Editorial integrity panel says the time’s right to think about principles

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Now might not seem like the best time for the public broadcasting system to be pondering philosophical questions of identity and purpose, since its unwanted promotion to high-profile partisan punching bag in Congress.

The official ponderers of the system’s Editorial Integrity for Public Media initiative beg to disagree.

Now more than ever, they say, public broadcasting must make its case by defining its purpose and identity to the larger world — because if it doesn’t, its critics will.

“In this political environment there’s a lot being thrown around about integrity, bias, and ‘just who are these public broadcasting guys, anyway?’” said Tom Thomas of the Station Resource Group, co-director of the editorial initiative. “We should be able to say, here’s how we do our work, here’s the way in which we make decisions, here’s what money we take or not, here’s how we balance funding and content.”

“In the work I’ve done, facilitating Dynamic Inquiries and Round Robins, one of the key things that comes up is, we don’t have an articulated vision for public broadcasting — and, frankly, that has gotten louder,” said Ted Krichels, director of Penn State Public Broadcasting and chair of the Editorial Integrity project’s 20-member steering committee.

On issues of purpose and principles, Krichels said, “We need to be clear. This project gets at defining our vision and mission.”

Station executives, academics and consultants inside and outside the system are wrestling with such big-picture issues as part of the initiative, which began as an idea in a meeting of public TV’s Affinity Group Coalition several years ago (Current, Feb. 2, 2009). The AGC envisioned an update of the 1984 Wingspread Conference’s “Statement of Editorial Principles,” which were adopted by PBS and many licensees.

Now the new project is seeking responses on two draft reports — a basic one on  “The Principles of Public Media” and a closer view of the place where a lot of the principles get their toughest tests, “Funders and Firewalls,” both available on the group’s website, pmintegrity.org.

Drafts of three more reports are nearing completion, with the working titles “Implementing Transparency,” “Policies for Employee Activities Outside Their Work” and “Editorial Partnerships.”

The steering committee identified topics of interest from within the system and encourages comments on its website. After the project absorbs the feedback, new revised papers will be vetted by outside experts.

CPB funded the initiative with two grants totaling $184,000. The organizers hope to complete their work by the end of July. But the system will never stop revising the details as they cope with each day’s new challenges.

Editorial integrity, the group decided early on, goes far beyond a list of guidelines for reporters. The topic “widens rather than narrows, as people put examples on the table,” Thomas said. “What becomes evident is, almost everything you do as a station speaks to character and integrity of your organization.”

The steering committee is striving to develop a general set of principles to be adopted by the whole system. “Something everyone can embrace,” Krichels said.

Planting brighter flags

Byron Knight, emeritus director of Wisconsin Public Broadcasting, is the project’s co-director. Knight said use of ethics policies at the station level varies widely across the system. “Almost all stations have planted a flag to say, ‘Here’s who we are and what we do’” by writing a basic mission statement. Beyond that, there’s a “real inconsistency” across the field, Knight said.

Some licensees have adopted local versions of ethical guidelines from national organizations such as NPR or the Association of Fundraising Professionals; others have ad hoc policies that apply to specific circumstances.

“It’s not unusual to find that the rules are adopted after an unfortunate experience,” Knight said.

The steering committee “is not trying to write the Ten Commandments of how to do these things,” Knight said. “These will be suggestions to stations for things to think about as they create their own mission statements, position themselves in their communities, define themselves, create productions and look for funding. We’re not saying, ‘You must do this.’ We’re saying, ‘This could help you stay out of situations you may not want to be in.’”

“Whatever the policies are,” Thomas said, “they should be alive in the day-to-day work of journalists, fundraisers and managers.”

Examining the process

Real-life situations inform each draft. The “Funding and Firewalls” report talks about Nebraska Educational Television’s decision-making process for Beef State, a hourlong documentary produced in 2009 with the Nebraska State Historical Society with funding from the Nebraska Beef Council and other underwriters.

David Feingold, assistant g.m. for content at NET, served on that report’s working group; Rod Bates, g.m., is on the steering committee. “The beef industry is so key to the history, identity and culture of the state,” Feingold said, that the documentary was a natural for the station, known for its historical docs.

