NPR takes a step in the right direction with updated ethics policy

By Grace Morris
Elm Staff Writer

In July 2021, NPR published a substantial update to their ethics code, which allows journalists to participate in previously prohibited “marches, rallies, and public events.” The new guidelines allow reporters to attend civic events as private citizens.

This is a long-overdue update to an antiquated set of rules that prevented journalists from publicly backing the causes they support.

According to NPR, policies regarding impartiality are in place to prevent conflicts of interest. However, the assumption that preventing journalists from attending protests and events in the public eye would lead to more unbiased writing is a shallow, superficial stance.

Journalists are, first and foremost, human beings with their own opinions and beliefs. Whether they are on the street shouting their grievances or discussing them privately in their homes shouldn’t matter.

“I see [the changes to NPR’s ethics policy] as a solid step in the right direction,” journalist Kelly McBride said.

An organization as large and influential as NPR moving toward greater allowances for their employees is a step toward positive change. Journalists deserve the same opportunities to engage in civic events as other private citizens.

Still, organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists are less eager to change.

According to the SPJ Code of Ethics, journalists should “avoid political or outside activities” that could impact their ability to be impartial in their reporting.

That’s an incredibly broad statement that leaves too much to the discretion of individual editors, who are also human beings with their own set of biases and opinions. If journalists must refer to their editors every time they wish to attend a civic event, what’s to stop editors’ opinions from influencing decisions made on the matter? It’s a non-solution that runs into the same problems it claims to resolve.

It’ll certainly be a long time before an organization like the SPJ — which provides guidance for journalists from countless different news organizations across the world — changes its tune and allows participation in civic activities. But that’s not to say it’ll never happen.

“I think it’s part of a larger cultural shift,” Associate Professor of English and Director of the Gender Studies Program Dr. Elizabeth O’Connor said.

This shift cannot come fast enough. In the age of social media, where writers can communicate with thousands of people at a moment’s notice, it’s only a matter of time before journalists get in trouble for expressing their views. In fact, some already have. According to McBride, one journalist from the AP was fired for tweets made in support of Palestinian rights in May 2021.

“Where does the journalist end and the citizen begin?” McBride said. Her question summarizes the issue quite succinctly.

Journalists are citizens, not two separate entities. They shouldn’t have to shed their rights when they accept a job at a company just because their organization wants to give the impression of being unbiased. Everything has bias; it’s the responsibility of readers to keep that in mind when reading just as much as it’s the responsibility of journalists to put them aside — as much as possible — when writing.

“Journalism is very much at a crossroads right now,” Dr. O’Connor said.

As student journalists, we are the next generation to take charge in the newsroom. We will be the ones to decide which road the field takes. Change is inevitable. As a generation raised alongside social media, we have seen the power the internet holds as a bastion for social change. It’s hard, then, to imagine a future where the freedom to utilize such a platform is put aside for some people solely because of their career choice.

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