April 22, 2015


An episode of PBS’ “Finding Your Roots” that glossed over the slave-owning heritage of movie star Ben Affleck is not in keeping with standards at NPR, Standards and Practices Editor Mark Memmott wrote Wednesday.

Let’s keep this simple: The people we interview, the sources we use and the supporters who give us money do not shape or dictate what we report.

NPR neither produces nor distributes “Finding Your Roots,” although the two organizations are the among the most prominent public media organizations in the United States and are both represented by the same corporate sponsorship organization, National Public Media. WGBH, where much of PBS’ content is produced, is an NPR member station.

The controversy surrounding Affleck’s appearance on “Finding Your Roots” began after a cache of documents stolen from Sony Pictures Entertainment and published on Wikileaks revealed that the actor requested that the show omit the fact that one of his relatives owned slaves, according to the Los Angeles Times.

On Tuesday, PBS announced an investigation into the decision not to include the ancestor. Michael Getler, the ombudsman for PBS, has said criticism of the decision is justified:

So PBS, in my view, deserves all the articles and TV reports that have PBS in the headline. PBS invests a huge amount of responsibility, and faith, in those who produce programs for it. They need producers to bring to their attention critical issues, especially ones that may reflect poorly on what people expect of PBS or might damage their credibility.

Editor’s note: Poynter’s News University is currently under contract to develop ethics training for PBS.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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