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Ethics

NPR Updates Ethics Code To Cover Acquired Programming

NPR has updated its code of ethics.

The changes follow the debate sparked when The Washington Post reported that Diane Rehm, the host of the NPR-distributed The Diane Rehm Show, was taking part in fundraising dinners for Compassion & Choices. That non-profit organization's activities include lobbying for states to permit medically-assisted death.

Rehm's appearances were in violation of the code of ethics covering NPR journalists. But, as detailed in two previous Ombudsman posts, the code since 2012 has not specifically referenced employees of shows that NPR distributes but does not produce. Her show is produced by WAMU-FM, the Washington, D.C. public radio station.

As was the case up until the 2012 revision, the code now includes a "Who Is Covered" section. Mark Memmott, NPR's standards and practices editor, said he cannot remember all the details of why the "Who Is Covered" section was dropped in the 2012 revision (he was not in the job then), "but I'm pretty sure there was a general assumption that we knew who was covered. It's become apparent that we need to say it again."

NPR journalists are expected to follow the code, obviously, but the new wording says it also applies to "those who work for shows, podcasts and programming that are not part of the News division."

In addition, the code applies "to material that comes to NPR from independent producers, member station journalists, outside writers, commentators and visual journalists." Moreover, the update notes that "the producers of stand-alone programs acquired by NPR and the staffs of those shows should study and apply the ethical principles and guidance in this handbook."

Smartly, in my opinion, the code acknowledges that exceptions might be appropriate in some cases for non-NPR employees, including the outside contributors and those who work at acquired shows. As the new update notes of acquired programs:

Because the missions of those programs vary widely, there may be greater flexibility. Part of a program's mission, for example, may be to have the host express his or her opinions about news events. In that case, NPR expects the show and host to be transparent — that is, to share those opinions with the audience — while also being fair and respectful of differing opinions.

But, as the code now notes, "While there may be flexibility, there is also a base line. The same guidance given to the staff of all NPR desks and shows applies: Hosts and other journalists on acquired news, news/talk and entertainment programs should avoid becoming participants in the stories and issues of the day." Specifically, raising money for advocacy organizations "is almost never appropriate," nor is pushing "an idea or position by airing more reports or discussions than are reasonable based on the demands of the news cycle."

The new section of the code counsels throughout the need for conversation with supervisors to avoid any conflicts, a reflection of the fact that when it comes to ethics, there are often more gray areas than black and white.

"I know sometimes people are looking for 'just tell me what to do,' but sometimes we have to talk about it," Memmott said.

My previous posts on this issue sparked a robust debate about just how far NPR—or any news organization—should go, if at all, in prescribing what employees and contributors do and say in their private time. For now, however, this is the code that NPR chooses to live by, and my view is that this clarification should reduce confusion about who is allowed to do and say what.