Few concepts trigger more disagreement among journalists than the notion of objectivity. What exactly is objectivity, and what actions compromise it? Does participating in protests, phoning members of Congress, or donating to political advocacy organizations create or reveal a lack of objectivity?
And then there are the finer distinctions: What if that donation is made by the journalist’s spouse? What if a journalist attends a protest but doesn’t chant or carry a sign? Is there a meaningful difference between expressing your political views on Facebook, among your “friends,” and doing so on Twitter, where anyone can tune in? Can a science journalist freely express opinions on some public policy issues—say, immigration or health care—and still report “objectively” on others, such as climate change? Is objectivity even possible? And if it is possible, is it the right goal for science journalists today?
Such questions are swirling fast these days—and journalists’ answers to them vary widely. In an effort to get some clarity, The Open Notebook asked 18 science journalists:
Where do you draw the line on political participation, engaging in activities dedicated to social justice, or expressing political opinions on social media?
Michelle Nijhuis, freelance journalist
This is a complicated issue, and people are always going to have different views. The concerns are different for someone who’s more established than someone who’s just starting out. Staff writers have different concerns than freelancers.
I think there are three sets of reasons why journalists draw lines between their work and political engagement.
For one, it could simply be the policy of the organizations you’re writing for.
Two, there’s what I call appearances, where you might refrain from political activity, or from expressing political views in your work, because you’re afraid of losing the trust of readers by giving an appearance of bias. Sources might decide that your views about a topic compromise your credibility. Those are valid concerns. A lot of my opinions are out there in print, and my access to sources often depends on my ability to convince them that I’m a reliable and accurate reporter, and that they should tell me their side of the story in spite of what they know about my views.
The third, and related, reason is that all journalists have to have some reportorial distance. I do work hard to preserve that repertorial distance. I am not out on the street yelling about how bad climate deniers are. I do try to keep my cool head and preserve my ability to listen to everyone, because that’s the most important thing to me as a reporter. If my ability to listen is being compromised, then I stop doing the thing that’s compromising it.
I went to the Women’s March with my daughter, who is 8, and because of my concerns about reportorial distance, I didn’t feel comfortable holding up a sign about a specific policy. I thought about what I would feel comfortable defending in public, and that’s when I thought of the sign I held up, which said “Facts F–ing Matter.” That was a position I could defend with enthusiasm!
Lately, I’ve been asking myself: Is it ethical for me not to engage as a citizen? In many cases, journalists have concluded that it’s ethical for them to stand on the sidelines, but I think it’s worthwhile to turn that question around. Very often, I’ve found it’s not ethical for me not to act—that I’m obligated to figure out how I can both engage as a citizen and preserve my professional integrity.
Jane C. Hu, freelance journalist
I’ve been talking on social media about race, gender, and other social justice issues for as long as I’ve had my accounts. As an Asian woman, it’s hard not to connect with those issues and say something about them, because those identities are part of my lived experience. I have a background in psychology, which has taught me that journalists carry our own biases, beliefs, and perspectives, like everyone else; we just try to put them aside in our reporting. I think that what we consider political has a lot to do with those biases. For instance, when people label rights for Muslims as being political, that shows bias—it may be seen as a political issue for those who aren’t Muslim, but for Muslims, standing up for Muslim rights is a defense of their own humanity.
I understand that some of the things I say on social media or in my newsletter Do A Thing (which I co-write with Shannon Palus) may lead an editor to decide I’m not fit for a story, but I’ve made peace with the fact that I may lose out on some types of work if I’m honest about my political opinions. I’m definitely of the belief that silence is a type of complacency, and I really don’t want to look back on this political moment wishing I’d stood up for my beliefs.
It helps that I don’t tend to cover a lot of things that are overtly political; for instance, I don’t tend to write about science’s connections to policy or government, so I find that makes it a little bit easier for me to avoid writing about political topics I have strong opinions about. Even so, each time I want to write something, even if it’s a tweet, I think to myself, “What are the consequences? If there are editors reading, how might they react?” And then, “Am I okay with that?” Even so, I do end up censoring myself—after all, what you say could be on the Internet forever—and draw certain lines. For instance, I don’t engage with politicians’ posts online, and I avoid directly advocating for specific policies. One line I struggle with is attending political events; I did want to go to the Women’s March in Seattle, so I settled on going but not carrying a sign. I’m not sure how much sense it makes, but somehow I felt like carrying a sign seemed like more of a political statement than showing up, perhaps because a sign would be an explicit endorsement of a specific belief.
