If you were to sit in on the first day of any journalism ethics class, it’s likely you’d hear a lecture about the importance of remaining impartial and unbiased.
You’d hear the same lesson repeated in a reporting and writing class, a class about how to cover politics or, well, any journalism class.
Of course, it’s impossible for any person to be completely impartial. But, it’s the responsibility of journalists to separate their biases from their reporting. The integrity of the Fourth Estate depends on it.
As a journalist, you’re never really off the clock. It’s crucial to keep personal opinions out of the newsroom, but that duty follows journalists home every night. That means no political Facebook posts, tweets, blogs, bumper stickers, lawn signs or donations to politicians or political organizations.
Marches, demonstrations and protests can — and should — be covered, but journalists should not actively participate in such practices. A journalist’s role is to be an observer, not a participant.
But, lately, journalists have called that duty into question.
Leading up to the Women’s March on Jan. 21, many female journalists debated on online forums whether or not they should participate in the historic and record-breaking movement, or show support for it on social media.
Most newsrooms, including NPR and The Washington Post, even have specific policies barring their employees from becoming politically active.
Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of the Atlantic, issued a memo to his editorial staff before the Women’s March reminding his reporters of the magazine’s rules: “The rule is simple — Atlantic editorial employees should not participate in any political activity, apart from voting … Our strengths are journalistic fairness and dispassion; to the extent that we express our political views, we do so within a strictly journalistic framework.”
It’s no secret that this is a tense time for the relationship between politics and journalism. While the relationship between reporters and politicians is not meant to be a close one, it’s definitely strained at the moment, and part of being a journalist is holding politicians accountable.
As President Donald J. Trump and members of his administration disregard articles and reports as “fake news,” it’s easy for journalists to feel attacked and be tempted to join in on the public’s debate.
It becomes even more personal when journalists belong to other groups that Trump’s orders and policies have impacted most, including women, Muslims, immigrants or African-Americans.
However, in this case, the label of “journalist” overshadows all else.
Although journalism calls reporters to abstain from being politically involved, that doesn’t mean they’re uninvolved. Journalists play a crucial role now more than ever. They hold people — on every side — accountable. They sift through the truth and the opinions and are meant to serve as a voice of reason in a time when anything can be viewed as a “fact.”
While protesting and demonstrating are crucial elements of a successful democracy, journalists that can be trusted for their impartiality are just as significant. For journalists, it might feel good in the moment to participate in a rally or send a political tweet, but that expression takes away from the long-term good you could be doing for the public.
Politicians distrust the media. The public distrusts the media. Sometimes, even the media distrusts the media. Voicing personal opinions doesn’t help that — it only hurts.