Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: Perceptions, accountability matter

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

A longtime senior editor at The Bee, Mort Saltzman, retired before the 2008 presidential election, went home after his last day and did something working journalists can't do: He planted a campaign sign in his front yard.

He was almost gleeful when he told me about it. Like other journalists, he spent a career avoiding doing things many of you would consider to be a personal right, whether it be involvement in a local nonprofit or putting a political bumper sticker on your car.

I remembered that last week while catching up on a controversy out of Wisconsin, where Gannett Wisconsin Media alerted readers that 25 of its journalists signed the petition to recall Gov. Scott Walker. Gannett published that disclosure a week after its investigation revealing 29 circuit court judges signed the petitions.

Online, some vigorously defended the right of journalists to sign petitions, saying it was "old school" to think that was improper.

Call me old school. If a newspaper holds judges accountable for their actions, then its journalists need to be held accountable as well.

For journalists, the goal is to be accurate and fair, and as objective as humanly possible. Behavior matters because perception matters.

That means we can't contribute to political campaigns or hold fundraisers. We can't sign ballot initiatives but we can vote, a private action. While journalists might voice strong opinions over the dinner table, they need to not be publishing them on Facebook or Twitter unless, of course, they are an opinion journalist.

"There are just certain things you have to give up to do this," said The Bee's Capitol Bureau chief, Dan Smith. "You have a voice in how public affairs are conducted . It's a privilege. Everybody can be a citizen at that minimum level (voting), but everything beyond it is off the table, particularly if you're covering politics" but also with all newsroom staff.

Other professions have similar concerns about impartiality. Judges need to be above reproach as impartial arbiters, which is why it matters that they signed the recall petition.

In Sacramento, a well-known example of impartiality is the state Legislative Analyst's Office, whose credibility depends on the nonpartisan nature of its fiscal and policy analyses. So I called Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor to learn how he handles ethics.

Taylor said his office has guidelines to protect its reputation and also relies on the good judgment of staff. Analysts cannot participate in any legislative or gubernatorial political activity. Local political activity is fine if it's outside their policy expertise.

"I don't want a Republican member (of the Legislature) to see my staff with a Jerry Brown bumper sticker," he said as an example of behavior not allowed. "We want them to trust our analysis."

"It doesn't come up a lot. We make it very clear when we hire people about the kind of constraints we have," Taylor said.

The issue for journalists is the perception of bias as well as any actual bias. It's a concern beyond our political coverage as well.

Recently in our newsroom we've discussed whether it's appropriate for a reporter covering the proposed arena to spend a night out at a Kings game, given the importance to the team of a new arena.

It's a thorny question because of perception. Yet attending a game doesn't mean you support a new arena, or any public funding of an arena. It's not the same as signing a petition in support of an arena. Nor is it substantially different from attending a concert at the arena. It's just a night of entertainment.

We decided that yes, a reporter can attend a game. While sports journalists don't cheer or boo – they're working and focusing on the game – those paying for tickets and sitting with fans can behave accordingly.

A former Bee ombudsman, Sanders LaMont, weighed in on journalistic behavior last week as part of a lively discussion about the Gannett petition signatures on Jim Romenesko's Facebook page. (Romenesko is well known among journalists as the source of just about all industry news.)

"A proper response from the editor/publisher folk, it seems to me, would have been: 'You did what? How could you be so stupid? Don't do it again.' Then they needed to put their standards, whatever they may be, in writing for the readers' and staff's mutual benefit and education."

Here at The Bee, our standards are written into a newsroom ethics policy designed to protect the paper's credibility and our ability to do watchdog reporting.

"Our fundamental purpose is to protect the impartiality and neutrality of The Sacramento Bee and the integrity of its report," the policy says, in part. "Bee employees must avoid behavior or activities – political, social or financial – that create a conflict of interest or compromise our ability to report the news fairly and accurately. Our reputation rests upon the perception that The Bee is fair and impartial."