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.

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NPR’s revised Ethics Handbook leaves unanswered questions

If we throw out Objectivity, do Journalists become arbiters of Morality?

The Black Lives Matter movement has reignited a long-running debate over the principle of objectivity in journalism. If you work in the field, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re a close friend or family member of a journalist, you’ve probably heard more than your share of existential angst about it over the past month. 

If you’re not in either of those categories, you should still care because you are a consumer of journalism, whether you like it or not. So here are the basics of the debate:

Most professional journalists and newsrooms operate under a strict code of ethics, which includes the principle of objective reporting. This means a journalist reports the facts of the story and all relevant context and perspectives without regard to the reporter’s personal opinions or any other outside influence. Journalists are expected to recuse themselves from stories they are unable to report in this way. In addition, to avoid the perception of bias, journalists are generally required to refrain from publicly expressing their personal opinions on potentially controversial issues and from participating in or contributing to political campaigns or causes. 

These principles – objective reporting and perceived lack of bias – are distinct but closely related. They are frequent subjects of passionate debate, particularly as American society has grown more and more polarized since the rise of social media and the election of President Trump. The current national discourse on race has raised the stakes and the emotional pitch of the debate even further, with the suggestion that the traditional journalism ethics code may be yet another societal institution created and enforced by white men and deserves to be, if not entirely tossed out, significantly revamped.

Ironically, I cannot write about this issue objectively. Like many journalists, my professional ethics have become deeply entwined with my own personal moral code, much like I imagine doctors might feel about the Hippocratic Oath. Seeing this debate play out over the past month has been gut-wrenching on a deeply personal level, for me and for many other journalists. I have been listening, reading, and thinking about these issues, trying to remain as open as possible to new ideas and perspectives. I am to the point where the only way I can process my thoughts is to write them down – a symptom of the profession, I suppose. I offer them here for anyone else who may be struggling, for interested bystanders, and for anyone in between.

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If we throw out Objectivity, do Journalists become arbiters of Morality?

Firewall Shmirewall: Three warnings from the WUTC case

For the second time in as many months, I find myself writing about the firing of a public media journalist over matters related to journalistic integrity.

Last month, it was Marketplace reporter Lewis Wallace. This time it’s Jacqui Helbert, fired from WUTC in Chattanooga after state lawmakers complained to the station’s license holder, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, about one of her stories.

The lawmakers said Helbert hadn’t properly identified herself as a journalist in meetings they’d held with high school students about a proposed transgender bathroom bill. They said they were unaware the meetings were being recorded for broadcast, although multiple accounts suggest Helbert was wearing press credentials and carrying conspicuous recording gear.

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Firewall Shmirewall: Three warnings from the WUTC case

In Defense of Objectivity

When reporter Lewis Wallace was fired from the public radio business show Marketplace, public media’s simmering debate over the principle of journalistic objectivity came to a boil. (For those who don’t know, Wallace was fired for writing a blog post questioning the objectivity principle.)

The key question he raised is whether journalists must adhere to traditional rules about objectivity in an age of “alternative facts.” Do we have to sit on the sidelines of gatherings that aim to defend values and principles that many thought were settled in American society, issues that some see as questions of human rights, not political policy?

Some journalists are starting to say no. My answer is still yes.

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In Defense of Objectivity

Journalists aren’t superhero content machines

A little over a year ago, I voiced serious concerns about the ever-increasing demands on journalists to be multi-platform – to create more content for more types of media and to promote that content on all types of social platforms.

I argued that this push for content volume, driven by a panicked rush by news organizations to grasp at every bright shiny digital object, had caused a collective loss of focus on basic reporting and real journalism.

Somewhere along the way, we got so worried about the “content” a reporter can “create” that we forgot about the need to tell meaningful stories.  We got so excited about re-Tweets and Facebook likes and web hits that we lost focus on our mission to inform and enlighten.

