Had Lisa been hired to cover recall matters, her recall signature would not have rendered her unfair. She would only have been unfair had she not recognized the conscious and unconscious impact of her own thoughts about the governor and not pushed against her own biases. She would have been unfair if she failed to seek sources on all aspects of the story at hand. She would have been unfair if she allowed biased language to slip into her work.
But the ethical reasoning at the Journal Sentinel, Gannett, and other organizations didn’t allow for this reasoning. Instead, signatures became a litmus test, and thus a missed opportunity to truly explore how we check bias in our work.
Consider: Every ethics code used to sanction journalists for signing the recall petition simultaneously allows those employees to vote. What, exactly, is the difference? Both are political acts endorsing a particular person or set of ideas. The only thing that distinguishes them is secrecy. Had the recall petitions not been subject to the Wisconsin Open Records Law, Lisa would be working today at the Journal Sentinel. An ethical structure cannot rest solely on a foundation of secrecy. When it does, it will crumble easily.
Journalists who signed the petition were supposedly guilty of a conflict of interest that rendered them unable to report fairly. But if the expression of their views in a signature is the outward signal, then the views themselves are the actual conflict.
How can that be? How can we ever expect reporters and photographers to be without political views? We can’t. Instead, we must ask them adopt objective coverage as their goal, and to work to achieve that goal.
When I raised this idea in a panel recently, an editor told me I sounded like an area conservative talk radio host who tells him to drop all pretenses—admit to liberal bias and be done with it. That could not be further from my point. Most news organizations in this state are making an honest attempt to fairly report on people, events and issues. The talk show host is not.
The reality of Lisa’s situation was lost on virtually everyone who expressed an opinion on it. She signed the petition because she opposed the governor. But that was just one of four situations she could have been in. The other three:
• She could have declined to sign because she didn’t care.
• She could have declined to sign because she felt an ethical obligation to stay neutral.
• Or she could have declined to sign because she supported the governor.
It’s that last branch that sprouts the ethical thorn. A journalist who supports the governor has just as certain a potential bias problem as one who opposes him. He or she is capable of checking that problem by seeking fairness and using objective methods in reporting and writing, as I believe Lisa would have.
By relying on secrecy as cover, or by insisting that reporters appear to be ciphers, without any viewpoints on important matters, news organizations will continue to drive the suspicions of readers and open themselves up to easy attack. It’s time to say that we’re humans with ideas, perspectives, and, yes, biases. Objective reporting methods and fairness as our mindset are the only ethical—and honest—solutions.