New NPR ethics policy raises questions about what journalists are permitted to say privately

July 30, 2021 • 9:15 am

National Public Radio (NPR) has announced a new ethics policy, a revision of the policy last revised a decade ago. It’s described in a new article on NPR. According to author Kelly McBride (the public editor of NPR with expertise in journalistic ethics), the change was spurred by the murder of George Floyd that, in turn, caused younger journalists to begin agitating for the right to both do journalism and to express their political and ideological opinions on public media, in writing, or by going to demonstrations.

This contravened previous standards (widespread in journalism) prohibiting reporting journalists or commentators (not op-ed writers, of course), from expressing their views in public on political or ideological issues. There was a reason for that, which of course is that if you know a journalist has strong views on an issue, you might judge their reporting or commentary on that issue to be biased. Because the younger NPR reporters wanted to be able to express their views publicly, the organization tried to forge a compromise.

Click on the screenshot to read, and if you want to see the entire set of NPR ethical standards, go here.

Here is the big change that was made:

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.”

As I’ll note below, it may not be so clear exactly what constitutes the “democratic civic values that are core to NPR’s work”.

Here’s what McBride characterizes as the most important changes in the ethics policy:

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.

This seems pretty fair to me, especially coupled with the stipulation that journalists have to vet their wishes to express political views in advance to their bosses, and that the NPR newsroom now has a standing committee to review individual cases. And there’s still a wall between straight reportage and commentary or opinion. McBride gives examples of things that can be allowed:

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.

And again, that seems fine. Although NPR is clearly on the Left given its editorial content and choice of subjects to cover, that doesn’t bother me. either.

But there’s one bit in the piece that does worry me. It’s the idea that there are some areas of human thought where no dissent can be permitted, because what is “right” is palpably clear. And, indeed, nearly everyone agrees that it’s wrong to have slavery, to kill someone just for the thrill of it, or to steal someone else’s property because you covet it. But, as philosophers like to point out, these “rules” are often not so clear cut.  What bothered me is something said by Keith Woods, the chief diversity officer of NPR and co-chair of the committee that drafted the new policy (emphasis is mine):

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.”

That sounds good, and I agree about bigotry being a universal no-no, but what about “discrimination and unfairness”? Here are some areas where there are active questions about justifications for discrimination and unfairness:

  • Is it okay to discriminate against Asian students seeking admission to Ivy League schools in order to maintain equity for other groups? (This is a form of affirmative action.)
  • Is it okay to rectify past discrimination by applying present discrimination? (This is a tenet of Ibram Kendi’s anti-racism platform.)
  • Is it okay to assume that if we see inequities in organizations, schools, or firms, those imbalances are prima facie evidence of bigotry operating at present?
  • Is it unfair to allow medically untreated biological men who present as transgender women to compete in women’s sports or be incarcerated in women’s prisons?

I’m sure you can think of other problematic issues like these.

The problem is that the ideas of “fairness” and “discrimination” are slippery ones. Indeed, in all the cases above, fairness is said to require some discrimination.

I’m sure NPR will strike the right balance between journalistic practices and personal expression, but what we see above is an attitude that’s inimical to rationality and free speech. It is the basis of Wokeness as well. It is the attitude that there are some stands that are so right that they are not only unworthy of discussion, but should be taboo to discuss.

And this statement, given above, appears in the Ethics section on “impartiality”:

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.

The same questions apply. Affirmative action, for example requires discrimination on the basis of some of the traits listed. Are NPR editorial staff not allowed, in their private postings, to express opposition to affirmative action? Or to oppose the participation of transgender women in women’s sports?

29 thoughts on “New NPR ethics policy raises questions about what journalists are permitted to say privately

  1. I’m not as sanguine as Jerry on this. As a former reporter, I find it ludicrous that today’s journalists can’t understand why they can’t directly participate in politics if they want the public to trust that they are reporting objectively. Of course, so many reporters today don’t believe there is an objective reality to begin with–and simultaneously, that they shouldn’t be objective when they believe that their opinion is the only true reality.

    For some perspective here, I didn’t think NPR was slanted until the last couple of years, even as others constantly complained that it was liberally biased. But since George Floyd in particular, the biases of NPR reporters and editors have been clearly translated to news coverage. I still listen, but it’s sad that I have to translate NPR coverage in my head the same way I would do if I listened to Fox News, just from the opposite perspective. I don’t trust it, and that is a tragic loss.

    1. Yes, it doesn’t seem the young journalists who want to protest understand the market forces at work here. NPR could let you show your colors, but if you do, that means other future employers may end up turning you down because you don’t have the reputation of being an objective reporter.