But execs were aware that some viewers would assume, incorrectly, that the Beef Council would influence the content of the program.“We were concerned about it, so we kept an eye on it,” Feingold said, “but there was no influence at all.” In fact, the program delved into several unflattering aspects of the industry, such as robber barons and land grabs. “We showed it, warts and all,” he said.

The draft report uses that example to suggest questions that station execs facing similar situations might ask themselves: Would a reasonable viewer wonder whether the program in question would yield a “no-holds-barred” account? Is a beef council funding a program on the history of beef production different from an arts group funding a show on the history of marching bands?

“…Thoughtful managers may answer these questions in different ways,” the report notes. “The common denominator is not so much the nature of the answer but the nature of the questioning process each station goes through. That questioning process needs to be both thorough and transparent so that staff, the funding community and consumers all understand how decisions were reached.”

Transparency gets traction

Such questions are becoming more plentiful and complex as stations work to fill multiple platforms with content instead of producing just one broadcast signal. “So many of us as professionals in the field are accustomed to boundaries set by, say, our FCC license,” Knight said. “But we’re past that. And where we’re going is still emerging.”

To add even more pressure, funders naturally want the biggest bang for their underwriting buck — they want to get across their specific agendas.

“This is the rock-and-hard-place circumstance so many stations are in,” Thomas said. They don’t have sufficient general unrestricted sources for major program initiatives, but they aspire to produce more local content. That creates an ethical tension, Thomas said: “What’s the agenda to pursue from our editorial imperatives, and how do we play that against where we find the dollars?”

As stations feel their way through individual situations, transparency becomes even more important. That subject “is getting a lot of traction in the nonprofit sector,” Thomas said, “as a way of being more accountable to the public and letting people see choices you’ve made.”

At the same time, the concept of transparency is evolving, from an open board meeting to an open editorial process: Should stations share background reporting materials online? How about outtakes? Should transparency vary by production or type of show? “We’re going to wrestle with all that quite a bit over the next couple of months” for that report, Thomas said.

From the get-go, the steering committee wanted to make sure the project took cues from the stations so they wouldn’t end up with rules dictated by a  national organization. A survey will soon be up on the comments section of the website, asking visitors specific questions: Would you implement this recommendation at your station? Have you used this technique? “So we can get a sense of the value they’re receiving from the information on the site,” Knight said.

Once all the drafts have been posted and comments made, reports will go to experts in academia and professional organizations, “who think a lot about these things for a living,” Thomas said. “It’s important to put our emerging recommendations in front of folks like that, to engage with people who can give an arm’s-length critique of what’s been done and share work from adjacent fields.”

Thomas is proud that individuals who care about public broadcasting are volunteering their time to think about these tough issues.

“It’s very easy to get lost in the crisis of the moment,” he said. “This work is enabling us to take a deep breath and ask ourselves, where is the guide star that orients us? That’s fundamental for the system to know to respond to challenges in an agile and thoughtful way.”


The 1984 statement of programming principles for state-owned stations

A roundup of Current stories dealing with ethical issues.

“Most ethical problems are created not by management mischief but by poor decisions made by managers under stress,” wrote consultant Patti Dodgen in Current, 2003. “For public broadcasters struggling to manage rapid change, stress is constant.”

CPB backed the revision of an ethics guide for public radio journalism, 2004.

Top public media groups issued this statement on editorial independence when Hispanic leaders pushed for PBS to revise Ken Burns’s World War II series, 2007.

Planning for the present project was under way in 2009.

North Carolina’s UNC-TV was treated as a state agency and laid down its press shield, turning over a reporter’s materials to legislative committee, July 2010. Emails show that UNC-TV chief Howe opposed release of reporter’s materials.


Editorial Integrity for Public Media initiative and its steering committee.

Current‘s collection of media ethics codes and related articles.

The draft statement of the Wingspread Conference on Editorial Integrity in Public Broadcasting, Nov. 28-30, 1984. It was later endorsed by PBS and the National Association of Public Television Stations. The statement was published in proceedings of the conference, Editorial Integrity in Public Broadcasting, by the Southern Educational Communications Association (SECA), which facilitated the meeting.

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