To secure the public’s trust, we must make it clear that our primary allegiance is to the public. Any personal or professional interests that conflict with that allegiance, whether in appearance or in reality, risk compromising our credibility. We are vigilant in disclosing to both our supervisors and the public any circumstances where our loyalties may be divided – extending to the interests of spouses and other family members – and when necessary, we recuse ourselves from related coverage. Under no circumstances do we skew our reports for personal gain, to help NPR’s bottom line or to please those who fund us. Decisions about what we cover and how we do our work are made by our journalists, not by those who provide NPR with financial support.
Conflicts of interest
In October of 2011, All Things Considered host Michele Norris’ husband accepted a position with President Obama’s re-election campaign.
As Michele explained in a note to the NPR staff, she raised the potential conflict of interest before it became an issue:
“I need to share some news and I wanted to make sure my NPR family heard this first. Last week, I told news management that my husband, Broderick Johnson, has just accepted a senior adviser position with the Obama Campaign. After careful consideration, we decided that Broderick’s new role could make it difficult for me to continue hostingATC. Given the nature of Broderick’s position with the campaign and the impact that it will most certainly have on our family life, I will temporarily step away from my hosting duties until after the 2012 elections. I will be leaving the host chair at the end of this week, but I’m not going far. I will be wearing a different hat for a while, producing signature segments and features and working on new reporting projects. While I will of course recuse myself from all election coverage, there’s still an awful lot of ground that I can till in this interim role.
“This has all happened very quickly, but working closely with NPR management, we’ve been able to make a plan that serves the show, honors the integrity of our news organization and is best for me professionally and personally.”
- Michele recognized that her husband’s position in the Obama campaign would unduly complicate ATC‘s coverage of the presidential election.
- She appropriately raised the issue with senior management before her husband formally took the job.
- A plan was put together that would allow her to continue being a key contributor to NPR’s news operations, but would also separate her from its coverage of politics.
All NPR journalists, including those of us who work for the arts and music desks, must tell our supervisors in advance about potential conflicts of interest. When first assigned to cover or work on a matter, disclose to your immediate supervisors any business, commercial, financial or personal interests where such interests might reasonably be construed as being in actual, apparent or potential conflict with our duties. This includes situations in which a spouse, family member or companion is an active participant in a subject area that you cover. In the financial category, this does not include an investment by you or your spouse, family member or companion in mutual funds or pension funds that are invested by fund managers in a broad range of companies (unless, of course, the assignment concerns those specific funds).
When a spouse, family member or companion is involved in political activity, be sensitive to the fact that this could create real or apparent conflicts of interest. In such instances, advise your supervisor so that it can be determined whether you should recuse yourself from a certain story or certain coverage.
R. Foster Winans wrote the column “Heard on the Street” for the Wall Street Journal from 1982-1984. He was investigated by the SEC for using or leaking non-public information he gathered as a reporter for the purpose of making financial investments. He was criminally charged with insider trading. Winans had admitted that he made money from leaking info, but pleaded not guilty to criminal charges, claiming that the insider trading laws were not designed to target journalists. Several commentators have said that regardless of whether it was illegal (it was – his conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court in a 1987 case called Carpenter v. U.S.), it was certainly unethical. Winans himself, in his book Trading Secrets, acknowledged that the conduct was “technically unethical for a journalist.”
As journalists, we regularly acquire access to confidential information. The only acceptable use of that information is to inform the public. This means we must scrupulously avoid any appearance that we’ve skewed our journalism to enrich ourselves or our associates.
These considerations obviously apply in straightforward conflict-of-interest cases, such as when we own stock in a subject of news coverage, but we must also apply them when we discuss with supervisors any potential media products that emerge from our reporting, such as books or movie projects. Say a political reporter uncovers evidence of illegal activity by a presidential candidate, and the resulting media firestorm results in a book offer. That reporter should sit down with a supervisor before entertaining any such offer.
We do not share confidential information with anyone inside or outside of NPR who intends to use that information for personal or institutional gain, excepting standard journalistic practices such as sharing information as a member of a news “pool.”
It’s not always easy to detect when something we have a personal or professional stake in might conflict — or appear to conflict — with our duty to report to the public the fullest truth we can. Conflicts of interest come in many shapes — financial holdings, romantic relationships, family ties, book deals, speaking engagements, and others. It’s important to regularly review how our connections are entangled with the subjects of our reporting, and when necessary, to take action.
In minor cases, we might satisfy an apparent conflict by prominently disclosing it, and perhaps explaining to the public why it doesn’t compromise our work. When presented with more significant conflicts that might affect our ongoing work, our best response is to avoid them. But some conflicts are unavoidable, and may require us to recuse ourselves from certain coverage. More specific guidance on how to make these decisions appears in the sections below.
Interacting with funders
We do not enter journalism contests or competitions or serve on award committees when groups that have an interest in influencing our coverage are sponsoring the honors. All entries for contests or competitions and awards committee memberships must be approved by supervisors.
We often receive honors we have not solicited. Of course, laurels are always welcome. But when an award – unsolicited or otherwise – comes with cash or other rewards attached, consult Ethics before accepting.
NPR is fortunate to have hundreds of sponsors, funders and donors. At times, NPR reports stories about corporations, organizations or individuals who support our programming. As we outline throughout this handbook, we observe many boundaries to ensure that funding does not skew our coverage.
We are scrupulous in disclosing funding relationships that might foster the perception that our supporters have influenced our work. At the same time, a laundry list of disclosures would clutter our programs, rendering appropriate disclosures meaningless, so we avoid rote disclosures each time a supporter is mentioned in our coverage. Whether or not to disclose a funder during the course of a particular story is a careful judgment made by editors and producers on a case-by-case basis. As always, we act carefully and thoughtfully to strengthen the public’s confidence in the independence of our work. For this reason, it’s also important to note that NPR journalists do not read funding credits on-air or online.
There’s no one better than an NPR journalist to describe the value, impact and character of our journalism. So we may be called upon to talk about our work with those who might support it, whether over the air during a pledge drive or in person during a meeting with prospective funders. But in all our interactions with potential funders, we observe this boundary: We’re there to tell our story, not to discuss the agendas of our supporters. This means we may describe the goals and ambitions of our editorial agenda, promote the value of our work and the worthiness of supporting it, or recount what we’ve experienced in our reporting.
Understand that donors may express opinions about the subjects we cover. Don’t assent to those opinions or express your own.
These are nuanced lines to tread, and no NPR journalist should feel compelled to participate in meetings with prospective donors or foundations. Again, our sponsorship and development departments are there to support us in our service to the public, not vice versa. Part of the job of these departments is making our funders aware that we will be editorially blind to their support – that we’ll conduct our journalism with no favor or slight to them or their interests. They also vet potential supporters to make sure their interests don’t present an actual or apparent conflict with our mission.
We’ve often spoken of a “firewall” that separates NPR’s journalists from our funders. Properly understood, the firewall is a useful metaphor. In engineering, a firewall isn’t an impassable boundary, but rather a barrier designed to contain the spread of a dangerous or corrupting force. Similarly, the purpose of our firewall is to hold in check the influence our funders have over our journalism.
If the [business and editorial] sides of a news-providing organization are really working at cross purposes, the journalism tends to be on the side that is corrupted.
- Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, The Elements of Journalism
Our journalism is made possible by a diverse coalition of funding sources, including donations from members of the public, grants from foundations and government agencies, and paid sponsorships and underwriting. While we value all who support our work, those who fund us do so in the knowledge that our journalism serves only the public. We believe our strength as a business is premised solely on high-quality, independent journalism in the public interest. All NPR employees – journalists as well as sponsorship, communications and development staff – are committed first and foremost to that service.
At NPR, the journalists – including senior news managers – have full and final authority over all journalistic decisions. We work with all other divisions of the company towards the goal of supporting and protecting our journalism. This means we communicate with our sponsorship and development departments to identify areas where we hope to expand our reporting. It also means we may take part in promotional activities or events such as coordinated fund drives, listener support spots and public radio audience-building initiatives.
