Primary Poses Ethical Questions For Idaho Journalists

May 14, 2012

Idaho is now one of more than 30 states that has a closed or semi closed primary. For the first time Tuesday voters must declare a party affiliation before casting a ballot. That presents an ethical dilemma for some people who want to remain non-partisan including journalists.

Earlier this year the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press revealed more and more Americans believe there’s a political bias in news coverage. The perception is there. So does it matter if journalists publicly declare party affiliation? 

“As journalists all we have is our credibility,” says Betsy Russell. She’s a reporter for The Spokesman Review and the president of the Idaho Press Club. “If people don’t believe or trust what we write then it will go nowhere and we do have to protect that.”

Russell is like most journalists. She doesn’t stick campaign signs in her yard. She doesn’t have bumper stickers on her car. She doesn’t march in rallies, or attend political caucuses. But Russell does have a long standing belief, “I have always believed since I was first old enough to vote that as an American citizen, it’s my duty to vote. And our system doesn’t work unless everybody votes.” 

For years, Idaho journalists could vote without registering with a party. Russell says this has been a luxury. In most states, this isn’t the case. Now that luxury is gone after the state’s Republican party closed its primary. That means everyone has to declare a party affiliation to vote. “There is a concern among many journalists that if we were to register or in any way publicly identify ourselves as a partisan or a member of one party or another,” explains Russell, “then all of our reporting on all parties would be suspect.”

It’s not just journalists who now have to decide whether to vote. Judges and even some public employees have to as well. Jeff Youtz directs the Idaho Legislative Services Office which provides nonpartisan support for legislators. He wrote lawmakers a letter earlier this year. In that letter he writes, “that our nonpartisan status is so important to the ongoing success of the legislative services office that the best recourse for us is to opt out of the upcoming primary election.” Youtz says he won’t vote in the primary but he’s left it up to his staff to make their own decisions. 

That professional dilemma is the same one journalists face explains Kelly McBride. She’s a media ethics expert for the Poynter Institute. It’s a school to teach and support journalists and media leaders. “The prohibition against making any sort of political declarations used to be absolutely unquestioned in the world of journalism,” says McBride. “We question it a lot more these days.”

McBride says she finds people are becoming more and more distrustful of what they see and read because so much of it turns out to be false or distorted. “Now the question that is unresolved is whether revealing your political point of view creates more trust or less trust in a political dialogue,” she says.

Wayne Hoffman was a reporter for 18 years. “I believed I was an objective reporter and through that belief, I failed to recognize my own personal biases.” He’s now the executive director for the Idaho Freedom Foundation which advocates for – among other ideas - free market solutions and limited government. His organization also supports the self- proclaimed government watchdog site

“This notion that journalists are objective, blank slates, opinionless people who roam the streets gathering news is a myth,” Hoffman believes. “And I’m ok with the fact that reporters have opinions. Why not let those reporters have opinions and then tell those readers what those opinions are?” 

The fact is everyone’s party affiliation will be part of public record. That concerns leaders of Idaho newsrooms including Vicki Gowler. She’s the editor of the Idaho Statesman. She says for reporters – especially those who cover government and politics – Idaho’s closed Republican primary creates an ethical problem.

“Anybody that chooses to vote in the primary and affiliate with a party I will let them do that. It is their right as an American citizen to do that and I’m not going to stop anybody from voting,” Gowler explains. “But if they choose to do that then I have the tough choice of what role can they play in my newsroom because I can’t have them affiliating with a party and then covering politics.”

Gowler says she and her reporters have talked a lot about how to handle this party affiliation dilemma. She says the newspaper cares about “how we take care of conflict of interest and show that we try to be as objective as we can be and keep distance between what we cover and what we do personally.”

The publisher for the Times- News in Twin Falls has taken a different approach. John Pfeifer wrote an open letter last month encouraging his reporters to vote.

As for Spokesman Review reporter Betsy Russell, she says she will vote Tuesday. But she’ll do so only on the non-partisan ballot. Her reward for staying objective? The only contests she gets to have a say in are three unopposed judicial races.