Objectivity and Volunteerism – Mutually Exclusive?

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.

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Objectivity and Volunteerism – Mutually Exclusive?

4 thoughts on “Objectivity and Volunteerism – Mutually Exclusive?

  1. Scott Finn says:

    Good question!

    I think a healthy dose of disclosure works in these situations. If you volunteer at the soup kitchen, then must cover a scandal at said soup kitchen, you disclose that and cover away.

    Journalists are not a priestly cult. We have kids who need softball coaches. We belong to churches that encourage us to serve others. I’d hate to lose that connection to my community — it makes me a better person and reporter

  2. I agree with Scott — an agreement I really only came to after having kids. I’ll explain. Pre-kids (which, granted was a very long time ago and probably still during my me-me-me post college days) I would have drawn a very hard line in the sand. No volunteering, no contributing. Period.

    But then – kids. Kids who attend public schools. Kids who do theatre. Kids who participate in city sports. Kids who join the Girl Scouts. And all the pleas to help out — “we need your time. your money. your support.” It makes it awfully hard, especially if you want to be an engaged parents.

    As Scott says, disclosure is key. Sometimes, depending on your level of involvement, disclosure isn’t enough and you have to recuse yourself. I do that with Girl Scout-related stories since I’m a Girl Scout leader for two troops AND the Service Unit manager for all the troops in my city. When I highly controversial GS story came up last year, I appointed someone else (Thanks, Russell Lewis of NPR!) to accept or reject the pitch and to do the edit. Similarly, when there was controversy surrounding a very public fight between our city’s former mayor and the owner a local restaurant (one of my very close friends) I also recused myself. Our program director did the assigning/editing/etc.

  3. Jess says:

    What a great post!

    Ever since graduating from college three years ago I have been searching for a volunteer opportunity that would fit my interests – namely, writing, education, languages, foreign cultures. Just last week I discovered a nonprofit in my coverage area that needs volunteer tutors to teach English to adult learners and I felt like I finally found something that is a perfect fit for me.

    But tonight, as I was writing an email to express my interest, this exact dilemma hit me. So I typed “ethics, can journalists volunteer?” into Google and came across this post. I really want to send my email, but I’m going to consult with my editor first. I also noticed on the nonprofit’s website that my newspaper is one of their sponsors, so I’m not sure if that complicates matters even more?

    Personally, I agree with the other comments. If for some reason I was ever assigned to write a story about this organization after I started volunteering for them I would be prepared to recuse myself.

  4. scribblesandscruples says:

    Hi Jess,

    I’m glad you found the post and the comments useful. I definitely recommend talking to your editor anytime you find yourself in a dilemma like this – that’s what s/he is there for! You also raise an interesting question about whether it should matter that your paper sponsors the organization. I tend to think not. I’m a pretty firm believer in a strict firewall between a news outlet’s journalists and other parts of the organization (publicity, advertising/underwriting, etc.) I think the decision should be made based on journalistic considerations alone. There are plenty of gray areas in those firewall questions, though, so perhaps I’ll delve into them further in an upcoming post – stay tuned! Meanwhile, I’m interested to know what you and your editor decide about your potential volunteer opportunity … and if you end up pursuing it, I’d like to know how you separate your role as volunteer from your role as a journalist who’s always on the lookout for an interesting story. Please post updates as you have them!

    Judith

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