Public Radio and the Freelance Journalist

Should the same code of ethics apply?

Caitlin Curran was a freelance web producer for WNYC/PRI’s radio show, The Takeaway, which has been covering the Occupy Wall Street protests. After a picture of Curran holding a sign at a recent OWS protest went viral, Curran was dismissed from her position with WNYC. She wrote a post about the firing for Gawker, and inspired conversation around yet another example of public radio’s firing of an employee over a perceived political endorsement.

NPR’s On the Media delved into the Curran case, with Bob Garfield interviewing Curran. She explained that she didn’t “consider the Occupy movement to be political, since it’s not been associated with a particular party” to which Garfield responded, “Nonpartisan maybe, but not non-ideological.” This led into an interview between Brooke Gladstone and Jay Rosen about public radio’s neutrality-strategy of divorcing itself from politically active contributors. Rosen said he didn’t think this policy was “helping public radio gain trust,” and that it would be wise to “acknowledge that its people have political lives.” But, most interestingly, when asked whether he thought Curran specifically should have been fired, he had this to say:

… it might be a good rule for WNYC to not try and control the lives of people that you don’t give health insurance to. The fact that she’s not an employee, I think, is relevant, because WNYC is not investing in her career as much as it could. I would say there are limits to how much control we should have over freelancers.

On the Media’s request for comment from WNYC on the Curran firing was met with an official statement. I received the same response, and here’s an excerpt from that e-mailed answer:

[Curran] was expected to observe the general standards of journalistic practice and more specifically WNYC’s editorial guidelines which require that editorial employees be free of any conflict that might compromise the work of the show overall. The Takeaway has covered the Occupy Wall Street story since its beginning through active reporting on the protests and the positive and negative responses to those events. When Ms. Curran made the decision to participate in the protest and make herself part of the story, she violated our editorial standards.

Requests for a text of WNYC’s official ethics policy were not answered, and an internet search for the guidelines turned up nothing. NPR posts their ethics policy online, which stipulates that part time or freelance status of an employee does not affect the enforcement of their rule that contributors will not participate in “marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers.” This code applies to the “material provided to NPR by independent producers, member station contributors and/or reporters and freelance reporters, writers, news contributors or photographers.”

Anna Christopher Bross, the director of media relations for NPR, wrote in an e-mail that NPR is “undertaking a review and update of our code of ethics and social media guidelines.” She wrote that the people working on this have found that “NPR’s core ethical principles are sound; yet they could better represent the dynamic media industry we operate in today, and be more clearly articulated.” Sue Schardt, executive director for the Association of Independents in Radio, says she is currently working with NPR to clarify their guidelines so that independent journalists are clear as to the expectations. “It’s time to pull the ethics code out from the drawer and dust it off, with a keen eye towards these grey areas.”

Schardt explains that, in public radio, trying to stay in the middle is increasingly difficult. “You can’t just put blinders on and say, ‘No, we’re in the middle, we have our principles, because there is a pressure on the middle and that’s what we’re seeing play out,” she says.

Schardt makes the point that while there’s a lot of room for improvement, this is still about individual choices. “When you choose to be an independent producer, you have greater freedom and diversity with your assignments,” says Schardt. “The trade off is that you don’t share the same benefits or many times treatment of those employed by organizations. But it’s an individual’s choice.”

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.”

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , , , ,