Non-Marching Orders: Newspaper Bars Employees from Women’s March

By Maria Gaura

Over the course of the 2016 election, media companies wrestled with increasingly knotty ethical challenges—how to avoid false equivalencies in reporting, what to call a blatant lie, and how to respond professionally (impartially?) to a candidate who routinely called journalists “liars” and “scum”.

As Inauguration Day draws near, and Donald Trump’s attacks on news media and individual reporters escalate, newsrooms are girding themselves for battle with a renewed emphasis on journalistic ethics. But some new rules aimed at placing journalists above reproach, are raising questions about First Amendment rights.    

San Francisco Chronicle Editor-in-Chief Audrey Cooper raised eyebrows recently by notifying newsroom employees that participation in the January 21st Women’s March on Washington, or any similar marches, would be considered a violation of the newspaper’s ethics policies, a potential firing offense.

“No newsroom employee, regardless of job function or title, can participate in political demonstrations of any sort,” Cooper wrote, as part of a longer email to staff. “This is effective immediately.”

Political reporters, especially at legacy media, generally embrace stringent limits on personal expression. Most commonly, journalists are forbidden to donate to candidates or political causes, or take public positions on issues they are assigned to cover, specifically including participation in marches or protests.

But the Chron’s non-marching orders apply equally to workers far removed from political coverage: copy editors, page designers, sportswriters. And while the Women’s March was specifically made off-limits, the Chronicle has long encouraged employees to participate in San Francisco’s annual Gay Pride Parade, with staff and management marching beneath a Chronicle banner.

“I believe [management’s] argument has something to do with Pride being a celebration, and the Women’s March, while billed as a civil rights event, is perceived as more of a protest,” said a Chronicle staffer, one of several who declined to be identified for this story. “But a lot of people see equal pay, gender equality, and reproductive rights as civil rights. Nobody can tell us why the Women’s March is considered political and Pride is not.”

Yet withdrawing Chronicle support from Pride in the name of consistency, which nobody interviewed for this story suggested, could raise other concerns.

“Gay Pride is something that appeared to have left the realm of controversy, and gained a solid public consensus,” said Edward Wasserman, Dean of Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and a professor of journalism ethics. “Twenty years ago, reproductive rights were not considered controversial. Is that acceptance problematized with a different crowd in power in Washington? Do we now take it out again and have another look?”

One Chronicle staffer was more blunt. “When we write about attacks on LGBT rights, or women’s rights, do we now assume civil rights are negotiable? Do we say hey, on the other hand, here’s the anti-women, anti-gay argument? Is it a false equivalency?”

Down the Peninsula at the San Jose Mercury News, reporters and management have huddled repeatedly to discuss emerging ethical concerns, according to Bay Area News Group Executive Editor Neil Chase. But the paper has no blanket policy banning participation in the Women’s March, or similar events.

“This is a topic of conversation in every news room, I imagine,” Chase said. “Right now, the political climate makes us stop and question everything, we are all being exceptionally careful. That said, I trust everyone in my newsroom to make a lot of commonsense judgments every day, and to talk to their editors when there’s an issue.

“You have to look at things on a case-by-case basis,” Chase said. “Honestly, a bigger issue for me is people posting their opinions on social media, sometimes very strong opinions that they would not normally express in person. That’s a challenge for us.”

Public broadcaster KQED has not singled out the Women’s March as an event of special ethical concern, but forbids participation in events “to the extent that participation may call [KQED]’s objectivity on a particular issue into question,” per its ethics policy. KQED’s policy applies to staff responsible for content on its radio, television and digital news operations.

“Maybe there is a difference between gay rights and women’s rights events, but I don’t see it immediately.”

“We haven’t revised our ethics policy in response to recent events,” said Managing Editor for News Ethan Lindsey (UC Berkeley, 2000). “But during the election campaign our Vice President of News Holly Kernan sent a note to staff restating our ethics policies, and reminding people of our responsibilities as journalists.”

The Chronicle has formed an internal committee to examine and propose further changes to its official ethics policy, but in the meantime, the Pacific Media Workers Guild, which represents newsroom staff, has been asked by members to weigh in on the no-marching rule. 

“The Chronicle, to its credit, is trying to upgrade standards,” said Guild Executive Officer Carl Hall (’82). “But we need clarity on … the rights of people maybe not even indirectly involved in covering Trump or women’s rights issues. My feeling is that any prohibition should be no broader than necessary to keep the news free of suspicions of bias.”

The Guild is also an official sponsor of San Francisco’s Pride celebration, Hall noted. “Maybe there is a difference between gay rights and women’s rights events, but I don’t see it immediately.”

Applying First Amendment limitations to a wider swath of employees is bound to cause a stir, Wasserman said, but the trade-off is a stronger corporate public image.

“As a person who frets over ethics, I don’t necessarily object to [the Chronicle’s new rules], but I do quarrel with casting them as expressions of an ethical position,” Wasserman said. “Avoiding the appearance of institutional bias is really brand management, so let’s call it that.

“Publications like the National Review or Mother Jones are proud to carry a banner of political orientation and preference, and nobody reading them is misled,” Wasserman said. “The Chronicle is holding a different banner aloft, and that is the banner of neutrality. And I have respect for that, there is a niche in public discourse that it fills.”

Chronicle Editor Cooper declined to discuss the issue with a reporter but did offer two statements via email:

“I have … reminded our journalist employees that political protest is not appropriate or ethical professional conduct. This newsroom will continue to cover the president-elect, his policies and his administration. We will do so ethically, honestly and unapologetically.

“Certainly, ethical discussions always involve shades of gray. My job is to help our newsroom serve our readers and the public by providing fair and accurate news coverage. That includes helping us avoid actual or perceived conflicts of interest.”

