Journalists have a responsibility to vote

by Charlie Vargas, Staff Writer

Objectivity and neutrality are concepts that have been debated amongst journalists and media scholars for decades, while audiences use those concepts to test for bias. 

In “Elements of Journalism,” Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write about how the original meaning of objectivity did not call for neutrality, but instead was “merely a voice, or device, to persuade the audience of one’s accuracy or fairness.”

With terms such as “fake news,” media outlets are continuously being challenged on their practice of neutrality. With the election year in full swing, discussions about whether journalists should vote and if it damages their credibility have resurfaced. 

Dr. Arthur D. Santana, associate professor at the school of Journalism and Media Studies, said journalists should be able to express their right to vote, but in polarized political times that may make the reporter a target. 

“A reporter puts themselves in the public spotlight and what happens is that people will go find the voting records of that reporter and publicize them to undermine (their) integrity, credibility and reporting,” Santana said. 

There is currently no news organization that restricts reporters from voting, but there are other guidelines that aim to strengthen their will to remain unbiased. The New York Times, for example, does not allow reporters to donate or endorse campaigns or ballot box initiatives. In the newspaper’s editorial standards, it is written that political bumper stickers and buttons are not permitted to be displayed. 

One of the most revered examples of a journalist withholding their vote for the sake of seeming unbiased is Leonard Downie Jr., an editor for The Washington Post from 1984 to 1991. In an interview with NPR, Downie explained the reasoning behind his decision was based on being the “final gatekeeper of fairness.” 

In 2008 John F. Harris, a co-founder and editor of Politico, was part of an article that had differing viewpoints of three reporters on their voting practices. Harris said he avoids voting, not because he has no opinions on candidates, but because voting records are public and can be weighed against a journalist. 

“I don’t need the hassle of giving people reasons to question or make assumptions about my views or the motives informing my work,” Harris said in the article. 

In this case, it leads the reporter to adhere to self-censorship in an attempt to protect the integrity of their work and the institution of journalism itself.

“It’s unfortunate and kind of ironic that these champions of the First Amendment are those that often have to self-censor,” Santana said. 

CNN political commentator Christopher Cillizza wrote a blog post in The Washington Post where he expressed that he does not vote either. He mentioned the same themes of not voting out of “defensiveness” and preservation of credibility. He said voting itself does not display political affiliation, so it should not matter if reporters vote or not. 

There is a problem, however, in Harris and Cillizza’s reasoning for choosing not to vote to withhold their opinions from audiences. 

“If you wanted to throw people off the scent of a bias in your coverage, not voting would be a smart way to do it,” Cizzilla said. 

I’m not suggesting either of them do that, but the perception can be seen as deceptive. That concept in itself is dangerous, particularly in a time where trust in the media is low. It hurts the process of journalism that seeks to be transparent and can introduce skepticism amongst audiences. 

The best solution in these cases is to be genuine about voting. Journalists should not feel like they have to withdraw from any of their rights or self-censor in fear that they may be singled out as biased. 

Being honest about how reporters are affected by laws and representatives is humanizing and may even lead to a better relationship between them and their audiences. It’s an acknowledgment that reporters and regular people face some of the same issues. 

I wrote this piece to try and dissect motivations for why reporters would contemplate their right to vote. With this being my last semester and between a primary, it dawned on me that this was something I will have to ponder soon. If I have learned anything from my interactions with sources, it’s that being honest with my motivations and with who I am goes a long way. 

Being honest in this capability is a step toward a path that rebuilds trust in the audiences we hope to serve. 

Charlie Vargas is a senior studying journalism. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieVargas19.