I also argued that news organizations were demanding too much of their journalists, to the detriment of the content itself.

When you have to file for three major platforms and “engage” on whatever social media are en vogue at the moment, it’s easy to forget about finding the crux of the story.

Last week, my concerns were echoed in an excellent post by Erica Berger, formerly of the Economist and Storyful.

“Many newsroom writers and editors feel that they are bumping up against their maximum output,” she writes in the online news site Quartz, “even as their bosses demand ever-more productivity.”

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Journalists aren’t superhero content machines

“Media Impact” –> Advocacy Journalism?

Lots of people in our business seem to be talking about “impact” these days. That includes people who think about media trends and, increasingly, people who run media organizations. Everyone wants to have it.  Meetings and forums are popping up to talk about it.

So what is “media impact”?  

That’s exactly what those meetings and forums are trying to nail down, but broadly, it can mean anything from “our reporting got a corrupt politician thrown out of office” to “our audience is more informed and engaged because of our content.”

Also, it has to be measurable and prove-able.  That’s partly because measurable “impact” is keenly important to foundations, i.e., funders, which are increasingly viewed as the key to sustainability in our business.

There’s a lot more about this in Current’s article about a recent media impact forum in DC, sponsored by the Center for Investigative Reporting.  CIR’s own writeup of the event is worth a read too.

Journalistic ethics missing from the conversation?

Both pieces include interesting discussions about how media organizations are beginning to set “impact” goals as part of the planning process for projects and series.  They also delve into the importance of forging community partnerships to amplify the “impact” of media content.

They spend little to no time, however, on the potential implications for ethical journalism or the possibility of a slippery slope towards advocacy or, worse yet, “pay for play” content.

Current’s piece dips its toe into these stormy waters, quoting PRI’s VP of Content Strategy and Development Kathy Merritt, speaking at the CIR event:

Merritt also acknowledged the difficulty of getting journalists to buy into conversations about what they want their reporting to accomplish. “We have to find the sweet spot that’s not advocacy — because I don’t think we want to go there — but it’s something that can still be a powerful change,” she said.

Ethical implications not black and white

If that’s all Kathy said on the matter, I don’t blame her.  This is a complicated issue, and as a journalist I find myself wracked with ambivalence about it.

My recent post on grant-funded reporting addresses the closely related issue of how to make sure funders don’t unduly influence your organization’s journalism.  But this idea of “impact” is not so black and white.

Impact is a worthy goal …

On the one hand, of course journalists want their work to have an impact.

  • We hope the corrupt politician is thrown out of office because we uncovered her dirty dealings.
  • We hope a business that’s harming consumers is punished because we uncovered its negligence.
  • We hope more research dollars are spent on an obscure disease because we brought it into the spotlight.

After all, many of us got into this field when we were young and idealistic, thinking it was our vehicle for changing the world.  And many great journalists do change the world.

… but journalism is about facts, not recommendations

Here’s the thing: the ethics of unbiased journalism require that journalists keep their “impact” goals to themselves.

Our job is simply to report the facts, not recommend solutions.  We leave that to commentators, advocates, and lawmakers.  If we cross that line, we become advocates ourselves, and we may become blinded to the other side of the story.  There is always another side, maybe one we hadn’t even imagined until we started reporting, and it’s our responsibility to tell it, even if we personally disagree with it.

If our media organizations set specific “impact” goals for our journalistic endeavors before we even start reporting, aren’t they – and we – prejudging the outcome of that reporting?

Take the disease example.  Surely, increased investment into a previously unknown disease would be an unimpeachable “impact” goal, right?  But what if we discover during the course of our reporting that the severity of the disease has been exaggerated by people with ties to the pharmaceutical company developing a treatment?  What about the simple concern that investing in this disease will shift resources away from some other worthy cause?

Journalists should be at the table

Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think a lot of good could come from this focus on “media impact” … but only if journalists are at the table from the beginning of this discussion across the media landscape.

