Even with the advent of ad hoc internet journalism, legitimate reporters are usually constrained in how they express their personal opinions in public. This position is often mandated by media companies themselves to avoid confusion between their journalists’ reporting and their personal views on social media platforms. It is true that exceptions are made in some instances of editorial ideological preference, where journalists choose to reveal their views on political or social policy matters while reporting on current events. Just like elected or appointed officials, journalists generally appreciate the fact that optics matter and for their reporting to be effective, they need to watch what they post on Facebook and Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and any other public forum.
Nonetheless, some journalists regularly reveal their views on social media platforms, often pointing out that their posts are solely their own opinion, unrelated to those of their employers or other third parties that they may be affiliated with. Some media companies even place restrictions on their journalists’ personal social media posts to avoid confusion and maintain objective standards of best practices. Yet, some journalists seem to have no qualms about expressing strong personal views thereby creating an impression that they are speaking on behalf of their employer. Unfortunately for the American public and the media industry, there is a growing disregard for restraint, and some reporters come across as angry bloggers. Such is the case with a Sacramento reporter, Angela Hart, who writes for California Healthline. Miss Hart, a recent U.C. Berkeley graduate, formerly reported on politics and healthcare in California for Sacramento Bee, and then had a short stint at Politico’s Sacramento bureau.
While Miss Hart does not generally engage is overt bias on the news page, her choice of topics, retweets, and comments on social media does bring up a question: Can an objective journalist still maintain standards of objectivity in reporting news, while not being circumspect about her or his views off the news page?
A case in point is Angela Hart’s recent Twitter offering on the subject of flavored tobacco. She covers and retweets quotes that lean very heavily in favor of a ban on flavored tobacco. Specifically, Hart gives an almost unlimited pulpit to one particular Assemblywoman, Shirley Weber, who calls tobacco firms “racist,” and says they engage in “watermelon politics,” and claims to be “outraged” and “insulted,” by their tactics. Another tweet quote Hart ran: “This isn’t about not liking Big Tobacco…this is about loving California kids.” A further example of a biased retweet is a criticism of tobacco firms that reads, “Don’t let them fool you with their advertising campaign…don’t fall for that.” And, not to miss a worn out message, she retweets how tobacco sales relate to “systemic racism.”
The empty space in the Big Tobacco quote is telling, as is the puerile cliché regarding “the kids.” There hasn’t been a questionable crusade for generations that did not make a tendentious appeal “for the children.” But Hart quotes these public relations platitudes as if they were an unbiased epiphany. The references to race are anything but objective and merely parrot a party line. That is troubling, as her naked bias against private sector firms cannot help but be reflected in her work as a reporter on a variety of subjects.
Hart has a similar enthusiasm for California Governor Gavin Newsom. Newsom’s tweets and quotes are dutifully retweeted like writ from on high. If Newsom claims it, Hart will be sure to slavishly retweet it. That is not the work of an objective journalist.
Hart’s interesting professional practices are not limited to Twitter. In a 2018 story for the Sacramento Bee on fires raging in California, Hart wrote this after she asked a question of then Governor Jerry Brown. “Brown declined to discuss failures in California’s alert systems, instead saying he preferred to discuss ways to improve them. ‘You’re assuming something went wrong,’ Brown said. ‘Life has its tragedies. We have fires, we have floods, we have mudslides and we have many other things — we just had a fire tornado.’ But, he said, ‘I think that we want to construct the best systems of alert that we can, and where it breaks down, we’ll do better…Where you can identify errors, we’ll correct them.’ ”
The way she blithely and dismissively lets Brown “decline” to give an answer or even “discuss failures” is not exactly the attitude of a tough reporter holding elected officials accountable to the press and people. She then punts again on his “life has its tragedies” line, as the governor casually dismisses death and destruction with a platitude. This is a pattern with Hart, cozying up to power.
In another example of lax ethical standards, in a 2018 article in “Governing” magazine Hart uses the old journalistic trick of closing with the strongest impression she wants to leave on the reader. In a piece on a law and order issue involving a police shooting, Hart finishes with, “Activists and African American leaders dispute the notion that the shooting death of Clark has nothing to do with racism. Black Lives Matter leaders have said it reflects implicit bias and the culture of policing in America.” This was written for a self-described journal of state government, not a partisan party leaflet. It only reads that way. Although still a young and mostly irrelevant reporter, Hart is well educated and has enough experience to know better. Her lapse in adherence to journalistic principles is an example of a broader trend where reporting news sometimes becomes little different than publishing online opinion blogs. This escalating collapse of standards in modern journalism, exemplified by young, opinionated reporter such as Hart, inexorably over time leads to a complete collapse in industry values. We are seeing this in political reporting on both sides of the proverbial isle.
It has been said that the work of the press is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Hart’s bias against private enterprise and her professional infatuation with the California governor do not showcase that principle. Her tone and bias highlight something much less in keeping with the widely held ethics of journalism. More importantly, her reporting and social media posts, albeit largely irrelevant in the crowded world of journalism, is a sad foreshadowing of where the state of Western media may be headed.