By Bob Steele
John Kerry’s speech to the UNITY convention Thursday – and President Bush’s scheduled appearance Friday – raise important questions about how journalists, on duty or off, should interact with politicians.
I missed Kerry’s speech at Unity Thursday morning, so I can’t address that situation directly. But here are some general thoughts on the issue:
Journalists, like other professionals, do have personal beliefs on issues, ranging from highly contentious social issues to matters of national policy. And, journalists do have personal enthusiasm for or dislike of certain candidates.
We can, and should, express our personal beliefs and indicate our choice of candidates, but we should do so in the privacy of the voting booth. But whether we’re on duty or not, we should not be overtly partisan in our public behavior. To do so undermines our professionalism and erodes our credibility.
We should not make contributions to political candidates or causes. We should not display partisan bumper stickers and yard signs. We should not be involved in political rallies or campaign events.
And, when we attend a speech by a political candidate or officeholder, we should not express our partisan beliefs, be it support or opposition. To do so – to applaud or cheer in support or to boo or jeer in opposition -- is unprofessional and unethical. That partisan behavior is antithetical to the principle of independence, one of the linchpins of our professional duty.
The role of the journalist at a campaign speech is well prescribed if we are “on duty,” covering the event. No display of partisanship. We observe, we listen, we ask questions, we write and we report. Even those journalists who write opinion pieces do not behave with partisanship.
But what about when the journalists are in the audience at a campaign speech given to a group of journalists, as with Kerry and Bush this week at Unity.
Even then, journalists should honor their role, should retain their obligation to the principle of independence, and should abstain from displays of public partisanship.
To be sure, it is appropriate to be respectful when we attend a speech involving a candidate or officeholder. We can stand when they enter and depart. And, if we are in the audience, we may even offer respectful applause to welcome and to give thanks.
But we, as journalists, should not abdicate our unique and essential role as professional observers of the political process. We should not tarnish our responsibility as reporters of issues and chroniclers of the candidates.
We should not be activists, we should not behave as partisans. Not only do such roles diminish our standing as professionals, but they fuel the challenges of those critics who already believe that many journalists are biased and incapable of fair reporting on political issues and candidates.
This isn’t an argument about objectivity – that’s red herring stuff -- a false issue.
This is a matter of professionalism, a journalist’s duty to honor the ethical standards that underpin a unique and essential role in society.