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Should journalists exercise their right to vote amid concerns of bias? | Pro/Con

The Inquirer turned to metro columnist Jenice Armstrong and former executive editor of the Washington Post Leonard Downie to debate: Should journalists vote?

The Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom Oct. 23, 2019.
The Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom Oct. 23, 2019.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

As perhaps the most pivotal election of our lifetime approaches, everyone from your next-door neighbor to celebs on Instagram is reminding us to make sure we’re prepared to cast our ballots. With the volume of this chatter rising, and the stakes of this election increasing daily, heading to the polls can seem like the most unmissable moment of the year — so why would anyone forgo their chance?

There’s long been a debate in journalism about whether reporters and editors — whose work requires them to be unbiased — should vote, or if by doing so, they’d be betraying the code of their profession.

The Inquirer turned to metro columnist Jenice Armstrong and former executive editor of the Washington Post Leonard Downie Jr. to debate: Should journalists vote?

» READ MORE: Everything you need to know about voting by mail, or in person, in Pennsylvania

Yes: People fought too hard for me to skip voting.

By Jenice Armstrong

Election night was a big deal at the Armstrong house.

We would walk as a family — there were seven of us altogether, so that was no small feat — to the nearest voting site at a local public school several blocks away.

Along the way, we would debate the various candidates and referendums. When we were each old enough to cast our own ballots, our parents would stand back proudly and watch. Those chilly walks made quite an impression on me.

It didn’t occur to me until years later that this ritual my family took for granted was one that my parents had not been able to partake in with their own parents because of racist voter suppression policies in the South, where they were born.

Eventually, I wound up writing for a neighborhood section of the Washington Post. That was years ago, but I still remember working in that historic newsroom where Watergate was unraveled and hearing the subject debated of whether or not journalists should vote.

I was surprised that it was even a thing, but it makes sense that reporters covering political races not make up their minds about a particular candidate so as to at least try and maintain some level of objectivity. How do you fairly cover Candidate A if you are rooting for Candidate B to win?

Back then, I was only beginning my career and unclear where journalism would take me. But I was certain about one thing, and it was that no matter what, I would never forsake my precious right to vote.

» READ MORE: See something strange or wrong while voting? Report it to our election tipline

I was a little thing in 1965 when the late Rep. John Lewis was viciously attacked by Alabama state troopers during the epic Selma to Montgomery march to protest racial discrimination in voting. Later that year, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, eliminating literacy tests and other barriers intentionally erected to keep African Americans from voting.

That’s why I take my right to vote so seriously. But I don’t donate to political campaigns. (My husband does, but uses his own money.) Recently, he ordered Biden-Harris lawn signs, but I asked him not to display them on our front lawn. And no bumper stickers or campaign buttons for my car. Even though I’m a columnist, not everybody understands the difference between a news story and an opinion. They just know that I write for the newspaper, and I don’t want to do anything to make people think that The Inquirer or Daily News supports a particular candidate.

Regular readers, though, expect me to take sides and share my opinions. As a metro columnist, I have a lot more leeway than someone such as Chris Cillizza, a former political writer for the Washington Post, who makes a point of not voting.

“Simply put: I am not biased. Never have been. Never will be,” Cillizza, now a CNN reporter, wrote in a 2016 essay. “But, I am also deeply committed to transparency in journalism, and I would never want to not answer honestly or fully if/when I am asked whether I voted and who I voted for. So, I take the path of least resistance.”

I’ll never take it that far. Most journalists wouldn’t either.

Voting is too important.

When I enter our neighborhood polling place, I sometimes flashback to those walks to the polls with my parents and on how far I’ve come and smile. They would approve.

Jenice Armstrong is an Inquirer metro columnist.

No: Journalists must be certain they are not biased.

By Leonard Downie Jr.

I stopped voting during the 24 years I ran the Washington Post newsroom, as managing editor under Ben Bradlee, and then as his successor as executive editor. Because I was the final decision-maker about what went into the newspaper and onto its website, including political coverage, I did not want to decide, even in my own mind, who should be president or hold any other public office. I wanted my mind to be open to all possibilities and all facts reported by our journalists. I believed that my open mind made it easier for me to direct aggressive reporting that held all kinds of politicians, officials, and institutions accountable to our readers.

When I retired from the Post in 2008, I registered as “no party” to vote in Washington, D.C. That means I can vote only in a general election, and not in a party primary. As an author and a professor of journalism, teaching investigative reporting, I still want to be nonpartisan.

Although I would have preferred that Post reporters and editors covering politics and government also did not vote, I did not forbid newsroom staff members from voting. But I insisted on complete nonpartisanship in their news coverage, and their noninvolvement in any other political activity, except voting.

The Post newsroom’s still standing standards and ethics policy, which I strictly enforced, required our journalists to “avoid active involvement in any partisan causes — politics, community affairs, social action, demonstrations — that could compromise our ability to report and edit fairly.” That meant that members of the news staff could not contribute money to candidates, causes, sign petitions, put election signs on their lawns or bumper stickers on their cars, or participate in any of the many protest marches in Washington.

“Journalists should be willing to give up some of their own political rights, as difficult and arguably righteous as that might sound at this hyperpolitical time in our nation.”

Leonard Downie Jr.

When I sometimes explained all this in an editor’s op-ed column around election time, some readers and other journalists scoffed about journalists giving up their political rights as citizens. But I believe that a journalist’s role as a singular kind of citizen is to inform other citizens as truthfully and impartially as possible about what they need to know to participate effectively in civic life, including voting. For that, journalists should be willing to give up some of their own political rights, as difficult and arguably righteous as that might sound at this hyperpolitical time in our nation.

» READ MORE: The Inquirer's complete 2020 election coverage

In fact, I believe it is now more important than ever, when the U.S. population is so deeply divided, and fact-finding news media are beset with accusations of bias and attacks of “fake news.” Amid a digital sea of misinformation, Americans need to know that there are news media they can trust, where journalists are seeking truth without bias. And those journalists must do everything they can to be certain they indeed are not biased, even it means not voting.

Leonard Downie Jr., the former executive editor of the Washington Post, is a Washington-based Arizona State University journalism professor and the author of a just-published memoir, “All About the Story: Power, Politics, and the Washington Post.”

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