Published on Monash University's mojo on 28 May, 2012.
With a federal election looming, journalists will again face the dilemma of whether casting a valid vote compromises their quest to maintain objective reporting.
By TONI BRIENT
In the United States, there is a significant movement of journalists abstaining from voting in the interests of objectivity.
Politico journalist, Mike Allen, has observed the practice since it first occurred to him as student journalist covering student body elections.
“You voted in a big barrel in the freshman quad and I started to walk over there but then realised that if I dropped in a slip of paper, the candidates I’d been covering — and the readers who trusted me — could see me and know that I wasn’t neutral in my heart,” he said in 2008.
With Australia’s mandatory and confidential voting system, the issue here is slightly different. For many Australian journalists, political influence does not begin or end at the ballot box.
Media reporter for The Australian, Sally Jackson, believes objectivity requires more than abstaining from voting.
“Stopping journalists voting to my mind doesn’t address the key issue, which is whether their reporting is fair and balanced,” she said
Media Watch’s Jonathan Holmes agrees.
“These issues are far more important than which way a journalist votes,” he said.
According to Jackson, journalists should possess the expertise to set aside their own political opinions.
“They should have the integrity and training not to let those beliefs influence their reporting.”
This view is gathering sway within the Australian news media landscape.
For the ABC’s Jonathan Green, “personal prejudice is a betrayal of professional practice”.
Holmes says professional decisions can also impact objectivity.
“It isn’t so much the way a reporter votes, as whom he is getting his information from, that can skew his coverage.”
He points to journalists like News Limited’s Dennis Shanahan, who he claims was “very close to John Howard” and is “uniformly hostile” towards current PM Julia Gillard, and Fairfax’s Peter Hartcher whose columns he believes ”are always running down Gillard and praising Rudd”.
“They get good stories by being closer to a particular source than their rivals,” Holmes said.
“But it can skew their coverage.”
Jackson points out that being too involved with one side of politics can also have the opposite effect.
“I have seen research that suggests journalists can sometimes be so afraid of being biased they end up being unfairly harsh on the side of politics they actually tend to favour,” she said.
According to Jackson, many Australian journalists exercise some form of resistance to voting (a “donkey vote”) in order to be seen as objective.
Former 3AW broadcaster Derryn Hinch admits he has never voted in an Australian election.
“I have looked at Prime Ministers and opposition leaders in the eye on the Monday after an election and they both know I did not vote for them or against them.”
Hinch appeared in Melbourne Magistrates Court last year for failing to vote in a 2010 Victorian state election, arguing that mandatory voting is undemocratic.
He also believes journalists should “divulge their political leanings” to their audience as “an ethical decision”.
But for a growing number of Australian journalists, like Jackson and Holmes, journalists should be judged on what they do outside the ballot box.
The Australian Electoral Commission will be glad to hear it, because it currently has no plans to excuse journalists from voting in the foreseeable future.