Thursday, November 04, 2004

Should a journalist vote?

A student in Maryland asks whether news reporters (and presumably editors, photographers or other newsfolk) show bias when they vote.

While I do know of a few prominent journalists who deliberately don't vote -- the executive editor at my own paper, for instance -- I think they are going to needless extremes. For one thing, while it's possible for someone to find out which party primary I registered in, the chance of that fact influencing anyone is virtually zero. I think that what the ballot abstainers are attempting is a kind of mental purity. If I don't take sides at the polls, they are reasoning, then my choices as writer or editor will be more fair.

I see two, maybe three, flaws in that reasoning. One is that the journalist should be smart enough to separate necessary professional judgment from the choices that are our right and duty to make as citizens. And if we shun civic choice at the personal level we may even risk coming to believe that the choices are of no consequence -- that it doesn't matter who is elected or what kind of budget they adopt or whether taxes come from this or that realm of the economy. Public affairs, to such a believer, would become simply a game for our amusement.

Probably the greatest flaw in the reasoning of the ballot abstainer, though, has to do with the nature of bias. It is natural and, I believe, inevitable for people to exercse value judgment in all they do. If a journalist's goal is to be fair to the people and the ideas that he writes about, he'll have an easier time doing so if he recognizes what his own values are. If we are not aware of our values, we may never pose essential questions in our reporting, may miss significant images in our choice of photos, may use loaded language in our headlines -- and eventually will wonder why some of our readers or listeners say that we haven't been open to the view that seems perfectly obvious to them.

So Lauren, for your information, I vote at every election. I did miss one or two, as a younger man, and it made me feel like I'd betrayed someone.

What I don't do is put signs on my car or flags in my lapel. While I remain a journalist, it's nobody's business how I vote.


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