Today, NPR is introducing staffers to a new Ethics Handbook that has been in the works for more than a year and illustrates how the organization is taking steps to safeguard against some of the ethical dilemmas it’s faced in the past.
NPR began working on the 72-page handbook shortly after Ellen Weiss, vice president of news, fired news analyst Juan Williams for remarks he made about Muslims on “The O’Reilly Factor.” The October 2010 dismissal led NPR’s Board of Directors to conduct a formal review of what happened. A couple months after the incident, which generated widespread criticism, Weiss resigned.
“Obviously, we were informed by what happened,” Margaret Low Smith, NPR’s vice president of news, said by phone. “I think the question that emerged was: You have these guiding principles, now how do you enforce them and what do you do when things go awry? Putting a process in place makes for better decision-making.”
NPR had already been working on the handbook for a couple of months when the organization faced a second high-profile controversy involving Senior Vice President for Fundraising Ron Schiller, who was caught on tape slamming conservatives and questioning NPR’s need for federal funding. Ron Schiller resigned, as did CEO and President Vivian Schiller (no relation).
Seeking input from journalists, member stations, listeners
Vivian Schiller initiated the handbook work shortly before resigning, and NPR’s Board of Directors encouraged it. A 14-member committee comprised of NPR staffers and journalists from outside the organization helped create the handbook. Members included David Cohn of Spot.us; Raul Ramirez, executive director of news & public affairs at KQED Public Radio; Ashley Messenger, associate general counsel at NPR; and Bob Steele, The Poynter Institute’s Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values.
Committee members reviewed NPR’s original ethics code, which was drafted in 2003, and identified spots where the guidance was thin. Additionally, they collected hundreds of memos that NPR supervisors, editors and producers had sent to staff throughout the years.
Hoping to expand the conversation beyond journalists, NPR asked member stations in Orlando, Phoenix and St. Louis to hold focus groups for listeners to share their thoughts on NPR’s ethics code and social media policy. Editorial Product Manager Matt Thompson said by phone that Steele talked with listeners in these groups about some of the times when NPR had made headlines, but found that people were more interested in talking about NPR’s journalism.
“We were often asking them specific questions about the news stories they heard, and very quickly the discussions moved away from those stories to more fundamental things,” said Thompson, who wrote the handbook with NPR correspondent Mark Memmott. “People were talking about fundamental values, and how they feel about the news and NPR. This led to a much broader discussion of how we do our work and what we aspire to.”
Offering guidelines, not rules
The handbook makes clear that “it includes little in the way of ‘new policy.’” Much of the guidance in it stems from best practices and case studies shared in other ways throughout the organization, such as years of columns from NPR’s ombudsmen. The case studies let staffers know who to contact when they have ethical questions.
Several sections of the handbook advise staffers to seek guidance from NPR’s standards and practices editor, Stu Seidel, who is also deputy managing editor. NPR recently appointed Seidel as standards and practices editor to help oversee the creation and implementation of the handbook.
The handbook has a collegial feel, with guidelines not rules. And it doesn’t get into specifics about the consequences staffers could face if they fail to follow the guidelines, Smith said, because each ethical dilemma has to be handled on a case-by-case basis.
“We felt strongly that we didn’t want it to be a rule book, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t electric fences you can’t cross,” Smith said. “It’s a little bit like raising children or personnel issues; they come at you differently every time, so you can’t prescribe what the consequences are going to be. What you can do is put a process in place so you can contemplate what you’ve done in the past and try to make sure you’re consistent.”
To help with this, Smith said, NPR plans to start keeping an audit of the ethics-related decisions it makes.
What the handbook addresses and misses
Some of the case studies in the handbook focus on mistakes NPR has made — such as incorrectly reporting that U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died. But none of them mention the Juan Williams or Ron Schiller incidents. When I asked Smith and Thompson whether certain entries in the handbook were tied to these incidents, they said no. The handbook does have sections, though, that touch upon issues that were raised when these controversies occurred — namely, NPR’s relationship with funders, upper management decisions, and expectations for staffers who do outside work.
