I wrote a whole book called What Are Journalists For? So I don’t say this lightly: To me it is not proper — I don’t think it builds trust in a free press — for the people who produce news to be campaigning for a political party, or trying to win it for a favored candidate.
As private citizens with political lives they can do whatever they want. As makers of a common story, news of the election, they should not operate as party creatures. Even if they are open about their beliefs they should not be “on the team.”
But there are things they can advocate for in a contested election— and other things they can legitimately oppose. Here is my list:
Pro-participation: Democracy is not a spectator sport. The more people who participate in the system the stronger it is. Journalists can safely advocate that people go out and vote. They can, I think, legitimately oppose efforts to discourage people from voting.
Pro-verification. “Did that actually happen?” “Is there good evidence for it?” “Can it be squared with what we know?” Journalists should reward with focused attention truth claims that can be verified, and they should penalize (by publicly doubting them) other claims that do not meet that test.
Pro-deliberation. People need to know what’s going on (news.) But to cast an intelligent vote they also need to hear a range of views around a common set of facts. Journalists can thus be “for” a lively, inclusive and fact-based debate. They can work against attempts to undermine it.
Pro-accountability. Elections are a contest for power. They are also a means for holding the powerful accountable. Contenders should have to answer for their words and deeds. They should explain themselves and reveal their plans. Journalists are on firm ground when they insist upon this kind of accountability, and when they resist attempts to elude it.
Against opacity. If nothing makes sense, if words have no meaning, if a manufactured confusion reigns, if we cannot tell where the candidates stand or what they intend to do, if the public record is obscured or destroyed, then democracy is defeated before the votes are cast. Journalists should stand against anything that makes for a more opaque election.
Against demagoguery. The attempt to gain power through a charismatic appeal to fear, prejudice, ignorance and an animus toward the “other” contradicts everything that principled journalists stand for. In the degree that such appeals succeed, they render impotent the basic acts of reporting and verification. When journalists combat demagogic argument they are not exceeding their brief. They are meeting their mission.
I have phrased these items as permissions: they are allowed to… they are on firm ground when… But it would be just as correct to use a term like obligations. If in covering the campaign journalists cannot stand up for informed participation, rigorous verification, a fact-based debate, real accountability; if they can’t find a way to oppose opacity and demagoguery, then they will sell themselves short and encourage the rest of us to tune them out.
Now we come to the hard part. All these acts require the journalist to form judgments, which will be contestable. There is no way around that.
And now we come to the really hard part. When journalists press for the things I say they can press for; when they fight against what they ought to fight against, the results are unlikely to be “neutral.” They are going to wind up penalizing some candidacies more than others. If making stuff up to mobilize fear and prejudice is the political style to which a candidate has become attached, journalists will have to set themselves against that style. And they will have to call it by its proper names.
I wrote a whole post about this problem. See: Asymmetry between the major parties fries the circuits of the mainstream press.
To committed supporters this will seem like joining the other team. It’s not that, but it will seem so. There is no easy solution, especially at a time when institutional trust is bottoming out. But to feign neutrality toward the causes of ruin would be far worse.