Rethinking objectivity: a recall case

An intern gets canned in Wisconsin because she signed a petition. Why?

As partisan activity and open hostility climbed toward their peak in Wisconsin’s recent recall election, one of my students lost her job days before she was set to begin it. She hadn’t conducted a single interview or written even one lead. Yet she was declared guilty of an insurmountable conflict of interest for signing a political petition.

I’m not using the student’s name here, for obvious reasons, but let’s call her Lisa. And I can tell you she is a hardworking young reporter and writer who cared about accuracy, creativity, and careful sourcing. And she was crushed.

For those who somehow haven’t glanced toward America’s Dairyland over the last 18 months, Gov. Scott Walker spearheaded a legislative agenda that drew tens of thousands to the state Capitol in protest. A recall petition movement arose last fall, netting about 900,000 signatures, including my own. After becoming only the third US governor ever to face a recall election, Walker easily survived it the first week in June.

The legislation, protests, and recalls were big stories, yielding award-winning coverage and peak Web traffic. News outlets focused inward, however, when online posting of recall petitions showed that journalists in a number of newsrooms had signed. News organizations moved quickly to identify, disclose, and even sanction these journalists, though nobody involve disclosed the penalties. Gannett, the Wisconsin State Journal, and several broadcast outlets covered their own employees’ involvement.

None of this surprised me because about six weeks earlier, petition signature fever had cost Lisa her prestigious internship. Just days before her start date, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel “un-hired” her, after they asked her whether she had signed the recall petition. This was weeks after she had interviewed and had been offered the job. No one had thought to ask earlier, but that’s the least of my concerns. Lisa’s case is the ideal illustration of how thin our ethical reasoning has grown, and how dangerous that is in today’s hyperpartisan and accusatory age.

At the time Lisa signed the recall petition, she was not working in a news organization, not even a student paper. At that time, the internship she later won and lost had not yet been conceived or funded. She lost an ideal career opportunity after the retroactive imposition of an ethics code on a job that hadn’t been created when she chose to put her name on a petition.

On the other hand, the Journal Sentinel editors I spoke with during this time felt trapped. The internship would have been in the state capitol bureau, which was squarely focused on recall politics for the foreseeable future. I credit them for trying to find another position for Lisa, but they could not come up with the funding. In the end, signing the recall petition was deemed too great a conflict of interest for her to do the work.

I got it. One of our staff members called it “Journalism 101”: Journalists don’t plant yard signs or endorse candidates. Voting is okay, but most everything else is verboten. Especially in a divided, toxic, and charged Wisconsin.

Then, I realized, I didn’t get it.

Difficult questions require deep reflection. And upon reflection, it seems to me that if journalism ethics rely on the perceptions of a heatedly divided audience, those ethics are doomed. Editors often speak of getting calls and emails from opposing sides, each complaining that the exact same image or story is unfair to their camp. This “hostile media effect” has been well documented by researchers.

News organizations consistently say they strive for objectivity, and some of them say they achieve it. Many in the audience, meanwhile, aren’t buying it. What’s lost in these battles is an understanding that objectivity is not a state of being but instead a mindset and a corresponding set of methods.

When a journalist sets out to cover a story ethically, she first has to accept that she’s not “viewless.” She cannot make her mind a blank. Instead, she and her news organization make a commitment to be fair, and to use methods to achieve that fairness.

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.

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Kathleen Bartzen Culver is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Tags: , ,