NPR journalists and managers often get the opportunity to deliver speeches and appear on other news outlets’ programs. Bear in mind that everything we say in those forums must meet NPR’s standards for accuracy. The general standards are:
- If you wouldn’t report it on NPR, don’t say it in public elsewhere.
- Avoid conjecture and hyperbole. Be especially careful about the phrase “I think,” which implies that you’re giving an opinion as opposed to reporting, and dilutes the clarity of your words. If asked “what might happen next?” resist speculation. Use your knowledge and reporting to offer analysis and insight based on solid evidence.
- Stick to what you know. If the question is not connected to your beat, explain that you’re not prepared to address the subject or cite what other NPR journalists and other trusted news organizations have reported.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(Editor’s note on July 27, 2017: Click here to go to an updated special section about the do’s and don’t's of social media.)
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.