With political season upon us, journalism ethics crucial

It’s the season for national political conventions, accusatory campaign ads and, let’s hope, news reporting that shines the light of truth on candidates at all levels of government.

So it’s the perfect time to remember the role we journalists should play in political clashes. Ethics must be at the core of what we do. It’s the essential element in several principles I’ve adhered to in political coverage since arriving in Austin in 2000 during George W. Bush’s campaign for president. I cling to these ideas today and remind young journalists of them every chance I get.

Be a truth tester. Journalists must move beyond he-said, he-said accounts and campaign spin to show whether a candidate’s record matches the rhetoric. PolitiFact has done a good job of this at the national and state level. But basic truth testing should be part of every reporter’s repertoire.

Knowledge of a candidate’s actions in office or the business world – that means familiarity with his or her full record, not just recent comments – is important for long-term stories and quick deadline reporting. Did a legislator vote one way at the Capitol five years ago, but today takes an opposing position? Are the governor’s words contradicting his past actions?

Even a sentence or two can help to provide valuable context. Sometimes the statement “That’s not true…” is needed in a news story before going on to explain the verifiable facts.

Use opposition research the right way. It’s probably a little-known scenario to the average reader or viewer, but political journalists frequently are the recipients of a candidate’s paid research targeting his or her opponent. It’s a tidy bundle of information that’s usually easy to access through campaign sources. But it’s got to be handled appropriately. Journalists cannot be lazy. They should not allow themselves to be used to simply publicize spoon-fed tidbits for the sake of a minimal scoop – or to provide a tantalizing headline for the campaign to grab later for a nasty TV ad.

If opposition research contains valid news, verify that information, find independent voices and, above all, be transparent. There’s an art to inserting wording in a news story to let the audience know that a campaign is circulating a particular story angle or has an interest in making sure it gets out. Some of the best veteran Texas reporters know exactly how to do this while still allowing their own reporting to shine.

Maintain an arm’s length relationship. It’s one of the basics of journalism, but often it’s forgotten. Some political journalists can become too cozy with their sources. That’s not the way it should be. While it’s fine to be friendly, a politician is not supposed to be a reporter’s good friend. It gets in the way of aggressive, fair reporting.

Former President Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary George Christian summed it up well in an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in 1969. We should apply his words to coverage of all politicians. Christian was a journalist before working in government, and he’s someone I’m privileged to have gotten to know in Austin before he passed away. On that broadcast he said that presidents and the press must feel free to criticize one another. That, he said, serves democracy.

“I’m not sure it ought to be a close relationship,” Christian said. “It should be rather arm’s length.”

This political season, let’s remember Christian’s wise words.

About the Author

Kelley Shannon is executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, a non-profit promoting open government laws and the First Amendment rights of free speech and press. For information on the Sept. 21 state conference go to www.foift.org.

Kelley Shannon