But we observe a clear boundary line: NPR journalists interact with funders only to further our editorial goals, not to serve the agendas of those who support us.
Owning our news agenda
NPR journalists do not put their heads in the sand when good stories appear elsewhere. By the same token, we shouldn’t be in the regular business of adopting other news organizations’ assumptions about what’s important in framing two-ways, shaping reporter assignments or bringing in commentaries.
(Source: Managing editor’s note to staff, 1996.)
It’s important to keep in mind that the terms of service of a social media site apply to what we post there and to the information we gather from it. Also: The terms might allow for our material to be used in a different way than intended. Additionally, law enforcement officials may be able to obtain our reporting on these sites by subpoena without our consent — or perhaps even our knowledge. Social media is a vital reporting resource for us, but we must be vigilant about keeping work that may be sensitive in our own hands.
Our notes, audio and working materials from our journalistic work belong to NPR. We won’t turn them over to government officials or parties involved in or considering litigation, nor will we provide information we’ve observed in the course of conducting journalism. If such materials or information are requested pursuant to governmental, administrative or other legal process, immediately consult your supervisor and the legal department.
We must take into account that press releases and other handout materials (such as images) from organizations we cover are usually delivered with the intent of portraying the subject in the best possible light. We don’t publish staged photos unless there’s a compelling news reason for doing so. If there is, we disclose this fact to the audience.
We avoid non-disclosure agreements — contracts that would require us to withhold certain information — except in rare circumstances and with the approval of the appropriate senior manager (email Ethics). And as with any written agreement, we send non-disclosure agreements to our legal team for review (look for LegalAlert in the NPR internal email address book) before we sign them.
We, like other major news outlets, do often agree to “embargoes” on news. In such cases the information is not to be reported until an agreed-upon time in the near future. We reserve the right, however, to report the news if the embargo has been “broken” by another news outlet or if because of some development we judge that the public’s interest would best be served by disclosing the information now instead of later.
For purposes of accuracy and fairness, there are times when we may want to review portions of a script with a source or read back a quotation to ensure we captured it correctly. We may also play audio or read transcripts of an interview to a third party if the purpose is to get that party’s reaction to what another person has said. Otherwise, however, the public is the first audience for our work — we don’t preview scripts or stories in advance of their broadcast or posting with sources, subjects of coverage or other parties outside NPR.
NPR greatly appreciates the financial support it receives from individuals, from foundations and from corporations. Their support is essential. At the same time, NPR makes its own decisions about what stories to cover and how to report them. Neither the people and organizations who support NPR financially, the sources we come in contact with, our competitors nor any others outside NPR’s newsroom dictate our thinking.
We don’t allow sources to dictate how a topic will be covered, or which other voices or ideas will be included in the stories we do. Nor do we pay for information from sources or newsmakers.
We avoid submitting questions to anyone in advance unless a senior news manager approves doing so after extensive discussion about why it may be necessary. This sometimes comes up when we are seeking interviews with foreign leaders. And parties in complicated legal cases may insist on having questions submitted in writing in order to give them a chance to gather all relevant documents. If questions are submitted in advance, this will be disclosed in our coverage.
When considering an outside opportunity, ask how it might interfere with your work and whether it might damage your credibility or that of NPR. We avoid conflicts of interest — it probably would not be appropriate, for example, for an NPR news journalist to be paid to speak by a corporation or group that NPR covers. And we refrain from appearing on television discussion shows where the format is designed to produce heated, highly political debates. We go on TV to talk about our reporting and the news of the day, not to offer opinions (with the obvious exceptions of our music, arts and books critics — and, if any are hired, news commentators). If asked to offer opinions when on the air, we rely on our reporting and offer context — citing, for example, what public opinion polls signal about how an issue is playing rather than our personal opinions.
We let our reporting, not our personal opinions, guide our actions and comments in all types of public settings, from live appearances on TV to postings on social media sites.
A few special circumstances that require specific address:
- Speaking agencies and agents: NPR journalists who enlist the services of agencies or agents to obtain paid speaking engagements or other opportunities must go through all the steps described above — like any other NPR staffer — before accepting any such offers.
- Partisan events: We avoid appearances that call into question our impartiality, including situations where our appearance may appear to endorse the partisan agenda of a group or organization. This might include, for example, participating in political debates or forums sponsored by groups that advocate particular perspectives on issues NPR covers.
- Charitable fundraisers: NPR journalists are frequently asked to speak or appear at charitable events. We typically turn down these requests. Even when a cause is charitable, it may still pose a conflict, or the organization might have political aims at odds with our commitment to impartiality.
- Nonfiction writing for books or films: Any NPR journalist intending to write a non-fiction book or TV or movie script or other guiding documents for non-radio productions based in whole or substantial part on assignments they did for NPR must notify NPR in writing of such plans before entering into any agreement with respect to that work. NPR will respond as soon as possible as to whether it has any objections to the project.
- Leaves of absence: While employed by NPR, including during leaves of absence, we do not perform work for those NPR covers, including ghostwriting or co-authoring materials or reports, making speaking appearances, or offering advice or consulting services. This extends both to private individuals and organizations we cover and to organizations and agencies principally funded by the government.
- Public relations: In general, we do not engage in public relations work, paid or unpaid. Supervisors may grant exceptions for certain volunteer, nonprofit and nonpartisan activities, such as participating in the work of an institution of worship, or a professional or charitable organization, especially if the journalist is a member of the organization in question and the work would not conflict with NPR’s journalism.
- Endorsements: Just as we generally avoid engaging in p.r. work, we also refrain from marketing for books, movies, performances or other products that are not our own. This means that while we may offer reviews or praise for products we’ve encountered, we usually avoid offering promotional endorsements or blurbs, or serving as spokespersons. Supervisors may grant exceptions for endorsements that don’t undermine or conflict with our work, meaning we have no financial interest in the endorsement and it doesn’t present a conflict with any subject we cover. If we are granted such an exception, it bears stating that we read the book before commenting on it.
- Promotional events: We avoid appearances at private industry or corporate functions, especially in settings where our appearance may be used to market a company’s services or products. Supervisors may grant exceptions for appearances intended to promote NPR’s journalism, promotions for works by NPR journalists (e.g. book tours), or promotions for those volunteer, nonprofit and nonpartisan organizations in which we claim membership — often, for example, organizations that promote and support journalistic endeavors.
NPR journalists are in high demand. We get many requests for media appearances, interviews and other outside work. To manage these requests, we collaborate with our colleagues in NPR’s Marketing and Communications Division. We value their judgment and support.
NPR seeks out opportunities for public appearances for NPR journalists, and also receives many requests for our journalists to make speeches or otherwise appear at events. These requests come from member stations, academic institutions, professional organizations and many others. NPR generally views these as opportunities to extend our work and foster valuable connections outside of our company.
In order to get the go-ahead for an appearance, you should seek approval from your supervisor. Supervisors, in turn, should consult with Talent Relations, the unit within Marketing and Communications that is charged with managing this entire process (look for “TalentRelations” in the internal email address book). They’ll assist with everything from event vetting, to negotiating honorariums, arranging travel, and preparing journalists for appearances. Many requests, whether for a specific journalist or not, come first to Talent Relations. They gauge the appropriateness of each request, and then clear it with the journalist and his or her supervisor to ensure that it doesn’t present ethical concerns or coverage conflicts. Then they invite the journalist to participate.
If an opportunity presents a new, complex or difficult ethical question, or if a supervisor and a journalist disagree about an event’s ethical merit, it should be discussed with the Standards and Practices Editor.
- Agents and event appearances: Several NPR journalists are represented by agents who book their appearances. These appearances also need to be approved by the journalist’s supervisor and vetted through Talent Relations prior to confirming and publicizing the booking.
- Work on NPR’s behalf: Occasionally NPR will ask our journalists to make appearances to outside organizations because such appearances are valuable to NPR. In these cases, our journalists will not need to take time off.
- Media requests: The role of NPR’s Media Relations team is to field requests from outside media for interviews or media appearances with NPR journalists. In addition, Media Relations proactively pitches and places NPR journalists. When Media Relations receives an outside request, the team assesses the merits of the request and consults the relevant journalist and his or her supervisor for approval before clearing the request and setting up the opportunity. When Media Relations asks you to do an interview or make an appearance, you can assume that this has already been cleared with your supervisor.
