NPR clarifies its code of ethics for acquired shows

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An update to NPR’s ethics handbook released Thursday clarifies which staffers and shows should abide by the guidelines.

NPR said earlier this month that it would update its code of ethics after dealing with a controversy over talk show host Diane Rehm’s advocacy for a right-to-die organization. NPR’s ombudsman raised concerns that the code lacked clarity in its relation to acquired shows like Rehm’s, which is produced by WAMU in Washington, D.C. After Rehm met with representatives from WAMU and NPR, she said she would discontinue her role with the organization by the end of March.

According to the updated guidelines: “The same guidance given to the staff of all NPR desks and shows applies: Hosts and other journalists on acquired news, news/talk and entertainment programs should avoid becoming participants in the stories and issues of the day. For example, it is almost never appropriate for such a host to help an advocacy organization raise money (as we discuss elsewhere, advocacy around issues “directly related to our journalistic mission” may be an exception).”

The handbook says that in addition to NPR journalists and others who work at NPR, it “also applies to material that comes to NPR from independent producers, member station journalists, outside writers, commentators and visual journalists.”

Rehm’s advocacy also raised questions about whether a talk show host should be held to the same standards as a reporter. “There may be instances when an outside contributor can do things that appear to go against the guidance in this handbook,” the guidelines say. “A music critic, for example, may be able to publicly express opinions about news events — something an NPR journalist should avoid. Supervisors will judge whether such actions present problems on a case-by-case basis.”

The new section “draws heavily” from an earlier entry in the ethics handbook, said Mark Memmott, NPR’s supervising senior editor for standards and practices. A 2012 update of the handbook didn’t address acquired shows, Memmott told Current earlier this month, because “it was thought at the time that the contracts with the acquired shows would make clear that they should apply our guidelines. In retrospect, we should have included a section (similar to what had been in the previous guidelines) to reinforce that point.”

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