Friday, June 09, 2006

Is Full Disclosure of a Journalist's Politics or Religion Really Transparency??

Update:Katherine Stump of the San Antonio Current writes on the thorny issue of journalists participating in politics even as voters. Apparently, reporters at the San Antonio Express-News "and at most other major Texas daily newspapers, were instructed not to sign any Independent candidate’s petition." Kathereine has a lot more to say about how ethics plays out in this (the NYTimes--arbiter of journalistic ethics says that"journalists have no place on the playing fields of politics.") so take a moment to read it Will they have more leeway on those playing fields if they fully disclose their affiliations before they are hired? Or will a paper use it against a journalist--as it can be used against any employee--and not hire that person? Bob Jensen, a UT journo prof thinks reporters should be able to participate and to write "more openly" about politics. Writing more openly would be a sincere move towards transparency. yet, as I say below, are newspapers willing to allow their reporters to write with their hearts and minds on their sleeves? That might be the first question to ask.

According to Mike Needs, Public Editor at the Akron Beacon Journal, reporters should disclose more to the public than an employer has the right to ask an employee during an interview:
Political and religious affiliations, education background, media experience, active membership in organizations, and any involvement in causes or campaigns that could have any influence on a journalist's news judgment.

Not only that, I'd do the same for any editor involved in news decisions.

Needs says that revealing this information would be an exercise in "transparency." I'm not so sure...

Yet I'm wondering *when* would a journalist first be reqired to expose this information about him/herself? Obviously, in a job interview, media experience, memberships, and education background would be part and parcle of the process. And that's fine for the public to know, too.

But religious affiliation? and political affiliation? Might as well go as far as to have a journalist expose his/her sexual orientation, marital, and familial status....because, after all, those things also show how a reporter is capable of covering events that have to deal with certain politically-charged topics. Of course, if a reporter is gay, he/she can't possibly fairly cover a story on gay marriage, and certainly can't write anything about family life...and neither can that young single person who's got no kids...

If a journalist, or anyone, is compelled to reveal this kind of information during an interview, the employer can then discriminate against the potential employee if he/she reveals or conceals the information. There is great potential for abuse--a newsroom could easily be stocked with reporters who are all of a similar religious affiliation or political affiliation.

The public isn't necessarily going to get up in arms if the newsroom is stocked with squeaky-clean Protestant family men, is it?? It may though if there are a few Wiccans or a liberal Jew or some Pope-worshipping Catholics. How about single moms? Sure,they can write all kinds of stuff about family life--but maybe not so much about politics....

The public does, indeed, make value judgements on how a person lives his/her life if presented with that life, in one fell swoop, in a static bio...and might not even get to know if the person is a good writer. Think about it...

Needs claims that "it's folly to believe that journalists aren't involved in their community and don't have direct connections with such things as churches and clubs. They do. Full disclosure only reveals things that many people already know and most assume." So, then what difference does it make to have bios that list what he suggests--other than perhaps make that person a target for hatemail or other forms of harassment on religious or political grounds when someone doesn't like what that the journalist has written.

Needs goes on to say that it's "smart business" for papers to print complete bios because it "humanizes" the newsroom: You read news articles, but you remember the work of columnists. Why? Because they have an identity and you connect with them on an emotional level.

There are other reasons why people remember columnists over beat reporters. Some of that has to do with the basic content of their articles--not what we know about their political or religious affiliations.

Futher, columnists have been given the priviledge of exposure. Something I have noticed over time is how people who are wealthy, or have worked their way up a bit on the economic food chain, often have the priviledge to reveal very personal information about their lives without consequence to their employment. That, however, is not the case for the most. It is, then, quite unfair to make the comparison between a columnist and a journalist who hasn't earned the priviledge to write a column...

