Should journalists contribute to politicians?

Three Indiana newspaper executives show up on a newly published list of journalists and media professionals who donated to politicians running for a federal office in the 2010 election cycle. The list, compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, includes:

—Dick Inskeep of The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne. Inskeep, who is retired as publisher of the paper but remains president of The Journal Gazette Co., made two donations totaling $4,800 to Dr. Tom Hayhurst, a former Fort Wayne city council member and the Democrat running against Republican Marlin Stutzman for the 3rd Congressional District seat held by Mark Souder. Souder resigned in May after admitting to an affair.

—Jeff Brown, president of Home News Enterprises in Columbus and the fifth generation of the family to manage the newspaper company. Brown gave $1,000 to U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, a Republican from Columbus. Pence’s 6th District all but surrounds the city, where Home News publishes The Republic. Two other papers the company owns, the Daily Journal in Franklin and the Daily Reporter in Greenfield, are near the district’s western border.

—Tom Gettinger, co-owner and managing editor of the Sullivan Daily Times, gave $250 to U.S. Rep. Brad Ellsworth, a Democrat whose 8th District includes the southeastern Indiana town. Ellsworth early this year opted to give up his seat to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Evan Bayh. Ellsworth is opposed by Republican Dan Coats. Coats, incidentally, received $400 from a Nashville, Tenn., sports writer, Harold Huggins.

To see the entire list of journalist donations, go here and look for the Media Donations link. State and local donations were beyond the scope of the survey, so the numbers may well have been greater had the more localized campaigns been included.

Whether it’s significant that journalists are donating to politicians depends on one’s point of view. It’s certainly an ongoing discussion in the field. The independent, not-for-profit Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks the flow of money in politics, stops short of condemning the practice.

Traditionalists argue that donations create a conflict of interest or at least a perception of a conflict that undermines news organizations’ credibility; a publisher’s involvement especially can open a newspaper to charges of influencing news stories. The other end of the spectrum contends that journalists are no less citizens than anyone else, so shouldn’t be restricted from taking part in politics.

Newspapers have some of the strictest ethics policies on political activity. The larger papers in particular pointedly forbid news employees from participating in politics at any level, donations included. Move beyond newspapers to broadcast media, magazines and online sites, and policies differ dramatically.

It should be pointed out that the authority of executives like Inskeep, Brown and Gettinger extends beyond the news side to include advertising and circulation, so they’re not news employees. They also play influential, if not deciding, roles in setting the papers’ official positions on op/ed pages—a responsibility decidedly outside the definition of news reporting and editing.

Where do you think the line should be drawn?

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