Media requests of any kind that don’t come from Media Relations – including off-the-record background interviews – must be approved by Media Relations in advance (look for “MediaRelations” in the NPR email address book). In most cases, Media Relations will clear, arrange and sometimes sit in on the interview.
NPR supervisors and the communications team will respond to requests as quickly as possible and in accordance with the union contract. We understand that they won’t say “yes” to everything. And we know that NPR can revoke its permission if senior management decides that an appearance (or in some cases, recurring appearances) could harm either the organization’s or the journalist’s reputation.
Our goal is to encourage NPR journalists to be visible as ambassadors of NPR journalism, and to build their reputations as professionals while assuring that all appearances are consistent with NPR’s ethical standards and our priorities.
Book projects can be of particular concern because they may require extended, unpaid leaves of absence. Such leaves need to be carefully coordinated with NPR management. If the book will be based on work we’ve done for NPR, we must discuss in good faith with NPR issues of rights.
Similarly, recurring appearances on shows outside of NPR can jeopardize our primary work, both by cutting into our available time and by subjecting us to the editorial agenda of producers who may not share our standards. If cleared by your supervisor to appear multiple times on another organization’s program, you do not need to seek formal permission each time an invitation is extended. But do regularly check in with your supervisor to ensure that the time required doesn’t interfere with our NPR duties. And if there is a significant change in the program’s format or in the nature of what you’re expected to say or do, talk it over with your supervisor again. Programs and times change. NPR can revoke its permission if senior management determines that the appearances harm either the organization’s or the journalist’s reputations.
We don’t enter into contracts with other media outlets without approval from senior news management and NPR’s legal department. Understand that in most cases permission will not be granted.
In general, we don’t do outside work for government or agencies principally funded by a government, or for private organizations that are regularly covered by NPR. This includes work that would be done on leaves of absence.
This means we don’t ghostwrite or co-author articles or books or write reports – such as annual reports – for government agencies, institutions or businesses that we cover or are likely to cover. We may permit exceptions for activities that don’t seem to pose a risk of undermining our credibility. Speaking to groups that might have a relationship to a subject that NPR may cover requires high-level approval; contact Ethics.
Note: An NPR journalist who covers a specific topic generally cannot work for agencies or organizations even if they are not connected to his or her beat. In most cases the conflict is attached to NPR the organization, not the individual, and NPR’s interest is in avoiding even the perception of bias.
Because our primary professional responsibility is to NPR, we never work in direct competition with NPR. For example, we don’t break a story for another news outlet before offering it to NPR. There are times when we may secure representation for ourselves from agents and publicists. In such cases, it’s incumbent on us to ensure that our personal representatives are working closely with the communications department, which represents all NPR journalists.
NPR offers us the chance to reach huge audiences on the radio and on the Web. In exchange, as we said above, we agree to not compete with NPR and to make it the primary outlet for the journalism we do.
NPR also encourages us to take advantage of other opportunities – so long as they do not interfere or conflict with the work we do for the company. NPR journalists write books, magazine pieces and newspaper articles. We appear on panels and give speeches. Television discussion shows value our expertise. Universities ask us to teach and lecture. These are good things. They offer us the chance to stretch, to reflect on our work and to broaden the reach of our journalism.
But outside work can also present significant challenges. It places additional demands on our time, which is often precious. It requires working with organizations that have different goals and standards than NPR does. And it can sometimes present entanglements that conflict with our journalistic independence.
So we must be selective about these opportunities and vigilant about the challenges they pose. We must seek permission in writing from our supervisors for all outside freelance and journalistic work, whether paid or volunteered, from written articles to speaking appearances. (Details on seeking approval for outside work are below.) As we expressed at the outset of this handbook, keep in mind that we don’t want our managers to be confronted with any rude surprises.
