Introducing Poynter's new ethics policy

We spent much of this summer at Poynter refining our ethics policies. It was time-consuming, tedious work — and a reminder of why so many news organizations struggle to create and maintain relevant ethics guidelines.

It started by consolidating numerous policies into one place so they could be updated. But when we got them all together, it was clear that they needed a complete re-write to unify the voice and spirit of the document.

That meant we needed a chief architect (me), as well as input from everyone here at Poynter. What started as a process we thought would take two weeks blossomed into a project that took two months, at a time when everyone already had too much work to do.

And yet, involving everyone is essential to building a culture where employees are focused on a core mission and an accompanying set of values.

Our current journey at Poynter started when we were publicly criticized for taking a sponsorship from FAAR, a nonprofit organization funded by the alcohol industry to promote responsible consumption. While we felt the criticism was unfair, we couldn’t quickly point to a clear set of publicly available written standards that guided our fundraising. That was our fault.

In fact, that was my fault. I’ve been teaching ethics here at Poynter for 15 years, and for three years I’ve been the vice president. I knew our ethics policies needed updating, especially as Poynter’s business model evolved. But every time we made a decent start, the job would grow bigger than we anticipated, and we became distracted by other urgent matters.

It’s not that we didn’t have any of these documents. Policies for publishing, teaching, fundraising and general workplace ethics existed in various places, including on our website, in the HR department, in the development department, in the cloud and on my laptop.

Perhaps you know the feeling. Many news organizations are in the same boat for the same reasons. The industry has changed so fast, so often, that it’s tough to keep up.

But every time a new employee had her first day on the job here, and I began describing our policies, I was aware that I was making life harder for myself and all the other managers here. How can we clearly communicate our most important ethical standards if they aren’t even written down in one place?

Getting feedback from my colleagues here at Poynter was a slow process. We circulated a draft of the document among a small group and made small adjustments when possible. Major adjustments required conversation, lots of it. We finished discussions with one group and moved on to another. As we made more significant changes, we circled back to earlier groups for more feedback. The last 20 percent of the work took 50 percent of the time.

Throughout the process, the draft was posted in a place where everyone could see the work in progress and offer suggestions. We spent a lot of time on the value of “interdependence,” a word that was written into our ethics code in the early 2000s but didn’t carry enough meaning 15 years later. We replaced that word with “collaboration.”

We discussed whether we could list the organizations we would never take money from. We didn’t do that — not because we couldn’t imagine that list, but because the specificity of such a list would defeat its usefulness as a guideline.

In the end, we tried to craft a policy that calls on the values of our organization and points toward a process for making decisions when those values conflict with each other or with outside values. A good policy is clear and written in a voice that is consistent with the culture of the organization it represents. It should be an easy read.

We hope that’s what we’ve achieved. But we’re not done. We value feedback from our audience as well. Look it over and tell us what you like and where you think we’re falling short by emailing info@poynter.org.

We’d be naive to think this policy will last even three years without revision or addition. Journalism and the media business changes too fast. The leadership team here will keep track of issues that arise that are not addressed by the standards we’ve articulated and make recommendations about necessary changes.

We’ll continue to get good ideas from the many newsrooms and journalists who take our training and put our teaching to the test every day. And we’ll let you know the questions we ask, that make it better, so you can ask those same questions in your newsroom.

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    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its vice president.

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