Apoorva Mandavilli, editor-in-chief of Spectrum
I’m brown, an immigrant, a woman, and a journalist, and I’m under attack in so many ways right now. But I’m taking the long view. I’m not thinking that this is the new world forever. Some science journalists have said that at this point in time, it’s immoral to not be an activist. I haven’t come to this decision lightly, but I feel I can have an impact without being an activist or advocate. When you choose this profession, you have a very specific role you take on. I chose to be a journalist and this—not being politically active—is one of the things that comes with being a journalist.
I did participate in the Women’s March, and so did a couple of other people from Spectrum. I talked to the team to see if they wanted to participate, and we decided participating was more a humanitarian thing and wasn’t specific to the current president. In that sense, it felt more like a groundswell. I also consulted with our advisory board, and there are four well-established journalists on the board. I outlined what I thought Spectrum should do going forward, beyond the Women’s March. We agreed that Spectrum staff would serve our readership best by maintaining the traditional rules of journalism.
I’m not very active on Twitter, and the way I’ve split it up is Twitter is a professional space and Facebook is a private space. Our team posts things on personal Facebook accounts, for instance, but we don’t usually openly take stances for or against the current administration. And this is because there are a lot of things we need to write about and tell our readers about without losing credibility. We did a story about [then-nominee for Secretary of Education] Betsy DeVos, for instance, and what her appointment would mean for special education and autism. But, if at the same time, we were tweeting or ranting about her, then it wouldn’t really allow us to report things objectively. For Spectrum [which covers news and research about autism spectrum disorders], this absolutely makes sense.
Even if I were not an editor-in-chief, I would walk this line. I have written about AIDS or other [politically sensitive] topics as a freelancer, and I wouldn’t want to shut any doors because I have already gone on the record as having a view about something. I want to maintain some sense of objectivity. For me, a good rule of thumb is that if somebody can use what you’ve said elsewhere to discredit an otherwise well-researched, well-thought-out piece of yours, then you’re doing a disservice to your readers.
When it comes to making donations, people could donate to organizations that help support journalists and journalism. There is no shortage of worthy causes that don’t carry political weight.
Erika Check Hayden, director of the University of California, Santa Cruz Science Communication Program
This is a unique time to be a journalist. Anyone can sign a petition, but not a lot of people can do what we do. Evidence is showing us that the public is recognizing the importance of good journalism and putting its trust in news institutions. People are contributing to news organizations, and these organizations are hiring reporters because of the donations. I look at this as the public issuing a mandate to journalists. They’re telling us they value what we do.
When it comes to balancing journalism and opinion, what’s really critical is to think about how you’re marshalling data and evidence and facts. But we’re all human beings. We’re allowed to vote. We don’t check our humanity at the door. Transparency with your editor is important. Many publications have policies prohibiting certain kinds of activities, and you can straight-up ask your editor if participating in a march or protest would affect her commissioning pieces to you.
I would certainly say that I’m thinking about beat-specific issues. For my part, I wouldn’t donate to an organization like Planned Parenthood because I report on biomedicine and could have to report on them. But this is a tricky line, and I know that other journalists are making different choices.
Dan Fagin, director of the New York University Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program
The way I use Twitter and Facebook is often sarcastic and highly opinionated. But it is not how I would have used them when I was a newspaper reporter earlier in my career. My situation is different now. As a professor, I can express opinions, and I frequently do on social media and sometimes in my journalism.
My overall message is that there should be no overarching rule about expressing political opinions—except to always be transparent to your editors, your audiences, and yourself. How public you should be with your opinions very much depends on your own personal ethics and also where your work is published. You can be an ethical journalist and participate in a demonstration, and you can be an ethical journalist and not participate. I think it’s wrong for people to say that there’s some kind of black-and-white rule that always applies. I disagree with those who say participating in a demonstration is inherently wrong for all journalists. I also disagree with folks who say that journalists are too detached and need to involve themselves more in political action. So I reject strict line-drawers on both sides; journalism is way more diverse than that, which is a great strength of our profession. What matters is the quality of our work and that we are transparent to our readers, our editors and ourselves about our opinions and involvements and biases.
