NPR not the only news org in need of modern, realistic ethics guidelines for its journalists

Ellen Weiss’ resignation wasn’t about Juan Williams and it wasn’t about NPR. It was about a news organization trying to keep a star in orbit by bending its standards. And there are plenty of other professional news outlets in similar positions, places where one journalist can take on a side job as a commentator while his colleagues worry about what they can share with their friends on Facebook.

Buried in last week’s announcement was news that the public radio company is reviewing its code of ethics. If newsroom leaders around the country honestly assessed their own operations, they’d find that most of them have outdated, unclear ethics policies, which they apply inconsistently. That is, those with policies.

Why is that? First there are the obvious reasons. Journalists do their jobs differently today in response to advancing technology, changes in audience expectations and economic devastation.

Then there are the really obvious reasons. Journalism is a profession rife with stars who get away with a lot. And in this new environment, stars tend to have more opportunities than ever, while newsrooms leaders don’t always have the resources to pay their stars enough money to lock them down exclusively or the time to manage their potential conflicts of interest and competing loyalties.

“The climate has changed a whole bunch,” Bill Marimow told me Friday in a phone conversation. Besides once being a senior news executive at NPR, he was editor of The (Baltimore) Sun and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

“In some cases, people who were truly outstanding become almost like franchises,” said Marimow, who after years of running newsrooms, and occasionally being removed himself, has recently gone back to reporting at The Inquirer.

Until he became Washington bureau chief for the Daily Beast, Howard Kurtz covered media for The Washington Post while simultaneously hosting CNN’s Sunday morning roundup show, “Reliable Sources.” He covered CNN for the Post while he was being paid by CNN.

The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof has morphed from a columnist into his own social advocacy movement with his Half the Sky agenda.

And Detroit Free Press sports writer Mitch Albom pioneered the multi-gig life, working for ESPN, a local radio station and freelancing for Sports Illustrated.

As if this isn’t complicated enough, opinionating has grown substantially in the world of journalism, courtesy of talk radio, blogging, and especially cable TV, which pays its opinionators big bucks. And they don’t want some guy nobody’s heard of spouting opinions. They want a star.

Even when there aren’t direct conflicts of interests, there are competing styles and loyalties.

(Speaking of competing loyalties, Poynter and NPR were recently in a conversation about the possibility of me becoming their next ombudsman, while I retained my job here at Poynter. But we couldn’t figure out a way to make it work for both organizations.)

“Juan [Williams] was in this weird space where he was going to cable news in prime time, where opinion is all they do, then coming back to NPR which is a more traditional news service,’’ Eric Deggans said by phone Friday morning. He’s  the TV and media critic at the St. Petersburg Times, which Poynter owns.

Defining roles, guidelines can help minimize potential conflicts

Newsroom leaders must first delineate between reporters and columnists, Marimow said. Some expert reporters find themselves with the title of analyst or commentator when opportunity knocks. That was originally how NPR attempted to manage Williams, by changing his job from correspondent (which is more like a reporter) to analyst (which is more like a columnist).

“Every newsroom should be thinking about this stuff,’’ Deggans said. “Every newsroom has stars that they make exceptions for. That’s why this stuff doesn’t get codified.”

Or it gets codified, then ignored. I often get calls from newsroom leaders struggling to retrofit an old ethics policy to new activities. In an environment where roles and responsibilities seem to change every couple of months, some newsrooms have given up trying to write down guidelines or provide the training necessary to apply written guidelines.

That leaves the staff, both the stars and the rest of the journalists, wondering where the boundaries are and what the process is for discovering them.

NPR has a good lineup of outside advisors and internal people to help them do this, including Poynter’s Bob Steele. I’ve no doubt that they will have significant discussions about how journalists uphold traditional standards while they thrive and stay relevant in the modern world.

It will be tough to write guidelines that allow the rock stars of journalism to pursue opportunity and extend their influence, while preserving their primary loyalty to one central newsroom. “They have to get the language just right,” Marimow said.

That means there have to be clear delineations between those who can and can’t opine. Then a policy must articulate what range of opinions will be tolerated. “I think a good policy will encourage a broad latitude of opinions,’’ he said.

Raul Ramirez, news director at San Francisco public radio station KQED, is part of the committee reviewing NPR’s code of ethics. Although he didn’t want to discuss that process, he wrote the code for his own station and has helped other newsrooms review their codes. His goal in creating such policies is to create a document that can continually incorporate new challenges.

David Cohn, founder of the crowdfunded journalism site Spot.Us, is also part of the committee. “Ethics is not a math equation where you always get the same answer,” he said. “We’re going to come up with guidelines and principles. It will be up to NPR to figure out how to interpret those.”

When it comes to other NPR talent, it’s too early in the process to determine what language the committee will recommend. The Chairman of NPR’s board, David Edwards, told my colleague Mallary Tenore that he didn’t know what limits would be placed on other talent.

“I think it would be wrong for me or anyone to say or to know what the outcome will be,” he said. “These are core discussions that I suspect NPR and other news organizations really have to grapple with, and that’s what this committee has to do.”

Ramirez and Cohn both said they hope to help NPR create a useful tool. Ramirez said he uses KQED’s written code of ethics as talking points in the day-to-day running of the newsroom, so that core values stay top of mind.

“There are so many more opportunities for reporters and editors to collaborate, creating a stronger product,” he said. “Our reputation, and the trust of our audience, is only as strong as the weakest link in our newsroom.”

That should be strong motivation for managers to do what it takes to build strong relationships, Marimow said. He’s managed a number of stars, including columnist Steve Lopez and investigative reporter Mark Bowden.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had stars that I found unmanageable,” he said. “Because we all started as reporters, there was a mutual respect.”

After a well-written policy and good training, that goes a long way.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/therealkellymcbride Kelly McBride

    You are right Steve, newsrooms have always had a star systems who got away with stuff that would get the rest of us fired.

    But now stars have the ample opportunity to get paid for doing stuff that would get the rest of us fired. Who doesn’t appear on cable, blog for a niche publication or serve as a guest speaker? Who isn’t getting a paycheck from more than one organization? One of the ways you know you’re a star is that other folks are knocking on your door offering to pay you money. So the pressure on newsrooms is that much greater.

  • http://twitter.com/yelvington yelvington

    Everybody likes to blame “changing times,” but I don’t buy it.

    This has been going on for as long as I’ve been in journalism, long before anybody in a newsroom ever heard the word “Internet” and long before cable TV “news” channels existed.

    Columnists and sportswriters become stars, get TV or radio deals on the side, bend or break every rule in the book, and get away with stuff that would be an instant firing offense for any mere mortal working the night cops beat.

    I’ve known sportswriters who never came into the building because they were too busy with their external lines of business. The arrogance extends to every part of life. At one newspaper we had a picture taped to a tray on the copy desk showing a columnist’s luxury car parked in a handicapped spot.