By:
July 30, 2021

Let’s say you work for a news organization and there’s a march or rally in town — a march for, say, women’s rights. Or to raise awareness for LBGTQ+ issues. Or a Black Lives Matters protest. Or a rally to protest an injustice, either locally or nationally.

Should you be able to go? Should you be able to march, hold up a sign, use your voice?

That has been a long-debated topic in newsrooms around the country — whether journalists can participate in rallies, marches, protests and causes and still be able to do their jobs effectively.

More recently, the tug of war has intensified. On one side: old-school journalists and leadership who believe that journalists should never show their political or social leanings. Pulling the rope from the other side: those who believe their professional and personal lives are separate and that they should be judged by their work.

That has been one issue.

But there has also been another: vague and/or inconsistent policies of news organizations about what journalists can and cannot do when not working.

Essentially, up until now, the message in many places has been: Be smart and don’t do anything to compromise the public’s trust. Yet, controversies happen everywhere, such as the Associated Press writer fired for her tweets about Israel and Palestine, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter banned from covering race protests because of a sarcastic tweet and a Washington Post reporter temporarily banned from writing stories about sexual assault because she is a vocal sexual assault survivor.

Many news organizations still are using policies created years ago, well before the rise of social media. And journalists are becoming more outspoken about what they believe is their right to stand up for causes that impact their lives and their communities.

But one big news organization is taking a step in an effort to see that their policies at least try to change with the times.

This week, NPR came out with a brand new ethics policy that goes farther than most of the traditional mainstream media organizations have gone in cracking open the door to allow journalists more freedom away from work.

My colleague Kelly McBride — who is Poynter’s senior vice president and chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership, as well as the public editor for NPR — wrote about NPR’s new policy.

The policy, in part, 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.”

The policy still is a tad vague in certain areas. McBride writes: “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.”

But, as McBride notes, “This policy confronts the generations-old question in newsrooms: Where does the journalist end and the citizen begin?”

The policy was put together by a 22-member committee at NPR. For many, it was a good step to evolve with the times.

Keith Woods, NPR’s chief diversity officer and co-chair of the committee, told McBride that he and others argued that it was important for journalists to keep many of their personal views private. But, he added, “There are things in the world where we are not torn about where we stand. We are against bigotry, we are against discrimination and unfairness.”

But some think NPR didn’t go far enough. For instance, committee member Leah Donnella, a supervising editor at Code Switch, was one.

McBride wrote, “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?’”

Donnella added, “​​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.”

Another question that also crops up often is whether or not journalists can comment or participate on topics that have nothing to do with the beats they cover.

As CBS News and former Washington Post journalist Wesley Lowery tweeted, “I’m for loosening rules to protect individual right to expression. I’m unlikely to ever march — I cover the things I’m passionate about. If I’m at a protest, I’ve got a notebook. But should my friend the music reviewer be banned from marching? I don’t think so.”

NPR is making an attempt to be more clear in its policies and to give its reporters more freedom. But, McBride writes, “Some journalists will find the changes less than satisfying.”

She adds, “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?”

But, McBride concludes, “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.”

Next up is to see if other big news outlets follow with updated policies that give journalists the kind of leeway they have never had before.

‘You sound like an idiot.’

CNN’s Chris Cuomo. (zz/Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx)

The viral video of the week is CNN’s Chris Cuomo interviewing Tony Roman, a Huntington Beach, California, restaurant owner who posted a sign that said diners had to prove they were unvaccinated in order to eat there.

As the interview closed, Cuomo told Roman, “You’re pro-freedom but people can’t wear masks. Tony, it doesn’t make sense. It really doesn’t. I gave you a chance to make the case. I wish you well. I hope your family stays safe.”

Roman answered back, “I made my case. You didn’t have much to say. You didn’t have much to say.”

Cuomo said, “Honestly, you sound like an idiot so there’s not much to say.”

Roman said, “And so do you.”

To which Cuomo said, “Only for having you on the show. That was my only mistake.”

Actually, come to think of it, why even have someone like that on national TV? I mean, come on, it’s a restaurant owner who wants to ban masks. That’s ridiculous. Then again, it does show just how ridiculous some people are when it comes to something as simple as wearing a mask.

Speaking of ridiculous …

Meghan McCain is making sure to get in a few final goofy statements before her time runs out on ABC’s “The View.”

The latest? McCain bellyached about masks on the show, saying, “Look, I think this is stupid. I don’t want to wear a mask anymore. I will because I have to, and ABC mandates it now back in this company.”

None of us want to wear a mask. McCain isn’t the only one being inconvenienced. But we do it because science says we should and that shouldn’t change just because McCain and those like her don’t feel like it.

Give it a listen

ABC News will soon launch the second season of its podcast “Have You Seen This Man?” It is the story of the search for scammer John Ruffo, who is currently on the U.S. Marshals’ “15 Most Wanted” list. Ruffo swindled banks out of more than $300 million. The six-part podcast is hosted by “The View’s” Sunny Hostin and features reporting from Matthew Mosk. The first episode will debut on Aug. 11.

Give it a look

The Washington Post’s Storytelling Lab is out with an impressive illustrative look at “how prescribed fires work and the history of fire management practices in the U.S.”

And it has a great headline: “Fighting Fire with Fire.” It was put together by Amanda Monthei, Zoeann Murphy, Lo Benichou, Shikha Subramaniam and Dylan Moriarty.

Jenna Pirog, deputy editor of strategic initiatives at The Washington Post, said in a release, “We wanted to inform our readers about prescribed fires and how they work as a forest management tool ahead of what is already shaping up to be a devastating wildfire season. To accomplish this, we took a highly visual approach, using high resolution imagery to give readers a deeper understanding of the effects of extreme weather on our landscape.”

The Post looked at the impact of a prescribed burn in Montana’s Lolo National Forest. Using drones, the footage is used as a guide to readers, along with descriptions of how the controlled burns help manage wildfire-prone areas and predict possible future wildfires.

Media tidbits

Rick Hutzell, former editor of the Capital Gazette, in 2019. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

  • Rick Hutzell, the former editor of the Capital Gazette, writes for Time Magazine: “The Capital Gazette Found Justice. But Can the Newspaper Survive?”
  • Two stories of interest involving MyPillow CEO and big-time Trump supporter Mike Lindell. First, The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum with “The MyPillow Guy Could Really Destroy Democracy.” Then a late-breaking story Thursday from The Wall Street Journal’s Alexa Corse and Ben Mullin: “MyPillow to Pull Ads From Fox News in Disagreement With Network.”
  • Politico’s White House correspondent Anita Kumar is taking a newly-created role at Politico as senior editor, standards and ethics. In a memo to staff, Politico editor-in-chief Matt Kaminski wrote, “Anita will support our most ambitious journalism from inception through publication, and when necessary post-publication, to keep us true to our core values — a commitment to accuracy and fairness, clarity and courage, and nonpartisanship.” Kumar will start her new job in the fall. She tweeted about it.
  • More Politico news. CNN’s Elana Zak is joining Politico to be the head of newsletters. Zak has been at CNN for five years.
  • Stephanie Clary, a vice president at Vice, is joining the WNYC newsroom in the newly created role of deputy editor. WNYC said Clary “will oversee our news coverage, working with the editors in charge of multiplatform desks to align our journalistic priorities.”

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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