A Political Lesson from the United States for Ethical Journalism in 2013

 Aidan White

WisPolitics.com - Paul Ryan makes a point during his speech at Carroll University in Waukesha (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Aidan White

The major stories in 2013 will focus on politics and particularly media coverage of testing national elections expected in in Germany, Italy, Pakistan, Iran, Israel and Kenya among others.

But if political journalism is to do its job of holding power to account it will have to learn a lesson from the bogus “neutrality” practiced by some journalists which led to flawed coverage of last year’s United States presidential election.

If the re-election of Barack Obama taught us anything it is that notions of neutral and unbiased reporting can sometimes obscure the truth. There is no other way to explain how some American mainstream media diligently reported outlandish and false claims by politicians, but left it to social media to expose the distortion, lies and inaccuracies.

The problem is that in pursuit of “neutral” election coverage, journalists these days are reluctant to challenge political leaders for fear of being accused of bias.

One example is the CNN coverage of Paul Ryan, the Republican Vice-presidential candidate who addressed the Republican National Convention on August 30. He made a series of contentious statements about Obama and his policies, but curiously CNN’s own journalists and producers did not provide the context, analysis and commentary that viewers needed to understand the speech.

Instead, the network turned to emails and Twitter for reaction and angry refutation of Ryan’s claims, including his shameful mocking of Obama over the closure of a car factory which had in fact been shut by the Bush administration.

Surely it is the role of a news organisation to be the first among fact-checkers and the first to challenge the bare-faced humbug of over-excited politicians, particularly at election time?

Journalists have to remember that impartiality is a cardinal principle of ethical reporting, but it is no excuse for not confronting politicians who bend the truth to win over voters.  

To be ethical journalists, particularly those covering politics, must stop quoting two sides of a story when one side is lying. At the very least they must tell their audience when that side is lying. This will upset some political friends, but the benefits are enormous. When journalists deliver on their promise to hold power to scrutiny they build an unbreakable trust with the audience.

Photo Credit: WisPolitics.com – Paul Ryan makes a point during his speech at Carroll University in Waukesha (CC BY-SA 2.0)