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American Journalism Review
Taking It to the Streets  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   July/August 1993

Taking It to the Streets   

What are the limits of activism for journalists?

By Kim I. Mills
Kim I. Mills is a Washington, D.C.-based wireservice reporter.     

To march or not to march. That was the dilemma facing the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association shortly before the national gay rights march in Washington last spring. Washington, D.C., chapter members wondered what the public perception would be if the organization marched under an NLGJA banner and, in effect, supported the goals of the march, which ranged from passage of a gay equal rights law to "restoration of the self-determination of all indigenous people of the world."

Although many of its members had taken part in gay pride marches over the years, the D.C. chapter voted against participating as a group. The matter was then addressed by NLGJA's national board and, after much discussion, the board voted 8-1, with one abstention, against marching. Juan Palomo, a columnist with the Houston Post, was the lone dissenter.

"It just seemed to me this was a knee-jerk reaction by the people who are overly concerned with something called 'journalistic integrity,' whatever that is," Palomo explains. "They spend so much time worrying about journalistic integrity that they forget how to live in the world."

The gay rights march and ensuing debate over whether journalists should participate has brought up, once again, the question of reporters and political involvement. Should there be limits on the activities, particularly those with political connotations, in which journalists may participate? Or should journalists, like most other people, be free to engage in virtually any kind of community activity?

Some news organizations have guidelines specifying how reporters, editors, photographers and other staff members ought to behave, both on and off the job. But some question whether it's enough to flatly prohibit certain activities – political, social or financial – that could create the appearance of a conflict of interest. And there also is the question of how management should react when it believes employees have crossed the line.

Palomo points out that NLGJA had no problem marching under its own banner at the June 1992 San Francisco gay parade, which coincided with the organization's first convention. "They tried to make the distinction that this [the Washington event] was a political march, and the other was a gay pride march," he says. "I don't really see the difference. To say you are proud to be gay or lesbian is a political statement. That is essentially what we were doing in Washington."

Leroy Aarons, president of the association and former executive editor of the Oakland Tribune, was surprised that there was a controversy. In the spring issue of the NLGJA newsletter, Aarons wrote that he had assumed that the association would march as an organization but that he agreed with the Washington chapter.

"I'm as passionate as Juan Palomo about the rightness of the Washington march, and am proud to be marching in it as an individual," he wrote. "But it is about politics and civil rights. It is designed to influence legislation. It takes strong advocacy positions on everything from civil rights law to pro-choice to sexism." Ultimately, Aarons wrote, NLGJA members "should cover the story (or influence its coverage), not be the story."

Whether the association had marched as a group or not, its members had to confront the question of participation. Many, including those at the Washington Post and Associated Press, were told not to march. News managers reasoned that participation could raise questions about their organization's ability to be fair in its coverage. Others, including those at the New York Times, USA Today and ABC News, followed their company's policies permitting staffers who were not covering the specific event or the general issue to march.

On the Front Lines

Although the issue of journalists' activism is of ongoing concern to news organizations, it becomes a more urgent problem when journalists get involved in highly visible social and political movements. Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, remembers the problem activism posed during the Vietnam War.

"I was national editor at the Washington Post during the big national anti-war demonstrations, and there was a rule that you couldn't cover those things if you took a leadership role," he recalls. "Marching in the crowd among thousands...was one thing. Being in the front line where you're going to be photographed, and then later writing a story about the issue, raises a question in the minds of people who don't agree with you – that you are working both sides of the street."

More recently, Linda Greenhouse, Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times, participated in a political event and created a small furor at her paper. In the spring of 1989, just when the court appeared poised to overturn or curtail Roe vs. Wade, Greenhouse marched in a national abortion rights demonstration in Washington.

"I certainly wasn't marching under a banner that said, 'New York Times Reporters For Choice,' " she says. "I was marching with three friends from my college class, anonymously, among 500,000 people. The way this came to light at all was in the guise of trying not to be a hypocrite... When I came back to the office the next day, I said, 'Hey guys, you all missed a great march.' "

The Times changed its policy to preclude such activities for those covering related issues, but Greenhouse was not disciplined and still covers the court. She says she believes such involvement does not necessarily compromise journalists. "If I were writing the rules, I wouldn't have a problem. But I'm not writing the rules."

Vicky Hendley, an education reporter at the Vero Beach Press-Journal in Florida in the late 1980s, took her pro-choice commitment a step further and wound up losing her job. In July 1989, Hendley sent letters protesting a Supreme Court ruling to state legislators and included a tiny coat hanger in each envelope. A reporter at the Pensacola News-Journal spotted one of the hangers on a legislator's desk and interviewed Hendley about it. The Press-Journal fired Hendley because she had violated the newspaper's written policy barring staffers from getting involved in political activity, Editor Richard Wagner says.

