Thursday, October 20, 2011

Occupy Ethics

Here’s a conundrum for our overly-sensitive days: How deeply can your employer delve into your personal life – particularly your personal politics – when you’re off the clock?

I raise the question because of the firing of Lisa Simeone, a freelancer who works on classical music- and opera-related shows that, while not produced directly by National Public Radio, are distributed nationally by NPR.

Why was she fired? Because she’s serving – off the air – as a spokesperson for an Occupy DC organization.

As far as I know, no one has accused her of politicizing her commentaries. I hear her nearly every night introducing classical music as I drive home from the bus stop, and I’ve never heard her stray from the world of classical music in her commentary.

I don’t disagree with the notion that in this day and age when we’re linked to our employers via Facebook and are out in the public more often than we are in private that we ought to be cognizant that our extracurricular activities could, in some eyes, detract from the reputation of our employer. But I have to agree with Simeone and TIME Magazine writer James Poniewozik when they express incredulity that this situation led to a firing.

Says Simeone (per NewsBusters, which is altogether too gleeful in this situation):
I find it puzzling that NPR objects to my exercising my rights as an American citizen -- the right to free speech, the right to peaceable assembly -- on my own time in my own life. I'm not an NPR employee. I'm a freelancer. NPR doesn't pay me. I'm also not a news reporter. I don't cover politics. I've never brought a whiff of my political activities into the work I've done for NPR World of Opera. What is NPR afraid I'll do -- insert a seditious comment into a synopsis of Madame Butterfly?
NPR’s code of ethics, however, appears clear on the matter:
VIII. Politics, community and outside activities

1. NPR journalists may not run for office, endorse candidates or otherwise engage in politics. Since contributions to candidates are part of the public record, NPR journalists may not contribute to political campaigns, as doing so would call into question a journalist's impartiality.

2. NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers, nor should they sign petitions or otherwise lend their name to such causes, or contribute money to them.

3. NPR journalists may not serve on government boards or commissions.

4. NPR journalists may sit on community advisory boards, educational institution trustee boards, boards of religious organizations or boards of nonprofit organizations so long as NPR does not normally cover them and they are not engaged in significant lobbying or political activity. Such activities should be disclosed to the Senior Vice President for News or their designee, and NPR may revoke approval if it believes continued service will create and actual or appearance of a conflict of interest.

5. When a spouse, family member or companion of an NPR journalist is involved in political activity, the journalist should be sensitive to the fact that this could create real or apparent conflicts of interest. In such instances the NPR journalist should advise his or her supervisor to determine whether s/he should recuse him or herself from a certain story or certain coverage.
This kind of code of conduct is not alien to the world of journalism. Wise journalists should recognize that any conflict of interest – even one that is perceived and one that may not “leak” into one’s professional duties – is still a conflict of interest.

But the blanket approach to how NPR handled this situation is puzzling. Simeone as a journalist for Soundprint, which produces news and commentary, should have known better than to involve herself with a political organization after hours – in clear violation of any newsroom ethics policy. But as for her being fired from shows that are not political in nature, that is what I question, especially when the news/commentary and opera/classical music programs are produced by different entities. This all or nothing approach is draconian.

Nevertheless, it may be warranted. Says Julie Moos over at the Poynter Institute:
Questions about politics have dogged NPR in the last year. The public radio network’s new CEO Gary Knell hopes to depoliticize its image; incidents like this clearly will not help.

No comments: