Similar to the tenets of the SPJ code, it is also integral that journalists act independently of corporate loyalties and government officials. Journalists must remember that their primary loyalty is to their readers, not their advertisers or the politicians that they may cover. In order to provide a check on these government officials and other sources of power, journalists cannot get too comfortable with their sources, for the more comfortable they get, the more likely they are to not want to publish information that portrays that individual in a negative light.
In the 1973 documentary I.F. Stone’s Weekly, legendary independent journalist Isidor Feinstein Stone talks about this dilemma and how it is necessary for journalists to remain a safe distance between themselves and the politicians they cover. The documentary then shows one journalist—ABC News White House correspondent Tom Jarriel—failing in this regard, as he is enjoying a tennis match with President Nixon spokesman Ron Ziegler.
Journalists are expected to serve as watchdogs of sources of power, ensuring that those higher ups do not abuse that power. If they fail in doing so, there is no check on those top officials, and this essentially allows them to abuse their power at their own will. Thus, it is of incredible importance that journalists attain professional relationships with their sources, particularly those that hold crucial positions. They must find a delicate balance; they must be close enough to the source to be trusted in receiving critical information and disseminating it accurately, but at the same time, they must also keep a safe distance so that they do not allow a relationship to decide which information is published and which is not.
It is absolutely necessary that journalists always reveal conflicts of interest and that news organizations remain wary of these conflicts in delegating who is to cover what events. In its 2000 election coverage, Fox News failed miserably in this aspect, hiring Republican candidate George W. Bush’s first cousin, John Prescott Ellis, to head its election decision team. This is despite the fact that Ellis, formerly an op-ed contributor at The Boston Globe, wrote in a July 3, 1999, column: “I am loyal to my cousin, Gov. George Bush. I put that loyalty to anyone outside my immediate family…There is no way for you to know if I am telling you the truth about George W. Bush’s presidential campaign because in my case, my loyalty goes to him and not to you.”
At 2:16 a.m. EST on November 8, 2000, Ellis instructed Fox News to call the presidency for Bush, and within four minutes, NBC, CBS, CNN and ABC had all followed suit. The troubling aspect of this scenario was that Ellis instructed the network to make the projection after a phone call with Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who was also Ellis’s first cousin and George W. Bush’s brother. After the phone call ended, according to multiple recollections in David Moore’s novel How to Steal an Election: The Inside Story of How George Bush’s Brother and Fox Network Miscalled the 2000 Election and Changed the Course of History, Ellis infamously said: “Jebbie says we got it! Jebbie says we go it!”
Below, multiple media critics reflect on the importance of the call, as interviewed for Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed documentary.
Another instance of family ties influencing election coverage came that same year, when Fox’s Carl Cameron, before an interview with George W. Bush, reflects on his wife’s experiences campaigning for the Governor’s presidency. Again, this clip originally appeared in the Outfoxed documentary.
In these two cases, neither Ellis or Cameron should have even been allowed to cover either event, reflecting the importance of not only journalists to disclose these conflicts of interests but also for news organizations to act appropriately on them. Both had obvious rooting interests in Bush’s favor, so they are inherently less likely to perform their job as thoroughly, fairly or aggressively as they would have if the conflict did not exist.
In terms of journalistic independence, journalists must adopt John Stuart Mill’s principle of utility in which they “seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” The majority of people want honest answers from their country’s leaders, and they want a check on government officials and other higher ups to ensure that they are indeed doing what they should be doing. In order to be this aggressive watchdog, journalists must remain independent from those that they cover, or the end result will be influenced, not impartial.