October 25, 2004

As we enter the final week of election coverage, journalists might want to remember that while they watch the candidates, the public will be watching them. And what people see journalists saying, or doing, may affect how much credibility they attach to what journalists report.

Many journalists understand that their professional standards must remain above reproach. But what about what they do on their personal time? What impact might their personal activities have on their journalistic credibility?

That’s where the rub comes in.

Some journalists believe a great divide exists between the personal and professional. That what they do on their own time remains a private matter. That they should be able to exercise the same liberties any citizen would. After all, journalists, like the public, have subjective feelings and opinions. They exist in the world — not outside of it. And their personal orientation shouldn’t affect their professional reputation.

In fact, some might argue for more transparency. Let the public know what journalists believe, what political party they belong to, or what their political views are. That would allow the public to judge what they read, see, and hear in a fuller context. It also may not. Editors with different political leanings could be editing a reporter’s copy. So the report may then reflect multiple views.

Others worry that certain types of personal activity might send mixed messages to the public. Will the public consider off-duty involvements of some journalists as a guide to what their reporting biases may be? A number of journalists believe they may have to give up certain personal freedoms to ensure that their independence won’t be questioned.

But how much personal freedom must journalists surrender? That remains a controversial conversation in newsrooms. Evidence of those differences emerged recently when The St. Paul Pioneer Press suspended two of its reporters for attending a concertPioneer Press Editor Vicki Gowler addressed the controversy in a column Sunday.

Gowler had informed the staff that attending the “Vote for Change” concert could be seen as a conflict of interest because the proceeds go to Democratic candidates. The reporters who went disagreed. Their union said it would seek arbitration regarding the suspension.

Some news organizations have explicit restrictions or ethics codes that prescribe what journalists may or may not do. Others leave such decisions to the journalist’s individual discretion. With regard to the “Vote for Change” concert, Editor & Publisher reported that The Washington Post wouldn’t allow any of its reporters to attend, while the Cleveland Plain Dealer didn’t say its staff couldn’t attend.

The concert serves as just one example of the many different personal/professional decisions that journalists may face during this political campaign and ones to follow. At Poynter, our principles seek to guide journalists in how they might think about such issues. Part of our independence principle encourages journalists to “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise your integrity or damage your credibility.”

What does that mean? I believe it means we need to try to imagine what people would think if they witnessed us saying, or doing, something that would raise questions about how fair, impartial, and complete we can be in reporting the truth as fully as possible.

It may be helpful for journalists to put themselves in the place of their readers, listeners, viewers, or users and consider what their reaction might be if they saw themselves the way the public might.

 Imagine, for example, what someone might think:

  • If your car sported a bumper sticker with a candidate, or party, name?

  • If your yard displayed a political party sign?

  • If your spouse, partner, or other immediate family members campaigned for a candidate?

  • If they saw you at a political rally you weren’t covering for your news organization but had attended out of curiosity?

  • If you began partaking of the food and beverages provided at campaign headquarters?

  • If you clapped or showed other affirmative, or negative, expressions while a candidate was speaking?

  • If you made a financial campaign contribution to a particular candidate or cause?

  • If you were covering the campaign and you made your political party registration public, and informed people whom you planned to vote for?

  • If you informed the public of your personal opinions of the candidate, or the political parties?

These are just some of the situations that journalists could find themselves addressing. I’m sure the answers to the questions may vary from one journalist to another. 

The public’s perception of us will vary as well. In part, it will depend on how well the public understands what journalists do and how they do it.

It also depends on how well journalists explain who they are and what they do. Seeing themselves through the public’s eyes may help journalists realize how personal acts affect perceptions of their professional work.

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Aly Colón is the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Previously, Colón led…
Aly Colón

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