New NPR Ethics Policy: It’s OK For Journalists To Demonstrate (Sometimes)
NPR rolled out a substantial update to its ethics policy earlier this month, expressly stating that journalists may participate in activities that advocate for “the freedom and dignity of human beings” on both social media and in real life.
The new policy eliminates the blanket prohibition from participating in “marches, rallies and public events,” as well as vague language that directed NPR journalists to avoid personally advocating for “controversial” or “polarizing” issues.
NPR’s current ethics policy was first drafted in the early 2000s, and then given an overhaul in 2010-2011.
The new NPR policy reads, “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.”
Is it OK to march in a demonstration and say, ‘Black lives matter’? What about a Pride parade? In theory, the answer today is, “Yes.” But in practice, NPR journalists will have to discuss specific decisions with their bosses, who in turn will have to ask a lot of questions.
The carve-out is somewhat narrow. Protests organized with the purpose of demanding equal and fair treatment of people are now permitted, as long as the journalist asking is not covering the event. However, rallies organized to support a specific piece of legislation would be off-limits. Other events featuring a slate of political candidates from one party are also out of bounds.
Even when NPR journalists can legitimately participate in a civic event, the new policy asks them to consider how their participation will impact their colleagues. When taking a public stance makes it harder for other NPR journalists to do their jobs, there is an expectation that the journalism will take precedence.
This policy confronts the generations-old question in newsrooms: Where does the journalist end and the citizen begin?
This pressure on news companies to allow their journalists a wider berth to participate in civic activities has been building over the years, particularly as social media has made direct engagement with audiences — sometimes rich, sometimes messy — part of the day-to-day workflow. As social justice causes took to the platforms, journalists were often caught in a new gray area between longtime professional practices and mores around personal communication. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, a younger generation of journalists pushed NPR to modify its traditional prohibitions.
“Our goal was to make NPR a place that employees felt they could be themselves at work, and they wouldn’t have to be one version of themselves outside of work and another version at work,” said Alex Goldmark, senior supervising producer for Planet Money and co-chair of the 22-member committee that handled the revision.
While the country was experiencing widespread calls for institutions of all kinds to reckon with systemic racism, newsrooms were facing internal pressure. Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American journalists have argued that they have been disproportionately confined by — even disciplined over — policies that limit personal expression.
In Pittsburgh, newspaper editors restricted a Black reporter from covering the George Floyd demonstrations after she tweeted a joke about the damage caused by white Kenny Chesney fans outside a concert being vastly worse than that caused by multi-ethnic protesters speaking against racism. The Associated Press recently fired a new reporter for tweets supporting Palestinians that she posted during college, before she was employed there. CBS News Correspondent and former Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery has been vocal about the impact traditional policies have had on Black journalists and ultimately Black audiences.
NPR didn’t have high-profile conflicts with its journalists in recent years, and that may have made the news organization more prepared to usher in a new policy.
But that doesn’t mean it was easy to get the members of the committee to agree on what the new policy should say. When the group first convened to revise the ethics code in the summer of 2020, their opinions were far apart. That was by design. Members of the committee were chosen by senior leaders for their viewpoints and their willingness to be vocal.
“Across the board senior leadership was initially resistant to any change, because these are the rules that have worked for us for decades. There are reasons for them. This is the pledge we take when we sign up for journalism,” said Nancy Barnes, NPR’s senior vice president for news. “I will say that we would be in a bad spot if we just said hard no, we can’t change at all. I mean, so where can we find some common ground?”
Keith Woods, NPR’s chief diversity officer and co-chair of the committee, describes the two sides of a wide spectrum. On one end were “people who would go so far as to use the word ‘objectivity,’ ” and at the other end were the “burn-it-all-down kinds of folks.”
Meeting at first once or twice a week and then less frequently, all the members of the committee found some agreement on a core set of values. They examined dozens of hypothetical and not-so-hypothetical scenarios, looking for common threads. (Can a political reporter serve on the PTA of his son’s school? What about an education reporter? Can a host be a Girl Scouts leader? What happens if there is a controversial story involving the Girl Scouts?)
While the committee arrived at a general consensus, not everyone who worked on the revisions agrees with the final product, Woods said. Some people think it goes too far. Others believe it doesn’t go far enough.
Leah Donnella, a supervising editor at Code Switch, was one of the committee members who walked away dissatisfied. She’s been at NPR since 2015 and she went into the conversations last year accepting as a truism that journalists must sacrifice some political speech in order to do their jobs. But after a year of parsing words, she wonders if she and her colleagues missed the opportunity to go deeper.
The restrictions on supporting a political candidate or a piece of legislation still feel to her like a shortsighted compromise. If NPR employees were to reveal who got their vote for president, she asked, “Is the problem that we are ideologically similar or that people know we are ideologically similar?”
