In James Fallows' 1997 book about media ethics, Breaking the News, he argues that journalists are often so blinded by their devotion to the nebulous idea of "objectivity" that they often forget to act like real people. Fallows cited a decades-old TV program in which war correspondents were asked whether they'd jump into combat to save a wounded soldier. Many of the reporters said — out of concerns for their neutrality — they would not save a dying American, to the horror of the TV show's audience.
Twenty years after Fallows' scathing book was released, the press' blind devotion to "objectivity" is still getting in the way of normal life. After last weekend's Women's March, perhaps the largest single-day civil rights march in American history, the Miami Herald Monday scolded its employees in a newsroom-wide email for simply attending the demonstrations.
A significant portion of the Herald's reporters are women, which means those reporters have now been barred from demanding that their own civil rights and equality be respected by the government.
"In the aftermath of the marches this past weekend, we've learned of a couple of incidents that suggest we need to restate expectations for how Miami Herald journalists need to conduct themselves regarding political activism," Herald editor Mindy Marques Gonzalez and managing editor Rick Hirsch wrote in an email, which New Times obtained.
The letter does not detail the exact "incidents" the Herald's brass was referring to. But in a phone interview yesterday, Hirsch said multiple reporters had attended the rally. But, he said, the paper's ban on attending protests won't budge no matter the demonstration's size or topic.
"We’re not willing to lift it in any instance," he said. "As the letter says, we're not political activists; we’re journalists." Hirsch declined to say how many reporters broke company policy.
"You'll have to do your own reporting on that," he said.
But the newsroom-wide letter raises important questions during the era of President Trump: At what point are journalists allowed to resist the rise of an autocrat?
"First, we do not attend political rallies unless we are covering them as representatives of the Herald," the editors wrote. "This is not a new policy. We are journalists, not activists, and we can't portray ourselves as neutral news gatherers when our actions convey a political point of view."
The editors then went on to restate the newspaper's entire ten-point social media policy — implying that someone on staff had broken the rules over the weekend.
"Our guidelines for social media have been in place for nearly a decade," the letter says. "'Journalists should avoid actions that compromise the public's perception of their fairness and objectivity. Anything you post online — for your media organization or your private life — is searchable and/or discoverable by others.'"
The letter then
The Herald was far from the only news organization to ban reporters from attending the march as civilians: Both the New York Times and San Francisco Examiner issued decrees barring their journalists from marching, and most newspapers ban reporters from political activism.
But in response, Shaya Tayefe Mohajer, a female reporter of color, wrote Friday in the Columbia Journalism Review that journalists should have been allowed to attend the march. She added that blanket activism bans often hold back nonmale and nonwhite reporters:
Looking back, I wonder: What did those white men who wrote the rule against speaking out have to protest, as newsroom leaders in a system set up to perpetuate their advantage? What were they, perhaps unwittingly, asking a more diverse future workforce to give up as a precondition to joining the industry? Newsrooms can’t selectively pretend away the diversity within their ranks when they feel it doesn’t serve them, only clinging to it when it produces better access and more richly reported stories from within minority communities. I fear the message such a rule really sends is: Welcome into our newsrooms, all you wonderfully diverse reporters and editors. Could you please leave your pesky identities and demands for fairness at the door?
We would certainly understand if the Herald's editors became upset if its reporters were marching on behalf of something deeply controversial, like freedom for accused cop killer and black-rights activist Mumia Abu-Jamal. But given the fact that civil rights and female equality affect the daily lives of reporters, the Herald's letter is a bit surprising.
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New Times editor Chuck Strouse — a former Herald reporter — was stunned when he read the letter.
"You can't march for women's equality, for fuck's sake?" he said.
Here's the letter's text, in full:
In the aftermath of the marches this past weekend, we've learned of a couple of incidents that suggest we need to restate expectations for how Miami Herald journalists need to conduct themselves regarding political activism.
First, we do not attend political rallies unless we are covering them as representatives of the Herald. This is not a new policy. We are journalists, not activists, and we can't portray ourselves as neutral news gatherers when our actions convey a political point of view.
The policy applies to all areas of the newsroom, from sports to features to metro, and includes the copy desk, the photo staff and the CND. As a journalist in the newsroom, you are representing the Herald at all times.
Our guidelines for social media have been in place for nearly a decade. "Journalists should avoid actions that compromise the public's perception of their fairness and objectivity. Anything you post online — for your media organization or your private life — is searchable and/or discoverable by others."
Below are the Herald social media guidelines, which were adopted in 2012. We bolded the sections that are particularly pertinent.
Miami Herald Media Company Social Media Guidelines
1). Reporters, photographers and editors should interact with online readers, just like taking a phone call or responding to an email.
2). Anything that you post or receive online is public, so keep it professional. Remember you are representing the Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald. Don’t do anything that could undermine your credibility with the public, damage MHMC’s standing as an impartial source of news or otherwise jeopardize the company’s reputation.
3). Those posting comments are actual human beings. Treat them with respect.
4). The same ethics rules as apply offline also apply to information gathered online. You should identify yourself as a Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald journalist when you are working online. During online exchanges, always base your comments on fact or in direct response to a particular point or question being raised.
5). Don’t take insults personally. Compliment those making valid points. If an abusive commenter has a valid point to make, try to elevate the discourse. If the exchange remains abusive, report it.
6). Always explain to anyone who provides you information online how you intend to use the information. Content gathered online is subject to the same attribution rules as other content.
7). When possible, clarify and confirm any information you collect online by later interviewing your online sources by phone or in person.
8). We strongly encourage linking to MiamiHerald.com/ElNuevoHerald.com. But use links. Do not copy the full text or audio onto a personal site or Web page.
9). Do not advocate for political or other polarizing issues online. This extends to joining online groups or using social media in any form (including your Facebook page or a personal blog) to express personal views on a political or other controversial issue that you could not write for in print or on MiamiHerald.com/El NuevoHerald.com
10). Participation in some online groups could be seen to indicate that you endorse their views. Consider whether you can accomplish your purposes by just observing a group's activity, rather than becoming a member. If you do join, be clear that you've done so to seek information or story ideas. And if you “friend”, “fan” or join a group representing one side of an issue, try to do the same with a group representing the competing viewpoint.
Mindy and Rick