Let’s not fall into the silo trap, where media CEOs, development chiefs, and think tankers attend meetings and forums and figure out the perfect paradigm, only to be met with resistance and resentment from their news departments because they haven’t considered the journalist’s perspective and concerns.

Again, journalists do want to have an impact.  And we’re creative people.  If we’re at the table, we can all work together to have and measure that impact without prejudging it and without compromising our ethics, integrity, or credibility.

“Media Impact” –> Advocacy Journalism?

Navigating the Minefield: Three Keys to Ethical Grant-Funded Reporting

The recent flap over a WNET/PBS NewsHour Weekend series on government pensions is the latest reminder of how sticky grant-funded reporting can be.  The series, called Pension Peril, brought up obvious conflict of interest problems, since it was funded by The Arnold Foundation, which, among other things, advocates for pension reform.   Instead of waiting for another scandal, we should wrestle with these questions now and proactively reflect these issues in our policies on ethics and conflicts of interest.

A Different Kind of Firewall?

The problem raised here goes deeper than the usual discussion of editorial independence and the firewall between funders and journalists.

I don’t doubt the assertion from WNET’s Stephen Segaller that “the Arnold Foundation did not direct or prescribe our reporting [on the Pension Peril series], never attempted to do so.” I’m sure nobody from the Arnold Foundation sat in on editorial meetings about the series or called any shots about which specific events or case studies should be covered.

The problem is that the funder was part of the editorial decision-making process before any actual boots-on-the-ground reporting began.  As with any directed grant funding, even if the reporters and editors aren’t told specifically what to cover, the choice of topic has been determined for them.  Once the funding for a topic-specific grant has been secured, the topic in question is guaranteed to be covered, no matter what.

This discussion may be have more than a few of us shifting uncomfortably in our seats.  Grant-funded reporting is an important piece of the public media funding pie.  Here are just a few recent examples:

Plus, there are scores of grant-funded beat reporters and desks at public stations and nonprofit news organizations around the country.

None of this is necessarily bad, but we do need to take a hard look at how we can make sure our reliance on foundations never taints our journalistic independence.  To that end, here are:

Three Keys to Ethical Grant-Funded Reporting

1. Have a strategic plan for growing reporting capacity.

It’s hard to say “no” when a foundation offers to fund a series on a certain topic, or a beat reporter, or a whole team of reporters.  That moment, when the shiny gold coins are dangling in front of you, is not the best time to be making clear-headed decisions about your coverage priorities.  Who cares if you really think Sustainable Agriculture or Obesity or Underwater Basket-weaving  is the most important topic for your audience and your community?  There’s money on the table, and you really need that extra capacity, so you grab it!

To avoid that knee-jerk reaction, news managers, sit down with your news staffs now and decide what beats or “verticals” you’d like to add or expand.  Think about what series or special projects you’d like to produce, should funding become available.  This will accomplish several important things:

  • It will keep the editorial decision making where it should be – in the hands of journalists.

  • It will give the development folks in your organization something specific to fundraise around.

  • When those narrow, agenda-driven grant offers come in, your leaders and development folks can point to the news department’s priority list and say, “I’m sorry, underwater basket-weaving is not one of our news priorities right now, but if you’re interested in funding general arts and culture reporting, let’s talk!”

My former employer, Colorado Public Radio, recently put this type of plan into action. Leaders there developed a vision for seven new topic-focused “bureaus” (some people might call them “desks”), and the station is now actively fundraising for them.  Last year, CPR got funding for the first one, a three-person multi-media arts bureau, now fully up and running.

2. Grant-funded coverage areas should be broadly defined.

In an ideal world, grants to news operations would fund  unrestricted expansions of journalistic capacity, and all decisions about how to spend the money would be in the hands of journalists.  As all skeptical journalists know, however, we don’t live in an ideal world.  Most donors want to direct their money towards some specific type of coverage.