Before they decide whether to express a political opinion in public, I think journalists should ask themselves some questions about professional and personal obligations. If they’re staffers, they need to make sure they know what their employer requires or recommends. Freelancers also need to think about who they might want to work for in the future. In the age of Google, your opinions may stay associated with you forever.
Journalists should also take some time to interrogate themselves about their motivations and ethics. They should ask themselves whether they’ll still be confident they can approach stories with an open mind even if they participate in a demonstration or express a public opinion. They should also consider how their potential readers or viewers might react if they know the writer was marching.
As for donations, generally I don’t think it’s a conflict of interest for a journalist to donate to a cause that she or he doesn’t cover. And I even think that under some circumstances it may be okay to donate to a cause you do cover, especially if you’re an advocacy journalist writing for publication where advocacy is expected, and if you disclose your involvement to your audience. Transparency is the key.
Laura Helmuth, health, science, and environment editor at The Washington Post and president of the National Association of Science Writers
Staff writers at The Washington Post can’t participate in marches or donate to any kind of political organizations. I can’t go to protests anymore, and I miss them. (And I should say that in expressing my thoughts here, I’m not speaking on behalf of The Post or of the National Association of Science Writers.) I used to work at Smithsonian Magazine, which was extremely anti-political. But I would gratuitously put in references to things that were controversial to some of our audience, like mentioning evolution in stories about, say, starfish. There are ways, depending on your audience, to push facts that your audience ought to know.
I think about what readers will expect journalists to be transparent about. Transparency can deal with a lot of things. For staff or freelance writers, the main person to be transparent with is your employer or your commissioning editor, who will advise depending on their publication’s standards. For practical purposes, one thing to think about is if you march or donate or register with a party, will that affect whether people will talk to you as sources?
When it comes to editing, one thing that I’m trying to do more these days is to use my imagination to think about how something could be twisted or misrepresented by people who are willfully trying to do that. If anything is the least bit confusing, my tendency is to over-explain rather than to leave gaps.
As an editor, I am happy to work with people who express opinions on social media or in opinion pieces. It’s a lot easier to think there’s one objective, un-opinionated reality if you’re a straight, white male of privilege with lousy observational skills who is working with others of the same background. I think that how you think about whether or how much to be public about your views depends in part on whether you think of this as a question of reality or perception, and I think that’s an important thing for people to be thinking about.
Cynthia Graber, freelance science journalist and co-host of the Gastropod podcast
This is a very challenging question to answer, and one that, frankly, many of us are constantly grappling with, especially given the current political climate. (Not to assume that all science journalists are liberals, but rather that I believe most science journalists would agree that the current administration is not only anti-science, but anti-fact.) There are a number of opinions I hold that wrestle with each other:
First, everyone has opinions. Journalists aren’t some weird breed of objective superheroes—we have opinions, too. Doing our job well entails recognizing those opinions and questioning them, when needed, as we report a story.
Second, being an engaged citizen is not only a right but also a responsibility. I come from a family of lefties, going back generations, and also from a community that has been persecuted in basically almost every country we’ve lived in. I am a woman, and I recognize that I only have certain rights because people fought for them. Being silent when it comes to social justice—certainly not limited to my identity circles—doesn’t feel like an option to me.
Third, the appearance of objectivity has always been an important tenet of journalism. But I will now return, in a circular fashion, to point one, that none of us are truly objective. And the appearance of objectivity—i.e., never expressing your political opinions in public—seems to me to have been put in place mostly by white men who weren’t as affected by the results.
