Biased reporters and nonpartisan reporting

On Feb. 2, 2018, the International Fact-Checking Network added the Daily Caller’s fact-checking project, Check Your Fact, to its list of “verified signatories” to its fact-checking code of principles.

We’re disappointed at the rush to subscribe to the IFCN’s statement of principles. We find some of the principles arbitrary, and one in particular we find deceptive.

The Daily Caller’s effort to comply with IFCN principles reminded us of the deception, so we will use Check Your Fact’s policy on staff political involvement to illustrate the problem:

As a news outlet, we mandate our employees do not advocate for individual politicians or candidates. Doing so would violate our journalistic code of ethics and make reporting the news in a non-biased way impossible.

We support the right of a business to conduct its business as it sees fit. But is there any real evidence that an employee who advocates for individual politicians or candidates cannot report the news in a non-biased way?

We think the statement counts as flatly untrue. A reporter advocating for a particular candidate might, in principle, write a fact-check using the exact same words as a reporter with no history of political advocacy. This ethical thinking implies that a secretly partisan reporter is more ethical than the publicly partisan reporter even if their published content was the same. That’s absurd. The ethics promulgated through the IFCN is a lie.

Check Your Fact reveals the truth about the reasoning behind the ethical principle when it refers to the agreement it asks its reporters to sign:

Political Activities — Writer agrees not to partake in any partisan political activity or other issue advocacy during the term of this Agreement. Writer understands that any such political activity or advocacy could cause others to question their independence as a reporter.

Note: “Any such political activity or advocacy could cause others to question their independence as a reporter.”

To which we reply “Yes, and?”

So what?

Readers should always question the independence and objectivity of their sources.

Readers should expect their trusted sources of information to continually prove themselves with their latest work. We object to an ethical principle desensitizing readers to that need. And we doubly object to an ethical principle that values secrecy over transparency for purposes of hiding useful information from readers. Under the principles advocated by the IFCN, the reporter who hides a desire for political involvement possesses virtue. The reporter who confesses those same political leanings counts as a sinner. It’s absurd. Political activism isn’t automatically wrong, nor does it render non-partisan reporting partisan.

We support the right of journalistic organizations to limit political activity as part of their effort to protect brand integrity. That’s what they are trying to do with their restrictions on political activity.

But we do not see such limits as a legitimate means of achieving brand integrity. Instead, they serve as a means of fooling the audience.

We advocate building audience trust with trustworthy content, not trickery.

 

 

Clarification Feb. 18, 2018: Changed opening sentence from “the Daily Caller’s fact-checking project, Check Your Fact, joined the International Fact-Checking Network’s list of “verified signatories” to its fact-checking code of principles” to “the International Fact-Checking Network added the Daily Caller’s fact-checking project, Check Your Fact, to its list of “verified signatories” to its fact-checking code of principles.” We apologize for any puzzlement created by the first version.

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