Everyone affected by our journalism deserves to be treated with decency and compassion. We are civil in our actions and words, avoiding arrogance and hubris. We listen to others. When we ask tough questions, we do so to seek answers — not confrontations. We are sensitive to differences in attitudes and culture. We minimize undue harm and take special care with those who are vulnerable or suffering. And with all subjects of our coverage, we are mindful of their privacy as we fulfill our journalistic obligations.
Respect for sources and subjects of coverage
Everywhere I go, as much as I can, I listen to National Public Radio. It’s an oasis of clear-headed intelligence. Carefully, patiently, it presents programming designed to make me feel just a little better equipped to reenter the world of uproar.
We strive to live up to Mr. Ebert’s praise – to be “an oasis of clear-headed intelligence” amidst a “world of uproar.” That doesn’t mean we paper over unpleasantness or shy away from difficult questions. It means we favor clarity over bombast. It means we pursue the truth with decency rather than ruthlessness, and humanity rather than indifference.
The general public is the most important stakeholder in our work, but everyone we cover is also an important stakeholder. We practice ethical journalism by doing our best to minimize harm as we report information in the public interest.
We are NPR. Reporters and producers in the field, bookers lining up interviews, engineers in the studios adjusting microphones, bloggers interacting with the NPR audience on the Web, librarians doing research and hosts engaging with interview subjects over the phone — we are all representing NPR. And when we interact with people, we are courteous and sensitive to their feelings. We don’t take “no” for an answer when public officials are avoiding answering our questions. But even in our doggedness, we are polite and do not respond in kind to those who are less than courteous to us.
We make sure our guests and interview subjects know what we want to talk with them about. But we are especially careful with those who have not been interviewed many times by many media outlets. While a U.S. senator, for example, can be expected to be comfortable in front of microphones and cameras, and to be “ready to go” relatively quickly, a homeowner from Chicago deserves a few extra minutes of our time before the tape starts rolling.
Realize that different communities – online and offline – have their own culture, etiquette, and norms, and be respectful of them. Our ethics don’t change in different circumstances, but our decisions might.
The foundation of respect in reporting on any community is awareness. Strive to be knowledgeable about the culture, and be attuned to gaps in your understanding. Often your colleagues can be a terrific resource to help you get up to speed on unfamiliar settings.
Consider as well how your conduct in a community will affect your reporting. As you adjust behaviors such as language and dress in different situations, think about what might be most helpful or harmful to effective reporting.
Also, appreciate that journalism can be an intrusive act, and conduct yourself as a decent guest of the community where you’re reporting. If the customary etiquette is to remove your shoes upon entering a building, for example, it’s appropriate to oblige.
And of course, factor in your own security. In unstable situations, for example, journalists can be targets of violence. At such times, the most appropriate consideration may merely be blending in. As always, we rely on your good judgment.
Respect in sensitive circumstances
NPR journalists show sensitivity when seeking or using interviews of those affected by tragedy or grief. That’s especially true when we’re dealing with children, anyone who is nervous about being interviewed, individuals who have difficulty understanding us because of language differences, and those who might be putting themselves in danger by speaking to us. If interviewing a witness to a crime, we must weigh carefully whether we are exposing the source to physical risk by identifying him or her by name as a potential witness, and whether there is potential for the individual to be accused as a participant.
“Sometimes when you’re talking with people living under coercive or oppressive governments, you know that they’re putting themselves at risk,” says Scott Simon. We consider it our duty to make sure they are aware of the potential ramifications. And even if they are fully informed and willing to go on the record, we may determine it’s still best not to reveal their names on the air or online.
Be sure to consider legal issues when dealing with minors (generally defined as anyone under the age of 18). An interview of a minor about a sensitive subject requires us to secure permission from at least one of the minor’s parents (preferably both) or a legal guardian. Examples of sensitive subjects include cheating, sexual activity, involvement in gangs or crime, difficult family relationships, probation violation, out-of-wedlock pregnancy or parenthood, victims’ sexual abuse and similar topics that could have legal ramifications or lead to embarrassment. An interview of a minor in a special custodial situation, such as foster care, juvenile detention, or holding facilities for illegal immigrants, requires the consent of the person who has custody of the minor. Utah also requires the consent of both the custodian of the juvenile facility and the minor’s parent.
An interview on a non-sensitive topic (normal childhood activities, sports, book, movies, trips to the zoo, baseball and the like) does not require consent. Generally however, any interview on school premises will require the permission of the school authorities.
In cases where there is even a hint of doubt about whether to get consent, contact our legal team (look for LegalAlert in the NPR internal email address book).
Jonathan Kern recalls an NPR interview with a 14-year-old girl prostitute. She was willing to have her name used. The girl’s guardian said it was OK. NPR, however, decided that it was still best not to reveal her identity. As Jonathan says, 10 years later someone might Google the girl’s name and come across a story about her having been a child prostitute. She might be denied a job. Or a relationship might be ruined. It was decided that a 14-year-old wouldn’t be in a position to think through all such potential ramifications, and so couldn’t give informed consent.
Situations like school shootings require special care when interviewing visibly distressed people who may have witnessed horrific scenes. Witnesses such as teachers or students over 18 are preferable interviewees. If continued interviewing substantially increases the distress of a minor who is a witness, carefully balance the importance and quality of the information being obtained with the interviewee’s emotional state and decide whether respect for the witness requires the interview to be ended. Also, discuss with your editor whether that interview should be aired.
NPR does not name individuals who are the alleged victims of sexual assaults. There are exceptions at times – such as certain instances when such an individual goes public with his/her identity – and NPR editors will judge these instances on a case-by-case basis.
Respect for our audience
There is a lengthy document that lays out NPR’s policy on use of offensive language posted online. It is radio-centered, but the same rules apply to what we post on NPR.org.
The policy statement begins with this:
“As a responsible broadcaster, NPR has always set a high bar on use of language that may be offensive to our audience. Use of such language on the air has been strictly limited to situations where it is absolutely integral to the meaning and spirit of the story being told.”
“We follow these practices out of respect for the listener,” the policy continues, and because in the post-Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” world, federal regulators “have taken a much more aggressive line on what they regard as indecent or profane content.” The 2010 decision by a federal appeals court that invalidated the FCC’s indecency policy has not prompted NPR to change its position.
That said, “there are rare instances where we will permit use of profane or indecent languages for news or programmatic reasons. Such an instance is when the use of such language is so vital to the essence of the story that to excise or bleep it would be to distort it or blunt its power and meaning.”
An example (fair warning … you’re about to see an expletive): While traveling with U.S. Army forces in Iraq, NPR’s Eric Westervelt was on the scene when the unit came under fire. At one point in his tape, an American soldier could be heard telling another man to “get the fuck under the truck.”
The NPR policy states that in this case “the use of profanity … is editorially justifiable” because it meets the test of being “vital to the essence of the story” and cutting it out or bleeping the word would alter the power and meaning of the report.
As required by NPR’s policy, “the piece was preceded by a language advisory in the intro read by the host, in addition to the DACS notices in advance to stations. NPR policy is to do both in all such instances for both legal and editorial reasons.”
Online, if sound or text containing potentially offensive language has been approved for use by a Managing Editor or someone above that level, it too must be preceded by text (and in the case of audio, a verbal warning as well) advising the NPR.org audience that what follows contains language some may find offensive. When used in a blog, in most cases the warning should come before a “jump” to a second page. It should require a second “click” to get to the offensive material.
If used online, audio or video containing offensive material should never play automatically. To view or hear it, the user must choose to click “play.”