Our experiences and perspectives are valuable assets to our journalism. We enjoy the right to robust personal lives, yet we accept some unique professional obligations and limitations. Because our words and actions can damage the public’s opinion of NPR, we comport ourselves in ways that honor our professional impartiality. We have opinions, like all people. But the public deserves factual reporting and informed analysis without our opinions influencing what they hear or see. So we strive to report and produce stories that transcend our biases and treat all views fairly. We aggressively challenge our own perspectives and pursue a diverse range of others, aiming always to present the truth as completely as we can tell it.
Impartiality in our personal lives
As expressed in our Statement of Principles, we hold ourselves to a high standard. We work extraordinarily hard to prove ourselves worthy of the trust the public places in us. Our reputation as rigorous and impartial pursuers of truth is fundamental to protecting and strengthening that trust. As journalists and representatives of NPR, furthermore, we are in the public eye.
We hold dear our right to have personal lives — to root for our favorite teams, to live according to our faith, to form deep personal relationships. Yet as journalists, like those in many other professions, we abide by some clear limitations on our private conduct. We don’t put political bumper stickers on our cars, for example. We don’t sign political petitions. We don’t donate money to candidates. Those are some of the easy examples.
But when it comes to protecting our impartiality, the limitations are often more nuanced than clear. Our cars may not be canvases for political expression, but how about those of our spouses? How do we respond when the conversation at a dinner party turns political? And what about when the deepest aspects of our lives – how we worship, whom we marry – become fodder for societal controversy?
NPR journalists may participate in civic and cultural events that do not pose conflicts of interest. However, it is always wise to anticipate ahead of time what political or partisan issues or causes might emerge within a civic or cultural event to avoid ethical problems. And we let our supervisors know about any such civic and cultural organizations we do actively engage with, so that any potential conflicts of interest can be headed off.
We can sit on community advisory boards, act as trustees at educational institutions and serve on the boards of religious organizations and nonprofit groups — so long as those organizations do not engage in significant lobbying or other political activity. We tell our supervisors about such activities and understand that NPR may revoke its approval if there are actual or perceived conflicts of interest.
We have the same right to practice religion — or not — as other Americans. But we do not let our religious or personal beliefs distort our coverage of events or other faiths.
Some of our family members — including spouses, companions and children — may be involved in politics or advocacy. We are sensitive to the perception of bias. So we inform our supervisors and work with them to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest.
NPR journalists recuse themselves from covering stories or events related to their family members’ political activities. We may go so far as to change job responsibilities (for instance, moving off the “politics desk” to an area of coverage well removed from that subject). “You have the right to marry anyone you want, but you don’t have the right to cover any beat you want” if the potential conflicts appear to be too great, as Tom Rosenstiel of Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism said to the Los Angeles Times.
Impartiality as citizens and public figures
Alongside our roles as journalists, we are also members of the public ourselves, with a stake in the future of our society and opinions about the direction it should take. So we may exercise our right to vote.
But privately expressing our political choices at the ballot box doesn’t negate our commitment to keeping our opinions to ourselves. This means that public expressions of those choices – such as taking a position in a public political caucus that chooses candidates – can be problematic. And while it may be appropriate for most NPR employees to affiliate with a particular political party when registering to vote, some NPR journalists who are responsible for coverage of politics or government should consider any ramifications of such party affiliation. If you find yourself having to publicly state your political preferences or affiliation as part of the voting process, talk with your supervisor about the issues this raises and how we might resolve them.
We’re not advocates. We may not run for office, endorse candidates or otherwise engage in politics in a participatory or activist manner. Since contributions to candidates are part of the public record (and not a private expression of choice in a voting booth), those of us connected with news coverage may not contribute to political campaigns or referendums, as doing so would call into question NPR’s journalistic independence and impartiality.
This extends to issues on which NPR as a company has taken a position on issues that affect us and our industry, such as federal funding for public broadcasting. Even when our company takes a stance on an issue, as journalists, we remain dedicated to reporting on the issues with journalistic rigor and impartiality.
It also means we should not sign petitions or otherwise contribute support or money to political causes or public campaigns. Also: we don’t put political signs in our yards or bumper stickers on our cars, and if family members get involved in politics we recuse ourselves from any coverage that touches on their activities and we do our best to maintain our independence from their pursuits.
There may be cases where we can appropriately advocate for issues directly related to our journalistic mission (e.g. First Amendment rights, the Freedom of Information Act, a federal “shield law”). It also may be appropriate to donate money or time to organizations that advocate on such issues.
However, we discuss these exceptions prior to any advocacy with our supervisors. In most cases, permission need only be given once. But if there’s a change in such an organization’s mission or we’re asked to taken on leadership roles that would put us in the public eye, we consult with those supervisors again.
This is the key test for helping us sort through what’s acceptable to say in public settings: In appearing on TV or other media including electronic Web-based forums, we should not express views we would not air in our roles as NPR journalists. We avoid participating in shows, forums, or other venues that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.
