WNYC was strictly adhering to the rules they have laid out for those who work for them, so in that sense it’s hard to fault them. But the more interesting question is whether or not these rules are fair. In a world where contract work is increasingly being used on many business fronts, news organizations included, an important question is raised: should a news outlet expect the same devotion to an ethics policy without any job security, benefits, or even promise of future work?
Todd Gitlin, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the author of numerous works concerning the media, finds this policy to be “appalling.” “I’m open on the questions of what a full time boss is entitled to ask of the employee,” says Gitlin. “But the question of a freelancer, to me, is a no-brainer.” Gitlin mentioned the trend of news organizations relying on independent contractors, rather than committing to staff with all the benefits of full employment, and said what bothers him is that these part-timers “undertake a commitment which is not reciprocated.”
Richard Wald, former senior vice president at ABC News and also a professor of ethics, amongst other classes, at Columbia’s journalism school, holds a different view. [Full disclosure: Wald is a former professor of mine.] He says as long as the ethics are clear from the outset, than news organizations have every right to fire someone who violates those standards, no matter what the terms are of their employment. “The [news organization] is entitled to have their sense of what’s ethical, and you as the journalist are entitled to either accept or reject it,” says Wald. “If those rules are clear, even if the person is only part time, then they have every right to fire her.”
More than other news outlets, public radio needs to maintain an image of neutrality to retain some of its funding, which explains its reactive nature. Schardt says it’s important to keep in mind that these decisions are being made during a time of “enormous sensitivity” and that decisions to fire someone “are well considered and not taken lightly.” But she says that these sensitive times are causing her and others to question how these ethical guidelines can be updated. “None of us want to be caught in a position of having to be reactive to a James O’Keefe video,” says Schardt. “But the question is how to move out of this reactive mode.”