Consistency Is Critical For Ethical Decision Making In Newsrooms

PMJA News,

By Mary Shedden

Ethical issues never come at a good time. They show up as an early morning email, in a
phone call from your boss, or on deadline when a reporter needs an answer right away.

In public media newsrooms, most managers are multitasking when these issues crop
up. PMJA’s training committee recently invited Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute,
and NPR’s Public Editor, to discuss ethical dilemmas journalists in public media
newsrooms across the country face.

To create a safe place for conversation, this training was not recorded. Topics included:
tensions at stations that are university licensees; requests for sources to have their
name removed from a published story; and setting policy over the personal social media
accounts for our journalists.

McBride, chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at Poynter and
NPR’s public editor the past two years, shared how she approaches issues through a
process that can reduce stress and create a consistent pattern of ethical decision
making for newsrooms.

What she shared is a glimpse of the various trainings available at Poynter. The following
is being shared here with the permission of the Poynter Institute.

The process she describes is more than asking questions or finding solutions related to
the ethical dilemma. Newsrooms must know and first be able to articulate foundational
information about their organization’s principles and journalistic purpose.

With that knowledge, newsrooms can address most questions with a set of questions
that ask about potential consequences of the actions and look for alternatives that can
maximize the organization’s journalistic purpose.

She also suggested consistently asking additional questions such as:

  • What do I know? What do I need to know?
  • Are there existing policies or guidelines to consider?
  • How can people with different perspectives be included in the decision making?
  • What if the roles were reversed?
  • How can the decision be described to colleagues and to the audience?

McBride said it’s critical that there is a process set up in advance, such as who is
involved in decision making. The process establishes a consistent system that should
be communicated with the organization and with the audience.

Mary Shedden is News Director of WUSF Public Media in Tampa, FL and a member of
the PMJA training committee.