Paying our own way
We may accept free event passes, copies of books or other materials for the purpose of doing reviews or stories. These items belong to NPR and may not be sold. In many cases, they will be kept for possible future use and reference. They also may be distributed to staff for personal use (including donations to charities) after they are no longer needed.
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, except 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).
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 gift or a dinner invitation. In such situations, we trust our journalists to do the right thing.
In any event, we would not let our work be affected. And we act, as always, with the understanding that the perception of undue coziness with our sources can be as damaging as the reality. If there’s any question of whether a gift rises above the token-value threshold, consult a supervisor.
In instances such as conferences and conventions where food is provided as a convenience for the press as a whole, it’s acceptable to partake. With the approval of a supervisor, we may also accept honorariums, paid travel and meals for speaking engagements and awards ceremonies, but only from educational or nonprofit groups not engaged in significant lobbying or political activity. Determining whether a group engages in significant lobbying or political activity is the responsibility of the journalist seeking permission, and all relevant information must be fully disclosed to supervisors.
NPR pays the newsgathering expenses of its journalists. We don’t allow sources or subjects of coverage to pick up the check for dinner or pay our travel expenses, we respectfully turn down gifts or other benefits from those we cover, and we don’t sell materials sent to us for review.
There may be times when unusual circumstances lead us to make exceptions. For example, in combat zones, embedding with U.S. military units may be the only practical way to determine what’s happening on the front lines. In some foreign settings, declining a meal or gift might be taken as a breach of respect.
But our journalism must not be tainted by suspicions of quid pro quo. At all times, we make clear to those we cover that their cooperation, charity or assistance – while appreciated – won’t skew our efforts to fully report the truth. And we disclose to our audience any instances in which we’ve accepted from our sources anything but information.
Working for NPR while keeping the public first
In January 2012, when NPR announced a partnership with Ford to install NPR’s software in new cars, NPR editors decided the news warranted reporting. The editors involved took into consideration the concern that NPR could be perceived as using its news programming to further a corporate interest. They weighed that concern against the newsworthiness of the announcement, and made the decision to cover the announcement in a way that closely resembled coverage of similar technology announcements by other companies. Along with journalists at other news organizations, NPR journalists honored the embargo on the story, and made no effort to gain an inside advantage in reporting the announcement earlier or more completely than any other news organization.
High-quality journalism will always be the best way to promote NPR. We also value NPR journalists telling their story. With approval from supervisors, NPR journalists may take part in promotional activities or events involving supporters of NPR, such as our coordinated fund drives, listener support spots for stations and public radio audience-building initiatives. But our job is to promote and encourage support for NPR’s journalism. NPR journalists do not advocate in support of NPR’s business or political initiatives.
NPR journalists cover NPR the same way they would cover any other company. Editorial decisions are made with an eye toward the news value of events at NPR just as editorial decisions are made regarding the news value of events at Sony or Apple or General Motors. This, of course, is much more easily said than done. Every journalist at NPR, from producers to editors to correspondents, has a stake in NPR’s well-being, and it is impossible for any individual to completely isolate himself or herself from events at NPR. Still, when such events occur, the journalists involved in reporting on NPR separate themselves as best as possible from internal events, and any individuals in NPR’s corporate leadership avoid imposing any influence on the journalists reporting on the company.
Any coverage of NPR itself is handled by NPR journalists with no involvement in the issue at hand. If necessary, a separate team is created by drawing members from desks or bureaus with no connections to the subject. They approach the story just as they would any other.
All editors and others who were “part of the story” are recused. This means that when an NPR journalist’s actions or work are “news” — for good or bad — those who were involved in the assigning, reporting, editing and producing do not then play any part in the coverage.
This wall between those involved in the subject of the story and those who then cover it extends beyond NPR’s journalists. No NPR employees from departments outside News — especially those who have had a hand in any official response to the subject from NPR — play any role in the organization’s coverage of the situation.
Our goal is simple: to cover any such story just as we would if it involved another organization, and to take all such actions necessary to ensure that is possible.
Although we work for NPR, our first loyalty is to the public. Because NPR is a prominent company with an important role in society, there are times when NPR is in the news. At such times – as in all others – NPR journalists keep the public’s interest first and foremost.