The handbook doesn’t mention anything about how NPR’s fundraising staff should deal with funders, but it does talk about the “firewall” that separates NPR’s journalists from funders. “Properly understood, the firewall is a useful metaphor,” the handbook reads. “In engineering, a firewall isn’t an impassable boundary, but rather a barrier designed to contain the spread of a dangerous or corrupting force. Similarly, the purpose of our firewall is to hold in check the influence our funders have over our journalism.”
The handbook also talks about the importance of having a thorough review process to handle situations that may significantly undermine NPR’s journalism. The senior vice president for news will lead the review process, along with the standards and practices editor and appropriate members of the news management team.
The handbook says: “Our goal will be to identify in a timely, thoughtful and consistent manner the nature of the potential harm to our journalism and to recommend an appropriate response to mitigate that harm. If disciplinary action is called for, Human Resources and Legal will be consulted.” (Weiss, NPR’s former vice president of news, wasn’t the only person involved in the decision to fire Williams, but NPR’s Board of Directors concluded in its review that she acted too hastily.)
Following the Williams incident, the Board of Directors recommended that NPR “review and update policies/training with respect to the role of NPR journalists appearing on other media outlets to ensure that they understand the applicability of the Ethics Code to their work and to facilitate equitable and consistent application of the Code.”
Smith said the committee spent a lot of time contemplating the section on how NPR staffers should handle outside work and appearances. NPR clarified its expectations, she said, but didn’t change its policy.
NPR staffers are still required to consult with their supervisors and NPR’s communications team, and get written permission for all outside journalistic and freelance work. They’re encouraged to take advantage of outside opportunities as long as the opportunities don’t conflict with their work for NPR. While doing outside work, they can share their knowledge of a topic based on their reporting, Smith said, but they’re asked to refrain from sharing opinions.
“You can have a host of a TV show or a host of a radio show ask questions that inherently push you into the realm of opinion,” she pointed out. “The key is to really push what you know.”
As detailed as the handbook is, I think NPR missed an opportunity to elaborate on how — and whether — the guidelines apply to NPR commentators (aka non-staffers who contribute to NPR programming.)
When I asked Smith about it, she said commentators are expected to follow NPR’s ethical principles when doing work on behalf of NPR. They aren’t expected to adhere to them when doing outside work, however. Commentators, she said, will receive copies of the handbook, which has also been posted online. (NPR no longer has “news analysts,” which was Williams’ title.)
Putting the handbook’s guidelines into practice
One of the unfortunate realities of ethics guidelines is that newsrooms don’t always implement or update them. NPR has a plan in place, though, to familiarize staffers with the handbook and encourage their use of it. “It’s not enough that we amend this handbook regularly or that we genuinely view it as a living document,” the handbook says. “The primary value of this document is that it be of use. It only works if it helps to regularly provoke and inform our thoughts, conversations and decisions.”
NPR plans to strongly encourage staffers to read the handbook and has scheduled a series of workshops for all staffers. Seidel, the standards and practices editor, will meet with staffers to go over their questions and take suggestions for improving the document. He’ll then lead workshops based on individual sections of the handbook.
“We want to embed this into people’s daily lives and judgment, and also give them tools and resources, and encourage them to ask questions,” Smith said. She noted that twice a year, Seidel will convene an ethics advisory group to review the handbook, consider staffers’ suggestions, and make any necessary revisions or additions. If any changes are made, staffers will be sent a revised version of the handbook outlining the changes.
While the guidelines offer best practices and guidance, they can’t prevent NPR from facing ethical dilemmas. They can, however, help NPR foster regular conversations about what constitutes good journalism ethics. The goal, Smith said, is to not lament the way decisions have been made in the past but to keep looking ahead with the guidelines in mind.
“We could look back at a decision we made six months ago and say, ‘If we made that decision today we would have made that different,’” Smith said. It’s a matter of “being constantly guided by the principles and making the best decisions given the information we have at the time. The challenge is to push ourselves to ask hard questions and make the right decisions.”