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As it’s been a slow week for Canadian journalism (scandals), it looks like we’ll be leaning on America again for a source of ethical debate. This time, we shift to Wisconsin, where 25 Gannett employees have been called out in print by their publisher for signing a petition seeking the recall of Governor Scott Walker.

Kevin Corrado, publisher of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, issued an apology to readers on Friday, writing that “those who signed the petition were in breach of Gannett’s principles of ethical conduct…. [J]ournalists who work within a professional news organization must go to extra lengths to ensure against even the impression of favoring a candidate or a position.” And Walker, not the British 1960s heartthrob pop singer but the guy who removed collective bargaining rights for union workers, has not been popular with the leftish media, so something like this was bound to happen. (Twenty-nine circuit court judges already signed the petition, which itself was a matter of controversy, a story broken by journalists from none other than—drum roll—Gannett.)
Corrado deserves kudos for coming clean to readers when he could have easily kept the incident on the down-low. And the fact that the signers will be receiving some sort of disciplinary action shouldn’t come as a surprise: one of Gannett’s ethical principles states that “We will avoid potential conflicts of interest and eliminate inappropriate influence on content.” But this issue of journalists being discouraged from expressing a semi-public opinion on anything—signing a petition, having a sign on the lawn during an election season—is starting to seem like a sentiment from a bygone era.

Someone needs to explain—clearly, and preferably without yelling—how thinking and believing Walker should be recalled is so different from putting one’s name on a sheet. True, it may mean that said journalist is more out front with his biases, and perhaps even to an audience-insulting degree—that’s up to the discretion of the editors or publishers. But coming out against the principle of a “professional” journalist exhibiting a political opinion has always seemed a little patronizing to me; it’s as though the publishers assume readers are too stupid to think beyond the text and consider what biases may lie in or behind the writing—and biases will always show, whether you want them to or not. Respectable in archaic intent as Corrado may be, positions like his give the appearance of impartiality—which is unachievable, thank God—instead of the actual thing. It’s the idea that we should read with an elephant in the room. What if a journalist didn’t sign the petition, but wrote a column expressing similar sentiments? Is his other reportage then tainted as well? (Makes you wonder what would happen if a politician decided to do away with the collective bargaining rights of journalists. Who’ll write the news?)

The ironic thing is that Gannett is deciding not to release the names of the signatories, which seems to render the whole “transparency” idea rather moot. (Also, as pointed out on The Guardian’s blog, Corrado’s letter to readers was also published in other Gannett papers, with different bylines—though this seems to have been corrected now.)

In the upcoming issue of the Review, so lovingly put together by us all, there are a few feature stories that concern these types of dilemmas—specifically, when (and if) it’s okay for a journalist to cross the line and become something more (or less). There’s something to be said for the idea that journalists’ opinions could carry some well-reasoned weight (talking to people and finding their little facts, as they tend to do). One shouldn’t necessarily express one’s biases frivolously if such weight is to be maintained, of course. But this petition wasn’t (isn’t—an election is anticipated) a frivolous request. If you’ve got something to say, say it—you’re already thinking about it.

Lead image via Justin Sullivan/Getty Images 

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About the author

Nathaniel Wisnicki was the Chief Copy Editor of the Summer 2012 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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