Minnesota’s recent change in voter laws has restarted the debate on balancing journalistic ethics and voting. In the state’s first presidential primary since 1992, as opposed to a caucus, participating voters will be legally obligated to declare their party affiliation, which will be available to the public.
For some journalists, there is some concern around the newfound public nature of their political associations. They fear this information becoming a part of the public domain may smear readership’s perception of their journalistic integrity. Since journalists are expected to be objective, the anxiety is reasonable.
Is preserving readers’ trust in exchange for giving up a civil right a worthwhile tradeoff? Is declaring party affiliation similar to campaigning?
These are the wrong questions to be asking. Instead, we ought to examine why journalists alone are expected to shoulder such an enormous burden. First of all, these individuals are citizens before they are journalists. Public sentiment should not prohibit journalists from exercising their right to voice their opinion and elect individuals they believe will best represent them.
Secondly, objectivity doesn’t mean you don’t have an opinion. The link between these two concepts — or lack thereof — is precisely why there are journalistic practices in place to eliminate as much blatant personal bias as possible. These measures ensure that readers cannot use party affiliation against journalists. Furthermore, we cannot preemptively assume they’re writing in the same way they’re voting.
Even if an article is composed entirely of verified facts, there is no way to prevent readers from projecting their own world views onto it. Said reality is why publications that don’t prohibit their journalists from expressing political opinions aren’t accused of bias any more or less than those that do. Perhaps silence about party affiliations is wasted energy.
The consequences of overt political bias are different for an institution than for an individual journalist. A corporation does not and should not participate in a presidential election in the same way as a citizen — by voting. By that logic, a journalist should not be held to the same rigid expectations of neutrality. Again, there is a difference between vocalizing a political opinion and exercising one’s civil rights.
If we expect journalists to withdraw from elections, where is the line? There are so many other highly influential professions. Should we expect teachers to withhold their votes because society expects them to be objective purveyors of history and information? Should we expect non-partisan City Council members, who publish endorsements, to not participate in electing the people responsible for this country’s direction?
Ultimately, even if journalists decide not to participate in the election because of concerns over optics, some portion of their bias will slip through the cracks. There is currently no foolproof method of extracting 100 percent of it.
The burden of objectivity should be shared equitably between reader and writer when credibility precedes beliefs, as it must.