Journalism Experts: D.C. Fox Reporter's Pro-Gun Advocacy Is “Untenable”

Emily Miller, a reporter for Washington, D.C. Fox affiliate WTTG (Fox 5), is facing strong criticism from journalism experts over her outspoken advocacy for gun rights, with one journalism professor suggesting her conflict of interest is a fireable offense.

Miller, Fox 5's chief investigative reporter, has openly advocated on behalf of gun rights groups, most recently speaking at a rally in Annapolis, Maryland on Tuesday that was organized by the National Rifle Association's lobbying arm and local gun rights groups. Washington Post writer Erik Wemple highlighted Miller's appearance and argued that her presence at events that advance a specific legislative agenda “puts WTTG in a bind vis-a-vis Maryland politics.” 

Gun safety group Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV) has also criticized Miller for speaking at pro-gun rallies and has called for her firing. A CSGV petition drive accused Miller of violating the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics with her appearances and stated, “This is the behavior of an activist and pundit, not a journalist. Given her record, D.C. and Maryland residents can't trust that Miller will provide objective coverage on matters of concern to their city.”

Miller reportedly told Wemple that WTTG approved of her advocacy for gun-rights groups, but several journalism instructors near the nation's capital and others who monitor news ethics contend Miller's actions are at least a conflict, and at worst a violation of journalistic credibility.

“A journalist who advocates for an organization no longer has credibility as a reporter. Credibility is all we have to sell these days,” said Gilbert Klein, a journalism professor at American University in Washington and former National Press Club president. “Even for a columnist, who has more leeway in expressing opinion, being a member of an advocacy group undercuts credibility. I tell my students from day one, if you want to be a journalist, you give up your right to be an advocate, even if your reporting work does not coincide with your advocacy.”

Patrick Pexton, a former Washington Post ombudsman, offered a simple answer to whether Miller should be advocating for gun rights while still a reporter: “She shouldn't. Period.”

He later said, “To call her a reporter is a stretch. She's more like an activist; there's no pretense of objectivity here. Emily Miller can call herself whatever she wants, it's a free country. Free enough that we can see right through her.”

For Dr. Carolyn M. Byerly, a professor at the Howard University School of Communication in Washington, Miller's actions put her in “an untenable situation.”

“By taking a clear position on a controversial issue at a high profile political event she has removed the possibility of reporting in a fair and balanced way on the gun control issues,” Byerly said. “Reporters must avoid taking such public stances in order to maintain their credibility as journalists.”

Andrew Seaman, chair of the Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee, cited the SPJ Code of Ethics, noting the code states clearly “that journalists should act independently and avoid conflicts of interests, real or perceived. Additionally, the Code says journalists should avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility. When there are unavoidable conflicts, the Code says those should be disclosed.”

Lucy Dalglish, Dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the nearby University of Maryland, called it a “no-brainer” that Miller should not do both.

“She's a reporter and she's lobbying people?” Dalglish asked. “Any boss I ever had in a newsroom would have fired me. And rightly so.”

Andy Alexander, former Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers, echoed that view: “I can't think of any reputable news organization that would allow a reporter to cover such a contentious public policy issue while openly identifying with one side in the debate.”