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Comments

They can’t do this. Boycott the San Francisco Chronicle. Hey Chase, what people say on social media is not your business. You try to fire people, you will be sued.
Audrey Cooper is a trump supporter. FIRE AUDREY COOPER !!!
Denial of rights to freedom of assembly, association and speech.
I think Audrey Cooper made a big mistake but it does not raise questions “about First Amendment rights.” The First Amendment protects Cooper (and her superiors) and not the people who report to her. A.J. Liebling wasn’t kidding when he said “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
Thank you Maria for reporting on this absurd stand by the editor of the largest newspaper in the Bay Area. Is she hostile towards women, freedom of expression, the right of people to express themselves? Why would marching for women’s and human rights compromise reporters?
Thank you Maria for reporting on this absurd stand by the editor of the largest newspaper in the Bay Area. Is she hostile towards women, freedom of expression, the right of people to express themselves? Why would marching for women’s and human rights compromise reporters?
Did I miss something, or did a women who works for a major newspaper just tell her employees that if they participate in any demonstration geared to support women they may lose their jobs knowing full well the newspaper supports PRIDE? She should be ashamed of herself. Cooper is so worried about damaging the integrity of journalism but that’s exactly what she’s doing: She just built a huge dark cloud over this newspaper. BRAVO.
So I guess Trump victory rallies are out of the question?
It is little steps, little bricks like these that continue to push the line of acceptability and normalize this presidency’s behavior. Then the Pride parade mandate? This is such a terrible idea. It really makes me sad. Trump has wounded these people in the media and they are now second guessing and questioning their ethics and abilities instead of asserting themselves and doing what they know they can do. It’s an abusive relationship and painful to watch.
I can understand why media outlets want to avoid the wrath of Donald Trump. I suspect the lawsuit that comes from restricting employees 1st amendment rights will be equally unpleasant. Was it a condition of employment? If not, you should expect trouble. Silencing employees is not being neutral.
You have to be kidding. Since when is the Hesrst Corp a Nazi driven operation……Shame on you
This is not something new for the Chronicle. Remembering back to the last strike at the paper…it was all about union busting and controlling the actions of the employees. Some things never change! Screw the Chronicle editor,…she won’t be around forever. People unite and protest…that’s what our democracy allows.
It’s a plain violation if both labor law and first amendment rights to make refraining from joining a particular protest a condition of employment. Unbelievable that this even needs to be said aloud in this brave new world. Attempting to justify this naked bullying with a veil of journalistic integrity is the ultimate in gaslighting. This is about control over the private free speech of corporate employees, nothing more. Audry Cooper needs to tender her resignation immediately, or the editorial board needs to demand it, before the Chron loses all credibility.
What credibility.
Sounds like something right out the USSR playbook. When I marched, I did so for women’s rights, which are HUMAN RIGHTS, and that applies to every corner of this earth.
One of my favorite signs from the march. RAGE AGAINST THE DYING OF OUR RIGHTS.
I was initially appalled at the policy until I was able to engage with Ms. Cooper in regard to the policy. It turns out that she is quite willing to respond (and quickly) to email from ordinary people. After hearing from her and the comments here I am convinced that she is right. I also reached out to KQED and found that their news policy is similar. This is an ethical issue for journalist — and we should be critical of those journalists (I’m looking at you Fox News) who do not follow this position. The policy is, by the way, for the journalists only — not all employees. In regard to those who are citing the First Amendment here, I suggest that they review the language of that amendment and the decisions involving it. The First Amendment generally only applies to the government — and the Chronicle is not the government. And, even if they were, you should familiarize yourself with the Hatch Act if you think the government can’t restrict political activities on the part of their employees. (I do think the citing of Liebling regarding the ownership of the press is a bit out of date. Liebling did not write about the era of fake news on the internet and the ease of establishing blogs. The problem now is not that there is too little access to public discussion but unfettered and irresponsible access by too many) The important thing to note is the reason for the policy. If we are to trust the reporting in the Chronicle, we must trust the objectivity of the reporters. I would have trouble doing so with an article on abortion written by a reporter that participated in the so-called “Walk for Life” on Saturday. So the same is true for a reporter that participates in the Women’s march. Some might want to question Ms. Cooper’s judgment in reminding reporters of the policy just before the Women’s March. But the policy appears to be long-standing and reminder employees of the policy seems to me to be prudent. By way of full disclosure, I was a member of the Daily Cal during the early 1960s (yes — then), and also am a retired, inactive attorney. And I did march in Saturday’s Women’s March in San Francisco.
I live in Florida, and I “marched” in DC. It was uplifting and encouraging. I do not see how attending a gathering of over a million people could possibly jeopardize a journalist’s integrity or independence. I met people from California, Wisconsin, Texas, Seattle Washington, Boston, Syracuse, all over. A paper cannot adequately reflect on an event by barring its employees from attending. The idea that a writer participating as an individual in a massive event would reflect poorly on the Newspaper smells like fear of losing advertising revenues.
I am not a journalist, I wish to support journalists. If they have a march, I would like to be there to support them. We need our journalists now more than ever, and they need to know we appreciate them.
i worked at eastbay daily newspapers and it was always a policy to refrain from political activities. to me that even meant no political bumper stickers on my car. so at age 79, i went to my first protest: the women’s march in dc.
For more discussion on the subject of objectivity and journalism, where the lines are, and where they should be, have a listen to last week’s On the Media, specifically the segment called “Objectivity: What Is It Good For?” http://www.wnyc.org/story/ties-that-bind
Not a fan of Cooper’s. I bet she supports Trump. Yuck!

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