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By Bill Knowles
Bill Knowles examines the newly issued National Public Radio Ethics Handbook—a document that both giveth and taketh away but is sorely needed in light of some of the recent ethical mistakes of public broadcasting.
A week or two before a Christmas in the early 1970s, the late, legendary, former Murrow correspondent Bill Downs and I drove with a camera crew from Washington, D. C., to the western Maryland countryside. Bill and I did a number of environmental stories for ABC News in those days, and this time Downs had gotten wind of a Christmas tree farmer who insisted that the growth of his trees was being stunted by pollutants belched by a nearby factory smokestack.
After we completed the story and prepared to head back to Washington, the farmer insisted that each of us take home a Christmas tree. They were small and certainly unspectacular but, after a mild protest, we didn’t want to offend the farmer so we agreed to take them.
As the producer on the assignment, did the thought ever cross my mind that we were doing something unethical? Accepting a gift of "impaired" Christmas trees from an interesting farmer who had given us a very good story? Hardly.
Had it been 2012, and had we been working for National Public Radio, we could have turned to page 41 in the new NPR Ethics Handbook, and found wrapped in a segment titled "Paying our own way," that what we were doing was against company ethics: "...we respectfully turn down gifts or other benefits from those we cover..."
But we would have found some wiggle room further down the page and onto the next. There’s a huge segment entitled, “How to handle gifts, speaking fees and honorariums.” Here’s what part of it says:
The people and organizations we include in our coverage are often appreciative of our work and happy to appear in it. But we don’t accept compensation, including property or benefits of any kind, from people or institutions we cover or put on the air, except5545 gifts of token value (hats, mugs, t-shirts, etc.). If we receive unsolicited gifts of significant value, we thank the sender, explain our policy and return the item (or, if it’s perishable, direct it to a worthy cause unaffiliated with NPR).
Perhaps we should have driven to the nearest hospital or senior citizen home and offered the trees as a gift from the farmer and said nothing further. But we didn’t. We didn’t know any better. If anyone did, nobody said anything. A quick copout is provided by the next paragraph in NPR’s new book:
Of course, it’s not always easy to draw a line between a valuable gift and a small token of appreciation, and it’s not always practical to decline or return the item. In some cultural settings, it may be an insult to decline a small gift or a dinner invitation. In such situations, we trust our journalists to do the right thing.
In the Maryland winter gloaming, it certainly wasn’t practical to decline the trees. We mostly certainly would have insulted the tree-grower. So, after four decades of retrospect, we now are sure that we did the right thing.
The point of all of this is that there is now a 71pp "ethics handbook" from NPR to help reporters, producers and executives recognize ethics problems and figure out what to do about them. The book grew out of the controversy surrounding the firing of news analyst Juan Williams by Ellen Weiss, then NPR’s vice president of news. Williams made a remark about Muslims on Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor. There was a major flap. Two months later, Weiss resigned. Soon after, an NPR fund-raising executive was caught on tape slamming conservatives. That led to CEO Vivian Schiller’s resignation.
Reporter Mallary Jean Tenore reported, on the Poynter Institute’s Web site, that Schiller initiated the handbook idea before resigning. With encouragement from NPR’s board of directors, a 14-member committee of journalists and others from inside and outside NPR put it together. Among those was Poynter’s longtime ethics guru, Bob Steele. That alone is reason to download the handbook at http://ethics.npr.org/. It’s only 71 pages and it’s a worthy read. If I were still teaching, I’d pass copies out to everyone and discuss the handbook during a number of classes.
For 21 years I taught that there are two things news people must do first when faced with an ethics problem:
1. Remember all the right-and-wrong training you got from your parents, your church, your education, YMCA or YWCA, wherever. Apply that on a case-by-case basis.
2. Inform a supervisor. Don’t fight it alone. Two or more heads are better than one.
Most of us don’t work in the media alone, although the blogging craze has produced some journalists who sit alone behind a computer screen in their garrets, ruminating over a problem, then posting thoughts online for their fans and others who might be led to a blogger’s prose by a kind search engine.
There are many short codes of ethics and other handbooks to be sure, but this new one from NPR certainly doesn’t overcrowd the market. It’s extremely welcome. NPR staffers now know what’s expected of them, but, as in my Christmas tree saga, there are carefully explained parameters. The book is well-written.
NPR was the subject of a faculty ethics discussion in the mid-1990s when my late University of Montana colleague, Joe Durso, Jr., former WBBM news director, bitterly complained about NPR’s practice of recording “wild” sound on a story, then bringing it back into the studio where it would be interwoven with the reporter’s voice as his studio-written story unfolded. To his dying day, Joe thought that was unethical because it led the listener to believe that the sound was happening in real time as the reporter talked from the scene. I was not overly comfortable with the technique, although thinking about all the sound bites and music and other natural sound that I had combined and juxtaposed for a major television network, I thought, "Well, this must be the radio version of what I did in television throughout my professional career, so I had best not complain."
Anyway, I searched the new NPR Ethics Handbook, looking for a mention of the technique Joe disliked so much. I found—toward the back of the book—a full chapter titled “Excellence,” which reminds NPR folk of a basic concept of news media too many of us often forget—storytelling. The chapter includes bullet points from an internal 2004 NPR memo about the kinds of pieces NPR strives for and usually succeeds in producing. Among those are:
God rest your soul, Joe, but you should know that, while its new ethics handbook doesn’t say so in so many words, NPR has implied—and I have inferred—that NPR formally believes the technique to which you objected is really OK. Sorry, Joe!
There is a lot to praise in this handbook. In this raucous political season, the chapter on "Impartiality" is a must-read for all reporters and producers who are trying to go down-the-middle with their stories. Good for them and good for NPR for insisting on it.
The tone of the NPR Ethics Handbook generally agrees with what I and many others have taught young news people over the years: If it’s your call, apply all the facts, all the consequences, all the advice from others, all the principles of right-and-wrong you’ve learned in your life. Re-think the issue one more time, and then go with your gut.