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.

Continue reading “NPR’s revised Ethics Handbook leaves unanswered questions”
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.

Continue reading “If we throw out Objectivity, do Journalists become arbiters of Morality?”

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.

Continue reading “Firewall Shmirewall: Three warnings from the WUTC case”

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.

Continue reading “In Defense of Objectivity”

In Defense of Objectivity

“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?

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?