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KPBS Reverses on Ethics Policy

Update: Doug Myrland elaborates on the decision in the Current Conversation.

The KPBS general manager has struck down a long-standing ethics rule that forbids journalists from giving money to politicians. GM Doug Myrland cites freedom-of-speech concerns.

"The policy is an invasion of privacy," Myrland wrote in an e-mail to KPBS managers. "Please strike it out, and send an email to all of our news staff informing them that while we expect them to disclose any conflict of interest, their employer does not forbid them making personal contributions."


Myrland says he made the change after reading excerpts of the ethics code on Off Mic .

KPBS News Director Michael Marcotte does not support the change. "Trust is hard earned here every day," he says. "A breach of that trust could instantly negate all that we've stood for."

The dispute is over private rights versus professional responsibility. Myrland says the former policy, similar to that of NPR's, exposes the organization to law suits. Myrland quoted ethicist Randy Cohen, as reported by MSNBC:

"We admire those colleagues who participate in their communities -- help out at the local school, work with Little League, donate to charity," Cohen said in an e-mail. "But no such activity is or can be non-ideological. Few papers would object to a journalist donating to the Boy Scouts or joining the Catholic Church. But the former has an official policy of discriminating against gay children; the latter has views on reproductive rights far more restrictive than those of most Americans. Should reporters be forbidden to support those groups? I'd say not."

Marcotte says KPBS expects journalists "to exercise their private free speech rights in a manner that does not call into question our mutual ethical principles."


The change is effective immediately.

-- Andrew Phelps is a reporter for KPBS News and co-host of Off Mic . Please read our guidelines before posting comments.

Alison St John
June 28, 2007 at 11:33 PM
Surprising outcome of an interesting debate, opened up by the timely report by Bill Dedman of MSNBC. It does seem to me that, at a time when we scrutinizes politicians for their campaign contributions, we should hold journalists accountable for where they put their bucks. In response to Dedman's article, the San Diego Union Tribune, and US News and World Report are reviewing their policies, which have been loose guidelines till now. . On the other hand, the decision to overrule the long standing ethics guidelines for reporters in the KPBS newsroom appears to move the station in the direction of Fox News and Forbes magazine, which are two news outlets that allow their reporters to contribute to political campaigns. It moves KPBS away from news providers like CNN, ABC and most importantly, NPR. This, in spite of the fact that Dedman quotes in his article a 1997 Supreme Court ruling that concluded a newspaper's right to freedom of the press trumps the reporter's right to free speech. The times they definitely are a changin'. -----

Nicole Lozare
July 03, 2007 at 08:58 PM
I agree with Doug Myrland. I think journalists should be allowed by their employer to contribute to a political campaign. They just have to disclose it. To me, it's the same as if I was sent to cover an event at a church and I'm actually a member of that church. I would have to tell my editor that I may have a conflict of interest. Or if I am covering a school controversy but if I had a child who actually goes to that school ... I would have to disclose it. Above all things, journalists are citizens, too. We're allowed to have an opinion. We're allowed to lead normal lives when we're not in the newsroom. We just have to be professional about it. And when we're representing our news organization, we have to present ourselves in an unbiased way. I would never drive to an assignment with a political bumper sticker on my car. I would never talk about my political views on assignment.... even if a source is just indulging in a casual conversation and not an interview. I don't think any employer should be able to infringe on my rights as a citizen. The most they can do is ask me to disclose it. Telling me I'm not allowed to contribute to a political campaign is the same as my employer telling me I can't join a church or volunteer in some organization because it may make me biased if an opportunity came up for me to report on that issue. BUT ... my employer, as a news organization, has every right to ask me to list the organizations in which I belong or political campaigns to which I contributed.

Doug Myrland
July 06, 2007 at 10:06 PM
Alison--According to Dedman's article, that was the Washington State Supreme Court--hardly the last word in California or the U.S. Dedman also cites a similar case in San Francisco where the newspaper guild challenged a reassignment and the newspaper eventually relented. I think this is far from settled law, and I don't volunteer KPBS to be a test case!