About the handbook
In 2003, NPR senior news managers collected years of ethical guidance into the organization’s first News Code of Ethics. Over the years, that document was amended several times. Then, in 2010, a task force was formed to review the code and recommend changes to renew its relevance and impact on our work.
Composed of NPR journalists, NPR non-journalists and managers, colleagues from other news organizations, and members of the public, the task force spent months conversing with stakeholders inside and outside of the organization, including numerous meetings with NPR staff and three sessions with citizens at NPR member stations in Orlando, St. Louis and Phoenix.
Among the recommendations that emerged from the task force’s review was the finding that NPR should split its News Code of Ethics into two documents – a statement of Guiding Principles, articulating the high-level values to which the organization aspires, and an accompanying handbook, with several goals of its own:
- Above all else, it should be a practical articulation of how we apply the values expressed in our Guiding Principles to the situations we face every day.
- The art of ethical decision-making is as much about the way we make decisions as it is about what we decide. So the handbook should include not just rules about what NPR journalists do and don’t do, but more importantly, decision-making frameworks we can apply in different situations to guide us to a principled conclusion. It should describe processes, key questions, and real-world examples, and point journalists where to go for more help. Where policies are specified, the handbook should clearly and succinctly outline the thinking behind them.
- Lastly, it should be well-integrated into the daily life of the organization. That means it should encompass all the ethical guidance our journalists rely on, including our social media guidelines. And it should be built to evolve alongside the needs of the organization and the public it serves.
Fortunately, we had a very strong foundation to build on: the News Code of Ethics that these documents succeed. We knew early on that we wanted to use the Guiding Principles as a table of contents for the handbook, connecting every guideline to its underpinning values. So we began by cataloguing each point of guidance in the News Code by the principle it reflects most clearly.
That process had an unexpected benefit: it clarified many of the spots where the guidance in the News Code was thin. The code laid out plenty of policies on how we protect our independence, but was quieter about how we should apply key values such as fairness or respect.
You’ll find that this document is thicker than the News Code, although it includes little in the way of “new policy.” Much of what’s reflected here derives from ethical guidance and case studies expressed in other places throughout the organization, such as our visual journalism guidelines and the years of columns from our ombudsmen. As we gathered this material, we also held many conversations with our colleagues to inform our work, and did our best to articulate some of the unwritten processes and rules of thumb that emerged from those.
Our hunt brought us to a treasure trove of ethical guidance laid out in hundreds of memos from NPR editors, producers and supervisors over the years, some overlapping, many buried in archives, but most still wonderfully relevant to the questions we face day after day. The tone of those memos – interesting, warm, witty and thoughtful, more apt to pose the right question than to impose an answer – is what we imagine as the voice of the handbook. And we hope that the natural, organic, daily process that gave rise to those memos is exactly how the handbook evolves: when we hit upon an ethical question or a challenge, we should weigh our values as we work through it, capture our thinking, and fold it in to this document.
It’s not enough that we amend this handbook regularly or that we genuinely view it as a living document. The primary value of this document is that it be of use. It only works if it helps to regularly provoke and inform our thoughts, conversations and decisions.
Again and again, this process has reinforced something the task force remarked on in its review – thoughtful, principled decision-making is built into the fabric of NPR’s journalism. Even where guidance hasn’t already been articulated in a policy or a note to staff, our journalists are discussing these values with one another every day, and building those discussions into their work. We didn’t have a written, public ethics policy until 2003. But well before that, our journalists were poring over technical documents to make sure they had described an obscure detail correctly, or were politely hounding the subjects of critical stories because true fairness means not being satisfied with “no comment.”
A policy or handbook – no matter how great – is not what creates a culture this strong. If anything, it’s quite the reverse. Our strongest hope is that we’ve helped to assemble a tool worthy of the organization it serves.
Seeking advice and approval
This handbook should help you make sound decisions as you practice the craft of journalism for NPR. It should also bring your attention to ethical pitfalls you might face in that work. But its most important function might actually be prompting conversations among you and your colleagues.
