So did I. Oops.
Since I am a journalist — or at least am in training to be one — I can sympathize with the Gannett employees who were revealed to have signed petitions earlier this week. According to the popular journalism blog on jimromenesko.com, Gannett did not disclose the names of the news employees who signed the petitions. But the good folks at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Appleton Post-Crescent and the Fond du Lac Reporter (is there an anti-Walker germ in Lake Winnebago?) decided to run front page columns deriding the decision as a lapse in ethical judgement.
Regardless of some efforts to staunchly defend either Gannett or the employees who signed the petition, a few important revelations about the currently muddled state of journalistic ethics become clear when viewing the case.
First, the employees should have been more professionally savvy than to sign a petition given the intense commitment to objectivity the company places on its employees. Considering the status of the newspaper industry today, no small-market media outlet wants to be perceived as biased, and Gannett is no exception.
But Gannett’s reaction to its internal crisis also suggests a disappointing moment for Wisconsin newspapers: They’re afraid of their readers.
None of the news employees said to have signed the petitions were covering the recall, nor were they involved in any statewide political coverage, the newspapers said. Instead of acknowledging the ethical complexity of their employees’ individual and unique decisions to sign petitions, they made a rigid judgement about a difficult issue.
That means the armchair media critics who couldn’t even tell you who Bob Woodward is have won.
Journalists are, just like everyone else, complex Americans who make difficult decisions on a regular basis. We’re not robots — especially not the liberal or conservative models some think are programmed by George Soros and the Koch brothers.
Instead, we’re equal actors in society who want to participate in the democratic process just like any other Wisconsinite. Does that mean journalists can participate in activism? No.
But it does mean that if we want to see an election happen, or if we want to have a small, non-activist say in an issue that affects our friends and families, we’ll relish the opportunity to do so. Any true journalist, regardless of personal political beliefs over which they have little control, will swear an personal oath to fairness and equal-opportunity sourcing.
Signing a recall petition is not an indication of political ideology. A conservative reporter disappointed with even one of Walker’s policies could have signed the petition just as easily as a liberal one, just as anyone could have signed a petition in a parallel universe where Tom Barrett is governor. I made my own decision as a University of Wisconsin student disappointed to see what I believe to be unnecessarily excessive cuts to my university. But that does not mean I will support any candidate in the race, especially since I have no partisan affiliation.
Every journalist who signed a recall petition has a different story to tell about why they signed it, and I suspect most of them are valid. Gannett’s case only shows a rising lack of confidence in the current state of newspaper journalism. Just as technologies have evolved, so too have ethical attitudes about how journalists should convey their own personal biases in their reporting. Whenever people ask me why newspapers are seen as old-school in today’s hyper-instant news market, I’ll point to the Gannett recall case as an example.
Journalists never have been and never will be popular people, but they should always attempt to be credible. Gannett’s commitment to credibility is admirable, but the company shouldn’t confuse it with a commitment to popularity.
Ryan Rainey (email@example.com) is a junior majoring in journalism and Latin American studies.