MPR News Ethics Guidelines
Anyone today can publish, broadcast or display information to an audience. What sets us apart as journalists is the degree of professionalism we bring to the task. At MPR News, we’re determined that our journalism will reflect the highest professional standards. At the core of those standards will be our ethics guidelines, linked below.
For people to trust the news and information we report, they must have faith in our integrity. We should never give them cause to doubt that our first loyalty is to the public – not to our bank accounts, our political agendas, our friends, our funders or any other cause or purpose. Public service should be the goal of any journalist, but it has special meaning for us, because we call ourselves “public media.” We are here not to enrich owners but to inform the public, and we ask people from vast swaths of Minnesota to support us in that effort. They do so, in large and growing numbers, from Moorhead to Minneapolis, from Grand Marais to Granite Falls. And their support of our work gives them the right to demand that we adhere to the highest standards of our profession.
We expect MPR News journalists to use this document to guide their conduct and to hold themselves and each other accountable. We hope the public will use it to learn about the principles that shape our work and to judge whether we are living up to them. We also want the document to focus attention on the enduring values that govern our work, even as technology changes the form our work takes.
As those changes occur, new questions will arise. Only a few years ago, for example, we would have had no need of a policy that addressed social media. We can’t foresee every eventuality, and we’ll adapt this code as necessary. In the meantime, the principles behind these documents can provide better guidance than any list of rules would do.
- We are unbiased and non-partisan in our reporting.
- Our journalism is in service of the public.
- We believe in journalism of verification, facts and an obligation to the truth.
- We are inclusive in our reporting and programming.
- We report without fear or favor, independent of those we cover.
- We strive to monitor and hold accountable people in power.
- We place high value on engaging with the public and providing forums for debate and understanding.
- If we err, we are forthcoming and correct our error.
- We take care with a person’s right to privacy and report within the bounds of the law.
- We are guided in our journalistic practices and behavior by ethical guidelines.
The guidelines will be reviewed and refreshed regularly. Communication is paramount. When any of us has an ethical question or sees a potential ethical conflict or lapse, it is our job to bring it to the attention of newsroom leaders. We hope, too, that our audiences will ask a question when something doesn’t seem right.
One of our principles is that we not become involved personally in the news we cover. Why the restraint? We believe that a democratic society depends on an informed public, and that an informed public depends on a free and independent press. We do participate in our democracy, in our way. This is how we do it.
MPR News Standards of Behavior
MPR News staffers gain access to sources and information by being honest about our identity, our intentions and asking for participation. We don’t negotiate for access or information. For example, we wouldn’t exchange a promise of story placement for access to a newsmaker. We also don’t make promises regarding story angles or approach. It’s acceptable, though, to discuss in general terms the story we’re considering or our general line of reporting. It’s also acceptable, when necessary, to agree to an embargo after an editor’s approval. If necessary reporters should make clear to sources that editorial decisions are up to the editors and producers. MPR News staffers do not pay sources for information.
MPR News staffers take full responsibility for their work. Staffers who represent the work of others as their own violate the trust of their colleagues and audience. When we report information that we’ve learned from other media, we cite those other media as the source. Whenever possible, we try to get such information on our own, independently of other media, and report it in a way that goes beyond what’s appeared elsewhere. The work we present as our own will be original composition, not copied from news releases or other sources, even when the authors of those other sources would be happy for us to do so. Above all, we’ll strive to be accurate. We will confirm information before reporting it, and we will never knowingly report false information. We will listen to our audiences and be respectful of criticism. We will respond civilly to letters and emails that warrant reply. Errors of fact will happen. If our journalists notice an error in published work, they will promptly tell one of the news leaders. If anyone requests a correction, the request will be forwarded to a news leader. We’ll strive to correct our errors quickly.
Appearances with other media
Members of the MPR News staff are sometimes interviewed on other media or asked to moderate panels. Such appearances can help raise the profile of MPR News and its staffers, and they can help MPR stay connected to the communities it serves. At the same time, outside appearances can present problems. Here are some guidelines to help avoid the complex conflicts that may arise:
- News staff must get permission for appearances with other media outlets. Requests should be made to the staffer’s editor and reviewed by at least one senior news leader - the managing director of news; the news director; or the program director. When they approve such a request, news leaders will inform the marketing and communications departments.
- News staff must consider whether the tone and content of the media outlet are consistent with MPR News’ editorial standards. Staff should remember that, regardless of the format or character of the outlet involved, they need to conduct themselves according to MPR’s standards.
