Since 2004, staffers at Reason have done what others in journalism typically don’t: They publicly announce who they plan to vote for in the presidential election.
As in similar years, this year’s survey shows a preference for the Libertarian party.
We asked Reason’s editor in chief Katherine Mangu-Ward about the history and response to the survey, and whether she believes that journalists have a responsibility to disclose political biases.
What prompted Reason to start sharing the staffer voter survey in 2004?
Mangu-Ward: I did a little archival research on this one, since this feature was inaugurated before I was at Reason. It turns out the man who would later become my predecessor as editor in chief, Matt Welch, sent a note to a couple of other editors from Bucharest in 2004 saying he’d “had a 10-cent idea in the shower this morning” for a feature where Reason would ask prominent libertarians and staffers who they were going to vote for and why. “Since libertarians — and especially those on staff — are insane,” he wrote, “this could make for entertaining reading, at the least.” He wasn’t wrong.
Why do you think journalists have a duty to disclose their political biases?
Mangu-Ward: From the very beginning, Reason’s idea was to puncture some of the self-mythologizing that journalists love to indulge in. The idea that concealing our votes somehow shores up our objectivity is absurd. Hiding the biases and preferences of a publication’s staff doesn’t make them go away. We believe if more publications asked their writers and producers to disclose their votes, readers would be better able to contextualize the news and analysis they receive and seek out real viewpoint diversity (if that’s what they value).
What do you think your audience gains from knowing which way your staffers are voting?
Mangu-Ward: Audiences often say they think “the media” is secretly rooting for one party or one candidate. And that’s understandable. I strongly suspect if The New York Times or Washington Post newsrooms revealed their votes, for instance, they’d be highly skewed toward the Democratic candidate. In a polarized and increasingly conspiracy-minded electorate, more sunlight is useful to neutralize those fears and allow news consumers to hedge against bias. In Reason’s case, we get roughly equal numbers of comments accusing us of backing the red team or the blue team as each election nears. The voting forum is something for us to point to and say: No secrets here, and also no real pattern of preference for either of the major party candidates.
To be clear: I believe you can have an ideological or partisan bias and still do powerful, important journalism. At Reason we put our priors right there on the cover of every issue: We’re the magazine of “free minds and free markets.” Your biases are going to influence the stories you choose and how you choose to tell them. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous. And while voting is an imperfect way to gauge bias, it’s at least a start in the direction of transparency for news orgs that don’t otherwise wear their hearts on their sleeves.
What advice do you have for other journalists who wish to disclose their political beliefs?
Mangu-Ward: First, it’s vitally important that anyone who doesn’t want to participate be allowed to opt out. There are many good reasons to keep a ballot private, and editors and publishers should respect staffers’ desire for privacy. After that, your survey should be as extensive as possible. We invite the full editorial staff to participate because bias can creep in everywhere. Not just from the writer whose byline you see at the top of the story.
Your introduction mentions that Reason staffers typically vote Libertarian. Were there any surprises in this year’s survey?
Mangu-Ward: This year’s survey was pretty typical. Staffers lean L.P with a healthy number of non-voters, including me. Those who vote for major-party candidates nearly always do so reluctantly.
What has the reaction been to this year’s survey? How has this changed from previous years?
Mangu-Ward: You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but every year I am surprised by the vehemence of the rage against third-party voters and non-voters. Even in an election where many, many people are less than thrilled about the Republican and Democratic candidates, the absolute fury at the idea that you might decline to vote for either of them is stunning.