It's okay to be partisan, and a few new principles of journalism ethics

President Obama earlier this month refreshed attention to the way that some journalists twist the news by creating false equivalencies in their stories, in an effort to appear “fair” and “objective” as reporters.

“There’s oftentimes the impulse to suggest that, if the two parties are disagreeing, they’re equally at fault and the truth lies somewhere in the middle,” Obama told the Associated Press.

The attack picked up momentum when an AP reporter did just that in his coverage of the speech, falsely accusing the president of moving to the left on health care as Republicans moved to the right. Talking Points Memo and The Atlantic both called the AP on it, though the AP story has now been changed – without acknowledgement – to remove the paragraph in question.

The reticence to take sides in reporting news runs strongly throughout journalism. But when that reticence mutates into a need to change the facts to fit a preferred, nonpartisan, view of the news (called by Jay Rosen “the view from nowhere“), reporters have, in fact, succumbed to bias.

I blame “the view from nowhere” as much as anything else for the collapse of the news business. People who want truth from their news are journalism’s strongest potential customers, but we drive them away when we favor a nonpartisan ideal over the reality of what’s happening in public policy. So let’s set aside this reticence to take sides in favor of some new principles of journalism ethics:

There is no mathematical formula for the truth

I despise the meme that journalists are no good at math. But on the political beat, too many journalists appear too eager to apply a math formula to the news: Take a quote from one party, a quote from the other party, then assign them equal value in the story. Let the reader assume that the truth lies somewhere in between.

For the math geeks among us: A = B, and the Truth = (A + B)/2

That’s not journalism. It’s stenography. And the world doesn’t us to do that anymore.

Journalism doesn’t offer a procedural formula for the truth, either

The journalism convention of reporting of reporting multiple viewpoints can just obscure the truth if you don’t find a way to show your readers which points of view are supported by evidence, and which are not. To find a better method at determining truth, student journalists would do well to get themselves into laboratory science classes, so they can learn what words such as “research” and “objectivity” really mean.

The world’s grown too complex for uninformed, uneducated general assignment reporters to parachute into an issue and be able to distinguish truth from spin, and facts from lies in their reporting. Yet an industry drive for cheap labor has encouraged newsrooms to import entry-level reporters from outside the community, while a misguided view of “objectivity” also has lead editors routinely to assign reporters to beats where they have no professional education, experience, or connections. Both practices are killing newsrooms’ ability to bring needed expertise to their reporting.

We need to find better ways to gather and analyze information.

Journalists’ obligation is to serve our readers, not our employers, our investors or even our profession

So how do we develop a formula for finding and reporting the truth? We’ll have to start by refocusing on whom we should have been serving all along – our readers. We get in trouble as an industry when we stiff our readers in favor of protecting newsroom organizational charts, short-term profit expectations, or even long-standing industry conventions that were created during a different era of communication. Whatever methods we settle on in the future will need to be focused on the readers’ needs for truth information that’s relevant to their lives, instead of the needs of other parties.

Which leads me to my final new standard for journalism ethics:

It’s okay to be partisan

There should be no sin in taking sides in a news story – so long as the facts support that side. The problem with partisanship in news reporting is not the partisanship itself, it’s when newsrooms (such as Fox News) allow partisanship to drive their selection of stories and viewpoints to include in those stories. But there should be no problem with reporting leading a journalist (or her or his readers) to a partisan conclusion.

If the facts point to a definitive, partisan conclusion, we actually cheat our readers when we stop short of taking them there. We should value our readers’ time and attention. Let’s not waste their time with half a story when we have the full thing.

No, the facts don’t always lead to a partisan conclusion in news stories. And even if they might, we don’t always have the all those facts nailed down when it’s time to report on a speech, a bill, or even an election.

But when we do have the facts, and they point a specific way, we shouldn’t be afraid to go there. When journalists twist their reporting to avoid the appearance of partisanship, as the AP did initially on the Obama speech, we’re as guilty of twisting the news as the hacks at Fox News are.

Our readers deserve better.

Government reporters ought to explain their opinions, not hide them

Last week, a bunch of journalists in Wisconsin got in trouble with their papers for signing the petition to recall the state’s governor, Scott Walker.

And the news industry blew yet another chance to build some rewarding connections with their readers. Instead, publishers reacted as if news industry employees participating in a political movement was some evil affront to the Sanctity of Journalism.

Green Bay Press-Gazette publisher Kevin Corrado wrote “we now are in the process of taking disciplinary measures and reviewing supplemental ethics training for all news employees.” (BTW, hat tip to Jim Romenesko, for noticing that Corrado’s statement matched those from several other Wisconsin publishers. Perhaps they all came from the same corporate PR advisor?)

None of the employees at Corrado’s paper covered politics, or edited anyone who did. But even if they did cover Walker, I think those employees should have been allowed to sign the petition if they desired, under one condition.

That they write about it.

It’s past time for news publishers to let go of the fear that if any of their employees do anything political, even on their own time, that action might make readers think badly about the publication. At this point, having readers think anything about a newspaper would mark a step forward.

The Walker recall is engaging hundreds of thousands of people in Wisconsin, both for and against removing the state’s union-busting governor. Why shy away from that when you had the opportunity to have staffers illustrate the decision that so many Wisconsin residents have been making? Tell staffers that they can do whatever they want in the political arena, but if they’re on a government or politics beat, they have to explain their actions to their readers.

Having a political opinion isn’t a journalism sin. But hiding one ought to be. Having been on the “other side,” as a source for news stories, little frustrates me more than working with a reporter I know to have personal relationships and opinions that I see are influencing his or her work, but who never discloses those biases to readers.

Let’s stop selling the con that new reporters have no opinions, thoughts, relationships or engagements that influence their work. Let’s get those out in the open when they do affect our work, and use those disclosures as an invitation to better connect with the communities we cover.

Frankly, I don’t care whether someone covering the Milwaukee Bucks, for example, thinks Scott Walker should stay in office or not. Nor do I suspect many other readers care, either. But if someone covering the statehouse has an opinion on Walker’s future, that is worth discussing. At this stage, even if a statehouse reporter doesn’t have an opinion on the Walker recall, I think that’s newsworthy, too.

The transformation of the news business over the past 20 years has been a transition from local monopolies that served as gatekeepers of information that could not practically be broadly delivered to the public in any other way, to a diversified information market, where people are seeking expertise, insight, entertainment and community.

Reporters ought to be the the most informed and insightful experts in that information market. If the information they’ve collected in their reporting leads them to think a certain way – such as wanting to sign a recall petition – they ought to be telling their readers about that, instead of hiding their conclusions. Let ’em sign, then explain why.

And if a reporter decides that their information doesn’t to compel them to act or think a certain way, well, it’s fine to share that conclusion, too. A few weeks ago, I emailed several hyperlocal online publishers, and every one of them said they wouldn’t be endorsing candidates in their publication, for a variety of well-considered reasons.

But a blanket ban on political activity – especially for employees who don’t cover politics – just isolates reporters and editors from their community. Politics is a way that communities make decisions about their future. Journalists ought to be engaged in that process if they choose, as well-informed reporters leading a community discussion. If their reporting compels them to take a stand, let them explain that decision and engage the community in a discussion about it.

Let the job of the editor and publisher be to keep watch on their employees to ensure that it is their reporting that is leading those employees’ positions, and not the other way around. If that were to be the case, I’d fully support a publisher taking action against an employee.

But blanket bans such as this one aren’t that. Let’s quit pretending that we’re publishing for yesterday’s news market. Publishers ought to be encouraging their employees to get more personally engaged in their local communities, not slapping their hands – or worse – when they do.

Is your start-up news website legal?

Is your start-up news website legal?

That might seem like an absurd question, especially for readers in the United States, where the First Amendment protects the freedom of the press. How can a news website be illegal?

Well, while the First Amendment protects freedom of the press, plenty of other federal, state and local legislation regulates the conduct of business. And the First Amendment doesn’t give news publishers a free pass to ignore that. So you’d better be paying taxes on your business income. And abiding by legal hiring and employment practices if you’re bringing on help.

“No sweat,” I can hear some of you saying to yourselves. “I pay my state and federal income taxes and work by myself at home. I don’t need to worry about employment law or all that other stuff.”

Ah, you work at home, you say? Then you might not be running a legal business after all.

Have you checked your local zoning code to see what it says about running a business out of your home? You might surprised by what you learn. Even if all you do in running your business is to type on your home computer, the fact that you’re earning income that’s not coming from an employer is enough in some jurisdictions to cover you under local home-business zoning and tax rules.

Every few years, the City of Pasadena (California) sends me a letter asking me to pay up for a city business license and tax. The same letter goes to everyone with a Pasadena mailing address who reported Schedule C income on his or her federal tax return who hasn’t obtained a license yet. (Schedule C is the form through which you report all 1099 or miscellaneous income. It’s the form that home business owners who do not incorporate use to report their business income.)

Pasadena’s hardly alone. New York City, for example, levies a unincorporated business tax that hits many freelance writers and website publishers. The City of Los Angeles also hits freelancers and writers (among others) with a city business tax, but exempts the first $100,000 in income. Fail to pay these local taxes and license fees, and you’re running an illegal business.

Now, even through the U.S. postal service assigns me a Pasadena mailing address, I actually live in unincorporated Los Angeles County. So whenever I get that letter, I just reply with a written note that I live outside the city limits, and they leave me alone. But I always wonder how many less-informed LA County residents don’t realize that, and send in the money anyway. It must be enough to make it worth the city’s postage costs in sending out those extra letters.

But even in unincorporated LA County, I’m subject to residential zoning code addressing home-based businesses. (Writing and publishing don’t fall on the long list of home businesses required to obtain an LA County business license, so that’s not an issue for me.) Now, before I go any further, let me acknowledge that busting writers making money on work they’re creating at home is pretty far down the priority list for most communities. Getting money from unpaid taxes is one thing, but zoning enforcement’s rarely an issue for home businesses that don’t generate excess noise, garbage or foot or vehicle traffic.

That said, if you’re writing stuff that might, uh, tick off the powers-that-be in your community, it’s just smart business to make sure that you’re not breaking any rules a vindictive local official might use against you.

So take a look at your local residential zoning code. Here are a few interesting things I discovered about unincorporated Los Angeles County:

  • “Retail sales” are prohibited for a home business. So if you print up website T-shirts, you can’t legally sell them to a reader who comes to your home. (Storing retail stock in your home for mail-order delivery is illegal in some jurisdictions, so be on the lookout for that, too. LA County’s rules say “No stock in trade, inventory or display of goods or materials shall be kept or maintained on the premises, except for incidental storage kept entirely within the dwelling unit.”)
  • “The home-based occupation shall not be conducted in any attached or unattached structure intended for the parking of automobiles.” So no working out of the garage. Sorry, would-be Hewlitts and Packards.
  • Prohibited uses in a home business include: “Recording/motion picture/video production studio, except for editing or pre-recorded material”. So much for video blogging for your site from your home-office desk. Or Skyping into a conference or classroom. Perhaps this one made sense in the era of bulky, power-hogging cameras and lighting, but now, here’s a classic example of a law written for pre-Internet technology. But it’s still on the books here.
  • “There shall be only one home-based occupation per dwelling unit.” Now this is one that got my attention. IANAL, but I’d be interested to learn the prevailing local definition of “occupation.” Is publishing an eBook a different “occupation” that writing for a website, or selling ads for that site? (If so, I am so busted.)
  • The safest thing to do as a publisher is to rent yourself some office space in a legally-zoned commercial office building. That also can help make your emerging business look more legitimate in the eyes of potential customers and clients. But if the numbers don’t work for you paying that extra rent each month, don’t forget to give your local residential zoning code a look before you get too far down the road with your publishing business.

    Because even if all you’re doing is writing, you don’t want a local commissioner you’ve just busted in an exclusive expose using that zoning code to bust you in retaliation.

    Cover yourselves.

    P.S. And LA County? Please, let’s revisit that whole no “video production” thing soon, please?