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.”