NPR journalists may not serve on government boards or commissions. Generally, we avoid serving on boards, and we don’t hold offices that would create conflicts of interest between our work for NPR and our responsibilities to the other institution. We have sometimes made exceptions to allow journalists to serve on the boards of institutions where such conflicts are unlikely, such as other journalism organizations or educational institutions. All such exceptions require approval from supervisors. And of course, if an NPR journalist serves on the board of an institution that becomes the subject of NPR’s reporting, that journalist should be recused from any related coverage.
Refrain from advocating for political or other polarizing issues online. This extends to joining online groups or using social media in any form (including your Facebook page or a personal blog). Don’t express personal views on a political or other controversial issue that you could not write for the air or post on NPR.org. These guidelines apply whether you are posting under your own name or — if the online site allows pseudonyms — your identity would not be readily apparent. In reality, anything you post online reflects both on you and on NPR.
Your simple participation in some online groups could be seen to indicate that you endorse their views. Consider whether you can accomplish your purposes by just observing a group’s activity, rather than becoming a member. If you do join, be clear that you’ve done so to seek information or story ideas. And if you “friend” or join a group representing one side of an issue, do so for groups representing other viewpoints.
There is real journalistic value in being an observer at public events such as a march or rally, even without a reporting assignment. But while we may observe, we refrain from actively participating in marches, rallies or public events involving political issues or partisan causes that our organization covers or may cover. Of course, the distinction between being a participant and being an observer can be subtle. But waving a picket sign or joining along in a cheer would be inappropriate. Again, we rely on your good judgment.
Since the nature of each event differs, it’s wise to discuss these matters ahead of time with supervisors to figure out where ethical pressure points may exist or emerge. If attending such an event as an observer, take care in behavior, comments, attire and physical location not to reflect a participatory role.
When we cover political or partisan marches, rallies or public events, we should be clearly distinguished as working in a journalistic role – identifying ourselves as NPR journalists to the people we speak with, with our NPR identification on display.
In 2010, the NPR News Code of Ethics included a concise, seemingly straightforward rule concerning marches and rallies. It read, in its entirety: “NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers, nor should they sign petitions or otherwise lend their name to such causes, or contribute money to them.”
When satirical newscasters Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert announced they were going to hold a rally on the Mall in Washington, D.C., in October 2010, many employees wondered how the ethics policy applied to the event. The gathering – a mashup of Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” and Colbert’s “March to Keep Fear Alive” – was clearly satirical. But it wasn’t an apolitical comedy show, either. The comedians would use the occasion to extend critiques they often make on their shows, criticisms of our political system, media, and culture. Certainly these are “issues that NPR covers.” And a bystander who spotted an NPR journalist cheering along with the comedians’ barbs at various news subjects could fairly assume that the journalist shared the comedians’ views, undermining our impartiality.
So memos went out reminding staff of the ethics policy, and clarifying that it did apply to the Stewart/Colbert event. The memos and the decisions they reflected offered plenty of fodder for the ensuing news cycle, and touched off a flurry of sharp, wide-ranging questions, including:
- Why weren’t employees reminded of the policy prior to previous events such as the ones Glenn Beck and Al Sharpton had held earlier that fall?
- How do we distinguish between “observing” and “participating”? (The Washington City Paper’s Michael Schaffer offered a notable tongue-in-cheek poke at the distinction.)
- If being a witness to world events is one of the essential components of journalism, should journalists be prevented from observing an event of significant public interest, even if the event has no direct bearing on their beat or coverage?
The evolution of the News Code of Ethics into this Ethics Handbook offered an opportunity to review our decision-making on the Stewart/Colbert event and to add helpful nuance to the guidance on making similar decisions in the future. This handbook’s guidance on attending marches, rallies and other political events is different from its predecessor in several ways that won’t be enumerated here. But we highlight the shift to underscore two broader themes that should play into all our thinking:
- First, the guideline – like many in this handbook – is intended not only to answer or preempt questions, but also to raise them. There’s no easy one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how “participating” and “observing” differ, for example, but there’s value in considering where our actions sit along that spectrum.
- Second, our thinking will evolve – as it has here – and should. We not only make decisions, we review them, we consider their effects and we learn from them. This too is characteristic of a healthy ethical newsroom guided by sound ethical principles.
When appearing on other media outlets, NPR journalists conduct themselves in accordance with NPR’s standards of ethical behavior. In other words, when discussing the day’s news we do not say or write things elsewhere that we would not say on NPR or NPR.org.
We do not express personal opinions in public appearances outside NPR — just as we would not on our own broadcasts. If we are part of a panel discussion or a current events roundup and are asked what we think about an issue, what we think a politician should do or what is likely to happen next, we give answers that are based on solid reporting, not opinion.
One simple tip: if you find yourself starting to say “I think,” pause. Frame your answers around what your reporting tells you, what polls are saying or what history shows is likely to happen.
We avoid speaking to groups where the appearance itself might put in question our impartiality. This includes situations where our appearance may seem to endorse the agenda of a group or organization, as well as participation in some political debates and forums where the sponsoring groups or other participants are identified with a particular perspective on an issue.
Impartiality in our journalism
In two separate studies, we have found that balanced and unbiased reporting is what drives listeners to tune in to NPR and is also what they perceive the defining characteristic of NPR to be.
