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Why an Ethics Guide for Public Radio?
January 20, 2004

By Jeffrey A. Dvorkin
Ombudsman
National Public Radio


For more than a year, Professor Al Stavitsky, associate dean of journalism at the University of Oregon, and I have been writing and editing an ethics guide.

Thanks to the support of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it is finally public.

Itís called Independence and Integrity II: An Updated Ethics Guide for Public Radio Journalism.

It deals with some of the most important ethical issues that confront public radio journalism on a daily basis -- questions about how to deal with and evaluate sources, correcting errors, reporting vs. punditry, relations with public radio underwriters and funders among other issues.

There are links to other journalistic organizations and their approach to ethical practices. There are declarations of intent as well as "how-to" approaches for ethical decision-making in a daily news situation.

"Why an Ethics Guide Now?"

Some of the best thinkers on ethics in public radio -- both inside the system and in academia -- contributed to this guide. But at various stages in its evolution, we were still asked why public radio needs an ethics guide at all. Some listeners (and some public radio journalists) have told us of their surprise that such a document is necessary.

Was it because public radio standards had fallen? Or was it because we were coming under increased scrutiny by activists? Public radio journalism, we were told, always seems to want to do the right thing, so codifying our values seems unnecessary. Still others were concerned that an ethics guide would be overly restrictive to journalists, their journalism and their First Amendment rights.

Public perceptions of journalistic standards are fairly low due to the spate of recent high-profile journalistic scandals and embarrassments. In contrast, public radio still enjoys a high level of credibility according to recent polls. An ethics guide that is widely available can only reinforce that credibility.

For the most part, the public radio community responded positively and enthusiastically to the notion of an updated guide. We were delighted by the willingness with which journalists and managers approached some of the most difficult issues.

We believe that at a time when more people are relying on public radio, we need to be absolutely clear among ourselves and with our listeners about what guides us.

Moreover, everyone who works for public radio or listens to public radio should know precisely what we stand for.

Independence and Integrity (1995)

Other journalists did not know that we already had an ethics guide. Others assumed that like many of these documents, it was sitting unopened on a managerís dusty shelf.

In fact, the original document is called Independence and Integrity, and is now almost 10 years old. It is an excellent document, and it informed our writing of the new version. It served the public radio community well, but in some important ways, it has been rendered obsolete by the enormous growth in public radio and by the rapid changes in technology since the mid-'90s. It was a document that was often inaccessible to many in public radio and to the listeners. Putting the new version on the Web site will make this one much more available.

This updated version addresses some of those changes, especially in light of the rise of the Internet as a source of information.

Having an up-to-date ethics guide will accomplish two things at once, in my opinion: establish public radio's obligations and listener expectations.

Public Radioís Obligations

First there are the internal reasons for a guide: journalists should know the context of their journalism must be based on a deeply ethical approach to reporting and to programs.

One of the founders of public radio is Bill Siemering, who is still active and true to the finest traditions of ethical journalism. He has written that in public radio our first and primary obligation is to the individual listener. That understanding must underscore and inform everything else that we do.

But as other journalistic organizations have discovered to their dismay, having an ethics guide is no guarantee that ethical journalism will always be practiced. The value of a document such as this one is that it needs to be read, argued over and even re-written. An ethics guide is always a work in progress.

Listeners' Expectations of Public Radio

The second reason for having an ethics guide is to help the listeners understand what we do. This guide should give the listeners a way of assessing whether we have been true to our own values.

As ombudsman, I know that the public radio listeners have very high expectations of NPR and public radio. They may not commend us when the job is done correctly; that is the listeners' minimum expectation. They are quick to voice their disappointment.

If public radio is to continue to serve the listeners, then the publication of this ethics guide will, I hope, contribute to that goal of service.

I hope that listeners and members of the public radio community will read it and let us know if this ethics guide meets your expectations of public radio.

Listeners can contact me at 202-513-3245 or by e-mail at ombudsman@npr.org.

Jeffrey Dvorkin 
NPR Ombudsman 



   
   
   
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