Panel to NPR: Rein in punditizing

NPR should have its journalists phase out any long-term contracts for appearances on other media outlets, monitor those appearances more carefully and make clearer distinctions between reporting, analysis and commentary in its programming, the network’s ethics-policy task force advised Feb. 25 [2011].

Bob Steele of DePauw U and Poynter InstituteBob Steele, head of the task force, presented recommendations for revising the ethics code to the NPR Board last month. Steele, director of the Prindle Institute for Ethics and distinguished professor of journalism ethics at DePauw University and a journalism values scholar with the Poynter Institute, was retained by NPR President Vivian Schiller to head the task force.

The 13-member task force included NPR employees, outside journalists and citizens at large. 

Schiller appointed the task force after the much-publicized dismissal of news analyst Juan Williams last October. The firing prommpted scrutiny of Williams’ dual roles on NPR and on Fox News, his obligations to the two networks, and the hasty, muddled way the dismissal was handled.

The NPR review was among the more extensive projects that Steele, an ethics expert who has advised more than 100 news organizations, has undertaken, he said. But “this was not a case in which we had to tear apart the code of ethics and start from scratch,” Steele told Current. Throughout his work, he said, he heard much praise for NPR’s journalism and decision-making.

Williams’ dismissal, along with the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” that current-affairs comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert staged on the National Mall last October, were “significant catalysts” for the ethics review, Steele said. Numerous NPR staffers were already advocating a review of the policies.  

Among the recommendations most relevant to Williams’ dismissal, the task force advised that NPR consider approving appearances by journalists on other media outlets on a case-by-case basis and not permit such appearances under long-term contracts. (Williams was under contract with Fox News at the time of his dismissal.)

NPR should give ultimate responsibility for such decisions to its president and senior v.p. of news, with input from NPR News staff, Steele said. There also should be a greater emphasis on preserving NPR’s credibility and journalistic independence, Steele said at the NPR Board meeting.

The task force also recommended that NPR eliminate the “news analyst” designation carried by Williams and the late Daniel Schorr  and clarify distinctions between reporting, analysis and commentary. The remaining news analyst now working for NPR is political pundit Cokie Roberts.

The task force’s recommendations raise questions about the handling of appearances by Mara Liasson and Nina Totenberg on other media, says Alicia Shepard, NPR ombudsman. Shepard has often heard from listeners unhappy with Williams’ and Liasson’s appearances on Fox News.

NPR so far has made no decisions about any ongoing appearances.

The task force’s review focused on NPR’s ethics code and social-media guidelines (both posted online). The ethics code was written in 2004 and, according to the website, was last updated Oct. 15, 2009. The social-media guidelines were created in 2009. Both will be integrated into a single document under the new code of ethics.

The network plans to draft the revised ethics code by spring, says Dana Davis Rehm, senior v.p. for marketing, communications and external relations. The document will be presented to the NPR Board for approval and shared with NPR staffers, stations, other public media and the public. Sessions will be held for NPR journalists, and webinars and briefings will be put on for stations, producers of NPR’s acquired programs and other stakeholders.

Shepard: Make reporters read rules

    Among other recommendations, the task force said NPR should:

  • more clearly define which provisions in its ethics code apply to whom, including freelance contributors and producers of programs that NPR acquires and distributes;
  • revise its guidelines pertaining to conflicts of interest;
  • clarify which members of staff and management should be involved in decisions on ethical matters, and at which points in the process;
  • appoint a standards-and-practices editor whose job would be to offer ethical guidance and to model skills for ethical decision-making;
  • establish clear guidelines for handling violations of ethics policies; and
  • provide ethics training for journalists and news managers.

The task force also advised that NPR separate its ethics code into a set of guiding principles and a handbook that gives further details on the guidelines. The readable, user-friendly handbook should include scenarios and case studies to illuminate the principles, Steele said.

NPR will indeed take this approach as it creates the new code, according to Rehm.

The task force began its review of the ethics code in early December. Steele held six sessions with about 75 NPR staffers. The task force also asked general managers at stations in Phoenix, St. Louis and Orlando, Fla., to organize diverse panels of about 20 members from each community. The panelists were asked to read and answer questions about NPR’s ethics code, then discuss it at meetings that were recorded for reference by all of the task force’s members.

Participants in these meetings told Steele that the ethics code should be revised to be more straightforward and meaningful, he told Current. Newsroom ethics codes often lack clarity — some adopt a legalistic tone, while others rely too much on “rigid rules” rather than “clear guiding principles and sound decision-making processes,” he said.

“I’m a very big believer that a code is not a rigid rulebook,” Steele said. “Rigidity stifles good decision-making.”

Ombudsman Shepard, who sat in on two of Steele’s meetings with NPR staffers, told Current that she was surprised at what seemed to be a lack of familiarity with the ethics guidelines, even among longer-term employees. The network should find ways to induce journalists to review the code, she said.

“It’s been a challenge in every one of the news organizations I’ve worked with across the country — that there is not enough familiarity with and use of the standards and practices and guidelines,” Steele told the NPR Board.

How the code is applied is more important than what it says, Shepard and Steele said. The network’s present ethics code was applied selectively to Williams, Shepard said, because he was a contract employee and was not always clearly classified within NPR as an analyst or a commentator. NPR should have an “ethics czar” who would guarantee that the code is evenly applied, Shepard said.

“This is a daunting task,” said NPR Board Chair Dave Edwards of the review and revision. “But it’s one of the most important things that we just have to get right.”      

Senior Editor Karen Everhart contributed to this article.
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