Where does that leave me? If I covered the Department of Energy (DOE), I probably would avoid donating to environmental groups that are suing the DOE, because of the appearance of partisanship. But as a science reporter who hosts a podcast about the science and history of food and who otherwise reports largely on biotech and genetics, I felt comfortable going to the Women’s March. In fact, I felt like I couldn’t not go. The same when there was a big protest in Boston about the Muslim ban. While Nicky (Twilley, my Gastropod co-host) and I never tweet political opinions from the Gastropod account, we are both comfortable doing so from our own personal public accounts, whether about the racism of the rage against the NFL protests, or attempts to kill the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Then again, if I covered health care policy regularly, perhaps I wouldn’t be tweeting about the ACA.
I don’t have an answer. These are my musings today, but I might have a different response to this exact same question in the future.
Nicola Twilley, co-host of the Gastropod podcast and frequent contributor to The New Yorker
For my personal Twitter account, and my personal activism, I don’t draw a line. I campaign on behalf of political candidates, I donate to causes and candidates that I support, I call my lawmakers and sign public petitions, and, if you read my Twitter feed, I think it’s quite clear where I stand on political issues. (I will say that if I have an opinion that is nuanced enough that I don’t think would be well served by 140 characters, I don’t tweet it—threads drive me a bit mad, and nuance on Twitter is usually misread.) In short, I’m a citizen before I’m a journalist—it’s ridiculous to think otherwise.
In my writing and on the Gastropod podcast I co-host, I am a little more restrained, in that I try not to be gratuitously political. For example, in a recent episode on the science and history of school lunch, my co-host and I did not editorialize on the Freedom Caucus in general—we just noted their position on a particular program, and pointed out why the data showed—and the experts we spoke to agreed—that that position was mistaken. I, personally, find many, if not all, of the beliefs and actions of the Freedom Caucus completely repugnant, but there’s no need to share that opinion with our audience—it’s not part of the story of school lunch. Conversely, we were happy to point out the lack of data to support the “welfare dependency” argument against providing school lunch, and to explore the gender implications of school lunch policy. To some, that may appear political, but it’s our and our guest experts’ interpretation of the available history and data, so, (a) it’s relevant to the content, and (b) it’s as factual as anything can ever be, so, while our interpretative bias is evident, our audience can make of the data what they will!
I personally think it’s a little ridiculous for an institution like The New York Times to ban its staff from donating to or otherwise supporting candidates and political issues that they believe in. It hardly resulted in bias-free coverage of the most recent election. To my mind, if you’re worried about balance in your reporting, you’d do better to hire a more diverse staff rather than neuter the ones you have.
Rebecca Boyle, freelance science journalist
During the election, I didn’t say much on social media, but towards the end, I did. I remember posting a selfie on Instagram of myself in a blazer (a lot of women did) with my “I Voted” sticker. I was pretty clearly on the side of the losing candidate. In the days and weeks after the election, I was venting a lot on Facebook about what it meant for my friends and family. I did attend the Women’s March, but I didn’t carry a sign. I carried a pen and a notebook, though. I kind of worried about it, but a lot of my editors, who are also Facebook friends, also attended and were also despondent. We’re all people, all human beings. No one is pretending that this is not a problem. It’s ridiculous to try and pretend like we don’t care. I felt free sharing on Facebook because my Facebook page is pretty locked down to friends and family. I didn’t post much on Twitter, but if you look at my favorites and retweets, you might be able to take a guess as to my leanings.
Before I participate, I think about who will hear about this. Who will see it? And to the extent that I have control over it, what will be the implications of my statements? Will I lose credibility? It has kept me from saying some things or doing some things. But it’s also motivated me to say and do certain other things. I think journalists risk losing credibility if they pretend they don’t care. Silence can be an even bigger problem than speaking out. I feel it’s more important than ever to amplify marginalized people and causes, and I’ve been thinking about how to do that in my role as a journalist. I’m a pretty privileged white person and that gives me a particular experience. I try to be mindful of that. I try to keep that in mind, that my worldview is not everyone else’s. I don’t know how much it helps, but I definitely look for female sources, people of color, and sometimes it takes longer to do it that way, but I want to be representative of all kinds of people.
One day, I’d like to run for a city or county office. That’s barred per the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics. I almost don’t care. In 10 years, maybe I’ll run for city council, and if that means I can’t have a new byline in one publication or another, then so be it. Journalists are among the people most prepared to participate in government. We have to be informed and are dedicated to getting the facts straight, and we’re engaged in our communities. It’s not reasonable to expect journalists as human beings to live as these siloed people.
