Does a journalist’s moral or religious impulse to contribute time or money to a non-political charity erode his or her actual or perceived professional objectivity?
There are certain things we journalists know (or should know) we just can’t do – run for political office, donate money to candidates or issue campaigns, sign petitions, participate in rallies we’re not covering, join advocacy groups, blab about our social or political views on Facebook, etc.
But as with most things in life, not everything is black and white. Can journalists volunteer at food banks or homeless shelters? Can we donate to humanitarian charities or arts groups? There’s a lot of gray there.
Let’s start with an easier question: religion. Surely no one would prohibit a journalist from practicing their religion, even if that religion takes positions on those same social and political issues about which we all work so hard to remain publically neutral. We might say it’s fine to go to services at a church or temple or any other house of worship, as long as we don’t advocate for the church’s positions outside the sanctuary.
But that poses several logical dilemmas:
1. What if we drop a few dollars into the collection plate during the service. What if we tithe? What if some of that money goes to support those causes that the church espouses? Does that cross any ethical lines?
2. What if that religion, as many do, admonishes its members to serve the less fortunate? Is it ok to volunteer at the church soup kitchen? Is it ok to volunteer outside the church at the homeless shelter downtown?
ALARM BELLS! What if that shelter becomes embroiled in some horrible scandal? What if its president embezzles money or misrepresents how the organization is spending state grant money, and suddenly that organization lands smack dab in the middle of the news? If you’re a reporter, maybe you can just recuse yourself from the story. But what if you’re the only reporter at your station or publication (not so terribly unusual these days). What if you’re an editor or news manager?
Ok, so you decide not to volunteer. But that renders you unable to fulfill a requirement of your religion. Do we want to make that a condition of being a journalist?
Let’s take this one step further and remove the religious aspect of this puzzle. Say you’re not religious, but you still feel compelled to volunteer at the homeless shelter, donate to the local food bank, or drop some money in the Salvation Army’s kettle during the holidays. Do you have any less right than your religious colleague to exercise what you feel to be your moral responsibility?
So here’s the key question: Does a journalist’s moral or religious impulse to contribute time or money to a non-political charity outweigh any erosion to his or her actual or perceived professional objectivity? Or vice versa?
I’ve heard opinions on both sides of the volunteering issue. Several years ago, I was in a small-group editors’ training at a Public Radio News Director’s (PRNDI) conference, and I raised this issue in a session with Ellen Weiss, NPR’s former Senior V.P. for News. As I remember, Ellen said she didn’t see a problem with journalists doing non-political volunteer work; but a fellow trainee expressed strong feelings against it.
I’m going to retreat into the safety of my professionally-ingrained neutrality now and not take a position, except to advocate strongly for more discussion. As volunteerism becomes more of an expectation in our society as a whole, I believe this is something we as members of our profession should consider and debate. Let’s start now.