PhotoGiven the revolving door between politics and journalism at the network TV level, any mention of journalists avoiding political involvement is usually greeted with gales of laughter.

But, believe it or not, "journalism" and "ethics" are sometimes used in the same sentence and smaller, less star-struck organizations still take such things seriously.

The Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ) is so concerned by the horrible examples being set at the national level -- presidential advisers and even family members being magically "transformed" into journalists -- that it has issued a position paper to provide guidance to reporters and editors who may be tempted to stray onto forbidden turf.

The SPJ Ethics Committee says in a preface to the report that it gets a significant number of questions about whether journalists should engage in political activity.

The answer is no

"The simplest answer is 'No.' Don’t do it. Don’t get involved. Don’t contribute money, don’t work in a campaign, don’t lobby, and especially, don’t run for office yourself," the comittee advised, but concedes there is a little bit more to it than that.

In its position paper, the committee advises journalists:

  • Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived
  • Remain free of associations that may compromise integrity or damage credibility

While those are the most directly relevant provisions, the committee advises the following also apply, but in different ways:

  • Disclose unavoidable conflicts
  • Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable
  • Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context
  • Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection

"Objectivity in today’s superheated political environment may be impossible, but impartiality should still be a reporter’s goal," the report advises. "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."

While there may be some leeway for media types not directly involved in reporting and editing, the group advises that reporters covering politics are at the other end of this spectrum of what may be tolerated.

"For them, almost no political activity is OK. Some reporters interpret this as meaning it’s off-limits even to register to vote as a Democrat or Republican or third-party member. Some take it to extremes and even decline to vote in a general election. Those are extreme positions, and unnecessarily prim. The proof of a reporter’s impartiality should be in the performance," the report advises.

Oh, and by the way, yard signs, bumper stickers and even campaign buttons should be considered off-limits, SPJ cautioned. 

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