“I stopped thinking of [keeping my political choices quiet] as an ethical thing to do, I think of it as a somewhat practical thing to do,” she said, adding that it’s just easier to interview people advocating for something you don’t believe in if they don’t know where you stand.
“And also, some people have more freedom to [conceal their beliefs] than others,” she said. For instance, Black reporters face different assumptions when covering politics compared to reporting on race.
Woods said that he and others argued that it was important for journalists to keep many of their personal views private, in order not to distract from the primary focus of reporting facts. But he added that it was a mistake in the past to allow that balancing act to overshadow all expression.
“There are things in the world where we are not torn about where we stand,” said Woods (who is also former dean of faculty and my former boss at The Poynter Institute). “We are against bigotry, we are against discrimination and unfairness.”
Newsroom ethics policies traditionally focus on eliminating conflicts of interest by telling journalists what they can’t do. They almost always include prohibitions against putting a campaign sticker on your car or a political sign in your yard (NPR retains these prohibitions). But they tend to vague-up questions about civic involvement. Indeed, so did NPR, particularly with instructions to avoid involvement in causes that are polarizing or controversial.
In my experience as an ethics adviser to many newsrooms, the default when questions arose was usually: “If you have to ask, the answer is, ‘No, don’t do that.’ ”
But the intense conversations over political and social differences in America over the past decade — often accompanied by incendiary language on social media — highlighted a sense that the journalists-as-bystanders policies of the past required new consideration. Big questions like, “Do Black people encounter discrimination and excessive force from law enforcement?” or “Are women treated equally?” speak to both human dignity and polarized controversies. Journalism traditions etched into longtime NPR ethics handbooks left some NPR journalists wary of expressing any statements about their deepest-held beliefs for fear of crossing into territory that would jeopardize their jobs.
“Instead of erring on the side of ‘Everything’s a conflict. Stay away. Don’t take a stand,’ we want to err on the side of, ‘We’re all human.’ There are things that are absolutely fundamental to what we think humanity is and stands for,” Barnes said. “We want people to bring their humanity to their workplace every day. And then we’ll sort out the conflicts as they arise.”
The new policy, which was shared with member stations by email on July 7, offers three revised sections: a rewrite of “NPR’s Guiding Principles,” a section titled, “Guideline: On Attending Marches, Rallies And Other Public Events,” and an update of the section on social media.
When comparing the new policy to the old, here are the other major developments:
- The opening section lists core values of “honesty, integrity, independence, accuracy, contextual truth, transparency, respect and fairness” and adds a specific reference to the “democratic role as watchdogs.”
- NPR names diversity as a key guiding principle, with a specific obligation to include voices that are routinely left out of the news.
- The policy refines and narrows the list of staff who are expected to comport with the most restrictive elements of the policy. It’s a long list, but it boils down to whether you shape content in any way or hold an executive title. Other job titles, including those who work in research, archives and data, and those who write promotional copy for the programming division, are exempt from restrictions on their public behavior.
- The new standards reinforce the difference between straight reporting and commentary. “NPR journalists with a role in covering the news should stick to reporting and analysis,” the policy reads. “Commentators have more leeway to express opinions and may do so as long as they are respectful and grounded in facts.” A new addition to this section allows anyone who works in news or programming to publish a first-person story when appropriate.
- In the sub-section of the Impartiality chapter on attending marches and rallies, NPR adds another list of universal values including human rights, a free press, anti-discrimination and anti-bigotry.
Going forward, the NPR newsroom has empaneled a standing committee that will review questions and cases, helping public media leaders sort out the nuances. Woods said many on the staff wanted judgment calls to be handled by more than just the standards editor. (NPR has been working to fill that position since early this year. A secondary benefit of a standing committee will be to groom future standards editors.)
Member stations have been invited to a webinar on Aug. 5 to learn more about the standards. Any freelancer or local journalist whose work airs on NPR is required to follow these guidelines. Additionally, many of the member stations fully adopt NPR’s code of ethics.
Journalists around the country are likely to take note. Few newsrooms have policies as thoroughly developed as NPR’s. While a handful have issued staff memos that expressly allow for participation in public or political activity, none have articulated the nuance of NPR’s year-long effort.
Some journalists will find the changes less than satisfying. As someone who writes and reviews policies for newsrooms of all kinds, I see them as a solid step in the right direction. They don’t answer some of the thorniest questions, like what if a journalist wants to picket an abortion clinic or demonstrate in support of women’s autonomy over their bodies? What about a journalist who wants to express her general support of the Second Amendment? Or a parent who wants to march in solidarity with families and victims of a mass shooting?
Yet, these guidelines affirm that during this chaotic time in which we are living, being a journalist and standing up for human dignity are not mutually exclusive.
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