NPR’s new policy on activism is smart — but will inevitably lead to confusion

Bonita Yarboro of Hamden, Conn., at the Boston demonstration against racism in August 2017. Photo (cc) 2017 by Dan Kennedy.

Four years ago this summer, I walked alongside upwards of 40,000 demonstrators in Boston who were protesting their anger and disgust at Donald Trump over his racist response to the deadly right-wing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia — and to a few cranks who had gathered on the Boston Common to express their racist views. The crowd chanted; I did not. The crowd held signs; I did not. I was careful to keep my press pass visible as well.

I wasn’t there to be “objective,” to invoke a much-misunderstood word. Besides, as an opinion journalist, I’m free to say and write what I believe. But the tradition in journalism is that all us, whether we work the straight-news or the opinion side of the street, need to maintain our independence. We don’t contribute money to political candidates or put partisan signs on our lawn. We don’t write or talk about who we’re going to vote for. (I’ve made one exception during my career, making it clear that I would vote for whoever was opposing Trump.) And we don’t take part in protests or demonstrations.

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Following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, that old rule has been subjected to new scrutiny. Last July, for instance, The Boston Globe announced that it would amend its ethics policy to allow staff members to take part in Black Lives Matter rallies.

Although I have no affiliation with the Globe, the change did affect my thinking. Since then, I’ve participated in a local Black Lives Matter march and, just last week, a demonstration on behalf of transgender dignity.

And on Thursday, a large and overdue hole was punched in the wall when NPR public editor Kelly McBride wrote that its journalists could now participate in certain activities that had long been forbidden — not just by NPR but by practically all news organizations. She wrote:

NPR rolled out a substantial update to its ethics policy earlier this month, expressly stating that journalists may participate in activities that advocate for “the freedom and dignity of human beings” on both social media and in real life.

The new policy eliminates the blanket prohibition from participating in “marches, rallies and public events,” as well as vague language that directed NPR journalists to avoid personally advocating for “controversial” or “polarizing” issues….

The new NPR policy reads, “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.”

As McBride describes it, the policy is going to lead to a lot of friction and questions in NPR-affiliated newsrooms. Taking part in demonstrations on behalf of a political candidate or a piece of legislation will still be forbidden, leading some to question whether the changes go far enough.

And though McBride cited Black Lives Matter and Pride as obvious causes that staff members would be allowed to support, there are plenty of causes that you could argue are related to “the freedom and dignity of human beings” that are also cultural hot buttons. For instance, what about pro-choice or pro-life rallies? Or Palestinian rights versus support for Israel? This isn’t going to be easy.

The irony is that NPR is probably the most balanced of our major news organizations. I don’t mean that as praise. Its devotion to both-sides-ism and false equivalence during the Trump years and their aftermath has at times driven me to distraction. Of course, in a large and diverse news organization like NPR, there are many exceptions, as well as an admirable devotion to truth-telling journalism. But, all too often, NPR has been at the forefront of normalizing the profoundly abnormal.

All things considered (see what I did there?), the new ethics policy strikes me as a smart move, despite the disputes it will inevitably lead to.

One thought on “NPR’s new policy on activism is smart — but will inevitably lead to confusion

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