Also, columnists have the priviledge of interaction with the public on a personal level. Many columnists don't start out being able to spill their guts or write about their neighbors in a column. They have earned their positions through their beat reporting. They are done, for whatever reason, with standard reporting, no longer need to hide, and therefore no longer need to withhold their opinions. They can also interact with the public in a more personal manner than the beat reporter. Needs gives the example of Terry Pluto, you know about his prison ministry, his dad's battle with the effects of a major stroke, and a considerable amount of other personal information. A few of you may discount what he writes because of that. But far, far more of you appreciate knowing about him, and, if anything, it enhances his credibility.

Yes, but are newspapers willing to allow every journalist to be a columnist? Are they willing to allow self-expression and are they willing to be more accepting of the varied and fascinating personal lives of some, as much as they might the normal or boringly bourgeious lives of others? If they're willing to consider whole persons, then they might as well hire bloggers and pay them a decent rate :-)

But,seriously...what Terry Pluto is able to reveal is more than what a static 4-line bio accompanying an article might reveal. And Pluto has revealed that information over time. He has built a relationship with readers by revealing things, a little at a time, about himself in his writing. This is very, very different than the reporter who is sent out to cover a story and then has a bio attached to it somewhere. The reporter in that case is still very static because his/her writing is static. Unless newsrooms are willing to let reporters openly invest a bit of opinion in their work, then a detailed bio isn't going to necessarily change how we feel about a reporter--it might, though, cause us to make judgements about them.

I agree with Needs when he says that "Openness fosters integrity. Secrecy kills." But unless he's willing to guarantee that journalists will not be jeopardized for their revelations, then he shouldn't ask for it...

And the openness Needs asks for may not be transparency either. Transparency is not compelled. Transparency isn't static either. It is something that comes out, in time, in one's writing, not in a plastered-up bio and somebody demanded. Anyone who has some familiarity how the blogosphere works, and knows a few good anonymous bloggers, knows that transparency and integrity come from the blogger's writing as much as it might from the "about me" page.

So while I can, in some way, respect Needs' positon as an editor, I certainly challenge his understanding of transparency, as much as I challenge the corporate newsroom's ability to be fair in its hiring practices if full disclosure of certain personal information is demanded from journalists. Are corporate newsrooms ready for an army of columnists wearing their hearts and minds on their sleeves?? Maybe--if it will boost profits. But out of concern for newsroom integrity? I'm not so sure.

(mucho thanks to Jeff Hess at Have Coffee Will Write for the link to Needs' editorial...)

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spcoon said...

jarvis posted about this a while back and i ran with it on my blog. but you bring up some interesting points.

i wonder if journalists/columnists of the future would be looked at as a body with this new data and new forms of equal opportunity quotas would become born as a result.

- there's no jewish perspective in this newsroom, we have to up the antie

- to many liberal democrats at WaPo, we have to hire a young, conservative blogg... oh that already happened.

it's an interesting concept and debate. i think most papers are already profiled by the public as left or right... the religious aspect would be an interesting addition.

i don't know... i like the humanity it adds to the individual voice, but the aggregate domain effect could be negative.

Tish Grier said...

Thanks, Sean...I worry about small papers in small towns, more than big papers. Jeff Hess'given me some very interesting perspectives on things in Cleveland and across Ohio, and that got me thinking about how if a paper demands this of someone, there may be an underlying, negative motive behind it. I could see it happening out here in W. Mass too.

And the people don't always say something. Further, do the people even have the power to effect change at a paper? Some folks around here trust the alt weekly more than the big broadsheet because there's a sense that they cannot effect change over there.

I worry, too, because I *have* been judged by my religious affiliation. Being a Roman Catholic who has studied, and written, on Religion, people immediately believe that I'm a holy-roller. And since you know me, is that the case? Of course not! I'm more Thomas Merton than Thomas Aquians, but I rarely get to extrapolate on any of that because of pre-judgements.

Catholics, in general, have had a tough time with religious discrimination in the U.S. (will have more to say in another post) We still do. The situations with priests hasn't helped.

As for humanity--it should come out in time, in we do out here in the blogosphere. But are we willing to accept people warts and all? In most cases, no--even out here in the blogosphere.