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Should Media Employees Give to Campaigns?

Journalist Dave Levinthal analyzed how many journalists, reporters and editors gave to a 2016 presidential campaign. Of the small percentage that did, most gave to Hillary Clinton.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, CC BY 4.0
During the 2016 election, journalists have become part of the story in an unprecedented way. GOP Candidate Donald Trump has levied repeated accusations that the media is biased, insulting them and even barring them from covering his events. He seemed to find proof for this rallying cry in an article written by Dave Levinthal and Michael Beckel for the Center for Public Integrity.

The story shows that of very few self-identified journalists who have given money to a presidential candidate, 96 percent gave to Hilary Clinton. The headline: “Journalists shower Hillary Clinton with campaign cash.” The piece quickly flew around the Internet, aided in part by Donald Trump:

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It’s long been a rule in journalism that reporters should not donate to political campaigns. But the story’s examples left many underwhelmed.

Levinthal has worked for the Center for Public Integrity since 2013, and leads the federal politics team there. He has covered the 2016 election with an eye towards campaign finance data, but has been covering presidential elections for various publications since 2008.

We spoke with Levinthal about how his story, as well as how campaign coverage during this election has changed given the media’s role in the spotlight. Here is a highlight from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Since your piece came out, there have been discussions in the newsrooms affected by the coverage regarding whether their journalists should be allowed to political campaigns or causes. What have you heard about those conversations?

We found that policies from newsroom to newsroom, from news organization to news organization often times were all over the map. You had, I guess, on one end of the spectrum news organizations such as The New York Times, The Associated Press, CNN — you can put the Center for Public Integrity and ProPublica in there too — that have very strict institutional policies against newsroom employees giving political contributions to politicians or political entities. On the other end of the spectrum you had some newsrooms that we talked to that effectively have no policy at all. That they leave it up to the newsroom employees, the journalists, to make a decision based on their conscience, based on what they feel would be appropriate for them as individuals. Then you had a whole bunch of shades of grey in the middle. Some newsrooms made distinctions or delineated between those who might be covering politics directly or editing political news directly as their day to day job, and those who might be, for example, music critics, or people who cover baseball. If there's anything, I think, to be taken from that it's that there really isn't much of a standard practice across the news industry when you throw publications large and small, when you throw in radio, television, online print, be it what it may. It really just depends on the news organization itself.

Trump has used your story in a campaign graphic, furthering the idea the media is biased against him. Was that how you intended this story to be received? What are your thoughts on how it's been used?

Well, the risk with any story that anyone writes is that you put out there, you do the best job that you can to be bulletproof with your data, bulletproof with your reporting, to talk to as many people as you can conceivably talk to, in the time frame that you have to do your reporting. Once it out there then lots of people are going to receive it lots of different ways. Particularly when it's a story about politics, so perhaps predictably the Trump campaign saw in that story one element of it that they've latched on to, which is the notion that most of the journalists who have given political contributions have favored Hillary Clinton.

That is only half the story though, because what is lost in this is that most journalists don't give money to politicians. Again, it goes back to sort of the fuzzy definition of, what's a journalist and how many journalists are out there?

You can imagine that there are tens of thousands of people in the United States who would identify themselves as journalists to one extent or another. We're only talking about several hundred people among them who have either given money to either Clinton or Trump during this election cycle, so it would be a vast overstatement to say that all journalists are in the bag for Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump.

What we would say is that of those who have given money, which is a small minority of journalists overall that, yes, those folks have given to Hillary Clinton more than Donald Trump.

We've gotten a lot of feedback from partisan liberals who said, "Well, this is totally unfair because the Trump campaign, of course they were going to use it for their benefit." As far as we're concerned it's really up to everyone to read the story, to understand it for themselves, and take from it what they're going to take from it. We don't have any control over that.


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