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?