HARPER: Journalists’ ideals of objectivity unattainable

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Objectivity. Fairness. Balance.

Three words that should be stricken from the journalistic lexicon.

Even though many of my colleagues maintain journalists can be objective, fair and balanced, I think it’s time to admit that these standards — which, by the way, are mainly American conventions — cannot be attained.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, for example, makes no specific reference to objectivity (which rated a full section in the previous code); fairness (except that journalists should be fair, honest and courageous); or balance (except when dealing with the rights of the accused).

Kevin Smith, the chairman of SPJ’s Ethics Committee, said he thinks objectivity is still possible, although he allowed that fairness and balance prove illusive because the terms depend on the individual defining them. Journalists “have drifted away from them,” he told me. Unfortunately, he added, “It’s OK to be biased.”

I would like to propose a different standard for journalists: transparency. Reporters demand all types of information from politicians from income tax returns to health records. Why shouldn’t journalists have to provide similar information?

Transparency might help regain some of the credibility journalists have lost in recent years. Alternatively, at least transparency would provide readers and viewers with information about reporters’ biases.

I believe the concept of transparency fits well into the SPJ code, which states journalists should avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived, and remain free of associations and activities that may compromise their integrity or damage their credibility. (See the complete code at spj.org/ethicscode.asp.)

So here’s my suggestion: a drop-down menu for journalists that includes two years of federal income tax returns (with redacted personal data such as Social Security numbers and home addresses), speaking fees, charitable contributions, political party registration, voting records in presidential and state elections, religious beliefs and stances on social and fiscal issues ranging from abortion to gun ownership.

It’s difficult to find much of this information in the public domain, but here are a few examples of what I discovered about some prominent journalists. I would like to know more.

According to the Columbia Journalism Review, Fareed Zakaria, a CNN host and Time contributor, charges $75,000 a speech. Over the years, he has given speeches to numerous financial firms, including Baker Capital, Catterton Partners, Driehaus Capital Management, ING, Merrill Lynch, Oak Investment Partners, Charles Schwab and T. Rowe Price.

New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, who often writes about finance, spoke to a securities conference in Miami sponsored by Wall Street firms including Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan and Morgan Stanley for a reported $75,000, which apparently violated the newspaper’s own guidelines.

Further digging uncovered the following fees: ABC’s Diane Sawyer gets at least $50,000 a speech; ditto CNN’s Anderson Cooper; and PBS’ Jim Lehrer gets $30,000 to $50,000.

The full list can be found at allamericanspeakers.com.

Most news organizations have policies requiring that top management approve such speeches. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to provide a public list of these appearances, including transcripts, for readers and viewers to peruse?

Here’s some other information I’d like to know. How much does Thomas Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times, make on his books and documentaries? Some journalists who covered the last presidential campaign have sizable book deals. Don’t potential conflicts of interest — something readers and viewers should know about — exist here?

I shout a resounding “yes.” But, as I mentioned earlier, people also should have access to a lot more information about the political views of journalists who cover specific beats and stories. I would be more than happy to provide this information.

Rather than continuing the debate about objectivity, fairness and balance, it is time to have journalists apply the same standards they ask others to follow. By revealing this information and embracing transparency, journalists would make it a lot easier for people to understand how stories get reported the way they do.

Christopher Harper is a professor of journalism at Temple University. He worked for The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20” for more than 20 years. He can be contacted at charper@washingtontimes.com.

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