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Why shouldn't reporters vote?

Rick Sinnott
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I blame Mrs. Geary, my eighth-grade journalism teacher, for neglecting to teach me a reporter should never vote.

Of course, my classmates and I were only 12 or 13 years old. Mrs. Geary’s more immediate challenge was unraveling the mystery of journalism’s inverted pyramid and combing our submissions for the five W’s and an H. 

I never intended to be a reporter. At the beginning of the school year I told the school’s guidance counselor I wanted to be a trapper. Half a century later I find myself writing for an online news website. In the meantime, I have developed a bad habit. I’ve voted in every presidential election and nearly every local election since I turned 18.

Journalism Ethics 101

Imagine my surprise when I learned one of my colleagues doesn’t vote as a matter of principle. Craig Medred responded to several readers who commented on a recent article on Bob Bell, a candidate for state senate locked in a tight race with his rival. Addressing one particularly partisan post, which accused him of trying to influence the results of the election, Medred explained, “That’s why I don’t vote and don’t believe journalists should.”

In another post, Medred added, “There are plenty of psychological studies out there that underline that when someone picks a candidate, they lose their skepticism about that candidate’s behavior.”

Reporters like Medred don’t vote because they believe it might bias their writing or be perceived as bias by the public. Bias isn’t important if no one is listening. So the problem of bias is compounded by influence, and by influence I mean a large audience.

Because most journalists take their profession seriously, this is a perennial debate. It finds some journalists on either side of the fence -- and some straddling it. An insightful explanation for why reporters should never, always, or sometimes vote is here. Reporters and editors tend to see themselves as watchdogs or umpires. Everyone knows you can’t trust a watchdog that barks at some suspicious people but not others.  So it behooves the press to be as objective as possible when reporting the news. Overall, I think most reporters and editors do a pretty decent job.

But there is no such thing as absolute objectivity. I agree that journalists should never lose their skepticism about a particular candidate or government official. But to make believe reporters are simply conduits for information, with no opinion whatsoever, is just that – make-believe.  Whether one votes or not, everyone has opinions. And your opinions affect how and what you write. That’s why good reporters try to avoid, or at least minimize, bias.

Many still distrust news media

That strategy doesn’t appear to be convincing the masses.

The public, in a 2011 Gallup survey, rated the honesty and ethics of journalists only slightly higher than that of real estate agents and half as high as members of the clergy. Trust in the news media is declining. I suspect the public’s distrust of the media is exacerbated by three factors: bad journalists, unsophisticated readers, and the Internet.

Like any profession, journalism has some bad apples. Journalists who plagiarize, pander, or just plain make up a story are occasionally caught and suffer the consequences. Unfortunately, unethical behavior, dutifully reported by the news media, lowers the public’s opinion of all reporters.

Some news sources are unequivocally biased. For example, people who watched Fox News were less likely to know about current events than people who claimed to watch no news at all. Paradoxically, this hasn’t hurt that news organization’s popularity. For 10 years, according to the Washington Post, Fox News has been the nation’s most-watch cable news network, with about three times as many viewers as CNN.

And that’s because unsophisticated or naïve consumers of news are also to blame. Some people don’t understand the difference between reporters and columnists. Both are journalists, but reporters are expected to be objective while columnists are paid to have an opinion. For example, Paul Jenkins, who has worked as an Associated Press reporter and Anchorage Times editor, is now a columnist who often provokes liberals.  Similarly, fellow columnist Shannyn Moore regularly offers far more liberal views in print and on radio and television.

It’s unlikely that all of those responding to the Gallup survey, which randomly sampled adults by phone, actually read newspapers or watch the news on television. About two months before the national election more than a quarter of U.S. adults hadn’t read a newspaper – in print or online – in the previous 30 days.  In a poll conducted last summer, about the same proportion didn’t watch local television news and fewer watched specific national news sources on television. Where are they getting their news? Opinions of people whose primary source of news is the Internet, spouses, or their bowling team buddies may not be the best judges of bias in the news.

In fact, some of those who told the Gallup pollsters they didn’t trust the news media may not read very well at all. A national study on adult literacy concluded nearly half of Americans had limited reading skills, experiencing “considerable difficulty in performing tasks that required them to integrate or synthesize information from complex or lengthy texts.”

 The Internet has contributed to the public’s distrust of the media. Every point of view has a designer website where the news is biased for a target audience with similar views. Any news organization that tries to be objective or neutral looks awfully skewed if one’s favorite source of news hypes conspiracy theories and doomsday predictions.

Should reporters vote?

Medred differentiates between journalists and reporters. Earlier this year he wrote, “A fair number of ‘journalists’ today lack the intelligence of a chimp. I long ago abandoned the idea I’m one of them. I’m a reporter and a writer. I report and I write. I’m no journalist.” 

I’m not a journalist either. I’m a scientist and a writer. As a writer, I’m paid to express my opinion. But, like reporters, my training as a scientist demands that I be fair and accurate. I can’t write columns dripping with sarcasm, accusations, and name-calling.

Some journalists aren’t fair and accurate, and many readers aren’t competent judges of bias. Which brings me back to my no-longer-arcane question: Should reporters vote?

One way to frame an ethical question is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Reporters are not the only ones whose personal opinions might bias their choice of a candidate and who can influence a great number of people.  

People receive political advice from many sources: movie stars and other celebrities, corporate heads, teachers, elected officials, religious leaders, and news commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Jon Stewart. Are any of these influential sources less biased than the news media?

Why is it that, to preserve the illusion of complete objectivity, only reporters are expected to abstain from voting? If not voting helps one avoid bias, perhaps religious leaders shouldn’t vote. Elected officials and high-level bureaucrats have a lot of influence, and they’re often biased – you know, that Democrat/Republican thing. Maybe they shouldn’t vote either. If voting leads to bias and bias (or the perception of bias) results in a loss of credibility, then there are a lot of us who shouldn’t vote.

But that’s not very democratic is it? I respect Medred’s personal decision not to vote, but I believe everyone should vote. I will continue to vote. I’ll also strive to be fair and accurate. I wish more people would do the same.  

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at rickjsinnott(at)gmail.com