For many in the media, this election year — and the results of the election — has resulted in a shift from the traditional reportorial remove taught at journalism schools as more and more publications have asserted a point of view. That’s especially apparent in the ways that media organizations are planning to cover the Women’s March in Washington on Saturday, the day after Donald Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States.
What began on Facebook as a grassroots plan to unite women who were disappointed by the results of a campaign where a female presidential candidate won the popular vote but lost the election, has become a movement to show support for women’s rights.
For media outlets, the march, which is expected to attract up to 200,000 people, is a big story, as much a part of the inauguration as the pomp and circumstance — and Trump’s inevitable stream of tweets.
Vogue, Teen Vogue, Vanity Fair, Vice, Glamour, GQ, The New York Times, The Washington Post and BuzzFeed News are all sending teams of reporters, photographers and videographers to document the march. Editors from Allure will be on hand to post to social channels. W is sending two reporters. Rebecca Traister, Noreen Malone, Liz Meriwether, Ann Friedman, Dayna Evans, Claire Landsbaum and Lisa Ryan will cover it for New York mag’s women’s vertical The Cut, as well as two of the magazine’s videographers. Issie Lapowsky, a senior writer for Wired who has written about the election, will cover it for the tech mag. Hearst will have “around 25 reporters from a number of brands” there for the weekend, according to a Hearst Magazines spokesman.
Newspapers and consumer magazines have always had somewhat of a different mandate when it comes to journalistic ethics. But as more and more outlets attempt to cover the new political and cultural reality, magazine web sites and digital publications are now struggling with the journalistic questions that newspapers have been grappling with for generations.
“It’s not an easy thing for a fashion magazine to cover an election,” a letter from Elle explained in November. “It’s not that we were out of practice covering rapid-fire politics; it’s that we’d never obtained the practice that is built into the metabolism of a newspaper or TV station.”
The march itself raises the question of whether journalists who are not covering it should attend as private citizens. Among the outlets WWD reached out to, The New York Times, The Washington Post and BuzzFeed News (or, as Trump called it during his press conference, a “failing piece of garbage”) are not allowing their reporters to attend unless they are on assignment.
That policy, according to Andrew Seaman, the ethics chair for the Society of Professional Journalists, adheres to journalistic guidelines put forth in SPJ’s Code of Ethics. Although it doesn’t explicitly address the topic of political rallies, it discourages journalists from taking part in political events.
“The guidance is especially important for any journalist who reports on politics and topics adjacent to politics,” Seaman told WWD.
“As for the reasoning behind such guidance, impartiality is important when reporting and producing pieces of journalism,” he explained. “The perception of impartiality is also important. A journalist who covers Donald Trump may be fair, accurate and completely responsible while reporting, but his/her trustworthiness among readers, viewers and listeners may fall if they know she attended a rally against President Donald Trump or was active in former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”
In November, after the election, New York Times standards editor Phil Corbett reminded the newsroom of the paper’s policy.
“As we cover the transition and the aftermath of the election, it’s more important than ever for readers to see the Times as fair, impartial and independent. All of us in the newsroom — including those who don’t cover politics or Washington — should do our part to protect that reputation,” he wrote. “Marches, rallies and political protests will be part of our coverage in the coming months, as they have often been in the past. Newsroom staff members should avoid participating in any such activities that could raise doubts about the Times’ impartiality, including the planned women’s march in Washington in January.”
A similar e-mail went out to the Washington Post newsroom in December, elaborating on that paper’s policy.
“We avoid active involvement in any partisan causes — politics, community affairs, social action, demonstrations — that could compromise or seem to compromise our ability to report and edit fairly,” said deputy managing editor Tracy Grant. ‘“Active involvement’ is different from observation; but it is important to be mindful that the line between the two can be easily misinterpreted during an event. For that reason, it is strongly recommended that journalists avoid the potential issue by not attending events of this nature unless they are covering them.”
At BuzzFeed News, where the only reporters on the ground at the march will be those covering it, reporters are encouraged to tweet and post on their social media feeds — as long as they adhere to the policy outlined in the company’s Standards and Ethics guide, which explains that editorial staffers “must follow the lead of [BuzzFeed’s] editors and reporters who come out of a tradition of rigorous, neutral journalism that puts facts and news first.”
But for those more fashion-oriented magazines, attending the march as a participant rather than a reporter isn’t a problem. In fact, these titles oddly seem to see it as an advantage. After all, titles like Vogue and GQ made it very clear that they supported Hillary over Trump during the election. And for some outlets, being able to attend even though they are not covering it is seen as an advantage.
“We’re lucky to have the freedom to participate in political and social moments like these as staffers of GQ. In fact, our coverage was born out of an editor mentioning plans to attend with friends,” GQ.com editor Jon Wilde said. “We kind of hijacked her trip when we found a story idea that she was perfectly poised to report on.”
At Glamour, where more than a dozen staffers will be on hand to document the march on social, as well as in print and online, some of those not on assignment banded together to charter a bus to D.C. Other media types from Hearst, Condé Nast and elsewhere are making the trip, although in a less organized fashion.
“For advocacy journalists who already show bias in their reporting, the horse probably already left the proverbial barn,” Seaman said.
Then again — since the entire election has been “unpresidented,” to quote a tweet the soon-to-be President Trump wrote and then deleted in December — is it any wonder that media organizations are grappling with how to best cover the march — not to mention the next four years?