Objectivity Versus The Appearance Of Objectivity

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A couple of stories in The Oshkosh Northwestern caught my eye this morning. The first was an editorial – which appeared on the front page to stress its importance – by Stewart Rieckman, general manager and executive editor of the Oshkosh Northwestern. In it, Rieckman expresses his dismay and apparently sincere regret that a few Northwestern employees (it’s not clear if they were reporters) signed the Walker recall petitions-

Credibility and trust are hard earned values that professional journalists must zealously guard. Our ethical guidelines are built around protecting those values because our readers demand and deserve objective and neutral news reporting. So it is with regret that today I must report to you that five Northwestern news employees were among 25 Gannett Wisconsin Media journalists who exercised poor judgment and signed petitions to recall Gov. Scott Walker. They were wrong. It was a breach of Gannett’s principals of ethical conduct that prohibit involvement in political activity, which would include signing the recall petitions.

The principle at stake is our belief “that journalists must exercise caution and not become involved with issues that may cause doubts about their neutrality as journalists.” Engaging in political activity is foremost. That belief is even more critical in an era when journalism is under a microscope and our credibility is routinely challenged. Ironically, I became aware of the ethics violation two days after a Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team broke a story exposing 29 circuit judges who signed recall petitions.

It is little consolation that none of the Northwestern news employees who signed petitions are involved with reporting or editing or assigning political coverage. None of the employees serves on the Investigative Team. But the fact that any of Gannett Wisconsin’s 223 news employees did sign the petition is disheartening. It has caused us to examine how this could have happened, how we will address it and how we will prevent it from happening again.

All citizens, including journalists, have a right to hold their own opinions about political issues. Journalists can and do vote in elections. But journalists who work within a professional news organization must hold themselves to a journalistic standard. That is, journalists have a first responsibility to be trusted. They have a first responsibility to protect the objectivity of the news they are covering for their readers and their community. They have a first responsibility to protect the credibility of the news organization for which they work. And so, journalists must make every effort to remain neutral and impartial when reporting or presenting the news. Journalists must go to extra lengths to guard against even the impression of favoring a candidate or a position.

As much as I respect Rieckman’s demand for objectivity in news reporting, I have to point out that his argument in the editorial is fallacious, because it fails to clearly distinguish genuine objectivity from the mere appearance of objectivity. The mere appearance of objectivity, which Rieckman is demanding of his employees by prohibiting them from signing petitions, does absolutely nothing to insure the objectivity of their reporting, since their honoring the prohibition might only serve to hide their biases. In fact, it is arguable that forcing journalists to forgo political activity on their own time might actually make it more likely that they would manifest unconscious political biases in their reporting. It is certainly better for readers to have access to the reporters’ political views, since readers can then make informed judgments as to whether bias is seeping into the reporters’ coverage or not. Finally, doesn’t it make sense that reporters who are open about their own views would be more careful not to let those views influence their reporting than reporters who are forced to keep their views secret?

The second story that caught my eye is related to the first. A jury found former state senator Randy Hopper not guilty of drunken driving, leaving only suspension of his license as a possible penalty for refusing to take an intoxication test after arrest-

Former state Sen. Randy Hopper of Fond du Lac has been found not guilty of drunken driving and operating left of the centerline. A jury of six women returned the verdict Friday afternoon. Circuit Court Judge Robert Wirtz on April 25 will rule on a charge of refusing to take a test for intoxication after arrest. Fond du Lac County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Renee Schuster said the pending charge carries a greater penalty against Hopper and can be counted as a prior offense if Hopper were to commit drunken driving in the future.

She said that even though deputies have the authority to force a blood draw from any drunken driving suspect, it is policy at the Sheriff’s Office to not do that on a first offense unless there is a circumstance like a crash causing injury to another person. District Attorney Dan Kaminsky confirmed Schuster’s comments. Hopper faces the potential of having his license revoked for a year, as opposed to the six-to-nine-month revocation an OWI carries.

Hopper said on the stand Thursday that county employees were out to get him because of his support while in office of a budget reform bill and eliminating collective bargaining for most state employees. Hopper said he did not trust arresting deputy Nick Venne during the arrest.

Defense attorney Dennis Melowski focused on how the Hicken family of North Fond du Lac [who were the witnesses to the purported drunk driving] had what he considered a political bias against Hopper because they had signed the Gov. Scott Walker recall petition. When special prosecutor Frank Endejan first called the three family members to testify, they told Melowski they had “no dog in the fight” against Hopper. Melowski later recalled Tim and Tammy Hicken to have them discuss the Walker recall. Melowski also revealed to the jury that Officer Venne signed the recall petition against Hopper. … Endejan did not make it clear to the jury that police and firefighters were exempt from losing collective bargaining rights. Melowski said that fact did not matter.

So the jury apparently bought the defense attorney’s argument that the witnesses and the police officer were not credible because they were “out to get” Hopper, the only evidence of this being the fact that they had signed the Walker recall petitions. If this is an accurate characterization of the jury’s reasoning, it is just as fallacious as Rieckman’s. For a law enforcement officer’s (or witness’s) ability to be objective depends on his or her capacity to be aware of potential biases and to deliberately set them aside; it most certainly does not depend on the capacity to hide opinions by never publicly manifesting them!

2 thoughts on “Objectivity Versus The Appearance Of Objectivity

  1. “It is little consolation that none of the Northwestern news employees who signed petitions are involved with reporting or editing or assigning political coverage.” So the Northwestern employees were not even reporters.

  2. Right… at least they were not reporters assigned to political coverage.

    My guess is that the Northwestern’s editorial is simply an attempt to preempt the potential criticism, after Gannett broke the story of the 29 judges who signed the recall petitions, that Gannett’s own employees signed them. In my opinion, in neither the judges’ nor the employees’ case is the fact that they signed petitions – or have personal political views (OMG!) – relevant to evaluating the degree of objectivity they are able to bring to their jobs. No human being is devoid of opinions – and if someone happened to be so, I wouldn’t want them to be my judge or the reporter of my news. What’s important is that judges and reporters (and professors, for that matter) are able to set aside their personal opinions in carrying out their professional duties. I have more faith in people who are comfortable expressing their views being able to do that.

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