a few commendable newsrooms make themselves publicly accountable for easily measured forms of diversity, like gender and race. I’ve never heard of a newsroom promising ideological diversity, although many editors agree that achieving it would improve the news product.

Finally, it’s a missed opportunity to be transparent. Instead of asking journalists to spurn their right to vote to hide their beliefs, wouldn’t it be better to invite the audience into a conversation about how the newsroom ensures fairness in political coverage?

By almost 3:1, Twitter was in favor of journalists voting in political primaries. Among the snark and hyperbole were many thoughtful responses. The Washington Post’s Madhulika Sikka wrote, “Yes of course, if they choose to exercise the hard fought right to vote that is denied to so many.”

Steve Thomma, a journalism professor at Dominican University wrote, “Political journalists wouldn’t be delegates at a convention picking a party nominee for office, so why participate in a partisan primary that does the same thing?”

Ohio columnist Connie Schultz wrote, “Women were imprisoned and tortured so that I could have the right to vote. Civil rights activists were beaten, and some were murdered, in their fight for black voters. I will not fail to vote to meet this artificial test of my ability to be fair.”

Some suggested avoiding closed primaries, but embracing open primaries. But the best suggestions involved embracing an intentional and multi-dimensional approach to good citizenship.

That’s the best way to frame the conversation. I’ve always bristled at ethics policies that tell journalists what not to do. What if the advice to journalists was framed as “Be a good citizen”? It could go on to read: “Make your community better. Volunteer. Donate to charitable causes. Be a kind and honest neighbor. Participate in civil dialogue about what you do and what you believe. Obey the law and above all, obey your conscience. Vote.”

Those instructions would propel journalists toward the ballot box or away from the ballot box during primary season with the same values that should guide all of our work. Creating journalism is a political act. Whether you vote in a primary or not should be a political choice, not a choice made to appease your boss.

Kelly McBride is Poynter’s senior vice president and the Chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership. She can be reached at kmcbride@poynter.org or on twitter @kellymcb. 

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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  • I’ve been a working journalist for nearly 40 years and gave up a lot for my career. But I always believed the right I would not give up was voting. I’ve lived in states with open primaries and closed primaries. I currently live in Connecticut and registered as an independent … until I went to vote in a primary. Now the ballot I pulled is public record. Many years ago, when I was a young reporter on a paper in suburban Chicago, I covered a newly elected, rather inexperienced Republican township board that really disliked our coverage. I also happened to live in the township, and didn’t realize how serious it all was until one of the officials went and looked up how I had voted in the most recent Illinois primary. I’d voted in the Democratic primary, which proves nothing about how I actually voted in the election. That got publicly tossed in my face and later, the township’s highway commissioner used to threaten (he said it was a joke) not to plow my street or pick up my garbage (never mind both were municipal functions, not township jobs where I lived). But it really did hit home to me just how on display my life was. And it has made me careful for the duration of my career. I currently work in sports, where this might not matter as much. I have opinions. My friends know that. Even my colleagues know. But the guy across the street from me, or the person in the car behind me, or the people who see my Twitter feed do not know my political leanings. And I work to keep it that way.

    • I want to thumbs up your comment, but I guess we can’t do that anymore. Your story is a sobering reminder that this not just theoretical debate.