- Sarah Withrow, Senior Research Analyst in NPR’s Audience Insight and Research department
Fair, accurate, impartial reporting is the foundation of NPR news coverage. On top of that foundation, we layer factual, reporting-driven analysis – breaking down news events and providing explanation and context to aid our audience in interpreting the news. A large part of what makes our work so valuable is our effort to transcend how we feel about a subject and impart to our audience what we know about it, and what we don’t.
This is a lofty standard. The perception of bias is intensely subjective, hanging on the tiniest nuances - a gesture, a word, a slight intonation. Complicating matters is the fact that our audience doesn’t only come to us for our news reporting and analysis, but for reflection, humor, commentary, criticism and much more.1
But journalism is at the core of our enterprise. We should weigh the effect of all our actions on its credibility and integrity.
While news reporting and analysis are at the center of our work, NPR offers its audience much that isn’t “just the facts” – such as essays reflecting on the news, commentaries on current affairs, and cultural criticism. Our audience values these offerings.
Valid news analysis flows naturally from deep, thorough reporting. Its role is to provide interpretation, explanation and context – breaking down stories to foster understanding, discerning important patterns in news events, revealing historical connections and comparisons, and articulating themes our reporting has unearthed.
For the most part, NPR journalists with a role in covering the news should stick to reporting and analysis. We should not tread beyond well-supported conclusions based on our reporting and should not present opinions as fact. Our aim is to give the public the evidence to weigh and develop their own opinions, without the intrusion of ours.
On some occasions, it may be appropriate for a journalist to deliver an essay reflecting on the news or events in our lives. Show hosts do this most regularly. These essays should be designed to cultivate a more personal bond with our audience and to add meaningful dimension to our coverage, not to inject our opinions. They should not call into question our fair and impartial reporting of the news. All our journalists – hosts, reporters and others – must work with editors and supervisors to ensure this standard is upheld in every essay we deliver.
Such essays differ in tone and substance from commentary, the expression of opinion on items of public interest. By its very definition, a commentary is intended to put the author’s opinions on display. Consequently, NPR journalists with a role in reporting and producing the news do not deliver commentaries. In selecting commentaries from independent writers, we honor our commitments to impartiality and fairness by presenting our audience with a variety of voices, encompassing many sides of an issue. Our commentaries must also hew to other Guiding Principles, reflecting honesty, accuracy and transparency.
Alongside news, essays and commentary, we also provide our audience with cultural criticism, showcasing works of art and entertainment and analyzing their qualities and merits. Criticism, of course, is inherently opinionated. We reserve our criticism for works of art and entertainment and do not opine on matters we cover in the news.
Essays such as these exemplify all that essays are supposed to do, revealing valuable personal insights and reflections without offering opinions on issues we cover:
- Scott Simon’s rumination on the value of changing our minds, after Christopher Hitchens’ death (“Christopher Hitchens’ Legacy of Defying Labels,” 12/17/2011).
- Michel Martin on being a bystander to violence (“The Moral Dilemma in Witnessing Acts of Violence,” 1/10/2011) and on the suicide of her brother (“Maybe Someday Love Will Cure Despair,” 5/10/2010).
- Robert Siegel’s meditation on Ground Zero in the wake of 9/11 (“Sifting Tattered Artifacts of World Trade Center Lives,” 9/12/2001).
- Linda Wertheimer on the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan (“Japan Quake Shakes Loose Memories of U.S. Disasters,” 3/12/2011).
- Yuki Noguchi’s reflection on the St. Louis Cardinals and what it means to be a fan (“Crazy Rituals: Connecting Sports Fans to the Game,” 10/28/2011).
Strive to use words and phrases that accurately deliver information without taking sides on emotional or political issues. Politically loaded language not only violates our commitment to be fair, but also gets in the way of telling good stories. It makes readers and listeners stop to consider whether we’re biased in favor of one side or the other.
So, for example, we report about efforts to “overhaul” health care or tax policy, not the “reform” that advocates on all sides say they are pursuing. “Reform” is in the eye of the beholder. “Overhaul” is a better, less-charged word.
In such cases we go with what’s accurate. And err on the side of neutrality.
We also take the time to explain to our audience how certain words or phrases have taken on politically loaded meanings, as Joanne Silberner did in a November 1995 piece for All Things Considered. Reporting on the debate over certain abortions performed late in pregnancy, she noted that:
This time, the debate even extends to what the procedure is called. Opponents call it a ‘partial birth abortion,’ while supporters of abortion rights prefer the medical term ‘intact dilation and evacuation.’ Abortion opponents say the procedure is brutal and inhumane to the fetus, but abortion rights supporters say it can save the life of the mother and allow her to become pregnant again.
For guidance, NPR policy on many terms and phrases is collected on NPR’s internal wiki (under Grammar & Usage Guide). If you’re unsure and the subject isn’t covered there, ask the librarians and consult with our in-house experts — the correspondents and editors who cover controversial topics such as abortion, tax policy, climate change and others. They have likely already worked through the issues. Also feel free to talk it over with the Standards and Practices Editor (email Ethics).