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New NPR ethics policy attracts attention for granting journalists increased political liberties


Illustration by Greg Storey

August 3, 2021

NPR recently added new activism guidelines to its ethics policy for newsroom staff, and the change is attracting a lot of media attention. According to Kelly McBride, NPR public editor, the new policy states:

NPR editorial staff may express support for democratic, civic values that are core to NPR’s work, such as, but not limited to: the freedom and dignity of human beings, the rights of a free and independent press, the right to thrive in society without facing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, disability, or religion.

First things first: why was this change even necessary? Per Dan Kennedy

The tradition in journalism is that all of us, whether we work the straight-news or the opinion side of the street, need to maintain our independence. We don’t contribute money to political candidates or put partisan signs on our lawn. We don’t write or talk about who we’re going to vote for…And we don’t take part in protests or demonstrations.

So, this policy update is quite a departure, especially for NPR, which according to Kennedy is “probably the most balanced of our major news organizations.” 

A lot is still up in the air and will probably be decided on a day-to-day basis by supervisor discretion because different causes have different implications. The policy’s language is arguably vague in designating specific allowances—which Kennedy says will open the door for lots of confusion, Furthermore, participation in rallies supporting specific political candidates and pieces of legislation are still prohibited. 

The change was prompted by an uptick in participation in marches for Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ Pride, but, as Kennedy points out, the network may have more of an issue with controversy-charged demonstrations geared towards issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict. 

I agree with Kennedy that the gray area certainly leaves room for parsing, but, also like Kennedy, I support the new policy’s mission. Objectivity in the face of human rights violations is not professional but rather callous and out-of-touch, to say the least. The new allowances merely concede that journalists are humans capable of empathy too, something that ought to be a relief to audiences.

Of course, the new policy is already attracting criticism. No surprises here—Fox News compiled a list of critiques from the likes of Glenn Greenwald and Michael Watson. Ironic? No doubt, but certainly not unexpected.

Nevertheless, I’m happy to see the recognition of decency as worthy of transcending the importance of the perceived professionalism. Assumptions of inequality permeate the infrastructure of this country and, thus, everything in our society that newsrooms covert. Allowing the recognition of that fact is the first step in the right direction towards balancing the scales of social and media justice.

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