NPR’s revised Ethics Handbook leaves unanswered questions

The wait is over for NPR’s revised Ethics Handbook. The organization has been working on changes since last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests reignited the long-smoldering debate over journalistic impartiality. The revisions have been eagerly awaited, not only by NPR staff, but also by local public media organizations, many of which have adopted NPR’s ethics guidelines as their own.

The new version of the Handbook provides welcome clarity on who is and is not covered under its guidelines — a question many of my member station clients have wrestled with in regards to their own ethics policies. In other areas, however, including the revised section on Impartiality, NPR’s new guidelines introduce a degree of ambiguity and contradiction that have the potential to significantly muddy public media’s ethical waters.

Like the majority of public media journalists and member station employees, I was not privy to the discussions or processes that led to the revisions. Knowing NPR, I have no doubt those discussions were robust, rigorous, and well meaning. I have the utmost respect for the panel that undertook the mammoth task of crafting language with which all parties could feel relatively comfortable. 

That said, the NPR Ethics Handbook is one of the most important documents in public media, setting out the parameters that protect the integrity of the content NPR and its member stations share with their audiences. For that reason, it deserves extra scrutiny from the larger pubmedia community, in service of the common goal of preserving the credibility and trust on which its mission depends. It is in that constructive spirit that I raise these questions.

What’s the deal with petitions? 

I begin with this very specific point because the revisions have introduced an important contradiction that seems to have gone unnoticed. The policy’s Impartiality section has long included the following statement, which is unchanged in the new version: 

… we [NPR journalists] should not sign petitions or otherwise contribute support or money to political causes.”

But the revised version now includes this statement a few paragraphs later:

“Journalists should generally be able to sign petitions for sidewalks in their neighborhoods, ask for funding for local concerns, and otherwise participate in community matters as long as they are not responsible for covering the issues and are not interfering with coverage by colleagues at NPR or across the network.”

The second statement appears to be based on the assumption that neighborhood sidewalks and local funding matters are too trivial or parochial to present conflicts of interest for NPR or its journalists. But any local reporter will tell you that these types of issues — local infrastructure, transportation, and certainly local funding — are critical, often contentious, and central to their work. If NPR journalists were to take sides on such issues, it could most certainly “interfere with coverage by colleagues” at local member stations. 

Who defines “human dignity” and “human rights”?

This question gets to a central objective of the revision process — to reexamine the longstanding prohibition against journalists’ participation in marches and rallies. The relevant section of the Handbook now includes this language: 

“NPR editorial staff may express support for democratic, civic values that are core to NPR’s work, such as, but not limited to: the freedom and dignity of human beings, the rights of a free and independent press, the right to thrive in society without facing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, disability, or religion.”

A later paragraph further suggests journalists may “[stand] up for human rights.”

By way of example, the revised policy states that being a journalist should not prevent someone from marching in a Pride parade. The Handbook does not, however, address the tougher questions raised by its new, more flexible stance:

  • Many people believe abortion is an affront to human dignity. Should journalists be permitted to march in anti-abortion rallies or picket clinics that provide abortions? 
  • Many people believe healthcare is a human right. Is it ok for journalists to march for universal healthcare?
  • Many people believe COVID-19 protocols infringe on human freedom. Are journalists allowed to speak out against them?

With the new guidelines in place, it seems possible to argue that almost anything could fall under a principled exception to restrictions on journalists’ activities or speech. It all depends on who gets to define the values journalists are now allowed to support publicly.

Will increased ambiguity and subjectivity lead to a slippery ethical slope?

There has never been a shortage of gray in the ethical realm, but its proportion will soar under the revised Handbook. In a commentary on NPR’s website, NPR Public Editor Kelly McBride praised the new policy for getting rid of “vague language” that prevented journalists from advocating for “controversial” or “polarizing” issues; I fear it may have simply replaced one type of vagueness with another.

The Handbook attempts to address this problem, but in doing so, I fear it raises more questions and contradictions than it resolves:

“We recognize that the line between standing up for human rights and being ‘political’ is a fine one that looks different from different perspectives. A march for racial equality may be non-political in principle, for instance, but that may not hold true if the march is for a specific piece of legislation or where organizers or speakers include politicians aligned only with one party.” 

The implication is that it would be inappropriate for journalists to participate in the march under either of the latter conditions. But that sentence is immediately followed by this one:

“The fact that others may attempt to politicize social issues or the way people live their lives does not mean that journalists are engaging in political activity.”

Not only do these sentences seem contradictory, but their underlying assumptions are unrealistic for two main reasons:

First, rallies and marches are unpredictable and multifaceted. Published speakers lists can change, and it is impossible to know who might be marching next to you or whether an incendiary sign may appear in a photo snapped of you and shared across social media.

Moreover, in today’s polarized world, whether we like it or not, everything is political. The official agenda for a rally supporting freedom and democracy in Cuba, for example, may not specifically reference US policy or politics, but it would be naive to expect political overtones to be absent from the event. 

NPR acknowledges the gray areas and says “decisions on participation will have to be case by case.” This would appear to shift an even heavier subjective burden onto the middle managers who make these decisions, both at NPR and at stations that follow NPR’s guidance. NPR itself has set up a “standing committee of journalists” to review and advise on such matters, but it’s unclear how that panel will work. Also unclear is whether local public media organizations will have representation on the committee or the ability to seek its guidance. 

I fear the new guidelines could lead to a mishmash of decisions based on the subjective views of individuals rather than on a common understanding of strong ethical principles. That, in turn, could make it increasingly difficult to articulate public media’s common ethical standards and to assure audiences of the commitment to even-handed, fact-based coverage that reflects diverse perspectives from across the political and social spectrum. 

What Next?

I have always advised my clients at local public media organizations to create their own policies on ethics and editorial integrity, whether self-contained or as addenda to guidelines from a national organization like NPR. I believe this is important for two reasons: first, the discussions and debates that happen during the creation of such a policy are almost as important to an organization as the policy itself; and second, while many ethical principles are universal, local stations have specific considerations and circumstances that are distinct from NPR’s and that should be reflected in their individual policies. 

Indeed, several local public media stations got out in front of NPR on this issue last year, allowing more flexibility in their ethics policies long before NPR weighed in. Now that NPR has weighed in, this is a good opportunity for all local pubmedia organizations — especially those that follow NPR’s Handbook — to take a new, critical look and decide whether amendments or additions are needed to account for specific local considerations or to address the concerns above.

I’ll close where I began — with an acknowledgement of the incredibly difficult and delicate road NPR embarked upon when it set out to revise its Ethics Handbook. According to McBride’s commentary, the committee tasked with the project had 22 members with widely differing views. The final product shows evidence of their efforts to reach agreement, and the fact that they achieved anything approaching consensus is nothing short of awe-inspiring. I will be fascinated to see how the policy works in practice, and I look forward to helping the broader public media community respond and adapt. This work is critical to the present and future of public media journalism. 

judithsmelser.com

NPR’s revised Ethics Handbook leaves unanswered questions

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