We don’t have to say “no” to restricted grants altogether, but we do have to make sure the funded coverage is defined as broadly as possible, because the narrower the focus, the closer you get to the funder’s agenda.

  • A grant for “health coverage” might be ok, but not a grant for reporting on “integrative medicine.”

  • “Education coverage” is pretty safe, but not something as specific as “access to higher education.”

  • “Transportation” might be ok, but “public transportation” might be straying into questionable territory.

Of course, there’s a lot of gray and a lot of subjectivity in this conversation.  How narrow is too narrow?  Is “Entrepreneurship” too narrow?  Does it need to be expanded to “Business” or even “Business and Economy” to be sufficiently broad?   I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, but I think it’s important to continue to ask these types of questions.

3. Balance beats with general assignment reporting capacity.

GA reporters are the utility players of our business.  It’s critical to have enough of them to effectively cover news that doesn’t fall under the “beats” that are assigned to other reporters.  But let’s face it: funders just don’t think GA reporting is sexy.  It’s usually not enough for them to know they’re helping a news outlet add staff who can go anywhere and cover any story – again, they want a specific beat to hang their hats on.  It’s frustrating, but hey, it’s their money, and they can spend it as they like.

Our job as journalistic organizations is to make sure we commit to funding general assignment capacity, one way or the other.  Otherwise, we’ll end up in a situation where we might be able to provide in-depth, ongoing coverage of one or two topics, but we’re unable to tell our audience about the most pressing stories of the day.

The End … and a Beginning?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but we do need to bring the questions themselves into the open.  We need engage our fellow journalists in this discussion, as well as our colleagues in development.

And now, because this is my blog, I get to close with my pie-in-the-sky solution and a call-out to all the billionaires out there looking for a cause to support:

Let there be more foundations that support Good Journalism – not coverage of one issue or another – just Good Journalism.  And, crucially, let the journalists decide what that means.

Navigating the Minefield: Three Keys to Ethical Grant-Funded Reporting

“Why am I Hearing This Story Today?” News Pegs and Why They Matter

An editor at NPR once told me that when show producers there listen to a story before airtime, to give it the final thumbs-up or thumbs-down, there’s one question they always ask: “Why am I hearing this story today?”

In other words, what’s the peg?  How is this story particularly relevant right now, in a way it wouldn’t be relevant next week, and wouldn’t have been relevant six months ago?  We are in the “news” business, after all, and even those evergreen features we love so much still need to be oriented in time.

Since I started my independent editing and newsroom consulting business, I’ve been challenged on several occasions to make the case for news pegs – so many times, in fact, that I started to question my devotion to the concept.  But I’m keeping the faith.

There’s this cool thing!

In any community, there are thousands of worthy charitable initiatives, creative artistic projects, whiz-bang scientific labs, innovative business ideas, and colorful characters.  Can’t we just tell their stories because, well, they’re there?  And they’re cool?

In most cases, um, no.  One reason is precisely because there are thousands of those stories.  You can’t possibly tell them all, and choosing between them can quickly stray into dicey ethical territory:

“Why did you cover the food bank’s initiative to feed hungry schoolkids, but not the program that helps refugees learn English and find work?” asks the angry listener/reader/viewer who volunteers for the refugee program every week.

If you have a good peg, or “hook,” the answer will be so evident in the story that the question won’t even come up. In fact, the peg should be at the very top of the story.

Next week, a local food bank will start teaching kids in high-poverty schools to raise chickens and grow vegetables in their backyards.  The Greater Happyville Food Pantry is the first recipient of a nationwide grant aimed at ending childhood hunger through self-sufficiency.

But it’s not that easy!

Of course it’s not.  Not every story will have such a strong peg.  And pegs can be especially challenging with regular segments – the Monday business story, the Tuesday environmental slot, etc.  But I would humbly suggest that if there’s no peg at all, you take a very hard look at whether the story is worth doing … at this moment in time.  If the organization, business, or colorful character really is that fascinating, I’d be willing to bet that he, she, or it will do something worthy of coverage eventually, if you keep watching.  And imagine how much better your story will be.

