Where’s the line separating journalists from politics?

October 14, 2022 3:00 am

For most journalists, the rules restricting political involvement are clear but sometimes questions arise. (Photo via Canva)

A TV news director in North Platte, Nebraska, was fired recently for getting too involved in politics. It raises good questions about journalism and politics. What can a journalist do in his or her personal life? What rights do they give up? And, what is over the line?

Press reports say Melanie Standiford was fired as news director and anchor at KNOP-TV in North Platte after collecting signatures on a petition calling for her hometown to become a sanctuary city for the unborn. The petition, one of several similar ones in Nebraska, calls for the issue to be on the ballot in November.

According to local press reports, Standiford agreed to collect petitions at her church. When her bosses found out about it from a newspaper story, they fired her immediately, saying news personnel “are not permitted, at any time and regardless of beliefs, to actively engage in any political activity for any candidate, party or ballot initiative.”

Standiford told the newspaper she is pro-life but has always reported on the issue fairly.

So where’s the line? I’ve known reporters who refused to vote for fear that the process of deciding on candidates would interfere with their ability to report fairly. In my career, I willingly gave up things most Americans are free to do, like making political contributions, signing petitions or attending rallies. Voting, however, is a private act and in my view an important part of being American. I always voted.

But my wife will tell you I drew a bright, white line on any other political activity. She had a career in politics as a candidate and school board member. While our neighbors planted her campaign yard signs, our own yard was empty. Her family photo on campaign literature showed only her and our three kids, not me. She sometimes rolled her eyes at my rules, but she also respected them.

I wanted to stay so far away from the line that no one could accuse me of crossing it. To be sure, each journalist may draw the line in a different place. There’s a lot of gray area but the Nebraska news director clearly stepped over the line.

The New York Times now adds a box to political stories explaining “How Times reporters cover politics.”  It reads, in part, “So while Times reporters may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes.” The policy further bans campaign contributions and participating in rallies. Not only is this a wise ethical policy, it’s a good thing for the Times to prominently feature the policy for readers, rather than assume they know it, especially in this highly politicized era.

For most journalists, the rules are clear, but sometimes questions arise. We always encouraged staff to get involved in their community but to let us know if any red flags popped up. Is it OK to volunteer on a church board? Is it OK to be in a video for the United Way? Often, the answer is “it depends.” But the rule was “no surprises.” If a staff member had any question about their involvement, it was important to talk to managers so we could weigh in beforehand.

For news consumers, this should be reassuring that there are newsrooms with clear ethical standards and you can trust them to enforce the rules.

For the fired TV news director in Nebraska, it appears the red flag never popped up in her mind, or she ignored it.  She should have talked it over with her boss before collecting one signature. The station is owned by a large company with more than 100 TV stations nationwide. They’re not going to let their ethical standard be dented when a journalist crosses the line.

Her dismissal sends a clear message to its thousands of other journalists: Stay so far way from the line you can’t be accused of crossing it. And if you don’t know where the line is, talk to your manager before that red flag becomes a red mark on your career.

This article first appeared in the Iowa Capital Dispatch, a sister site of the Nebraska Examiner in the States Newsroom Network.

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Dave Busiek
Dave Busiek

Dave Busiek spent 43 years working in Iowa radio and television newsrooms as a reporter, anchor and the last 30 years as news director of KCCI-TV, the CBS affiliate in Des Moines. In that role, he planned coverage of the Iowa caucuses, the floods of 1993, and organized the first national debate between Democratic candidates for president in 2015. He served as national board chair of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. In 2014, he was Broadcasting and Cable Magazine’s News Director of the Year. He was inducted into the Iowa Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2018 and is a recipient of the Iowa Broadcast News Association’s Jack Shelley award. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He retired at the end of 2018. He is a member of the Iowa Writers' Collaborative and his blog, "Dave Busiek on Media" appears on Substack.