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Political journalists need to confront their own biases, says Alicia Shephard, National Public Radio ombudsman
Alicia Shephard, the ombudsman for National Public Radio, said one of her friends called her about a dilemma.
“She asked me what I thought she should do about whether to vote in the Rhode Island caucus,” Shephard said. “Everyone has the right to vote.”
But this time there was a twist.
Shephard’s friend was a reporter covering the presidential election.
In a session called “Ethics of Political Reporting” Thursday, March 20, Shephard said that journalists—especially political journalists—must learn to separate their personal feelings from their professional obligations.
“You have to confront your human biases and then bend over backwards to avoid them,” she said.
Speaking about the decisions journalists face as they do their reporting, Shephard said there are “no hard and fast rules.”
“A very few things are black and white in reporting, and absolutely everything else is gray,” she said.
But Shephard said it is “very important to distinguish between opinion and news.”
“Especially in the age of the internet, when communication has become so fast, you have to ask yourself more and more, ‘Just because I can do something, does that mean I should?’”
Talking about the ethical ramifications of journalists making campaign contributions, Shephard said the question is difficult.
“As much as possible, you want to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest,” she said. “The problem is often not that there is an actual conflict, but that there is a public perception of conflict.
“By being transparent, you build credibility.”
In political campaigns, there is always a question about whether journalists should vote, Shephard said.
“We do have opinions, and we do have biases,” she said.
“But when we take the role of journalists, we have a responsibility to gather news and attempt to present it objectively.”
Ultimately, Shephard said, she advised her friend not to participate in the caucus.
“You can think that it’s important to vote as a person,” she said. “But you also have to think that there are other things a you can do as a journalist that won’t show your hand.”
Ben Plotkin is an editor of the Newtonite at Newton North High School in Newtonville, Mass.
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