Hendley, now working at an education association in Washington, D.C., says she sent the letters with the knowledge and support of her editor and was forced to leave only after a pro-life group lobbied Wagner. Wagner acknowledges meeting with the group, but says it had nothing to do with Hendley's firing. "It was a conflict of interest," he says. "It's written in our news manual."

Varying Guidelines

There is little agreement among those who study, teach and promote newsroom ethics about what types of outside activities and activism call into question a reporter's appearance of fairness – and, by extension, that of his or her news organization. A May 1991 survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) of 240 members found that 21 percent of respondents had no restrictions on community involvement by staff, including memberships, directorships and officer positions. Seventy-six percent said they had some restrictions, which applied to everyone including senior editors. Three percent said the restrictions applied to everyone except senior editors.

The same survey found that 62 percent of respondents encouraged community involvement by newsroom employees. Fifteen percent said they mainly encourage participation by senior editors.

Guidelines obtained from nine news organizations vary widely. Some are quite general, stating merely that journalists should avoid any conflict of interest or the appearance of one. Others address specific types of activities, such as whether newsroom employees can be officers in their churches or what steps should be taken if their spouses are prominently involved in the community or in politics.

Most guidelines preclude journalists from running for office, working for candidates or handling publicity or public relations for any political or community organization.

Stephen Isaacs, an ethics professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, says that's the way it should be. He takes this proscription so seriously that he says he doesn't even cheer at basketball or baseball games.

"In the journalism in which I am steeped – ethically, that is – one doesn't do that [get involved in politics]," he says. "The policy of the Washington Post, for instance, is the appropriate policy. It says, 'You always are the newspaper, whether you are covering that story or that beat or not.' "

Isaacs, who is a member of ASNE's ethics committee, says the public does not distinguish between a reporter who covers the Supreme Court and one who covers sports, so all reporters should refrain from political activism. "They represent the newspaper, and the newspaper, which is trying to maintain its credibility by bending over backwards to be fair, presumes that if journalists gain a lot of power by their position on their newspaper, they therefore yield certain other powers."

Art Nauman, ombudsman at the Sacramento Bee, is also a hard-liner on the subject. "I think when you become a journalist, you give up some of the rights and privileges that other citizens enjoy," he says. "I would look askance at journalists' participation at practically any level of public activity. God knows, we have trouble enough with our image as it is without making it worse by these blurring of the lines...."

But Linda Grist Cunningham, executive editor of the Rockford Register Star in Illinois and also a member of the ASNE ethics committee, says it's this lack of community involvement that has driven readers away.

"I do feel that that intense isolation which said, 'We're observers only,' hurt newspapers because we got real out of touch with the people for whom we were writing and about whom we were writing," she says. "We had superficial knowledge of things."

Cunningham says she welcomes community involvement by her staff and draws the line at running for office. "We encourage them to be members of the PTA, to coach Little League, to work within community coalition groups, to tutor in the schools," she says. "We're real people, we have interests and we have a need, just like any other citizen, to be involved in our communities and the life around us."

Kay Fanning, a former editor of the Christian Science Monitor who now teaches journalism ethics at Boston University, agrees that some community involvement is positive. "Journalists cannot be isolated from the communities in which they write and operate..," she says. "I guess the test I would apply is whether the journalist and/or the journalism organization is participating to further the good of the community as a whole or whether it is simply self promotion."

Fanning acknowledges she can't draw a clear line, but if she had to devise a test for determining what kinds of political activities are inappropriate for journalists, it would be based on how controversial the issue was at the moment: "In cases where it is a particularly explosive, up-front news issue, it is better judgment not to do it." Currently, she says, gay rights and abortion marches would fall into that category.

Sidmel Estes-Sumpter, planning manager at WAGA-TV in Atlanta and president of the National Association of Black Journalists, also believes journalists should be involved in their communities. "But they should be aware that once they are involved," she says, "they could be criticized later on."

She says her station won't let a reporter work on a story in which he or she has a personal stake. "We have, for example, an investigative reporter here at Channel 5 who sits on the board of a battered women's shelter," she explains. "Every time a story comes up involving that shelter or battered women, he is not put on that story."

Estes-Sumpter adds that her association is not worried about black journalists participating in the celebration of the 30th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic march on Washington. "I probably would not equate the [celebration in August] with the gay and lesbian civil rights march on Washington," she says. "It's more of a tradition, a commemoration of [a march that] at one time had a legislative agenda."

Less Detached

Cunningham and Isaacs say the guidelines for outside activities have shifted, particularly in the last decade, from the traditional view that a journalist is supposed to be a detached observer of society and not a participant. But they have different theories to explain what is causing the change.

"The people who are in journalism today, and certainly those in management positions and experienced reporters, are all products of the 1960s, where involvement and helping to make the world a better place was a big part of who we were and who we are," Cunningham says. "I don't think we ever forgot those ideals, and just because we're journalists doesn't mean we gave up the desire to make the world better."

Conversely, Isaacs says younger staffers are the reason. "A lot of the reporters [who] are coming in, more than half are either minorities or women, and many of them come with a cause, which is the righting of decades, centuries, whatever, of wrong," he says. "It is hard for them to suppress their advocacy, so they insist on being able to march in civil rights marches or anti-abortion marches or whatever. And that may have changed the face of journalism."

Richard Harwood, a Washington Post columnist and former ombudsman at the paper, says blacks, Asians, Hispanics and other minorities working in journalism "are struggling among themselves for the content of the papers, in many cases to promote their own agendas." As to whether journalists should participate in civic activities, he says "it depends on what journalists want to be or how they want to be perceived."

"I don't think you give up civic rights, you simply don't use them," he adds. "Federal employees give up the right to participate in politics, priests give up the right to practice sex, presumably, military people give up all kinds of rights."

Deni Elliott, a professor of ethics and public affairs at the University of Montana, doesn't agree that journalism would be better served by newsroom staffers who are more involved in their community or social and political issues.

"Journalists have the most consistent and visible forum for communicating their views of literally anyone in society," she says. "I think it muddies the water for those same people to take a visible part in political activism.

"I think that marching in a pro-choice demonstration, marching in an anti-abortion demonstration, marching in a gay rights demonstration.., no matter how pure the heart of the reporter involved.., raises suspicion of the news organization."

Elliott says journalists are by profession activists. Through their work, they frame and influence public debate, and therefore they should use their public voices only within the context of their professional duties.

Kay Fanning says it's impossible to replace good judgment with a rigid code of conduct. "People have to be able to use their intelligence," she says. "Certainly, there are some lines. You don't take valuable presents. Free trips. And yet there are some occasions... I remember when I was at the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska and the only way to get access to the building of the Alaska pipeline was to go with the oil company."

Fanning, who was then editor and publisher of the paper, says the Daily News accepted the plane rides and never paid the company back because "we would have gone out of business." And she says accepting the rides did not influence the paper's coverage: "We were considered the environmental newspaper so we wrote many highly critical articles about the oil companies and their operations. Clearly, accepting trips didn't stop us from being critical."

A few journalists have taken the conflict-of-interest issue to what some would consider extremes. For example, Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of the Washington Post, is well known for refusing to vote. And while he has not asked his staff to refrain from casting ballots, the Post's policy prohibits reporters from engaging in any partisan causes, including "community affairs" and "social action."

Isaacs says he views Downie's position as logical, particularly since the Post covers the most political city in the country: "He doesn't even have an emotional investment in who wins or loses."

But Elliott says giving up the vote is "taking it a little too far," even for political beat reporters, "assuming that you're not telling people who you're voting for [and] assuming that you're able to put your personal beliefs aside well enough to cover your candidate."

Elliott would give reporters what she calls one moral conflict of interest – one issue that, for personal reasons, they would not cover. "I'm not saying that every cause that one feels strongly about, one ought not to report about," she explains. "That's where professional values come in. You learn to put your personal feelings aside because you know what it means to tell a good news story."

Then what about the trend in newsrooms to put minority staffers on the civil rights or urban affairs beats, or put gay reporters on the gay beat?

"That's an area where I would like to see some mentorship," Elliott says. On the urban affairs beat, for example, she suggested "a team that involves a black reporter who is thought to have a particular sensitivity and a white reporter who's being sensitized."

"Wandering in the Desert"

In the end, decisions on how to handle potential conflicts of interest may come down to a compromise between a reporter and his or her manager. Reporters tend to think that they can be fair even if they are participants because they are trained in getting both sides of a story. Managers may agree, but they are ultimately responsible for dealing with public perception.

Certainly every reporter brings some kind of bias to a story, and that bias may appear to be a conflict. Should a devout Roman Catholic be permitted to cover the Supreme Court, given that the Vatican does not condone abortion? Should a Newspaper Guild member be allowed to cover labor? What about a non-member who embraces a "right to work" viewpoint? Would that indicate an anti-union bias? Should education writers be exempted from belonging to their children's PTAs? The questions begin to verge on absurdity.

Gabriel Rotello, an openly gay columnist for New York Newsday, says, "There's a certain hypocrisy in trying to have the public think that just because a reporter doesn't march, he or she is somehow more objective than somebody who does march."

New York Times reporter Greenhouse insists that the test of a journalist's fairness is in his or her reporting, political activities notwithstanding. "You have to say, 'We're judging people by their work, not their thoughts,' " she says.

Columbia's Isaacs is conducting a survey for ASNE to find out where newspapers are headed on this issue. "It's going to take awhile but we're going to wrestle with these things," he says. "We're wandering around in the desert. Are there new rules? I don't know the answer to that." l



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