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The press and Illinois' political process: Does objectivity limit journalists as citizens?

College is a great place for esoteric discussions on ethics and other weighty matters. But sometimes philosophy can collide with the "real world." That's what happened to me while in graduate school at Sangamon State University a few years ago. The real world — in the form of a political candidate — strode into our ivory tower, a class called Illinois Government and Politics. Independent gubernatorial candidate Jim Nowlan brought his self-described quixotic campaign to our class, ostensibly to lecture about life as an independent in a two-party world.

When class was over, I signed his petition to get on the ballot. I admired the man's courage of convictions and I liked what he was fighting for: political plurality. But a classmate didn't admire what I had done. He burst from the line of students filing out of the classroom and said, "Uh, you shouldn't do that. You're a journalist."

"That's not cool." he told me. "They can look up your signature on that petition and use it against you."

I replied that I was technically not a full-time journalist. Besides, I reasoned, what harm could come of it? Nowlan would be lucky to get on the ballot, and he certainly wouldn't become a factor in the race. It turned out I was right about Nowlan. But the larger question of a journalist's participation in the political process remained unresolved. During the March primary, that issue once again raised its confused head in newsrooms across the state.

Just where do working journalists draw the line? Voting in Illinois' partisan ballot primary? Signing petitions? Donating money to candidates or causes? Just like those heavy philosophical discussions you had in college, there may not be any right or wrong answers. Nonetheless, with a national survey showing journalists' credibilty on the wane, their unwritten ethics should be re-examined. Those who don't live on the fourth estate, including politicians, should also take note. The news media's importance in the political process has eclipsed even that of the political party. Just ask any candidate in search of "face time." Also, that elusive average citizen out there depends on the news media to provide clear, unbiased information to help make some voting decisions.

But all is not well in this democratic food chain if those who write, edit and announce the government and politics stories aren't sure of their own role. Let's examine the evidence. A Gallup poll commissioned by The Times Mirror and published in the January/February 1990 Washington Journalism Review shows more Americans question the independence, fairness and accuracy of news organizations. In 1985, 53 percent had their doubts; now 62 percent do. These days, 68 percent of Americans say news organizations "tend to favor one side" in covering issues, compared to 53 percent in 1985. If a newspaper or news program can't be believed, it can't do its job. And that's bad for everyone.

Those responding to the survey also expressed concern about journalists getting too close to their sources, which brings us back to the question of a journalist's involvement in the process. How much is OK? As is often the case, it may be easier to answer what isn't OK. Case in point: Back in 1964, word got out in the WCIA-TV newsroom in Champaign that a reporter/anchor was working for a gubernatorial candidate on the side. Current News Director Dave Shaul recalled that his bosses quickly put an end to the double duty. Shaul said the anchor was told, "You either work here or for him." The off-hours campaigning ended before the station suffered any fallout.

One downstate newspaper reporter draws the line at voting. Anything after that — signing petitions, putting signs in the yard; and actively campaigning — is out of the question.

Those sentiments echo the feelings of the majority of Illinois journalists surveyed this spring. Of 232 newspaper, radio and television journalists from Chicago and downstate, 72 percent vote in primaries, even though they have to openly declare a party (see survey results in box). Almost half the respondents consider their primary vote an important element in their role in the democratic process. Of the 26 percent who don't vote in primaries, the main reason cited was fear that a party declaration could compromise their perceived objectivity. That same concern is what keeps most Illinoisjournalists' names off political petitions. Sixty-eight percent will not sign on the dotted line; 30 percent do. The survey took the form of an objective questionnaire but was not purely scientific. The universe included a stratified mix of news organizations and geographic locations but when possible, was sent to friends or contacts to ensure a higher return rate.

In the comment section of the questionnaire, several respondents said the political involvement question was discussed in their newsrooms but usually without resolution and certainly without arriving at any hard and fast rules, So where do journalists learn how to answer such tough questions?

40/August & September 1990/Illinois Issues

If they attended the University of Illinois School of Journalism, they learned from Associate Professor Bob Reid. Reid teaches his students to first identify ethical issues, then discuss pros and cons and alternatives. Reid said it should be left to the individual to decide his or her level of involvement in the political process. He lived by that philosophy during his 12 years as an editor for The Southern Illinoisan. But even Reid drew a line: He did not allow his employees to run for office.

Another former southern Illinois journalist said he left his employees to their own consciences while being very open about his own party affiliation. That former muckraker crossed all the way over the line to eventually become Democratic U.S. Sen. Paul Simon of Makanda.