      There’s a professional reason to develop the ability to remain separate and distanced from an issue. And yeah, reporters are going to take flack for that from all sides. Governments want you to take their side. Anti-government forces want you to. NGOs want you to. Political parties want you to. It’s a hazard of the profession. But if you give into the urge to take sides in your young lion 20s, you may not be around to be a pack leader in your 40s-50s.

      1. that means other future employers may end up turning you down because you don’t have the reputation of being an objective reporter.

        I rather doubt that many in the business of the media are interested in the objectivity of their reporters – only in their compliance with the orders of editors (and the proprietors behind the editors). Similarly, I was never terribly concerned with whether or not people I was training how to handle poisonous gases truly believed them to be poisonous – I was only interested if they complied with instructions about equipment and procedures.

          1. Frankly, if they didn’t actually believe that we were serious, I’d have been investigating where their BSc had been forged. (Normally, that wasn’t an issue – we didn’t recruit “blind”.)

        1. Yeah should’ve qualified that by saying it depends on the outfit. You can go to a MAGA protest and have a long career at FOX. Conversely if you go to BLM protests, they probably won’t hire you. When I wrote that, I was thinking outfits like Reuters, who send their reporters all over the place and probably don’t want journalists who participate in either (i.e. don’t fly the flag for any particular group).

          1. That thing of “sending reporters all over the place” is intended to separate them from their social comfort blanket. It makes it easier to insist that they document their sources, approach all sides, etc. In short, to be professional journalists.

    2. About the effects of George Floyd’s murder on public broadcasting, similar obvious effects on the editorial stance and programming at the CBC.

      1. Do other Canadian WEIT readers feel as I do, namely that the CBC, rather quickly, has gone from very good to awful? Such a shame. CBC radio has given me many, many hours of listening pleasure, but it has veered in my opinion to full wokeness (not to mention to an apparent love of guests whose inarticulateness is excruciating). I no longer tune in.

        1. Yes, has gone from very good to mostly awful. I still tune in, but often turn it off in frustration. It’s all racism, all the time.

          I have to admit that some CBC antiracism efforts have paid off. They developed and promoted a team of all-South-Asian hockey commentators who do live broadcasts of NHL hockey games in Punjabi.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harnarayan_Singh

          It all started as a kind of affirmative action (and outreach to South Asian hockey fans who CBC wanted to tune in), but it developed into something great on its own because of the qualities of the broadcasters. Singh started out as a CBC reporter and producer, but is also a knowledgeable hockey fan. He has quite a different on-air style from the white and Black men (and a few women) who do the regular broadcasts (almost all former hockey players or coaches). Great tv.

          Have posted too much here today so will stop now.

  2. This is a breath of fresh air (no pun intended, Terry Gross fans), even if it doesn’t go as far as I would like. The best policy would be open season; let reporters be fully participating citizens of they choose. If a listener concludes that a reporter is biased, good! That’s truth in advertising for you. Of course, just because a reporter takes a side on a topic doesn’t make them incapable of reporting an opposing side’s valid claims.

    Yes, it’s fuzzy what constitutes democratic civic values that are core to the institution of journalism. But then, the distinction between news and analysis is fuzzier than my chin after a week without shaving. And the distinction between analysis and editorials makes imaginary numbers feel downright substantial by comparison. What has actually happened is that some editorial slants get to pose as neutrality and objectivity — condemnation of official US enemies, presentation of the status quo as inevitable, etc. This will continue under the new policy, of course, but with a wider scope for reporters on a few topics, and so a little more bottom up agenda setting and a little less top down.

  3. From the article:

    ‘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.” ‘

    It is some state of affairs when one (Woods, whoever) holds that it is going “so far” to USE the word “objectivity” (let alone actually BEING objective). Why the “scare quotes” around “objectivity”? I occasionally read here and there writers of a similar mindset/world view who employ the locution “so-called objectivity.” (“So-called objectivity” has been sufficient to successfully land and operate rovers on Mars millions of miles away.) And just what is “contextual truth” (as compared with “objective truth” or evidence or proof)? Thus continues the apparent transition from (an effort to maximize) objectivity to (so-called) “authenticity” (subjectivity?) in journalism.

  4. I sympathize with the manager who is going to have to navigate this new landscape full of land mines. I have never worked in a senior management role that did not make clear that my job was at stake should I participate in a public action that put the company in a bad light. Now NPR leadership is tacitly allowing those who should be reporting objectively about such things to ask permission to participate while they report (sure, worst case scenario, but not out of the realm of possibility)?

    1. I have never worked in a senior management role that did not make clear that my job was at stake should I participate in a public action that put the company in a bad light.

      Pay cheques come in multiples of 30 pieces of silver. Film, as they say, at eleven.

  5. NPR has completely gone off the rails in the past year, and this policy will likely make it worse. First, they jettisoned all the old guard (ie, white males). Then they started to maniacally focus on race and gender at the expense of all other issues. As most readers here would agree, focusing on identity politics is divisive and counter-productive and drives people directly to Trump.

    Center-left journalist Matt Taibbi has written about this as well:
    https://taibbi.substack.com/p/nprs-brilliant-self-own

    I often jokingly randomly turn on NPR then time how long it takes for them to air a story on racism, sexism, or the nobility of illegal aliens. It’s usually less than a minute but can go as long as 5 minutes.

    I’ve been a supporter and defender of NPR for decades but no more…. at least until they once again focus on covering issues that are actually important for the future of the country.

    1. That is funny!
      I also randomly time NPR for a comment on racism, sexism, or other -ism.
      2-3 minutes is the average I have gotten.

  6. When you shift your model from journalism, with an emphasis of valuing objectivity, to advocacy journalism, the whole paradigm falls apart. “Objective journalism” is bottom up, starting from the discernable facts to a conclusion. “Advocacy journalism” is top down, starting from a conclusion and then making up or “discovering” facts.

    Yes, “objective journalists” make advocacy-style decisions in selecting where to poke around in search of facts. Yes, “objective journalists” slant stories by distorting quotes or portraying sources in ways intend to falsely manipulate public perceptions. However, there remains at least a commitment to a Platonic ideal and so the concept of journalistic ethics (which requires something that transcends the conclusion) is viable. This is not to say objectivity in journalism is a standard that historically has been mostly honored in the breach.

    Once you adopt “advocacy journalism”, you are committed to the notion that the ends justifies the means. There can be no such thing as journalistic ethics, as the ends justify the means. There can be an argument about the choice of means, but the criterion here is pragmatic, not moral or ethical. It also delegitimizes the authority of the journalists, as they are openly committed to lying to people.

    Further, what you end up with is journalists telling stories that audiences want to hear based on “facts” that aren’t really true, and that anyone not in the audience does not regard as remotely credible. It means that the public discourse is balkanized and people with different politics and value systems are incapable of having discussions of important public issues. Its not clear that that is the end we should be seeking as a society, even if the ends do justify the means.

  7. I don’t get it. Why do young reporters think they should be part of the story rather than reporting on it. The two rolls are incompatible in several ways. Why the urgent need? Seem to me they over estimate their significance as influencers. It would be as absurd if a third base player insisted she also play first base…or maybe pitch and inning or two.

    1. If we’re going for a baseball simile, I’d say it’s like the second-base umpire helping the team in the field by kicking a ground ball up the middle toward the shortstop or second baseman.

    2. They really think that anyone who disagrees with them on even a minor political point is evil. There is no sense of perspective. Someone who expresses concern about men watching their daughter shower at the public pool is just as evil as an Allgemeine SS guard ushering Jewish women into the gas chambers.
      Additionally, we seem to have replaced tolerance with the view that not actively fighting people you disagree with makes you complicit in their unspeakable crimes.

      It is a dangerous worldview, in that there is no room for objective reporting or even civil discourse about even mildly contentious issues.

      Even if most of the folks at NPR personally believed in ethical journalism, the presence of a small number of angry radicals could heavily influence the slant of the reporting. Nobody wants to be singled out, denounced, and purged.

      I have certainly noticed the tone of NPR shifting rapidly leftward in recent years. I find it sad. Any time you need to misrepresent, exaggerate, or omit facts that cast your views in a less favorable light, it is probably your views that need modification.

  8. “Seem to me they over estimate their significance as influencers.” Agreed that seems like one cause of the urgent need.

    I think a second is the performative nature of life for very-online people like many 20- to 40-year-olds in digital media. For these folks, it’s imperative to be seen to be antiracist, lest one be accused of being racist.

    A third possible reason is the millenarian mindset of so many people who sense that the world is ending (climate crisis, culture wars, real wars, pick your poison). Digital and social media seem to amplify this sense. If the world seems to be litt-ruhly on fire (in the “Chris Traeger” sense), then panicky spraying of antiracism in all directions might seem like a sensible reaction. By contrast, calmly standing by as an objective reporter of events might seem like an inadequate (or even an immoral) reaction.

  9. In regard to “advocacy journalism”, it has been apparent for years that the NPR acronym actually stood for National Palestinian Radio. This tendency reached its peak when a program panel featured, as its single Israeli participant, one of those fringe anti-Zionist Israelis of the Ran Greenstein variety. That was several years ago, and I haven’t paid much attention to NPR since—although occasional
    attention to its news programs suggest that the anti-Israeli bias has become somewhat less obvious.

  10. “We are against bigotry…”

    Of course we are. If only those who disagree with us weren’t so bigoted…

    We have reasoned opinions.
    You are prejudiced.
    They are bigots.

  11. The guidelines seem quite clear to me. Leftie causes will be deemed to advance “the freedom and dignity of human beings.” Rightie causes will not.

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