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(Not) wearing politics on my sleeve

I have been taking a deliberate “hands off” and “mouth shut” approach to the 2008 presidential election so far. Not even my closest friends can tell you who I’d like to see enter the Oval Office in 2009. Part of it was I felt it was too early to choose my allegiance, and part of it was, I’m not into talking politics like I used to be.

Tonight, I happened upon some T-shirts supporting the candidate that I really, really want. And it saddens me that I can’t wear them.

I’ve never kept my political affiliations a secret, but I’ve grown increasingly less willing to discuss them. I even removed that slot from my Facebook profile, and unjoined groups I’d been part of more for laughs than anything else. I even removed my “support” for office holders in my home state, Ohio, because it’s fairly obvious to follow that line to my political beliefs.

Do I think all this is necessary? Actually, no. I know other reporters who think expressing any opinion is tantamount to an ethical breech. I don’t think it’s that much of an issue for someone to know I lean liberal, or that much of a surprise. If you ask, I will tell you.

But part of being a journalist is maintaining that objectivity, or at least maintaining professional distance and not giving anyone a reason to question your ability to be objective and unbiased. So by removing those items, I am not showing support to one side or the other. If that makes sense, I can still hold the same opinions without wearing my opinions on my sleeve, so to speak.

A few weeks ago, I was tapped to cover a meeting for a new group whose cause could not possibly have been farther from my own belief system. When I got the assignment, I paused for a second to reflect on it and how it made me feel. I covered it as I would any other assignment. I was neither more nor less critical than I would have been were it a rally for a cause I care deeply about. In fact, I got several e-mails the following day/week from the group’s founders and members commending me for my professionalism and for a fair story. That’s the key I realized when I accepted the assignment: I knew I could be professional about it and reserve judgment for the reader/community member. That’s how I approached it.

Those community members do not know and could not tell from my reporting where I stand on that issue. That’s important. Were I to wear my politics on my sleeve, they would have, rightfully, raised flags. Instead, I showed I could maintain a professional distance both in my coverage of things I am fully in support of and those with whom I couldn’t disagree more.

When I became a journalist, I did not sign over my rights to join civil discourse or to vote and have an opinion. But I did take on the responsibility knowing that I wouldn’t be volunteering for political campaigns or pasting candidate bumper stickers on my car.

The last presidential election was the first I could vote in. Living in Ohio, I had the great fortune of seeing many candidates come through. I did volunteer some time working on mailings for at least one and registering people to vote. I had plenty of T-shirts, buttons and more telling the world where my allegiance lie.

Now, I’m in an entirely different place in my life and career. And though this election is just as important, perhaps more, I know that I won’t be doing any of those things. I never know when I may get called on to cover someone I do support or to handle a story on something I don’t. I have to maintain my professionalism in either instance, and part of that means keeping my mouth shut and my hands off in the political races. No matter how much I want that T-shirt.

2 Responses to “(Not) wearing politics on my sleeve”

  1. Mindy McAdams Says:

    You’re a credit to the profession, Meranda. Everything you’ve written in this post could be debated and argued over, but in the end, the course you have chosen is the wisest one.

  2. Paul Guinnessy Says:

    I think it also depends how much interaction you’ll have with the candidates. For example, if you were a sports writer not writing on politics, then becoming involved with a campaign might be ok assuming you cleared it with your boss. Working in a small news department where you stand a chance reporting on a campaign, is a different kettle of fish. If you think there’s a conflict of interest, there’s nothign wrong with discussing the issue with your boss on how he handles it.

    During the 2004 campaign I gave some money to some candidates as I couldn’t vote at the time (green card holder still waiting for my application for citizenship to be processed), plus I stayed away from reporting on the candidates. This time around I won’t be giving any money as the web site I’m in charge of is running a sub site devoted to the science policies of the various presidential candidates. That leads to a conflict of interest if I publicly support a candidate. Of course, with today’s paper reminding us that instead of Iowans being consumed with politics and making a serious choice over which candidate we might be lumbered with as the media has been portraying for the last few months, it turns out only 180,000 of the 1.7 million people in the state who are registered to vote will actually bother to attend a caucus. It does make you wonder over the fairness of it all.