Critical Thinking: Should Journalists Take Part in Political Movements?  

Several newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer have written editorials calling for the impeachment of President Trump. Should journalists take part in political movements?

Anna Zarra Aldrich, 22, senior, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Conn.

Zarra Aldrich is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Campus. She is triple majoring in journalism, English and political science. She has also worked for EL Gazette in London as an editorial intern.

One of the foundational tenets of journalism is to report objectively, which is often conflated with reporting apolitically. But when it is also journalists’ role to be the first witnesses to history, the line between covering political movements and participating in them is blurry.

When papers across the country issued edicts telling their reporters to not participate in the Women’s March in 2017, I viewed this as an affront to journalists’ rights as American citizens. Media outlets should adopt a more appropriate policy so that journalists may participate in political movements, but they cannot be the one to report on them. To absolutely bar journalists from expressing their concern and passion for issues that affect them personally erases their individuality and identities, which should be valued in the newsroom.

The current political climate, which goads outright hostility toward the media on, does nothing to help journalists navigate the situation. One particularly contentious media tool is the editorial. Editorials are intended to represent the views of the paper. But oftentimes it only represents the views of the editorial board. Organizations including the Los Angeles Times and New York Times published editorials supporting the impeachment of President Trump. Even as New York Times prompted the editorial with the careful disclaimer: “It is separate from the newsroom,” it can be hard for readers to separate the opinion of the paper and the facts it reports. This only encourages cynicism for legitimate reporting by those looking for a reason to distrust reputable sources.

Editorials are tools that should be wielded more carefully than they are now. An editorial defending the paper’s journalistic practices in the face of baseless criticism is an entirely appropriate use of this power. Calling for impeachment is less salient, especially for papers whose locations are far from DC.

Journalists should be allowed to participate in political movements, especially ones that affect them personally. But media organizations should take a closer look at the message their editorial pages are sending to readers about their coverage.


Keith Magill, 58, executive editor, The Courier and Daily Comet, Houma and Thibodaux, La.

An award-winning columnist and editorial writer, Magill has spent most of his career at the Courier and Daily Comet. He was named GateHouse Media Editor of the Year among similar-size newspapers for 2017.

It depends what you mean by taking part in a political movement. Credible journalists abide by ethics policies that prohibit activities like running for elective office, donating to political campaigns or participating in public demonstrations for one cause or another. Journalists volunteer to give up those activities to help them and their newspapers avoid the appearance of bias or favoritism.

But if you define an editorial or opinion column as taking part in a political movement, then my answer is a qualified yes. Most readers understand that one of our roles is to offer informed guidance on important issues that affect their communities.

At small newspapers like mine, editorials and columns have the biggest impact when they focus on local issues. We’re much more apt to influence, or at least spark substantive debate on a local mayor’s race than the latest tax bill winding through Congress. And when we do share opinions about state, national or world affairs, we’d better make it absolutely clear how the issue impacts the people who read our newspapers.

Strong opinion writing starts with strong reporting. It’s impossible to have an informed opinion unless you’re, well, informed. It’s what elevates a great editorial or column above uninformed or misinformed opinions you might find on social media. Persistent layoffs and cuts to reporting staffs erode newspapers’ ability to maintain their position as opinion leaders in their communities.

In some cases, editorial pages have been shrunk or eliminated altogether. That, too, is lamentable, as it scraps one of the newspaper’s most valuable functions: to have a conversation with its readers and its community at large. Social media gives journalists a great opportunity to do that. But something is missing from a newspaper that never offers a well-reasoned editorial or an essay from the heart.

In short, journalists do and should give up some of their rights to engage in political movements, but publishing meaningful opinions is not one of them.

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4 thoughts on “Critical Thinking: Should Journalists Take Part in Political Movements?  

  • February 6, 2020 at 5:49 am

    Keith Magill‘s concluding paragraph makes the most sense. Newspapers should clearly mark opinion columns as such. Opinions too often masquerade as objective reporting. These practices lead to confusion and distrust of the media. We cannot build meaningful results by name calling and shouting at each other. The newspaper’s mandate should inform both sides of any debate so that readers can reach reasonable conclusions. Many journalists seem to have lost sight of their critical role. Objective reporting is a serious job and a matter of high honor.

  • February 6, 2020 at 6:30 am

    Chinese journalist Liu Binyan called loyalty to the truth “a higher kind of loyalty”, for which he was purged and imprisoned and ultimately exiled. Any journalist worthy of the name recognizes that objectivity does not mean either omniscience or indifference. It simply means recognizing that the pursuit of truth must always be paramount in our minds and hearts. Does that mean journalists cannot contribute to political campaigns or take part in political activities which they may be called upon to report? Of course not. Some of the best reporting ever done was by journalists who had strongly expressed opinions about who was or was not on the side of the angels. Yet, their journalistic sense of fairness and adherence to the pursuit of truth allowed them to see that there is an important difference between reporting and advocacy, and they remembered that advocates come and go, but the truth endures.

  • February 6, 2020 at 6:35 am

    My everyday reminder of what my job is; maybe others who do what we do need a refresher…this is was originally published as an editorial at the newspaper where I work, The Wave, entitled simply “Media Ethics.”

    One of the first subjects an aspiring journalist is introduced to is Media Ethics.
    As defined by the Oxford Dictionary, Media Ethics are “issues of moral principles and values as applied to the conduct, roles, and content of the mass media …it includes issues such as impartiality, objectivity, balance, bias, privacy, and the public interest.”

    As for covering politics, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) says “Objectivity in today’s superheated political environment may be impossible, but impartiality should still be a reporter’s goal. Even those who are paid to have opinions — columnists, editorial writers, talk show hosts, bloggers (OK, maybe not always paid) — should at least be aware of all relevant points of view.”
    Journalists are human, and the explosion of social media is a powerful temptation for some in the media to avoid.

    However, given the responsibility we have as editors, reporters and broadcasters, we must make the effort to recuse ourselves from the emotional diatribes that swirl around the stories we cover.

    So when Samantha Power, who served as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations under President Obama, told a reporter “I got into journalism not to be a journalist but to try to change American foreign policy. …I got into journalism as a means to try to change the world,” it sends the wrong message about people who pursue our profession.

    Power was an Ambassador, so her ethical hiccup – journalists are supposed to report on the events that change policy – isn’t as troubling as the dozens of current journos regularly opining on politics on social media, even on elected officials and candidates they currently cover.

    SPJ believes “the proof of a reporter’s impartiality should be in the performance,” reporters who discuss their political views – even on their personal social media platforms – are betraying their profession.

    Congressman David Brat agrees, “The media does play a vital role in our democracy, and if we cannot depend on journalistic ethics, the nation’s in trouble.”

    No one expects journalists to be robots, but if we ask that judges recuse themselves from cases where they have a conflict of interest, holding journalists responsible for bias in their reporting should be held to the same standard.

    Vince Lombardi once said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

    We owe it to the people that depend on us to be accurate, accountable and transparent. We work for you.

  • February 6, 2020 at 9:23 am

    Absolutely not. Impartiality needs to be the first priority for true journalism. Report the news don’t make the news.


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