- Our journalists may not accept compensation for occasional outside media appearances. If appearances become regular, staffers may accept reimbursement from the other news outlet, including expenses associated with appearances. Full disclosure of such payments must be made to the staffer’s editor. A staffer who wants to accept such compensation should make a request in writing to his or her editor, who will then forward the request for review by the managing director of news.
- News staffers must not appear on an outside media outlet to endorse services or market products, except for marketing MPR or APM programs or co-branded ventures with other organizations.
- The procedure for vetting appearances does not apply to MPR News contractors, contributors, and freelance journalists. However, if a freelancer says something on another media outlet that violates MPR News’ journalism standards, we may stop using his or her work.
Appearances for the underwriting and development departments
We want to avoid situations that could present real or perceived conflicts of interest that harm the credibility of MPR News journalists or content. All requests for underwriting or development appearances by MPR News staffers require approval from the managing director of news. MPR News leaders view funders and underwriters differently based on the nature of their relationship with MPR. Underwriters essentially are advertisers, and want to enhance their business; funders generally want to raise awareness around an issue. The following guidelines are based on that distinction.
- Participation in an event sponsored by an underwriter or a funder must be approved by the managing director of news.
- Underwriting staff will not discuss business prospects or suggest editorial content with news staff except for senior news leaders. Underwriting staff and news leaders may discuss logistics and content of MPR News events, though news leaders and their producers control the editorial content of those events.
- MPR News leaders may work with the development department to explore funding possibilities with foundations that share MPR News’ editorial priorities as well as participate in events with the funder during the period of the funding, including appearances, panels and event hosting.
- As always, MPR News staff will make all content decisions independently. Our journalists’ first loyalty will be to the public, not to underwriters or other benefactors.
Appearances with outside organizations
As a journalistic organization, MPR News is part of the public discourse on issues and events. MPR supports its journalists’ participating in forums on such issues and events and encourages them to provide information, analysis and insight.
- When appearing before an outside group, news staffers must make clear they are there as independent news providers, not as partisan advocates. They should stick to their areas of expertise and avoid taking sides. We will avoid appearances that seem to endorse the partisan agenda of a group or organization.
- Appearances before outside groups must be approved by the managing director of news.
- Accepting money can make a journalist beholden to the source of that money, and the result can be a real or perceived conflict of interest. MPR News staffers should not do any work or accept compensation for any events that could reasonably be perceived to cast doubt on MPR News’ journalistic integrity. When staffers are approved to accept a paid speaking invitation, they must disclose their compensation and paid expenses to their supervisor. They should not accept paid speaking engagements that might create a conflict of interest.
- MPR News staffers who have written books or have produced other outside projects and want to promote them must make specific arrangements with their supervisors. A news leader will inform the marketing department of such promotion.
Art and public radio
Public radio has close ties to the arts. MPR, for example, broadcasts two music services and presents an array of live events with various artists. As a result, our arts reporters may be at risk for appearing to favor artists with whom our company has a relationship. That means they must have a special awareness of the need to avoid conflicts of interest or the appearance of such conflicts. Our first loyalty must be to the public, not to the artists we cover. Our staffers may not support artists - promote them on Twitter, for example - or connect them to the arts and cultural services of MPR. Our staffers also may not invest in productions that figure or are likely to figure in their coverage.
Avoiding outside influence
MPR News executes journalism in service to its many audiences and communities. Our allegiance is to the general public - not funders, foundations, underwriters, the people we cover or the people who sit on our board or in our executive suites. We risk compromising our credibility if personal or professional interests conflict with that allegiance. Such conflicts could take many forms, via personal relationships, business interests or in other ways. No rule can cover every situation. As professional journalists, we will strive to be alert to any factor that may keep us from thinking independently and exercising our best professional judgment.
MPR News will participate in contests that recognize journalistic excellence - not that publicize an organization. We may enter competitions sponsored by journalism groups or groups whose members have no direct interest in the coverage of the field that they’re recognizing. Staffers should decline an unsolicited award if the group does not meet those criteria.
Conflict of interest
An ethics policy can’t cover everything. The general principle is this: Outside activities by news staff should not compromise the impartiality of MPR News’ journalism. That said, news leaders will regularly remind news staff of potential conflicts and review any risky areas. When necessary, we’ll make changes. In unimportant but visible instances that require no change, we’ll explain our rationale. Upon taking an assignment, it is the duty of all news staffers to immediately disclose to news leaders any interests that might be seen as being in actual, apparent or potential conflict.