Still another ex-journalist thinks it's fairly clear cut. "It's everyone's right to vote .... I see no infringement on a journalist's objectivity by participation in the democratic process," said Sangamon State University Professor Bill Miller. But signing a petition, he said, could "pinpoint a possible allegiance."

There are some variables that make it even tougher for reporters and their professional kin to decide where they fit into the democratic picture. The journalist reticent to declare a party in a primary may feel particularly frustrated in a one-party town, a dilemma faced by one respondent from Chicago: "If you don't vote in the Democratic primary . . . oftentimes you effectively have given up your say in who ultimately gets elected." Then there's the case of the former general assignment reporter-turned-feature editor. Need the same ethical standards apply?

Survey of Illinois journalists

(Of 415 surveys mailed in April, 232 journalists working for Illinois newspapers, radio and television stations and other outlets responded.)

Do Illinois journalists usually vote in primaries?

Yes 72% Reasons why:

          46% Important to have a say in the                         process
          13% It's a journalist's right as a citizen

No 26% Reasons why:

          14% Putting party declaration on record                 compromises objectivity
          3% Voting record is nobody's business

Do Illinois journalists sign petitions for political candidates or causes?

Yes 30%
No 68%

Note: Percentages do not add up to 100 because some respondents did not answer all questions.

Those who cover politics on a regular basis think avoiding any political involvement is a given; they are much more concerned about intimacy with those they cover, about shying away from becoming part of the story. A subgroup of the Illinois survey is the Statehouse Press Corps. Of 17 responding, only three vote in primaries and only two sign petitions. But a former member of that group cites a much greater challenge to a political reporter's objectivity. Tim Franklin of the Chicago Tribune now runs the paper's Homewood bureau, but for years he worked in Springfield. He remembered how difficult it was to keep his distance while one of the boys on a particular candidate's bus. He recalled "an uneasy feeling-out process —they're trying to assess where you stand politically." One candidate even asked Franklin what he thought about a particular issue. Franklin's response: "It's not up to me; I just write about it."

There are some answers to the journalist's dilemma. Associate Professor Reid pointed out that everyone in the newsroom has conflicts of interest. Can a reporter cover a story on religion if he or she goes to church? Should a managing editor belong to the local chamber of commerce if there are business stories printed in his or her paper? Reid said, "Yes, with disclosure." Editors' notes — or anchor "intros" and "tags," the broadcast equivalent — can signal news consumers that the reporter writing the story has a particular interest in it.

Another idea would not be popular with the current political establishment. A small but significant number of those responding to the Illinois poll had some objection to the primary process — the two parties' domination of it and the required partisan declaration in order to get a ballot. Many of those suggest sweeping changes. One respondent declared, "Illinois should move to an open primary, period." Another even outlined a specific plan: "I think primaries should give the option of taking both or all ballots [into the booth] and returning only one — to be kept secret. ..." No one is suggesting that the state's electoral process be altered simply to give a tiny minority —journalists — a clear conscience. Other citizens have been grumbling for years that the primary provides for a less-than-secret ballot.

Another way to bridge the gap between opinionated citizen and objective journalist is obvious, if not always easy. "I think the only way to establish a track record for objectivity is to be objective in reporting," said political columnist Pete Ellertsen of the Springfield State Journal-Register. He added, "I don't think primary voting really matters, as long as you report the news without putting your own spin on it."

That TV news anchor in southern Illinois said confusion about news people's role in a democratic society has been discussed frequently at that station, and that more talk is necessary to reach some ethical standards. But Franklin of the Chicago Tribune said, "I don't think that it's an issue that can ever be resolved."

Maybe one word is standing in the way of journalists' having a clearer idea of their mission of both covering and living in a democracy: objectivity. In her book And So It Goes, Linda Ellerbee contends that objectivity is impossible, that the best a news person can strive for is honesty or fairness.

Ever since that argument in grad school a few years ago, I have avoided primaries like the proverbial plague. But years of disenfranchisement have taken their toll. I'll swallow hard and request a partisan ballot next primary. But I won't feel comfortable about it.

A 1986 graduate of the Public Affairs Reporting master's program at Sangamon State University, Kevin Finch spent four years at WCIA-TV in Champaign as news producer and reporter. In April, he joined WTHR-TV (NBC) in Indianapolis as news producer.

August & September 1990/Illinois Issues/41

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