New PBS editorial standards will emphasize inclusiveness, ‘core values’

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PBS is undertaking a revamp of its editorial standards and policies and will seek further input from station representatives at its Annual Meeting in May.

The organization periodically updates policies governing content production. “This go-around is probably more important than any other time,” President Paula Kerger told PBS Board members at their meeting Tuesday at headquarters in Arlington, Va.

Changes in the media landscape are happening so quickly “it almost takes your breath away,” Kerger said. So PBS needs to “try to anticipate how we should be operating to maintain the public’s trust and uphold the goals of public media as envisioned by our founders.”

Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, is supervising the review, his third time in that role. The first time, initiated 15 years ago under then-PBS President Pat Mitchell, “we tried to bring the policies up to date surgically, without ending up looking drastically different,” Rosenstiel said. “This year our charge was to do more, to make the rules feel more contemporary.”

The process began last June and has included two meetings with groups of producers, Rosenstiel said. Producers insisted that the “core values of PBS needed to apply across all platforms,” he said. “That was a rallying cry — they felt strongly about that,” so that rule was tightened in the draft. Previously, best practices and procedures were “expected” to be followed across multiple platforms, according to the last update in 2011.

Members of the Editorial Standards Review Committee also felt strongly about addressing standards for social media, Rosenstiel said. A subcommittee studied distinct rules for those platforms.

In general, Rosenstiel said, “we refashioned the editorial principles and surfaced core values making the rules more specific and easily understandable.” The committee also wanted to “make the principles more practical to have real meaning for producers, not just some skywriting,” he said.

PBS’ previous “guiding principles” were editorial integrity, quality, diversity and local station autonomy. If adopted, the 2018 update for “core editorial principles” would be editorial independence, accuracy, fairness, transparency, inclusiveness and accountability.

“We spent a lot of time on ‘inclusiveness’ — that word was carefully chosen,” said committee Chair Evan Smith, CEO of the Texas Tribune. “We don’t mean diversity, but rather a 360-degree view of everybody’s voices in the conversation. Not just on the air, but a step or two before that, as the content is created.”

The eight-member committee includes station executives, an academic and journalism experts outside of public media. Vice chair is Ronnie Agnew, executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

The full board plans to vote on the revised standards at its June meeting.

In other news, the PBS Board reviewed a draft budget for fiscal year 2019 that includes a 2 percent increase in member station dues.

The station assessment budget is $197 million, said Afsaneh Beschloss, finance committee chair. That’s down slightly from $197.8 in FY18. The 2 percent increase in dues will generate $3.9 million, she said.

The FY19 budget totals $341.9 million, Beschloss said. That’s a 5.5 percent increase over $323.9 million for this fiscal year.

The proposed budget will circulate to stations for comment before board approval in June.

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