Guidance: On Station Reporters & News About Their Universities Or Institutions

When there is news involving the university or institution that holds an NPR member station’s license, conflicts of interest – perceived and actual – must be considered. So NPR editors ask questions:

– Is it a breaking news situation in which a station reporter could be our eyes on the ground and voice from the scene? Also is it a story that is about an event more than the institution? In recent years, this has happened most often when an institution is on lock-down because of a shooting or reports of a shooter. We would likely want to hear from a station reporter in our Newscasts and on our news magazines about what is happening.

– Is it a story that involves the institution but is not really about the institution? A recent example was the death of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith. We felt it would not be a problem for a station reporter to file an obit-type report for us. Yes, Smith was a towering figure at the university. But he was not controversial in the way that Joe Paterno, for example, became at Penn State. There wasn’t anything about his time at UNC that we felt would give the appearance of a conflict if a station reporter was on our air. Bottom line: the news was about Smith, not the school.

– Is it a story about that institution? In such cases, we consider very carefully whether it would look like there was a conflict of interest if a station reporter files for us. We err on the side of caution. We know that listeners/readers may rightfully question whether a reporter who is paid by an institution should report about it. For example, if a school’s football coach was under fire for putting a football player back on the field too soon after a concussion — leading to calls for the coach’s firing and questions about the university’s response — that is a story we would not want to take from a station reporter at the school. The Penn State/Jerry Sandusky story was another that we felt should not be covered, on our airwaves, by a reporter from the school’s station.

– Has the nature of a story shifted? Here’s an example: While a station reporter is likely the logical person to use in the first hours after a campus shooting, that reporter and his/her station probably are not the right person or place to turn if questions start to come up about the university’s response to the incident.

We can’t anticipate every possibility. The discussion above is designed to offer general guidelines and recent examples of how things have been handled. Situations will be considered case-by-case.

These things don’t change from story to story: We value and need the solid reporting that member stations provide. We start with the assumption that we want to use their reports. Sometimes we may need to say “no.” But at all times we want to talk through the issues.

We have worked with some station-based news directors and PRNDI on the guidelines above; we welcome more feedback about our thinking and this guidance.

(Memmos; March 16, 2015)

March 16, 2015

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