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.
The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics hangs up in our newsroom. Yet at WORT, in Madison, Wis., our journalists are a mix of both professionals and amateurs.
Award-winning reporters work alongside high school and university students. Contributors come to us from daily and weekly newspapers; commercial, public and college radio; and print and online magazines. They are also retirees, high school teachers, veterans, baristas and musicians. Everyone respects the code.
Our goals are to train journalists and give them real-world opportunities to report on news events, to be a media outlet that reflects the diversity of our community, and to find and share stories overlooked or missed by larger outlets. These are our contributions toward civic engagement and in support of democracy.
In an era of “fake news,” where so much information is available on the internet and yet today’s high school students have trouble distinguishing between online ads and news, we see the need to teach media literacy and foster critical thinking. This extends to media ethics. We provide training and one-on-one mentoring in fact-checking, analyzing and verifying claims and developing sources.
As news director, I do not police our contributors’ personal lives. I do not ask them to refrain from having political opinions, from voting or from engaging in political or social activities. I do not police their fashion choices, religious practices or social media accounts, beyond requiring a basic sense of decorum. I feel very strongly in our freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and believe it is our duty as community broadcasters to uphold these rights. I do set standards and expectations for all our contributors. I ask questions. I ask our listeners to judge us by the content of our work. Is the story accurate? Is it fair? Is there appropriate context? Are we seeing the whole picture?
We seek balance by attracting a diversity of correspondents with different political views, life experiences and backgrounds.
Hunger for trustworthy news
I recently attended a talk on media ethics after the election. A member of the audience stood up and asked the question, “Whatever happened to journalists afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted?” It was a good question. At a time when public opinion of journalists is at its lowest point in decades, when Pew Center surveys and Gallup polls tell us the public has lost faith in us, what do we make of this?
Major news outlets have made some notable errors in recent years, ranging from faulty sourcing in military intelligence reporting by Judith Miller for the New York Times during the Iraq War to Rolling Stone’s retraction of its flawed investigation of campus rape at the University of Virginia. Yet people are still hungry for news from outlets that they can trust, those that can still transmit signal despite all the noise.
Can our contributors take actions that can affect us and our coverage? Absolutely. What do we do about it? Draw lines. Teach.
I have my horror stories and some things I have had to learn the hard way. I once had a very dedicated and civic-minded contributor — the kind who reads the newspaper every day, circling passages and writing detailed notes in the margins. And yet she made a huge mistake that cost us. I’ll call her Betty.
Betty was deeply upset by a piece of legislation that was being drafted at the statehouse. One day, unbeknownst to any of us at the station, she took it upon herself to call our attorney general’s office and give them a piece of her mind about said legislation. She had every right to do this as a private citizen. She had absolutely no place to do this as a contributor to WORT. She didn’t tell us of her plans. She made the call from home. She wasn’t on assignment.
I had no idea what she had done until I received a livid phone call from the AG’s press secretary, demanding to know why this happened. I gathered as much information as I could and confronted Betty about the accusations, which she admitted to doing. It was not a friendly conversation. She did not understand why her action was a problem since she was not “on the job.” Yet her outbursts and lack of basic decorum had reflected upon our station and caused our integrity to be questioned. She was blinded by her passionate feelings.
I had to end her involvement in our news coverage and beg forgiveness from the press secretary. This is not a comfortable position for any journalist or newsroom. That one moment scarred our relationship with that office — and impacted all of our other reporters who regularly sought information there. Our calls were returned late. Our interview requests were delayed and denied, when previously we had no problem. These difficulties lasted for years, until that press secretary left. We all paid the price for Betty’s action. I learned that I had to spell out what is acceptable from the beginning of any relationship with a correspondent. Take nothing for granted. Communicate expectations.
My approach is to set the tone and culture for our newsroom. Editors ask questions about story pitches, angles, sources and anything that might seem odd. I encourage everyone in the newsroom to ask questions of me and check on anything that arises in the course of reporting a story that may feel squishy. When in doubt, check it out. Ask.
If we find that a particular reporter has a conflict on a story, we will assign it to someone else. Contributors learn that it is not appropriate to pitch a story that involves their workplace or family. They cannot editorialize in a news story or make calls to action or use anonymous sources. We teach them to look for loaded words and to question their assumptions. We do not discourage passion, though. I want reporters who care about their stories and the people in them.
We believe that individuals are shaped by their experiences, and we all have various implicit biases. This is why efforts to diversify our newsrooms are so important to questions of representation and perspective in newsgathering. We have to work on building a collective sense of humility — as well as curiosity — to examine our assumptions and consider other views. We also have to have those perspectives in the room.
I believe public media is the honest broker of news and information that people are looking for. There will always be critics who feel impugned by reporting and who assert claims of bias against us as self-defense. Our challenge is to produce quality reports and to stick up for them — and to continue to connect with and engage listeners every chance we get.
Molly Stentz is news director for WORT in Madison, Wis. An award-winning radio journalist, she has covered international and national news events such as the 2011 World Social Forum in Senegal, the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen and political conventions nominating U.S. presidential candidates. Most often you will find her covering local and state news and training new journalists.