New NPR ethics code discourages outside contracts

By Mike Janssen

NPR journalists must seek management approval to sign work contracts with other media outlets, and most such requests will not be granted, according to a comprehensive revision of the network’s ethics guidelines approved unanimously by the network’s board Feb. 24.

The board reaffirmed the network’s desire to regulate moonlighting such as the ongoing appearances of former NPR news analyst Juan Williams on Fox News — a gig that led to his firing in 2010 and an extended hullaballoo exploited by Fox and Republican partisans.

Publication of the NPR Ethics Handbook concluded a 15-month process that the Board initiated after Williams’s dismissal.

The guidelines specify that a news employee must get written permission “for all outside freelance and journalistic work,” a continuation of NPR’s previous policies.

The handbook addresses a wide range of situations and dilemmas, including appearances by NPR journalists in public and on other media, the place of analysis and commentary on NPR programming, and journalists’ participation in politically charged public events such as marches and rallies.

In weighing offers for outside appearances, the handbook advises NPR journals to “ask how it might interfere with your work and whether it might damage your credibility or that of NPR.”

It offers additional guidance: “[W]e refrain from appearing on television discussion shows where the format is designed to produce heated, highly political debates. We go on TV to talk about our reporting and the news of the day, not to offer opinions (with the obvious exceptions of our music, arts and books critics — and, if any are hired, news commentators). If asked to offer opinions when on the air, we rely on our reporting and offer context — citing, for example, what public opinion polls signal about how an issue is playing rather than our personal opinions.”

Following a recommendation from a task force that reviewed its previous ethics policies, NPR eliminated the category of “news analyst,” the title Williams had held. After his departure, only Cokie Roberts occupied that category. She has since been reclassified as a “contributor,” according to NPR’s website.

The new handbook applies to all employees in news and programming divisions, digital news staffers and the editorial team of NPR Digital Services. Support and operations staffers are guided by the staff Code of Conduct.

NPR blogger Mark Memmott and Editorial Product Manager Matt Thompson wrote the new handbook and principles. Listeners and experts from outside of NPR and public radio, including Poynter Institute ethics professor Robert Steele, provided feedback during the process.

The network will hold workshops to familiarize its staff with the guidelines and also organize sessions for stations, said Margaret Low Smith, newly promoted senior v.p. of news, at the Feb. 24 board meeting. NPR has added the job of standards and practices editor to the responsibilities of Deputy Managing Editor Stuart Seidel.

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