Kaitlin Ugolik is an award-winning journalist based in Brooklyn. She writes and edits stories about the law, health, finance, technology and the media.

Now's not the time for media bias click bait

I've seen a bunch of headlines this morning proclaiming that journalists are "showering Hillary with cash," or enticing people to click on a link to a similar story by using language such as "Media bias? Journalists are opening their wallets to help Clinton's campaign." This would be just another regular day, if the publications using this language weren't Columbia Journalism Review and the Center for Public Integrity, respectively, and if we weren't in the midst of a truly unprecedented election cycle. CPI in particular surprised me with its characterization (at least in its tweet) of this story. It's "a nonprofit newsroom holding power accountable," by its own description. I completely understand the allure - and, yes, importance - of a story about journalists' campaign contributions, but what about the context of the current election? Where is the integrity in treating this story as if it were happening during any old election, and not during perhaps the most divisive election in recent history? And more frightening - doing this while Trump continues to tweet about how the media is "rigging" the election in Clinton's favor, and some of his followers are going on national television to say they will "become a patriot" and "take Clinton out" if necessary? 

Don't get me wrong: I understand fears about media bias and corruption, and have written about them a lot on this blog. I generally don't think they are unfounded, even if they do become a bit extreme at times (due, in large part, to a lack of understanding about how "the media" actually operates). And yes, journalists' political contributions are relevant and can be concerning, especially if they cover politics.  This is a really important conversation to have, and I can assure you that it takes place in journalism schools and newsrooms around the country. If you read the CJR story (which I do recommend, because - as is often the case - the writing and reporting is much more nuanced than the headline) you will learn that different publications have different rules about political contributions, and some are considering changing their rules in the wake of this election.

Here's the less sexy reality of this situation, though, at the bottom of that piece:

About 28 percent of journalists say they affiliate with the Democratic Party, 7 percent the Republican Party and 14 percent an “other” party,according to a 2014 study by Indiana University-Bloomington professors Lars Willnat and David H. Weaver.

The rest of journalists—more than 50 percent—say they’re not affiliated with any party.

More than 50 percent of journalists aren't even affiliated with any party. But how many people will read that far?

We (journalists) are all human, we all have beliefs, and yes, as humans with beliefs we are all a bit biased. What really matters, in practice, is our ability to conduct ethical reporting and produce good work that tells important stories - whether it's because or in spite of our personal beliefs. Some will choose to speak with their wallets, and it's up to individual publishers and consumers to decide how they feel about that. I believe transparency about this is good. 

I do not believe it's prudent, however, to tout this as a juicy, widespread conflict in the face of "rigging" accusations from a candidate unlike any other this country has seen. Yes, we should talk about this. But at this moment, perhaps more than at any other time, sensationalizing it could prove dangerous.

 

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