Friday, October 15, 2010

Journalist Citizens?

Let me preface this blog post with the following disclaimers:
  • I’m not a journalist (at least by the traditional definition).
  • Lots of really smart folks have thought about these issues for a long time and I’m not presuming that I know better.
  • This is complicated (but I think it’s important to think about)
Is a “mainstream” journalist allowed to be a full-fledged citizen?

Do professionals of any kind have to be hamstrung by rules just in case someone makes a mistake?

Is avoiding the “appearance of impropriety” and “protecting your brand” more important than seeking the truth?

There’s currently a little dustup over a memo NPR put out to their employees telling them they could not attend the Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert rallies in Washington, D.C.:
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. This restriction applies to the upcoming John (sic) Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies.
This is nothing new in journalism circles, as they’ve typically had these kinds of policies. But what is new is that people like Jeff Jarvis are questioning the wisdom of such policies:
But my real problem here is, again, that NPR is forbidding its employees to be curious. There’s a big event going on in Washington. It could — just could — be the beginning of a movement mobilizing the middle. But NPR people are not allowed to even witness it, to go and try to figure it out, to understand what’s being said and why people are there. No, they can do that only if they are *assigned* to do that. Otherwise, it might seem as if by merely showing up they might have a forbidden opinion.
NPR has responded in several ways, including this post by their ombudsman:
But there’s another, more important issue than management botching a memo. The question arises in every election season, and boils down to this: If you become a card-carrying journalist, do you have no freedom outside of work?

. . . Media guru Jarvis agrees with these views. He even encourages NPR staffers to protest management’s decision. “Use social media, folks, and have an opinion about opinions,” he wrote.

I don’t agree.

Sure, journalists have opinions and causes they support.

But at the end of the day, they have to be professional – and that means avoiding actions that create the perception that they are taking sides in political controversies, including elections.

Specifically, mainstream journalists can’t put a political sign in their yard or carry one at demonstrations. They can’t donate money to candidates. They can’t sit on a school board. They can’t participate in political rallies. They can’t lobby, and they can’t become partisan activists.

To me, it’s a small price to pay for the privilege of being a journalist.

NPR is not restricting its staff’s freedom. It’s protecting its credibility as a news organization that tries to give its audience fair, non-partisan coverage.
Interestingly, folks at some NPR affiliate stations don’t necessarily agree:
The issue isn't whether reporters "take sides" in political controversies. They do. They're not mummies. The issue is whether those opinions make their ways into news stories or in the process of selecting what stories to cover in the first place. Not allowing you the opportunity to know what the biases are does nothing to guarantee the impartiality of NPR (or any other organization's) content. It's designed more to prevent the questioning of the impartiality of the content.

The two are not the same thing.
I came upon this story via some tweets by Andy Carvin, Senior strategist at NPR (but tweeting as himself). Andy was simply pointing folks to the controversy, not taking a position, but it stirred my thinking about this in relation to how we are preparing our students.

Citizen journalism has been a term we’ve talked about a lot the last few years, arising from lots of places but not least the work of Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen. But in this case I think we’re really talking about journalist citizens – what rights, responsibilities and restrictions does a “mainstream journalist” have in a participatory age?

According to Alicia Shepard, the NPR ombudsman, “mainstream journalists can’t put a political sign in their yard or carry one at demonstrations.” But I wonder if that wouldn’t tend to drive people who want to be active in their community to become “non-mainstream journalists,” and wouldn’t that be bad for both the community and for mainstream media?

And the letter from NPR’s President Vivian Schiller comes across as defensive and a little elitist:
This is the case in almost all legitimate news organizations, indeed in many professions. In our case, the rules are designed to protect the impartiality of our content.
“Legitimate" news organizations? As opposed to, say, illegitimate ones? I think I understand the intent of this, to underscore that “legitimate” news organizations attempt to maintain impartiality in their reporting, whereas other ones may not. But in the context of this story that comes across as, “We’re legitimate, and you’re not, simply because you have concerns with our policy. And if you don't have a similar policy, then you're neither professional or legitimate.”

She goes on to say:
We live in an age of "gotcha" journalism where people troll, looking for cracks in our credibility. We need to err on the side of protecting our journalism, our journalists, and our reputation. While the credibility and trust that attaches to the NPR brand depends principally on the quality of our news reporting, it can be easily undermined if our public conduct is at odds with the standards we seek to uphold as a news organization.
But can’t we trust good people to do that? Can’t we trust them to do their jobs well, yet still fully exercise their rights as citizens? It seems to me that this is very similar to the restrictions placed on teachers. We can’t campaign or advocate for issues at school, but once we leave we retain our full rights (and responsibilities for that matter) as citizens. Couldn’t journalism operate the same way? Couldn’t we expect journalists to have journalist integrity, but still participate in and contribute to their community? In fact, isn’t it actually poor “public conduct” for them not to participate? This comes across more as trying to protect the NPR “brand” instead of pursuing truth and good journalism.

Finally (and thankfully now I’m going to try to relate this back to education), it seems to me that journalists actually can’t do their jobs well unless they are participating to a certain extent. In this participatory age, how can a journalist possibly do their jobs to the best of their ability if they aren’t participating? Whether that’s by attending rallies (Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and/or Glenn Beck), participating in social media (not just broadcasting using social media, but engaging with it), or putting political signs in their yards, journalists have to participate if they are going to truly understand – and help us understand – what is going on. As long as they don’t represent their activities as NPR’s views, and as long as they do their best to maintain impartiality in their reporting, can we not expect that these professionals are capable of doing this? Sure, mistakes will be made, but instead of issuing blanket policies assuming that your employees will be unprofessional, why not trust your employees to do the right thing and then deal with the few that don’t? The idea that anyone is truly “unbiased” seems quaint, why not simply acknowledge your biases (publicly) and then do your best to overcome them? Wouldn’t that actually be more honest and show more “journalistic integrity?”

In the end, this feels like so much of our current public policy and leadership debates. People seem more concerned with avoiding the “appearance of impropriety” instead of doing the right thing. Organizations (and politicians) seem to be more concerned with protecting the “brand” instead of actually accomplishing good things. We’re more willing to run attack ads then simply lay out our own positions; more willing to hide behind blanket “ethics policies,” instead of struggling with complex issues in an honest and transparent manner.

So much of this is in direct contradiction to what so many of us are trying to accomplish in our classrooms. We encourage our students to be active, involved members of their communities, to be curious, passionate learners. We encourage them to think critically, and to wrestle with complex issues, instead of removing all possibility of independent thought and action. We encourage them to think out loud, to debate in public (including through social media), and to continue to evolve and adjust their thinking through their interactions with others. By prohibiting their employees from experiencing the full gamut of citizenship in a participatory age, NPR (and many other organizations) are crippling their employees’ abilities to learn and to do their best work. If we don’t allow our journalists to be citizens, and to be curious, passionate, participatory learners, then what kind of journalists can they possibly be?

1 comment:

  1. I see a similar situation with school districts making similar policies with their staff members. I've read too many articles of mandates that forbid staff from having social media accounts, most specifically Facebook.
    Why? Because they're too afraid of what COULD happen and the potential for bad publicity.