Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Reporters and Caucuses

Here's a headline Polprint strongly disagrees with: "Good journalism requires sacrifice of political life".

Newspapers around the country have been grappling with the question of reporters’ right to vote. It does not seem to be an issue in primary
states, where the ballot is secret. But the matter has cropped up in several caucus states.

American newspapers tend to separate opinion from reporting. (Polprint has been schooled in the British model, where if something is bollocks the reporter is free to say so.) On the political front, American reporters are supposed to present neutral information to their readers.

Banning campaign contributions is understandable. Taking away a reporter’s right to participate in a caucus, however, seems extreme. Most newspapers have not enacted such bans, but they have shown up sporadically: at the Duluth News Tribune in Minnesota; at the Rocky Mountain News in Colorado; and at the News Tribune in Washington state. And it's not just political journalists: even reporters who cover sports, or food, are discouraged from participating.

Objectivity is important. But reporters have opinions, and they are private citizens for 16 hours of the day (well, maybe 14). Should they never fill up a petrol tank if they cover the oil industry? Or, taking another angle, should the nine justices of the Supreme Court be barred from voting in case they have to decide the next election…or Clinton v Obama for that matter?

John Temple, the editor and publisher of Rocky Mountain News in Colorado, expressed his sentiments thus:

“I believe [reporters] need to be able to set their feelings aside when gathering the news. If they can't be open to differing views, they need to recuse themselves, no matter their expertise or record.”

How is it that participating in a caucus means that reporters are not “open to differing views”? Or less open than if they did not participate?

One solution, of course, would be to get rid of the anachronistic caucus system. The New York Times had a memorable article a few months ago about how Iowa, the first caucus, disenfranchises overseas military troops; hospital workers who have an evening shift; mothers who cannot afford a babysitter; and many others.

A compromise system is in effect in Maine. There, voters have the option of caucusing or sending in an absentee ballot. Polprint is not sure exactly how the absentee ballots are integrated into the caucus system (ie, whether the absentee ballots are anonymous or not; are there any Mainers reading?) But this could be a way to give anxious editors the veneer of objectivity that they seek—and soldiers half a world away the ability to have a say.

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