This handbook tends to avoid imposing rules, leaning heavily on the judgment of our journalists. That means we place a lot of trust in your decision-making. Honor that trust by being attentive to ethical issues and speaking up whenever you have a question or concern about an ethical matter. And help to nurture a culture of ethical decision-making by routinely discussing these issues with your colleagues as you do your work.
In many instances, this handbook is intended to raise questions, not offer answers. Some of those will be questions you feel perfectly comfortable answering yourself. Others might give you pause, or require sign-off from a colleague.
Alongside this handbook, your two best sources of help in making ethical decisions are (1) your supervisor and (2) NPR’s Standards and Practices Editor.
The Standards and Practices Editor is a resource – someone to help you raise the right questions, involve the appropriate stakeholders and uphold our standards as you do your work. Well-versed in the workings of our news operation, this editor is responsible for facilitating thoughtful, consistent ethical decision-making on any matter related to our journalism, whether it regards granting anonymity to a source or attending a charitable event.
The Standards and Practices Editor is also charged with cultivating an ethical culture throughout our news operation. This means he or she coordinates regular training and discussion on how we apply our principles, monitors our decision-making practices to ensure we’re living up to our standards, and oversees the continual development of the ethical guidelines collected in this handbook.
This role is distinct from those of our Ombudsman and our Chief Ethics Officer. The Ombudsman serves as an independent representative of the public, examining our news practices and decisions from outside the newsroom. The Chief Ethics Officer is responsible for safeguarding the ethical functioning of our entire company – its corporate, legal and political practices, as well as the actions of employees outside the newsroom. While the Chief Ethics Officer is sometimes involved in higher-level newsroom decisions, he or she is also essentially independent of the newsroom. The role of the Standards and Practices Editor, on the other hand, is deeply woven into the functioning of our news operation, on-hand to discuss any ethical matter, no matter how big or small it may be. You can reach the Standards and Practices Editor by emailing Ethics (you can find the email address in the NPR internal email address book).
When confronted with an ethical question or issue that warrants the input of another, proceed as follows:
- If you’re looking for a basic gut check – someone to bounce your thoughts off of, to test whether your thinking is sound or whether others should be involved in the decision, talk to your supervisor. Many matters can be handled at this level. Your supervisor will help you determine whether the issue is clear-cut and merits an immediate decision, and whether others should be notified about the matter. If there’s any question of whether the matter should be brought to the attention of others, supervisors will err on the side of caution and reach out to the Standards and Practices Editor.
- If you need help interpreting any of the guidance in the handbook or navigating territory that isn’t covered here, if you’re concerned about a matter that’s out of your jurisdiction, or if the handbook notes that the decision may require the sign-off of supervisors, talk to your supervisor and send an email to Ethics. They’ll decide whether the issue needs to be elevated to a higher level and, if so, where it should be directed.
- If for any reason you feel uncomfortable discussing a matter with your supervisor or sending a query to Ethics,talk to a senior news manager. That includes our Senior Vice President for News, the Managing Editors for News and Digital, the Deputy Managing Editors for News and Digital, and the Executive Editor for News Programming.
We encourage questions – answers aren’t always self-evident. Consultation and collaboration make us better at what we do.
When making decisions, it’s often valuable to ask this question: Could the effects of this decision present my editor or others in the company with an unpleasant surprise? If so, talk with your supervisor, or email Ethics.
Sure, it’s never great to let the boss know about bad news. But the real value of such a question is that it can lead to the kind of conversations that produce better decisions. Two minds or more are always better than one. And “no surprises” is a way to remind yourself of that.
- For advice on legal matters, email LegalAlert.
- For advice specific to social media environments, email SocialMedia.
- For other questions relating to digital media, email DigitalMedia.
- For any questions about publicly representing NPR, email NPR Communications.
Of course, you can always send an email and/or actually talk to members of the legal, social media, digital media and communications teams.