Feature articles

Advancing editorial integrity in public media

The digital age is fundamentally transforming how journalists create news and finance their projects. Fundamental change creates new problems but also new opportunities. Amid the media revolution, it is crucial for news organizations to maintain the public trust. Nowhere is maintaining trust more important than in the changing landscape of public broadcasting and public media. In this article, Bryon Knight, who has a long and stellar record in public broadcasting, explains how public broadcasters have been working to create guidelines — new principles, policies and practices. He also notes that the broadcasters and experts from outside public media will meet soon to evaluate their work so far.

On October 24th and 25th a group of public television and radio executives, journalism scholars and analysts, and nonprofit organization experts will convene for a roundtable meeting on editorial integrity in public media in the digital age.

logo for Editorial Integrity project

The round table is hosted by the Center for Journalism Ethics, School of Journalism and Mass Communication UW-Madison, and Wisconsin Public Radio and Television.  The meeting will review the results of a two year project entitled Editorial Integrity for Public Media funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Editorial Integrity for Public Media is a station based project.  In addition to national organizations such as NPR and PBS there a hundreds of local stations licensed to community boards, universities, and states.  Our project is set in the context of local community based organizations.  Our service includes providing national programming and news produced by others and producing our own content, locally, for our communities.

We framed our discussions around Principles, Policies and Practices.  Principles are those guideposts which are basic to our existence.  Policies are adopted by boards and developed by staffs to ensure we operate as trusted institutions.  Practices are those actions taken daily by our employees to fulfill our mission of service to the public.

The work of the project is guided by the shared notion that trust is perhaps the most important asset public broadcasting carries forward into its evolving public media future.  Audiences rely on our information and perspectives as they make decisions in their public and personal lives.  The public tells pollsters that public television and radio news is their most trusted source among many mass media choices.

Building integrity over the years

We have built that trust by rigorous attention to editorial integrity across our enterprise – how we govern our organizations, raise funds for our programming, and produce our daily work.  Nationally and locally, public broadcasters have crafted enduring principles, policies and practices to protect and advance our trust and integrity.  In 1984 public broadcasters held a conference at Wingspread in Wisconsin. The result of this conference was a set of principles to guide the editorial decision making process for public broadcasting boards, managers and staff.  These principles were put in place to protect the credibility of public broadcasting.  The results of the Wingspread Conference served to ensure that there is no undue influence in the process of production, and the selection of programs.  Even though some stations are licensed to political entities, editorial decisions rest with the staff professionals.  These policies proved to be essential during legal cases questioning the First Amendment rights of publicly funded broadcast organizations.

The Wingspread Conference along with careful development of journalistic, production and fundraising standards by national and local public broadcasters have created the framework for our editorial integrity.  These crucial guideposts are now tested by powerful and urgent changes in our field.

A media revolution

The unfolding technologies of the digital era are transforming how content is created and distributed and reshaping the ways in which public broadcasters engage their communities – and vice versa.

Stations increasingly complement traditional television and radio broadcasting with a portfolio strategy of online, wireless and mobile services.  This leads to wider availability of public media, but often places content in a context not directly controlled by the producing organizations.

Concurrently, stations are re-framing their community roles through new forms of partnership, collaboration, and civic engagement and participation.  These partnerships create new opportunities for multiple voices, contributions, and ideas from new sources, but present challenges with respect to shared editorial standards and the public’s expectations for balance and independence.

Further, public broadcasters are encountering evolving expectations from donors, corporate sponsors, philanthropy and other stakeholders – and higher expectations and standards for transparency and accountability.

In the two years since the project started there have been well publicized occurrences inside public broadcasting which have questioned transparency in fundraising and editorial decision making.  Our project asked public broadcasting and public media experts, to identify and rank issues of editorial integrity which needed attention in our changing environment.  As topics were agreed on by the project’s steering committee, the project co-directors suggested and solicited volunteers to comprise the working groups which would research and discuss the assigned issues.  The working groups are composed of public media professionals who volunteered their time to participate in the discussions and creation of the final documents.  Each working group has a paid facilitator to guide the discussions and write the associated papers.  The members of the working groups can be found by clicking on the topics under Working Group Members on our home page.

Six big issues

The working groups are considering these six issues:

Guideposts in a Time of Change  These principles define the essential value of Public Media to U.S. society, the unique role they play within the global media environment and the ways their editorial integrity is assured.

Funders, Agendas and Firewalls   Public media organizations need to find funding for the creation of their services.  It is no surprise that finders come with their own ideas and agendas.  What policies are needed to ensure that while funding is provided, it is not influencing the content?  How do we ensure we will never mislead our audience?

Editorial Partnerships   With the advent of 21st century information technology, there are numerous sources for information.  Are these new sources playing by the same rules as the traditional broadcasters?  As we partner with organizations to enhance the value of our programs and production how do we stick to our principles and policies?

Editorial Transparency   A vast array of information sources, often tailored to reinforce particular viewpoints, can make our traditional values of truth and trust, seem passé.  Can public media champion the resurgence of these values?  http://pmintegrity.org/et_intro.cfm

Fundraising transparency To be published soon

Employee Activities Beyond Their Public Media Employers To be published soon

It is not the intention of this project to write “codes” or “rules” rather we are creating a resource to be used by public broadcast stations and public media organizations as they create their own policies and practices in this new media environment.  Our papers are drawn from real situations with which these organizations are dealing.  The shared experiences of one will help many.  Our round table discussion will ensure that we are on the right track in defining editorial integrity for public media in this new media environment.

As you read these draft papers we invite your input on these issues.

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photo of Byron Knight

Byron Knight retired from the University of Wisconsin Extension in July 2006.  At that time he was awarded the title of Emeritus Director of Broadcasting and Media Innovations.

Prior to his retirement as Director of Broadcasting and Media Innovations, Byron was responsible for Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio and Media Innovations applied to broadcasting and education.  Media Innovations includes research involving interactive/enhanced television, video delivery over Internet 2, and media asset management.

Prior to becoming Director of Broadcast and Media Innovations, Knight was Director of Wisconsin Public Television for ten years.  Wisconsin Public Television acquires, produces and delivers to statewide audiences high quality television programs, production and community outreach and education services.  These non-commercial services provide all viewers access to educational, information and entertainment programming produced nationally and locally and extend the impact of the television service.  Wisconsin Public Television provides services of high quality, integrity and diversity through television and other media.  These services are catalysts for discussions that explore and respond to education, cultural, entertainment and public policy interests as discovered through research, professional judgment and common understanding.  The WPT staff is recognized for its expertise, skills and accomplishments.

In 1996-1997 Byron was the Project Executive for New Program Services and Alliances for the Public Broadcasting Service PBS.  During this leave of absence from WPT he was responsible for establishing and managing production partnerships at PBS.

From 1978-1990 he was the Director of Programming for WHA-TV, and the Educational Communications Board.  During this time he was responsible for the consolidation of the programming, production, operations, promotion and development of the Educational Communications Board stations and WHA-TV under the title of Wisconsin Public Television.  These stations include WPNE in Green Bay, WHLA, LaCrosse; WHRM, Wausau; WHWC, Eau Claire and WLEF, Park Falls.

As a national television producer Byron was responsible for award winning productions including The Mozart Mystique with Peter Ustinov, The Immortal Beethoven with Peter Ustinov, and the Emmy nominated The Well-Tempered Bach with Peter Ustinov

Byron has also served Wisconsin Broadcasters Association Board 1995-2002; the PBS Program Advisory Committee 1987-90; MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour Program Manager’s Task Force – 1984-93; the PBS Task Force on Pricing and Policy – 1995 and the CPB Future Fund Advisory Panel 1996-2004.  In 2001 Byron received the Twenty-first Century Manager award for Association of Public Television Stations for technology innovation.  He served on the Association of Public Television Stations board 20001-2005 as Vice Chair 2004-5.

Byron continues to be active in Public Broadcasting as the Co-Director of the CPB funded Editorial Integrity in Public Media project, examining editorial Principles, Policies and Practices in public broadcasting’s new media environment.