Erin McGroarty was a 2021-22 fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and is a graduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Over the last year, a number of prominent newsrooms have begun adjusting their policies outlining whether – and how – journalists are allowed to participate in protests, NPR being the most notable.
Kelly McBride, public editor for NPR, said she lost count of how many conversations she had with conflicted reporters who were wrestling with their limitations as a working journalist and their desire to join the movement for racial justice.
“That was a very difficult moment for many journalists everywhere, but particularly for Black journalists,” McBride said.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, and numerous other police killings of Black Americans, Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations swept the nation in the summer of 2020.
With a national racial reckoning at the forefront of news coverage, newsrooms began discussing whether larger policies barring journalists from participating in protests as citizens should be expanded or altered.
McBride, who also serves as senior vice president and chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute, noted that these discussions with conflicted reporters were happening in newsrooms across the country.
“I talked to many, many journalists – both at NPR and other newsrooms – and they truly felt torn because they wanted to be out there,” McBride said. “Their children were out there, their spouses were out there, their parents were out there and their friends were out there, and they felt a true conflict between who they wanted to be as a human being and their job.”
For most of them, they were prevented by a policy that said they couldn’t participate in a protest or any demonstration that could be construed as political by readers or listeners.
Up until last summer, NPR had such a policy.
In 2010, the NPR News Code of Ethics included a simple and direct rule regarding journalists’ expectations on attending marches and rallies. It read, in whole: “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.”
“NPR was facing this crisis internally because people really felt like policies like that were part of the diversity problem,” McBride said. “And they didn’t want their employees to feel like they could not bring their entire selves to work.”
As it currently stands, the updated NPR ethics handbook recognizes that “the line between standing up for human rights and being ‘political’ is a fine one that looks different from different perspectives.”
“A march for racial equality may be non-political in principle, for instance, but that may not hold true if the march is for a specific piece of legislation or where organizers or speakers include politicians aligned only with one party,” the policy continues. “The fact that others may attempt to politicize social issues or the way people live their lives does not mean that journalists are engaging in political activity.”
“NPR editorial staff may express support for democratic, civic values that are core to NPR’s work, such as, but not limited to: the freedom and dignity of human beings, the rights of a free and independent press, the right to thrive in society without facing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, disability, or religion.”
For example, a journalist can advocate for racial justice as a social goal and larger concept, but not if that journalist is lobbying for or against a specific piece of legislation pertaining to police funding.
‘They added some very common sense language that opened the door a teeny, teeny bit,” McBride said.
The response from reporters to change in policy was divided.
“I talked to a lot of people who thought it was unnecessary, and that the policy didn’t make it more permissible, just more confusing,” McBride said. “It puts a lot of weight on the individual to figure out what’s best for the individual and for NPR.”
Decisions on participation will be made on a case by case basis. NPR’s editorial leadership will maintain a standing committee of journalists to “regularly review and advise on questions regarding social media and other activity.”
THE PROCESS BEHIND THE DECISION
For those on the committee that considered this change, the issue remains complicated.
Leah Donnella has been with NPR for more than six years and hosts the podcast “Code Switch,” a weekly show that examines the topic of race and identity in America, specifically looking at how race affects our understanding of news, our personal lives and historical events.
She also sat on the committee that ultimately decided to open up NPR’s policy on journalists participating in protests.
“There was a discussion happening around that time about what kind of language we could use on social media, what kind of events we could be involved in and more broadly, how that could affect our ability to report different stories,” Donella said. “Our previous policy wasn’t entirely clear.”
Donella’s goal wasn’t necessarily to expand the policy so much as to add clarity.
“I was advocating for a more consistent justification for a policy,” Donella said.
It becomes ethically concerning, she noted, when you have a group deciding that one issue is “ok” or important enough to allow a journalist to participate in, but another issue isn’t.
For Donella, the issue is wide reaching and remains somewhat vague in nature. The expanded policy may have opened conversations, but specific guidance still remains unclear.
She isn’t the only one to feel this way.
Stephen Solomon is the founding editor of First Amendment Watch, a site that provides news, commentary, and legal and historical context for the many free speech conflicts in the United States. He is also Marjorie Deane Professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, where he teaches First Amendment law.
For him, the language of the policy leaves too much up to interpretation.
“I don’t know how this policy would be implemented,” Solomon said. “It’s so vague.”
Solomon isn’t necessarily against the expanded policy. He, like many others, seeks clarity.
“It was sort of a given for many, many years that the policy was not to participate,” Solomon said. “That said, it’s worth thinking about whether changes are needed so I think I generally applaud going back to reconsidering policies.”
WEIGHING PERSONAL CHOICES
Objectivity in journalism has come up again most recently in response to attacks on journalism in the United States in part as a result of the Trump administration’s crusade against so-called “fake news.”
“I think, unfortunately, the media is not well-regarded right now already,” Solomon said. “So does this further erode the credibility of the media in the eyes of readers?”
Ultimately, the decision whether to participate in protests – while requiring approval by newsroom leadership on a case by case basis – must be made by the journalist with the understanding that any public display on an issue that could be construed as political could affect their ability to do their job down the road.
Is participation in the protest worth the possible loss of source cooperation in the future? There is no right answer.
In a 2020 panel discussion with the Center for Journalism ethics, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and 2020 UW-Madison journalist-in-residence Wesley Lowery noted the current understanding of what “objectivity” means in the newsroom hasn’t always been the same.
The concept of “objectivity” wasn’t initially understood to apply to individual reporters but rather the approach to the reporting itself, Lowery said. It was understood that no individual is truly objective and each has their own beliefs about issues, “political” or otherwise.
The idea of journalistic objectivity originally operated as an acknowledgment of just that – that journalists are people who have inherent belief systems. But a recent shift in newsroom culture – and how news organizations are viewed by the public – has shifted the meaning of the term to mean the journalists themselves must be objective and if they’re not, their work can be questioned or discredited by others who discover those personal beliefs.
Newsrooms have implemented other phrases along the same lines – “balance” and “fairness,” Lowery said during the panel. This becomes problematic when a search for “balance” takes away from a story by “both sidesing” an issue that may not, in fact, need both sides.
“It is cases where it’s a performative objectivity,” Lowery said, providing a hypothetical scenario. “You’re writing pieces on climate change, and you’re going out of your way to find a climate denier or scientist so that no one can argue that you did not have that voice included even if there is no factual basis to include them.”
When reporting on protests, for example, if there are 500 protesters and 50 counter protesters, those two groups do not carry the same weight of importance in terms of who is quoted.
WHAT ABOUT LOCAL NEWS?
For smaller, local dailies, it may not be so simple and dismantling a long held quest for pure “objectivity” is far more complicated.
National news organizations such as NPR and Axios – which has also opened up its policy regarding protest – have more flexibility in a business model to adjust policy with the understanding that they may lose a small percentage of listeners or readership. But, the burden is much higher for local newsrooms.
“You need them to trust you,” McBride said of local news readership. “They’re not going to consume or support you if they don’t trust you.”
“It is way harder to maintain credibility as a local news outlet,” she said. “Your consumers see the choices you make personally, what church you go to, what leagues you join, where you spend your entertainment dollars.”
For this exact reason, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a strong policy against any public political activity, according to editor George Stanley.
The key element of this policy is the emphasis placed on discussing potential political expression beforehand.
“Our ethics have always been to avoid all [political] participation, outside of voting,” Stanley said. “We are expected to be independent in coverage.”
The current policy to discuss all potentially political expressions ahead of time began more than 20 years ago in the early 2000s, when a number of staffers at the Journal Sentinel signed a recall petition for a Milwaukee county official without realizing such petitions are public. What followed was a conversation with editors, a one-day suspension without pay for the reporters who signed the petition and the clear outlining of guidelines warning against all public political participation.
“We made it very clear then that what we need to do is talk about these things in advance,” Stanley said. “We try to avoid the problems before they happen by having discussions and having reporters come talk to us first.”
Stanley agrees that the interaction on the community level between local reporters and readership plays a critical role in the necessity to maintain political independence.
“[Readers] are your neighbors, and you know that your neighbors have a lot of different opinions, not everyone is on the same side and it’s complicated,” Stanley said. “The world is complicated and people are complicated, and we’re just trying to do our best to describe what the hell is going on as truthfully and honestly as you can without getting involved.”
If the policy shifts in newsrooms like NPR and Axios affirm anything, it is that journalists are also humans with personal positions and ideologies and the narrative about how those ideologies can manifest themselves may be shifting.
These conversations within newsrooms and between editors and reporters are important. Newsrooms should be discussing what it means to be a journalist and a person with beliefs and when those two may overlap.
Ultimately, is the problem that journalists have beliefs or is it that readers now know about these beliefs and allow that knowledge to taint what may very well be responsible journalism? Is it on the journalist to remain silent on all topics of political or social relevance or is it on the reader to be able to take the journalism itself at face value without letting the human element of the journalist cloud what could otherwise be quality reporting?
These are the questions being raised and these are the questions that must be addressed in newsrooms.
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