Your audience will notice

Certainly, readers, listeners, and viewers aren’t looking for news pegs, but they are looking for stories that are relevant to their lives and communities.  They may not want to hear about the latest online startup (everybody’s got one) … but they might want to hear about a local company that’s bucking the trend and starting a manufacturing business.  They might not be excited about the Ballet’s annual production of the Nutcracker … but if the Ballet decides not to do the Nutcracker for the first time in its storied history, well, that might make people sit up and take note.  And isn’t that the point?  To do relevant, meaningful stories that people will remember?

Happy peg hunting … and Happy New Year!

“Why am I Hearing This Story Today?” News Pegs and Why They Matter

Objectivity and Volunteerism – Mutually Exclusive?

Does a journalist’s moral or religious impulse to contribute time or money to a non-political charity erode his or her actual or perceived professional objectivity? 

There are certain things we journalists know (or should know) we just can’t do – run for political office, donate money to candidates or issue campaigns, sign petitions, participate in rallies we’re not covering, join advocacy groups, blab about our social or political views on Facebook, etc. 

But as with most things in life, not everything is black and white.  Can journalists volunteer at food banks or homeless shelters?  Can we donate to humanitarian charities or arts groups?  There’s a lot of gray there.

Let’s start with an easier question: religion.  Surely no one would prohibit a journalist from practicing their religion, even if that religion takes positions on those same social and political issues about which we all work so hard to remain publically neutral.  We might say it’s fine to go to services at a church or temple or any other house of worship, as long as we don’t advocate for the church’s positions outside the sanctuary.

But that poses several logical dilemmas:

1. What if we drop a few dollars into the collection plate during the service.  What if we tithe?  What if some of that money goes to support those causes that the church espouses? Does that cross any ethical lines?

2. What if that religion, as many do, admonishes its members to serve the less fortunate?  Is it ok to volunteer at the church soup kitchen?  Is it ok to volunteer outside the church at the homeless shelter downtown?

ALARM BELLS!  What if that shelter becomes embroiled in some horrible scandal?  What if its president embezzles money or misrepresents how the organization is spending state grant money, and suddenly that organization lands smack dab in the middle of the news?  If you’re a reporter, maybe you can just recuse yourself from the story.  But what if you’re the only reporter at your station or publication (not so terribly unusual these days).  What if you’re an editor or news manager?

Ok, so you decide not to volunteer. But that renders you unable to fulfill a requirement of your religion.  Do we want to make that a condition of being a journalist?

Let’s take this one step further and remove the religious aspect of this puzzle.  Say you’re not religious, but you still feel compelled to volunteer at the homeless shelter, donate to the local food bank, or drop some money in the Salvation Army’s kettle during the holidays.  Do you have any less right than your religious colleague to exercise what you feel to be your moral responsibility? 

So here’s the key question: Does a journalist’s moral or religious impulse to contribute time or money to a non-political charity outweigh any erosion to his or her actual or perceived professional objectivity?  Or vice versa?

I’ve heard opinions on both sides of the volunteering issue.  Several years ago, I was in a small-group editors’ training at a Public Radio News Director’s (PRNDI) conference, and I raised this issue in a session with Ellen Weiss, NPR’s former Senior V.P. for News.  As I remember, Ellen said she didn’t see a problem with journalists doing non-political volunteer work; but a fellow trainee expressed strong feelings against it. 

I’m going to retreat into the safety of my professionally-ingrained neutrality now and not take a position, except to advocate strongly for more discussion. As volunteerism becomes more of an expectation in our society as a whole, I believe this is something we as members of our profession should consider and debate.  Let’s start now.

Objectivity and Volunteerism – Mutually Exclusive?