Not since the peak of the anti-Viet Nam War movement in the late 1960s have so many reporters felt the urge to stand up and be counted on a national question. And as with Viet Nam, the dilemma is more pressing for reporters who espouse the liberal side of the issue. "To me, the struggle for abortion rights is as important to women as the struggle against slavery," says a Chicago Tribune reporter. "This isn't about whether they're going to build some bridge downtown. This is about my body."
Yet, as more and more journalists feel compelled in their private lives to take sides on abortion, they are increasingly running up against policies of their news organizations that discourage or forbid such advocacy. Thus a debate is currently simmering in newsrooms, editorial offices and journalism schools over the rights of reporters to express their personal views vs. the rights of their employers to restrain them in the name of preserving their publication's reputation for fairness in news coverage.
The current debate was sparked by last April's pro-choice march in Washington. One week after the demonstration, in which more than 300,000 people from around the country participated, the New York Times disclosed that its Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse had marched, in violation of the paper's policy. The Washington Post also admitted that several of its reporters had taken part. It ordered those who had done so to abstain from covering abortion-related stories in the future.
Since then, several papers, including the Post, have reiterated their policies limiting outside political activity by reporters. Some have even begun holding ethics seminars in the newsroom to underscore the point.
Most news organizations, including TIME, impose no blanket restrictions on outside political activity so long as it is unrelated to a reporter's regular field. But others frown on any political advocacy. The Times, which plans to clarify its policy, declines to "explicitly say that journalists can't participate in a movement that is far afield from their beats," says assistant managing editor Warren Hoge. "But I sure wish they wouldn't." The Post takes a more hard-line position: its reporters are discouraged from engaging in any political activities, including community affairs, regardless of what they cover. Many Post editorial employees, however, were unaware of this long-standing policy until the controversy erupted over the Washington march last spring. Says managing editor Leonard Downie Jr.: "Some found it kind of shocking that they are called on not to exercise some of their personal rights so that the paper can vigorously defend its own First Amendment rights."
For many reporters and editors, that is a necessary trade-off in order to enjoy the benefits of the profession. "When you decide to become a journalist," says the Post's venerable political reporter and columnist David Broder, "you accept a lot of inhibitions that come with the responsibility of being part of a private business that performs a very important public service."
An equally troubling -- and more elusive -- issue is whether journalists can cover stories in which they begin with strong personal convictions. A. Kent MacDougall, a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, marched against the Viet Nam War while working on the staff of the Wall Street Journal. Defending his activities in a 1970 Journal op-ed piece, MacDougall wrote, "A well-trained reporter with pride in his craft won't allow his beliefs to distort his stories, any more than a Republican surgeon will botch an appendectomy on a Democrat."
All reporters have personal opinions on a wide range of issues, just like everyone else, even if they do not choose to proclaim them publicly. The best solution for journalists with strong political beliefs is to disqualify themselves from covering stories on which they feel their reporting cannot be fair. Deni Elliott of Dartmouth's Institute for the Study of Applied and Professional Ethics believes every reporter has at least one such issue.
The dialogue is certain to intensify in coming months because of the Supreme Court's recent decision in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services. As state legislatures begin to tackle abortion questions, newsrooms across the country will be faced with the tension between personal opinions and public actions. The large Washington pro-choice rally planned for November could prove to be a major test case for reporters determined to march. One journalist who will not be there: the New York Times's Greenhouse, whose last foray into the public arena originally sparked the debate. Says Greenhouse: "I don't intend to make a martyr of myself. I wouldn't want to do anything to undermine the credibility and objectivity of the profession."