Deborah Blum, director of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT
“It’s always a balancing act for journalists who want to engage on an issue to ensure that they’re not handing people evidence that can be used to erode trust in what they’re writing. And you have to recognize that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can blur lines between the person as a reporter and the person as a citizen. I can make a case that being transparent about your opinions is a form of honesty and should be respected. The downside of this transparency is that people could discount what you say. So far, I haven’t encountered that, but I do have the protection of being at an academic institution. It’s in part because of that I decided that when it came to [advocacy and journalism], I would allow myself, on points that I think important, to be outspoken.
So one issue of mine is gun safety. I really, hugely believe that this country could use common sense on that issue and that if we would allow for some basic gun safety we would save countless lives. I feel very, very strongly about that, and it’s not an issue I cover, so I’m very comfortable taking that stand. I’ve even tagged the National Rifle Association in my tweets.
Mostly I try to just share information or other people’s comments. But the sharing itself is something of a statement. I believe that good journalists don’t look away and I believe that they do their best to keep others informed. These days that can be exhausting. But I don’t want to get to the other side of this presidency and say, “Well I took really good care of my reputation and just watched as the country went up in smoke.” I don’t know if all the information and comments I share make a difference, but being silent isn’t good enough.
Lauren Gravitz, freelance science journalist
One important question is, how would it look to someone else? As much as you want to believe that you won’t be biased, if it looks bad to someone else, maybe it’s not something to do. If you know you’re biased, are you willing to pass up stories related to it? Do you feel that, by donating, you would approach a story differently? That the perspective of the group you’re donating to would bias you one way or another?
I think, for me, I’ve been making these realizations very slowly as I go along. You have to really take a hard look at these biases and think about where you want to make the difference, and whether it’s with your donations or through your writing.
George Johnson, freelance science journalist and columnist for The New York Times
The best journalists are by nature outsiders, who are most comfortable being the detached observer, the fly on the wall with the compound eyes taking it all in. Whether you’re covering politics or science, you have to refrain from any kind of partisan activity. That means you’re not participating in demonstrations, or even displaying bumper stickers for a candidate or cause. If you’re assigned to cover the climate, it’s pretty clear that you wouldn’t join a climate march. Early on, when I was working at a newspaper in Minneapolis, a political reporter on the staff drew the line at voting. She didn’t vote. I think that’s probably going too far, but I admired her uncompromising stance.
If you want to be a journalist, that has to be your primary identity. Everything else comes after that. If your passion is to fight injustice you do that by dispassionately reporting facts. Nothing is more powerful. You have to meticulously avoid anything that gives people an opening to undermine your work, whether they are being fair or not.
Tim De Chant, senior digital editor at NOVA and editor of NOVA Next
Every journalist should familiarize themselves with the ethics policies of the outlets they write for. If you’re a staff journalist, you should absolutely be familiar with the policies of your employer. It’s tougher for freelancers to be aware of such policies because I suspect each publication will have different expectations. But I don’t think it’s a bad idea to consider employers or potential employers when determining how, exactly, you’re going to be civically engaged. These employer policies should be posted publicly, and when in doubt, ask your boss or editor.
Julia Rosen, freelance journalist
I have been struggling with this over the last year or so, and haven’t come up with a good solution. When it comes to certain subjects, I think the answer is simple. Acknowledging the reality of climate change isn’t partisan, it’s just the truth. I guess it helps that I used to be a climate scientist, but I feel the same way about speaking out against discrimination. Women and minorities have rights. I don’t feel that it compromises me as a journalist to say so. There is no defensible “other side.” I participated in the Women’s March, and didn’t feel too conflicted about it. I’m also a freelancer, so I’m not bound by a specific code of conduct, and would just disclose things like this if they were relevant to a story I was writing.
I guess I draw the line when it comes to publicly advocating for or against specific groups or policies, especially relating to subjects I cover. Right now, I’ve decided not to express my personal opinions on public social media platforms like Twitter, and I did not go to the March for Science, although I struggled with that decision. Partly it was because, around that same time, I was finishing up a story for Nature on scientists’ fears about how the Trump administration might impact scientific research in the U.S. In that case, I chose to tackle that issue through journalism rather than advocacy. Overall, I’m really inspired by the reporters who are doing the hard work of tracking government activities and holding officials accountable. And though I don’t do a lot of this kind of work right now, I’d like to leave that door open.