Coverage of MPR and its businesses
When MPR is in the news, we will take special care to remember that MPR News exists to serve the public. MPR News staffers cover their company the same way they would cover any other company when warranted. At times, we will hold ourselves accountable as we hold others accountable. No MPR employee from departments outside the MPR News newsroom should be involved in the coverage. MPR News staffers do not advocate in support of MPR’s business or political initiatives. An obvious exception is participation in membership drives.
Family ties and personal relationships
The affiliations and activities of family members may create conflicts of interest for staff working in MPR News operations. For example, a family member who works for a state agency would obviously create the appearance of conflict for a reporter assigned to cover that agency. A companion holding an officer’s position in a noteworthy company might produce the appearance of conflict for a business reporter or editor. A daughter’s work on the campaign of a political candidate would conflict with her mother’s job as a reporter covering that race. To avoid such conflicts, staffers may not produce or edit any news content - photographs, audio, written reports, video, blog items, Tweets – involving people to whom they are related or with whom they have close personal relationships. Additionally, they must avoid making news judgments about them. MPR News certainly can’t insist that family members restrict their activities or change professions. However, we may change a staffer’s responsibility based on the activities of a family member. Staffers must inform an editor whenever a companion’s or close relative’s activities, investments or affiliations could create a conflict.
Financial and business coverage
MPR News staffers who cover business may face unique conflicts. This section identifies specific areas of concern. At all times, staffers must avoid this behavior for fear our journalism could appear compromised.
- Confidential Information: Staffers should not use, directly or indirectly, for their own or any other person’s financial gain, any information that they obtained as a reporter until they have reported it. Further, a staffer should not disclose to anyone confidential information obtained as an MPR News reporter until the information has been made public.
Real or perceived conflict: Staffers are expected to avoid any action, no matter how well-intentioned, that could provide grounds for suspicion:
- That a staffer gained financially on the basis of “inside” information obtained through reporting. Such information includes plans to run stories that can affect price movements;
- That the writing or airing of a news story was influenced by a desire to affect financial transactions for a staffer’s or someone else’s benefit;
- That a staffer is financially committed in the market so deeply or in such other ways as to create a temptation to bias writing or scheduling;
- That a staffer is beholden to anyone we cover, through acceptance of favors, gifts or payments for performing services, or to anyone in the financial community for tips or for any other purpose.
- Stocks and Investments: We do not want to penalize staff by suggesting that they not buy stocks or make any investments. We do, however, want staffers to avoid speculation or the appearance of speculation. Therefore, we are adopting the Wall Street Journal’s approach: Staffers who are in a position to influence stock prices by engaging in primary reporting on a specific company or stock issue must not engage in short-term trading and must hold securities a minimum of six months unless they get approval from a news leader to meet some special need. They must not buy or sell basically speculative instruments such as futures or options. No employee should engage in short-selling of securities. No staffer regularly assigned to a specific company should invest in that company. Any staffer may be asked about their investments.
Freelance work by MPR News staff
All freelance work - including work for another APM news operation and NPR – must be done on a staffer’s own time. (The exception is MPR News’ arrangement with NPR about significant breaking news.) Freelance work must not seriously compete with MPR News or APM. We don’t enter into agreements to do freelance work for organizations we cover. Before accepting a freelance assignment, staffers should make sure the assignment will not compromise their or MPR News’ journalistic standards. They should adhere to MPR News’ ethics guidelines in carrying out the assignment. A freelance employer may identify MPR News staff members by their MPR positions, but only in a routine way. All freelance work must be approved by MPR News’ news leaders.
Freelancers working for APM
Freelancers are expected to execute their journalism without conflicts and must follow MPR News’ standards of professionalism. It is the responsibility of editors and producers to ask about a freelancer’s potential conflicts of interest before making an assignment.
MPR News staff may not accept gifts of equipment or materials from manufacturers or vendors. They may not endorse equipment. If a manufacturer seeks advice on product design, any compensation for that advice should be disclosed to the staffer’s supervisor.
This section is intended to help MPR News interact with foundations and individual donors (“funders”) in a way that protects our journalistic integrity and makes clear our boundaries. The integrity of MPR News reporting and programming is built upon a commitment to serving the public with independent, unbiased news reporting and programming. That’s why it’s critical that MPR News staff maintain a steady journalistic ethic when interacting with funders.
- Contacting news leaders: A request from a funder to contact the newsroom should come through the MPR development office. The request will be forwarded to the managing director of news. Discussion about issues that align with MPR News’ coverage priorities is welcome.
- Coverage focus: Newsroom leaders, editors and show producers will determine how to cover a particular topic in a way that best serves audiences. Such decisions are made irrespective of any funding.
