Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s guidelines for ensuring our journalists adhere to standards of fairness, accuracy, integrity and the avoidance of conflicts of interest have been in place for several years. With the explosion in social media, we expanded these guidelines three years ago to incorporate expectations for our journalists when they are off the job as well.
Without a doubt, social media have caused the biggest shift in our thinking about ethical standards. We continue to evolve into a news organization that is constantly providing information through social media, and we report in more depth than our commercial brethren can offer in fast-moving newscasts.
At MPB, a statewide agency with the majority of funding coming from the state, the content we produce has to be relevant to people throughout Mississippi. Above all, it has to that rise to a level where the trustworthiness of the information is never questioned.
Our newsgathering team will always be at the forefront of delivering coverage of significant issues of the day, but three years ago we decided that producers working outside of the newsroom also need training in applying ethical standards to their content.
We emphasized content distribution on social media, which have rapidly emerged as the primary sources for driving audiences to our news stories. Since 2013 our philosophy has been that any department that generates content must disseminate that content through the multiple platforms we are so fortunate to have.
Our television staff, for example, has become adept at using social media to drive traffic to MPB-produced programs that otherwise might have gone unnoticed. That effort has required a more expansive view of how we see content. And it has required constant reminders to members of our leadership team that they are all involved in producing content, roles that require them to understand ethical standards.
We have to do a better job of introducing and reinforcing social media guidelines to all staff on MPB’s content team, including those in our newsroom. We must emphasize that staff members have responsibilities to their jobs, even when they’re not working. What we say and do matters, always.
MPB’s code of ethics and practices was put in place to govern the conduct of news staff, prevent conflicts of interest and establish guidelines for outside work and activities that may reflect on their work as journalists. This code protects the credibility of our news programming by ensuring high standards of honesty, integrity and impartiality at all times. Our social media policy is built on this foundation.
It calls for our journalists and content creators to strive to never “do anything that would undermine MPB’s credibility with the public, damage MPB’s standing as an impartial deliverer of information or otherwise jeopardize MPB’s reputation. Please remember that there is no privacy online. Your messages are indefinitely accessible, and there is no anonymity.”
Our policy also prohibits posts that are “divisive in nature, contain insults, obscene language or inciteful speech. These may include opinions on political issues (not facts), insults toward specific individuals or references to sex, violence and drug use.”
When I worked for the Clarion-Ledger, the state’s largest newspaper, I always reminded my staff that the principles of ethical conduct were not just words on paper but a clear roadmap for ethical behavior that should become part of the reporting process. I would remind them that we were all public figures and representatives of an entire organization. Each person, I would say, has the power to weaken the organization by choosing to forget the principles that govern us at work and at home.
High ethical standards, at the newspaper and here at MPB, define who we are as a media organization, and I offer no apology for them.
While we will never bow to legislative pressure in our reporting, I have received occasional calls about our coverage from a few lawmakers. I stood firm during these calls, knowing full well that our approach to a news story could very well revisit the agency in some form. When I do receive such calls from lawmakers, it’s important to discuss the particular story in detail: Was it fair? Was it accurate? Did it present both sides of an issue? If a report doesn’t meet those standards, I believe fairness dictates that I should acknowledge it. Because our news directors carefully edit stories with our code of ethics in mind, these instances are rare.
Public media’s ethical standards aren’t much different from those I followed as editor of the Clarion-Ledger, with one big exception: Members of the public, politicians and other newsmakers could complain about our reporting, but as long as I was totally persuaded that our coverage was accurate, I had much more leeway in ending a conversation by agreeing to disagree, sometimes in a heated fashion. At MPB those encounters have led me to be more careful. I have declined many overtures from colleagues at other media organizations to write op-eds on controversial issues, adhering to self-imposed guidelines for remaining neutral and impartial. I don’t want to confuse audiences about my role at MPB. Nor do I want to cause harm to my agency by expressing an opinion about a state issue.
It is not easy to turn down those opportunities to express myself. As editor of the newspaper, I took the non-traditional approach of penning columns admonishing politicians for what I considered bad legislation, holding city officials accountable and imploring a state to improve its performance on issues that matter — such as addressing poverty, access to healthcare and the quality of education.
Audiences have to trust that MPB’s news reports, radio shows, documentaries and education content are coming from a place of impartiality. We all represent the MPB brand, and we all have a responsibility to protect it in all that we do.
Ronnie Agnew is executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting, a statewide network that broadcasts PBS, NPR and educational programming. He also serves on the boards of public television’s major national organizations, including PBS and America’s Public Television Stations.
This commentary continues our series published in collaboration with the Editorial Integrity Project to explore the challenges to public media journalism in a deeply polarized civil society. The project, funded by CPB, is an initiative of the Station Resource Group and the Affinity Group Coalition to develop shared principles that strengthen the trust and integrity that communities expect of local public media organizations.