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We must be impartial, period!

YESTERDAY I participated in a public discussion at a regional media stakeholders conference in Harare convened by the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe in my capacity as the new Zimbabwe National Editors Forum chairman.

Editor’s Memo Dumisani Muleya

During the engagement a familiar question arose. Should media organisations and journalists declare and publicly support political parties and candidates of their choice, especially during elections?

A colleague from Tanzania, Kajubi Mukujanga, said they should take a public position, but remain factual and fair.

I had a different opinion which I later expressed in detail during an interview afterwards. Journalists must be above the fray and report impartially without getting into the mix. Once you declare support for a political party or candidate, you invite all sorts of pressures and expectations.

During an election period, journalists encounter multiple pressures, from government, political parties, candidates, proprietors or even editors. They also come under pressure from their own opinions, which they should express in the privacy of the voting station, like any other citizen. The public expects journalists to remain above the political fray. They are expected to treat all politicians impartially, regardless of the sympathies or antipathies they may feel toward them.

You risk compromising your independent thinking as a journalist by becoming part of groupthink typical of political parties. Once there are expectations from the party and its candidates that as a journalist you must support them, you lose your independence, impartiality and good judgement.

While the myth of objective journalism has long been shattered, journalists can’t be draping themselves in party political colours. Nailing one’s colours to the mast is no different from wearing party regalia.

Granted, journalists are human; they are socialised and nurtured in a way that makes them gravitate towards specific ideologies, philosophies and ideas as well as interests shaped by their environment and events in their rich tapestry of life, but becoming partisan is compromising.

Sympathising and supporting are different things. Voting for a party or candidate is also different. It is possible to sympathise and vote for a party or candidate without being a supporter, let alone a member of a political organisation.
As a journalist you may have your preference and vote for a certain party or candidate, but that should end there.
One shouldn’t be a party activist, supporter or member. It’s possible to vote without becoming all that.
However, when it comes to reporting there should be absolutely no room for being partisan. If one wants to express loyalty and support, they should write an opinion article.

Professional or ethical reporting deals with facts and truth, not opinions. Journalism is by its very nature is a science of verification and relentless search for facts and truth.

Well, there are many journalists out there who believe reporters should disclose who they vote for and their political affiliation.

The argument goes: We demand transparency from others, so why not be transparent too? Owning up to our political views might help in that regard, it is claimed.

This sort of argument sounds credible and convincing, mainly because it is impossible to claim that journalists have no political preferences. Big corporate media houses often have ideological and political positions that make it difficult for journalists to operate freely, yet at the same time pressuring journalists to come out and declare their political preferences makes things complicated and unworkable. It creates a conundrum or messy situation.

If that happens audiences might well look for our political sympathies or affiliations before reading, listening or watching our content and then decide whether or not to engage. That will only serve to further polarise and poison the media environment, and ultimately destroy the profession. We must just be impartial, period!

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