Nov. 1 2016 05:44 PM

Can full-disclosure nirvana be reached while practicing journalism?

    Dean Nelson

    With less than a week mercifully left until the general election, two recent stories in The San Diego Union-Tribune—about financial contributions to political campaigns by journalists—induced some media navel gazing. Part of me applauded that a local media member these days had any expendable income. But old-school rules dictate that reporters shouldn't donate to candidates or causes to avoid perception of bias. On the other hand, should a freelance writer who doesn't cover politics be castigated for supporting a candidate? Are journalists also citizens of a country that, to date, still values free speech? And can bias ever be fully eradicated—even by full disclosure?

    That first U-T story named four—later corrected to three—San Diegan journalists identified, and arguably shamed, for donating to federal campaigns. One was Eilene Zimmerman, a freelance writer who covers social issues, technology and business start-ups for national publications such as The New York Times and Forbes. Zimmerman has been a freelancer for 20 years and a Times contributor for a dozen years. (Full disclosure: I've hired Zimmerman to write several freelance stories, none on politics.)

    Zimmerman said she did, in increments, donate $167 to Hillary Clinton's campaign, but that the U-T story "lacked nuance" in trying to drum up local media bias within the context of a national story.

    "I think that as a private citizen I should be able to donate to a political candidate," she said. "If I was a staff writer at the Times I wouldn't do it. And if they asked me to do a freelance political story I'd disclose that I donated to Hillary and tell them to assign the story to somebody else."

    A follow-up story by the UT's Reader Representative said Publisher Jeff Light felt there are no exceptions to making political donations—even for arts or sports writers. Then he seemed to pull back, slightly.

    "I would not exempt any of those roles," Light said. "In our newsroom, I have a hard time thinking of anyone I would feel comfortable seeing on a list of Clinton or Trump donors...That said, we should acknowledge that political issues loom larger in some roles, and some donations are less troubling than others. Could a food critic contribute to the campaign of a sibling running for town council in a faraway state?...The peril is small at that end of the scale. But this is an issue to be taken seriously, no matter your role." (Full disclosure: I've had lunch twice with Light. We took turns picking up the check.)

    After that story appeared in the U-T, Voice of San Diego Editor in Chief Scott Lewis weighed in on the contradiction of a mainstream newspaper denouncing political contributions but also publishing political endorsements.

    "An emphatic endorsement in a major newspaper seems like it's worth a lot more to a campaign than a small monetary donation," Lewis wrote. "I'm not sure how Light doing that is consistent with his insistence that journalists must have an absolute devotion to impartiality in elections." (Full disclosure: Several years ago, I had beers with Lewis. I think we went Dutch.)

    In response to an email, U-T Editorial and Opinion Director Matt Hall wrote: "Unlike a political contribution, which is one person's donation to a cause, a political endorsement is an institution's recommendation...We tried to create a process that was fair and transparent, and I've been answering questions about it throughout the process on social media and elsewhere." (Full disclosure: I've had just one, quite congenial, face-to-face conversation with Hall.)

    At this point I turned to a local media guru, Dean Nelson, founder and director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University. (Full disclosure: I've talked on many occasions to Nelson's PLNU classes and he has sent me numerous quality interns.)

    Nelson's takes: 1. Always eschew political contributions. 2. Mainstream newspapers should—wow—consider putting an end to endorsements.

    "Small political contributions, though, are nothing compared to the credibility hit the Union-Tribune took under [previous owner Doug] Manchester, when the paper was shameless in its pro-stadium, anti-Obama bias," Nelson said. "To the credit of many of the writers at the U-T, however, the reporting mostly stayed legit. On endorsements, it was appropriate to do when there were more mainstream papers. Now it would be better to play it down the middle. Don't do them. And double down on accuracy. I still think readers will realize that has value."

    (Full disclosure: I've been quietly lamenting the demise of objective media practices and am buoyed—at least momentarily—by Nelson's optimism.)

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