- Disclosing financial support: If a funder is quoted or mentioned significantly in a web or radio story, MPR News will disclose the financial relationship.
- Funders as sources: Representatives of funders or donors who believe they have knowledge to contribute to MPR News may contact the MPR development office. News staffs and show producers may use funder representatives as sources but must disclose the funding relationship.
- Funders as commentators: Our shows will not broadcast one-voice, point-of-view commentaries from foundation executives. It is permissible for commentators to be supported by a funder that also funds MPR News, as long as they are subject to the same criteria for selection, identification and disclosure as other commentators.
- Funders in the news: MPR News will judge and report news about funders and donors without special consideration.
MPR News expects its journalists to behave professionally and civilly. We will treat people with decency and compassion. NPR’s ethics policy says it clearly: “The general public is the most important stakeholder in our work, but everyone we cover is also an important stakeholder. We practice ethical journalism by doing our best to minimize harm as we report information in the public interest.” MPR News journalists will take special care with people who are in the news but aren’t used to the media’s glare, especially children. Our journalists always should disclose their identity when pursuing the news and never pose as anyone else. We’ll work transparently and try not to surprise sources. Remembering that we always represent MPR, we will strive to show courtesy and professionalism in our interactions with sources and the public. In all instances, we must obey the law in the pursuit of news.
MPR News staffers may not accept anything for free or anything discounted from current or potential news subjects. Only staffers assigned to cover an event may accept press passes or review tickets to that event. (Items valued at $25 or less are OK, however. Also, staffers may accept any gifts or discounts available to the general public.)
Hospitality from sources and access to events
Staffers who cover artistic events or are assigned to cover sports may accept press passes or tickets. No other staffers, however, may accept free tickets. When buying tickets, staffers may not use their MPR affiliation to get favored treatment. MPR News staffers pay their own expenses when out with news sources or travel to cover them. Reasonable exceptions can be made, however — a corporate cafeteria, for example. Free or discounted transportation and lodging is OK in rare, specific instances — viewing a storm-damaged area from a government-owned helicopter, for example.
Misuse of our name
MPR or MPR News can’t be used for a staffer’s private purpose or to seek special treatment for friends or family. MPR News journalists may not use company ID cards for purposes not connected with MPR or for any manner of special treatment. Also, MPR-branded material can only be used for the business of reporting or producing.
Partnerships and testimonials
Staffers may not partner in external projects that involve people or organizations our newsroom may cover. Staffers may not offer endorsements or testimonials, except in reviews or commentaries.
Staffers may keep review copies of books, films, music, etc., which are effectively press releases. If not kept by the staffer, the material may be given to a charity or used as a reference internally. The art may not be sold or copied. Recorded or digital media must be deleted or returned if not kept by the journalist or given to a charity.
Journalists and the public should remain on equal footing. MPR News staffers should not use any unpublished information obtained during newsgathering for their own or anyone else’s special advantage or personal gain. Moreover, they should not share their reporting with anyone inside or outside of an MPR or APM division who may exploit that information. Further, staffers should not disclose to anyone confidential information about MPR or APM divisions.
MPR News staffers must keep their political views private. They may not seek public office. To do so would be to participate in the news instead of covering the news. It would also risk having the staffer’s political views associated with MPR, creating the perception of political bias. For the same reason, we do not participate in rallies or make appearances in support of a controversial cause or campaign. When covering political or partisan marches, we should be clearly distinguished as working journalists, with our credentials on display. Staffers may not raise money or contribute money to political or social causes that go beyond the groups described in the section headlined “Service in our communities.” We don’t advocate with yard signs or bumper stickers. In the event a staffer’s significant other wants to make a public political statement, a news leader should be advised. And even when our company publicly voices an opinion, MPR News staffers will maintain their journalistic impartiality.
Public relations advice
MPR News staffers can’t provide paid or unpaid public relations work or counsel in the area. And they may not provide advice or writing and editing services for outside groups. (Some exceptions are included under “Service in the communities.”) Any requests to participate in public relations workshops must be approved by a senior news leader.
Relationships with sources
MPR News staffers keep a personal distance from news sources for fear of creating a hint of bias. Staffers may meet sources informally for lunch, for example, but they must stay aware of the difference between a business relationship and personal friendship. It’s too chummy, for example, for a business reporter to share regular morning runs with an executive of a company he covers. Romantic relationships with sources carry high risk and will certainly create an appearance of partiality. No single rule can cover every possible situation. As a result, staffers should openly discuss any questionable situation with an editor. No action might be necessary, or a change in assignment might be in order.
Gathering news is expensive. As a result, news leaders are encouraged to communicate with our underwriting and development departments to connect editorial goals with funding opportunities. However, MPR News leaders must maintain a clear boundary between news coverage and business imperatives and have final authority over all journalistic decisions. To ensure that reporters and editors are left free to work without consideration of funding or business issues, only news leaders may exchange information with the underwriting or development departments about the timing or content of our reporting or the assignment of staff.
Service in our communities
MPR News expects its journalists to be good, engaged citizens with close ties to their communities. If community service creates a conflict that might prevent a staffer from covering an issue, that staffer must let his or her editor know. MPR News staffers and their leaders should avoid committees and boards of newsworthy organizations and certainly all government panels. It’s OK to help organizations typically out of the news such as various community groups - sports leagues and theaters, for example, and houses of worship, though they do wind up in the news from time to time. Staffers also can provide service to journalistic education. And there may be other exceptions. However, if membership in one of these organizations starts to pose a conflict, that staffer must alert an editor. Fundraising is OK, but staffers shouldn’t direct the project or pitch to people with whom they or MPR News has journalistic dealings.
Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have become important channels for content distribution and interaction with MPR News audiences. Social media can add depth to research and provide richer contacts, so we encourage our journalists to take advantage of them. But as we well know, information from your personal Facebook profile, blogs, Twitter accounts and other social platforms can be easily circulated beyond your intended audience. What follows is some guidance to help us negotiate social media in the changing world of news gathering and reporting:
- Fairness, balance and perception: We should do nothing that could undermine our credibility with the public, damage our newsroom’s standing as an impartial source of news or otherwise jeopardize MPR News’ reputation. We’re aware that most of what we write or receive on a social media site is public. In our online activity, our professional and personal lives overlap. We’ll strive for clear separation of personal accounts and those used for newsgathering and audience engagement. We’ll conduct ourselves in social media forums fully aware of how our behavior or comments might appear if we were called upon to defend them as a news organization. We won’t behave differently online than we would in any other public setting. Online discussion can become heated. Engage with your audience but think before you post. Maintain a civil tone.
- Advocacy: Do not advocate for political or other polarizing issues online. This extends to joining online groups or using social media in any form to express personal views on a political or other controversial issue that you could not write for the air or post on MPR News digital properties. Your participation in some online groups could be construed to indicate that you endorse their views. Consider whether you can accomplish your purposes by observing a group’s activity, rather than becoming a member. If you do join, indicate that you’ve done so to seek information or story ideas. If you join a group representing one side of an issue, do so for a group representing the competing viewpoint when reasonable to do so.
- Identification, confirmation: Identify yourself as an MPR News journalist when working online. Always explain to anyone who provides you information online how you intend to use the information you are gathering. Clarify and confirm any information you collect online by later interviewing your online sources by phone or in person, when possible. Content gathered online is subject to the same attribution rules as other content.
- Copyright: Be wary of copyright issues when posting photos, videos and other content. When in doubt about whether you have the legal right to post or re-post content, consult your editor or supervisor, or MPR’s legal counsel.
- Corrections: Correct any errant information you post on Twitter, Facebook and other social media in a timely fashion. Consult your editor or supervisor to discuss whether incorrect posts should be deleted before doing so.
- Security and safety: Use the highest level of privacy tools available to control access to your personal activity. Your social media accounts can be easily compromised, which could cast MPR News operations in a bad light. When in doubt about anything on social media channels, consult with your editor or supervisor.
- Retweets: Retweeting can be an effective way to distribute news, and a helpful service to followers of our Twitter accounts. However, some followers could construe retweets as endorsements. Take appropriate action to avoid confusion. In the bio section of your Twitter account, add the following language: “Retweets are not endorsements.” However, be aware that many followers may not read your bio. It does not protect you from assumptions.
Acknowledgements and credits
We reviewed and drew upon a number of ethics policies in compiling this one. The basic tenets of ethical behavior for a journalist do not vary much among organizations. What truly matters is adherence and understanding. In some areas, though, we hadn’t considered certain ethical difficulties. That’s why we’re grateful for the work of others, specifically:
- Local Public Media Organizations’ Code of Editorial Integrity
- Los Angeles Times
- National Public Radio
- Society of Professional Journalists
- The New York Times
- The Wall Street Journal
In addition, the document was reviewed by two outside experts: Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member in media ethics at The Poynter Institute, and Jane Kirtley, the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota.