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.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at