The evolution of our guidance on marches, rallies and public events.
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.
October 17, 2011