That said, it can be really hard to stay silent in the name of preserving objectivity when some policies are based on blatant lies, and clearly put people and the environment at risk. It’s also hard when things that should not be political (like the right to clean air, clean water, and a stable, habitable climate) have become so charged. As many people have noted before, the quest for “balance” when covering these issues can actually lead to an even more skewed picture of reality. I’m still trying to figure out when trying to maintain objectivity is warranted, and when it is actually serving the purposes of those who are not acting in good faith.
Steve Silberman, author of NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity
For 15 years, I was a science writer for Wired magazine, an era that coincided with the rise of the Web, culminating in the widespread adoption of social media like Twitter and Facebook. My basic approach to journalism has not changed during that time. I try to go into every reporting situation with as few preconceptions as possible, allowing the data I uncover in the course of my research to determine my conclusions and shape my treatment of the material. (I recall arguments with a former editor who would demand to know, “What’s the takeaway?” when I pitched a story. I always wanted to reply, “How could I know what the takeaway is when I haven’t done the reporting yet?”)
But I have definitely changed the tenor of my online presence during that time, in accordance with the evolution of social media, sea-changes in the business of journalism, and radical shifts in the political situation in America. During my time at Wired, I downplayed my own role in the stories I wrote, content to be simply a byline that appeared on one deeply reported story after another. I aimed to be virtually invisible in public life, even avoiding making appearances in other media to promote my stories, so that when I walked into a room to interview a subject, they would know as little as possible about me and feel free to speak freely. I felt proud to enhance Wired‘s stature in the global conversation while remaining virtually anonymous myself.
That changed when a shakeup in the top ranks of the magazine’s editorship resulted in my contract failing to be renewed, despite the fact that the most recent story I’d written for Wired won a Science Journalism of the Year award from the Kavli Foundation. After years of writing exclusively for Wired, as stipulated by my contracts, my illusion of job security was dispelled with a 10-second phone call. I decided to write a proposal for a book on autism history that I’d been thinking about for a decade, after always putting it off for the sake of the next Wired assignment. That book, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, published in 2015, became a New York Times bestseller, and was eventually translated into 14 languages. I believe part of why the book reached a diverse international audience is that in the course of writing it, I was compelled by my research to take a public stance as an advocate for social justice for autistic people and their families, rather than treating autism as strictly a medical or epidemiological issue.
For example, I discovered that the Nazis had developed their machinery of mass murder, eventually turned against the Jews and other groups, by practicing on disabled children. As a gay Jew myself, it was hard to remain emotionally neutral while reading about developmentally disabled children who had been starved to death in clinics. My book essentially became a history of the various forms of injustice visited upon autistic people over the decades, which included forms of “treatment” that were akin to torture. My perspective was informed by many interviews with autistic people, who impressed upon me that the injustices of the past have persisted into the present day in new forms. I started to think of autistic people as not just folks who share a diagnosis, but as a minority population that has developed its own vibrant culture, and launched a movement (known as the neurodiversity movement) to claim their rights to self-determination and equal opportunities in housing, healthcare, and employment. In the course of writing the book, and then in speaking with the media and my readers about it, I found that I had become not simply a journalist, but an autism advocate—specifically, a neurotypical ally to the autism-rights movement, which is properly led by people on the spectrum themselves. When reporters call me for a quote on an autism-relevant subject, I almost always advise them to talk to autistic adults as well, who have been traditionally marginalized in the societal conversation about their lives.
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, with Russian assistance at levels that are yet undetermined, has also forced my hand in terms of how forthcoming I am about my political beliefs in social media. I find that aiming to maintain certain kinds of “balance” in the face of dire threats to our health care, our education system, our research infrastructure, and our environment—in fact, to our ultimate survival as a species—to be not only vacuous, but morally reprehensible. I may have lost my anonymity as a journalist, but I’ve gained the leverage to oppose the blatant lies spread by this administration in defense of inhumane policies, while speaking out for people who don’t have the same access to media that I do. It feels like an appropriate response to the troubled times we live in and the challenges we face together as a society.
