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University of Wisconsin–Madison

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.

Local Public Media Organizations Code of Editorial Integritylogo for Editorial Integrity project


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 Tom Thomas and Byron Knight 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 RESOURCES on our home page.

In October 2011 a group of public television and radio executives, journalism scholars and analysts, and nonprofit organization experts convened for a roundtable meeting on editorial integrity in public media in the digital age.

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


Drafting and Adopting a Code


Drawing on the now-substantial body of work created by the Editorial Integrity Project, we began drafting a Code of Editorial Integrity. We aimed for several goals.

  • The Code needs to assert our special roles and privileges and to clarify the responsibilities that go with them. It should be both motivating and disciplined.
  • The Code needs to be aspirational, pushing us to do our best. But it also needs to be within reach of our organizations, something to which we can realistically commit ourselves.
  • The Code needs to be flexible enough to reflect the diversity of circumstances and focus of the hundreds of local public media organizations across the country. It needs to be specific enough to offer meaningful guidance.

Tom Thomas and SRG co-CEO Terry Clifford took up principal drafting responsibility. Initial drafts received detailed critiques, principally from members of the project Steering Committee, with a final version receiving unanimous approval at the end of January. The Code has since received unanimous endorsement from both the Affinity Group Coalition and the Station Resource Group board of directors.  It is now in the process of being adapted and adopted by public media organizations.

The Code is comprised of nine Principles followed by Guidelines for Local Policies and Practices for local management and staffs.  All of the Code and Guidelines are derived from the work of the numerous participants in this project.  We thank each of them for providing a framework for the continued trust of public media.

We view the Code as a living document that will be updated and thus the project is now entering a new phase of Engagement, Adoption and Relevance.

This phase of the project will:

  • Engage a broad range of station personnel on issues of editorial and organizational integrity, principally through public broadcasting’s industry-wide meetings.
  • Encourage widespread adoption by public radio and television stations of local editorial principles and policies that directly incorporate the Code or more broadly reflect its guidelines.
  • Explore more deeply the intersection of organizational policies and individual rights and privileges – in the activities of public media employees, the expectations of both privacy and transparency with respect to donors, the roles of social media participants, and others – and take up a short list of additional critical issues we have not yet addressed.
  • Enlist civic leadership at stations and public media organizations to bring broader perspectives to our recommendations and guidelines and the ways in which they intersect with their governance and fiduciary responsibilities.
  • Extend the currency and relevance of our work by updating project materials, repurposing selections from previous reports, publishing new working group papers, and issuing an updated edition of the Code of Editorial Integrity for Local Public Media Organizations at the conclusion of this phase of work.

This phase of the project will be completed in the fall of 2013.  Please continue to follow our work at:


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