What NPR’s Juan Williams Blunder Can Teach News Organizations

by Matthew L. Schafer

On Thursday, NPR released the conclusion of a team of lawyers who examined the firing of senior news analyst Juan Williams.  Williams was fired by Ellen Weiss, NPR’s senior vice president of news, by telephone after Williams commented about his insecurities with Muslims in airports.

The William’s firing led immediately to backlash from conservatives and conservative news outlets.  Some Republicans suggested defunding NPR, which receives just about 2 percent of its budget from the federal government.  (That’s about $1.43 per capita.)  At the time, Rush Limbaugh said, “I guess, folks, we just can’t call ‘em Muslims anymore because you can’t say anything about Muslims.”

The review, led by Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, concluded that Williams’ firing was not in violation of his contract with NPR.  It also found that his firing was not the result of outside political pressure.  Nonetheless, Weiss resigned after Weil presented its review, and Vivian Schiller, the CEO of NPR, said she would forgo her bonus, because of her involvement in the botched firing.

“Over her decades at NPR, Ellen has made meaningful and lasting contributions to the evolution of NPR and our newsroom,”  Schiller wrote in a memo to NPR employees.  “She is a strong journalist who has brought her considerable talents to how NPR covers the world and meets the ever-increasing expectations of today’s audiences.”

Beyond the personnel changes, Weil also made several recommendations to the NPR Board of Directors–some of which NPR has adopted.  They are:

  • Establish a committee comprised of NPR personnel, respected journalists, and others from outside NPR to review and update NPR’s current Ethics Code.
  • Develop policies and procedures to ensure consistent application of and training on the Code to all employees and contractors.
  • Review and update policies/training with respect to the role of NPR journalists appearing on other media outlets to ensure that they understand the applicability of the Ethics Code to their work and to facilitate equitable and consistent application of the Code.
  • Review and define the roles of NPR journalists (including news analysts) to address a changing news environment in which such individuals have a myriad of outlets and new platforms for their talent, balancing the opportunities presented by such outlets and platforms with the potential for conflicts of interest that may compromise NPR’s mission.
  • Ensure that its practices encourage a broad range of viewpoints to assist its decision-making, support its mission, and reflect the diversity of its national audiences.  The Human Resources Committee of the Board is working in conjunction with key members of NPR management on this issue.

This shouldn’t only be a teaching moment for NPR.  The entire news industry should use these recommendations to examine their own policies and procedures.

It’s not hard to see the growing pains around the entire industry.  As such, the focus–rightly so–has been almost exclusively on innovations and new technologies, leaving ethics somewhere outside the business of journalism.  Nonetheless, the industry would be right to remember that what sets it apart from many new journalistic endeavors is its adherence to professional norms and routines.

While many argue that these norms and routines are outdated, the fact remains that they produce the majority of the journalism that Americans consume and depend on each day.  Those norms and routines are what journalists bring to the table.  They create a structure that among other things minimizes bias–although not eradicating it altogether.

It’s hard to find a news outlet without bias.  (Of course, there will always be systemic bias to some extent; pure objectivity is an impossibility, but the strive towards it creates better journalism.)  Still, that’s what newspapers and other journalists should stick to: producing news with little bias.

While it may not be the popular choice right now, markets have a way of surprising us.  If no one is doing objective reporting, there will be an increased demand for it, and journalists should meet that demand.

So, stripping out NPR’s identity from its recommendations, here is what all news organizations should take a renewed look at in 2011:

  • Establish a committee comprised of personnel, respected journalists, and others from outside the organization to review and update it’s current Ethics Code.
  • Develop policies and procedures to ensure consistent application of and training on the Code to all employees and contractors.
  • Review and update policies/training with respect to the role of our journalists appearing on other media outlets to ensure that they understand the applicability of the Ethics Code to their work and to facilitate equitable and consistent application of the Code.
  • Review and define the roles of our journalists (including news analysts) to address a changing news environment in which such individuals have a myriad of outlets and new platforms for their talent, balancing the opportunities presented by such outlets and platforms with the potential for conflicts of interest that may compromise our mission.
  • Ensure that its practices encourage a broad range of viewpoints to assist its decision-making, support its mission, and reflect the diversity of its national audiences.

It’s up to the industry, but how many more times can organizations suffer through the backlash of disciplining its employees.  MSNBC took a hit with Keith Olberman, NPR with Williams, CNN with Octavia Nasr, and Hearst with Helen Thomas.

It’s time to make journalism ethics more transparent, so the reader isn’t surprised if a journalist is disciplined.  It’s time to take a second look at what those ethics are, and educate the reader.  It’s time for a change.


flickr/Collapse The Light

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About Matthew L. Schafer

Matthew L. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Studies. He later attended Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication where he earned a Masters of Mass Communication and Georgetown University Law Center where he earned his J.D.
This entry was posted in Media Policy, Political Communication and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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