Nsikan Akpan, digital science producer at PBS NewsHour
Since becoming a journalist at NewsHour, I’ve chosen not to share any political opinions on social media platforms.
As science journalists, we are the arbiters of empirical truth. Unbiased facts make up the core of what we do. To faithfully deliver this information to the general public, science journalists should avoid participating in politics and engaging in social justice on social media or elsewhere. Here’s why.
First: Voicing political opinions creates the appearance of conflicts of interest. It suggests to the public that you as a journalist are willing to choose certain topics or viewpoints over others.
Second: We live in an age of echo chambers. Consumers are already disengaged from large swaths of the news. While expressing your political opinions may draw like-minded readers to your social feeds, it will ostracize others and will erode part of your potential audience.
Third: What does a journalist actually accomplish by voicing an opinion on Twitter or Facebook? For example, does your opinion of Scott Pruitt bring anyone closer to understanding why the EPA is closing its lab in Houston as the city addresses the chemical fallout caused by Hurricane Harvey? Nope.
Finally: I understand the urge to sound off when scientific facts are publicly challenged with falsehoods, but your reporting about those falsehoods can expose much more than your personal views.
Lisa Grossman, astronomy writer at Science News
My publication revised their guidelines for political speech earlier this year, and they’re stricter than those at other magazines I was familiar with. It’s sometimes a relief to have the decision made for me—I can go to rallies but not carry a sign, for instance, so I don’t have to stress out about what message would be okay to put on a sign in the first place.
It is a little frustrating sometimes. Last year I realized that several reporter skills are useful for political activism, like canvassing or phone banking, and I was all fired up to use them. Those activities are explicitly against the guidelines, so I had to cool my fire. But I’m looking for alternative ways to help: Instead of a sign, I can carry water bottles and snacks to support marchers.
I haven’t come to any firm conclusions about social media participation yet. But I feel like shouting into my bubble isn’t really helpful anymore anyway. The people who know me know what I think and what I do.
I write about astronomy, which seems apolitical, but isn’t really. Space exploration has been used as a flag-waving symbol of American exceptionalism since the ’50s. NASA scientists still wave little American flags at every spacecraft landing and flyby. Social issues crop up in astronomy all the time, from sexual harassment to where telescopes are built. So I do see why it’s important to keep my personal politics out of my reporting in general, to maintain credibility when things come up.
But I’m not neutral about astronomy, and I don’t pretend to be. I got into this field because I love astronomy. It would obviously be inappropriate for me to advocate for NASA to get a bigger budget, or for particular missions to fly. But it’s not like I don’t care. Apart from just having favorite planets (who doesn’t?), my future career is in fact bound up with the size of NASA’s budget and which missions fly—that determines how much demand there is for someone who does what I do. I’d love to hear other journalists’ thoughts on navigating that.
Shannon Palus, science journalist based in New York City
We’re living through an exceptional time. Science journalists as a group are whiter and wealthier than the rest of the country. To stay disengaged at this point is selfish and silly. There are exceptions, but if you are not in a newsroom with an ethics policy forbidding you from engaging, and do not cover the White House, I do not believe you have an excuse to sit this out. There are a million things you can do. Pick a few that sit well with you and, if necessary, your employers.
On a personal note: I couldn’t extricate myself from the forces of politics if I tried. I have a lot of privilege as a white person with a monetary safety net, but I also am a woman, have a uterus, had an IUD from Planned Parenthood for a while, have been sexually assaulted, and am bisexual. And I got a weird problem with my knee sorted out in 2016 thanks to Obamacare. I watch some portion of rights go up for grabs every time the president holds a rally. I’m interested in protecting them.
Shraddha Chakradhar is a news editor at Nature Medicine, where she reports and edits news features on biomedical research and policy. Previously, she worked for NOVA as a researcher and is a graduate of Boston University’s Science and Medical Journalism program. Her freelance work has appeared in NOVA Next, Scientific American and Nature Outlooks. She lives in Watertown, Massachusetts, and can be found on Twitter @scchak.