Last week, Jordan Brenner of Bleacher Report initiated a hashtag that quickly became a trending topic across Twitter. Celebrities and regular citizens alike shared tweets tagged with #PressOn along with screenshots of their subscriptions to various newspapers, especially The New York Times and The Washington Post.
— Jordan Brenner (@JordanBrenner) February 1, 2017
Many consider the the hashtag #PressOn to embody the press’ role of holding the government accountable, which many have found particularly relevant given the Trump administration’s many publicized falsehoods.
Despite outspoken public figures such as 2016 independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin and actor Ben Stiller using the hashtag, few journalists shared it across social media. And while media organizations published articles on #PressOn, their authors and broadcasters were decidedly mum on the subject.
While journalists could make the argument that self-advocacy in support of journalism and free speech does not count as political activism, news organizations could perceive the hashtag as outspoken partisan opposition against the Trump administration. This potential link may have silenced journalists from participating in large numbers.
Just like the timing of #PressOn, journalists’ abstinence from sharing the hashtag isn’t a coincidence, either.
Many news organizations have strict policies on their employees’ ability to participate in “political activity,” but the definition of this activity – and its limitations – can vary across the media landscape. The Society of Professional Journalists, better known as the SPJ, says that reporters are more than welcome to vote, but they shouldn’t advertise their political beliefs, whether with a sign on their lawn or a bumper sticker.
Many companies use SPJ guidance as a benchmark for their organizations, but each has their own rules for employees. For example, CBS, Disney and NBCUniversal all allow their employees to participate in political activity as long as they are invisible in doing so. They allow employees to make campaign donations privately, but they do not permit any sort of public endorsement of political candidates or ideals, as not to threaten the companies’ reputations as objective organizations.
Other companies provide more targeted guidance regarding employees’ participation. Fox Broadcasting Company allows its employees to volunteer on campaigns, and that “individuals may contact their elected representatives for any personal reason.” This is contingent on journalists’ actions being their own and not a larger representation of 21st Century Fox.
TimeWarner, the parent company of Turner Broadcasting and CNN, lets its employees participate accordingly, though they note that “some employees, such as newsgathering employees, may have additional obligations related to contributions.” TimeWarner also has a political action committee to which its employees can donate to support national candidates.
But these five companies share one common philosophy with some idiosyncratic quirks: feel free to participate, but not on the job. This precludes journalists from engaging in protests in their official capacity as journalists.
Journalists can often attend protests, but some organizations, such as NPR, require journalists to do so objectively by wearing either non-offensive clothing or media credentials if covering a story. NPR’s ethics handbook is quick to note that “the distinction between being a participant and an observer can be subtle. But waving a picket sign or joining along in a cheer would be inappropriate.”
On the surface, journalists are taught to be objective by profession. Participating in a protest on the clock would seemingly contradict that notion that journalists have held as a Hippocratic oath of their profession.
Nevertheless, this doesn’t always stop journalists. Business Insider published a story of six journalists who were arrested on felony charges in an Inauguration Day protest. The journalists denied their involvement in the protest itself, though, claiming that they were just doing their jobs covering the event.
Journalists could lose their jobs if their employers were unaware of their participation in the protest. A 2011 article in The Atlantic discussed this protesting paradox through the story of a WNYC reporter who was fired when a picture of her holding a picket sign at an Occupy Wall Street protest went viral. Whether walking in a march or sending out a #PressOn tweet, many believe that journalists must continue their impartiality, even if that means not taking part at all.
Others, including Joshua Johnson of the public radio show 1A, believe that reporting can be a form of protesting in itself. “Reporting is participation — incisive and meaningful,” he said in a Twitter response to USC Annenberg professor Robert Hernandez:
7/ As journalist, this has been a tough time. Do I watch and report or do I participate. This has been a challenging time for many of us.
— Robert Hernandez (@webjournalist) January 29, 2017
The Trump White House is unlike any that journalists have covered. However, unless news organizations see reason to change their policies, journalists itching to picket at protests will have to settle for covering them as their avenue to participate.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that journalists were arrested at a protest on Inauguration Day rather than during the Women’s March the next day, as previously reported.