NPR Is Lesson To Us All: Policies Must Be Clear, Known

Act in haste, repent at leisure. NPR is the living proof of that.

Having fired its reporter, Juan Williams, for a comment made on Fox News, the radio station opened itself up to vilification by everyone the left for Williams allegedly anti-Muslim comment and the right for violating the free speech rights of Williams.

free speech, journalism, policy, social meThe hasty action was generated, I suspect, by the pressures of the 24-hour-news cycle. Once uttered, the comment was heard 'round the world in a matter of minutes and NPR responded quickly.

Too quickly, perhaps. The 24-hour-news cycle is no excuse for not thinking a situation through. And still unanswered are the questions NPR should have thought about:

  • What is their policy regarding journalists expressing opinions – personal or professional – on subjects they cover as reporters?
  • What is their policy about appearing on other media?
  • Was Williams an analyst or a reporter? Do different policies apply to analysts?
  • How have similar situations been handled when other journalists were involved?
  • When do the interests of the station outweigh the free speech rights of employees?

Most importantly, was Williams clearly and frequently reminded of these policies? An employee who is allowed or encouraged to converse on air about current events needs some very clear guidelines. And I'm sure Williams was encouraged to appear in order to gin up interest in NPR.

The ethics of journalism have gotten blurred as Glenn Beck incites an anti-administration rally in Washington and Keith Oberman is punished for donating money to political candidates.

Time was that reporters were not allowed to put a political sign on their front lawns, never mind voicing their political preferences on air. Their free speech was curbed to protect the appearance of objectivity.

Social media and the internet have changed all that. Journalists are part of the conversation, not just reporters of events. So, too, is every employee who has social media accounts, which is just about every employee in every company.

I don't know enough about the background of the management shift to comment but one thing stands out in this whole mess: Every organization, whether nonprofit or for-profit, large or small must have clear policies about interface with the public. That includes social media.

Not only must the policies be clear, they must be reiterated, reviewed, modified, and discussed. And they must be uniformly enforced.

Does your organization have policies about public statements, including social media? When were they last updated? When did you last talk about them?

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