Independence and Interdependence

WBUR’s primary commitment is to the public. We serve that public interest with accurate, fair and honest reporting. Decisions about what we cover, how we do our work and what we report are made by our journalists. We are not influenced by those who provide WBUR with financial support. Boston University owns WBUR’s FCC license, but we maintains editorial independence of our content. We are not deterred by those who might attempt to undermine our independence. We are not swayed in our journalistic mission by those in power or those who attempt to manipulate our journalism. We do not let any of our personal interests conflict with our allegiance to the public.

Our independence does not stand alone. To fulfill our journalistic mission we must also be interdependent with the communities we serve. This means we must be informed, inclusive and grounded in the issues and communities we cover. Our journalists must proactively engage with the people, constituencies and organizations to reflect the entirety of our region. We must observe, listen and learn. Our credibility relies on the trust we build with those we serve. Critical to that trust is that our audience must see themselves – their lives and the issues that matter to them – reflected in our coverage.

WBUR journalists are also members of the public

WBUR journalists bring both our professional commitment and our personal selves to our work. Our life experiences and perspectives are valuable assets that inform our role as journalists. We enjoy the right to robust personal lives that enrich us and connect us and help us better understand our communities. Yet, like many other professions, we accept certain unique obligations and limitations designed to protect our credibility and the integrity of WBUR’s journalism.

Like all people, we have personal beliefs and opinions. But the public deserves factual reporting and informed, unprejudiced analysis. So we strive to make decisions and report stories that transcend our biases and treat all views fairly. We aggressively challenge our own perspectives and pursue a comprehensive representation of views from a diverse range of other individuals, aiming always to present the truth as completely as we can convey it.

Any personal interests that conflict with our allegiance to the public, whether in appearance or in reality, risk compromising our credibility. We are vigilant in disclosing to both our supervisors at WBUR, and as warranted the public, any circumstances where our loyalties may be divided, and if necessary, we recuse ourselves from related coverage. Under no circumstances do we skew our reports for personal gain.

Guideline: Impartiality as citizens and in our personal lives.

Alongside our roles as journalists, we are also members of the public ourselves, with a stake in the future of our society and opinions about the direction it should take.

We may exercise our right to vote when we make our decisions privately in our role as citizens.

WBUR journalists who cover politics or government, or who oversee such coverage, should consider whether it is appropriate to affiliate with a particular party (NB: in Massachusetts you do not need to register with a party to vote in a primary election), and other journalists should consider the pros and cons of party registration. If you find yourself having to publicly state your political preferences or affiliation as part of the voting process, talk with your supervisor about the issues this raises and how best to resolve them.

Privately expressing our political choices at the ballot box doesn't negate our commitment to keeping our opinions to ourselves. Public expressions of our beliefs – such as taking a position on a public policy issue – can be problematic and can test our impartiality and potentially erode our credibility.

Guideline: We are journalists not advocates for political candidates nor activists for causes.

Our role as journalists is to fairly and skillfully cover the issues and events in our communities. We're not advocates. We do not run for office nor endorse candidates or ballot issues. WBUR journalists may not contribute to political campaigns or referendums, as doing so would call into question WBUR's journalistic independence and our impartiality.

Impartiality also means we should not sign petitions or otherwise contribute support or money to political causes or public campaigns. Also, we don't put political signs in our yards or bumper stickers on our cars, and if family members get involved in politics we recuse ourselves from any coverage that touches on their activities and we do our best to maintain our independence from their pursuits.

There are issues that are foundational to WBUR that align with our public service mission: the freedom of the press, the public’s right to know the actions government takes on its behalf, the crusade against misinformation, and our shared humanity, including the dignity of all human beings.

WBUR journalists may feel our unique personal experience or perspective would substantially advance the public’s understanding such that we are considering taking a position on a particular issue of public debate in the form of an opinion piece — whether for WBUR or another outlet — or some form of personal activism. In these situations, we should discuss the matter and get approval from senior editorial leadership.

Here are questions we would consider:

  • Would the journalist’s participation affect their professional credibility as a journalist?
  • How would their participation affect WBUR’s credibility and the independence of our journalism?
  • What would it mean for WBUR to have one of its journalists participating on one side of a partisan issue?

Guideline: Journalists should be cautious and seek consultation when it comes to marches, rallies and similar events.

Journalists are human beings with their own unique life experiences, values, beliefs, identities and vulnerabilities. Our greatest tool, and the mission that unites us, is our journalism.

That is to say, we manifest our values through our journalism. As a public media organization, our independence is a core value. We must consider that independence when we participate in mass action or other forms of public activism. There will be tension between the professional and the personal. Guidelines provide direction but they are not rigid rules.

There is real journalistic value in being an observer at public events such as a march or rally, even without a reporting assignment. Yet there inevitably will be cases when individuals want to participate in public events beyond being just observers. These cases need discussion and deserve serious consideration.

For instance, we may feel compelled to attend a public vigil or collective mourning, and should be free to do so in many cases. We should consider the location and circumstances to ensure we are not becoming public participants in a partisan cause. WBUR regularly reports on these events and causes, and we need to preserve our unique role as independent journalists.

In some instances, it may be appropriate for a WBUR journalist to participate in a public event, with the awareness of some limitations on their actions. For instance, merely marching in a parade to show solidarity or support for a core human right is reasonably safe territory, as long as the journalist is not covering the event. In other cases, it would be inappropriate for a WBUR journalist to be involved when the participation of politicians in public events or advocacy for specific legislation risk damaging WBUR’s independence. This is particularly challenging terrain for local journalists, due to the greater overlap between our personal involvement in our community and our public responsibility as independent journalists.

Since the nature of each event differs, journalists should first discuss these matters in advance with the head of their editorial department (i.e. executive editor or executive producer) to figure out ethical pressure points and why they may exist or emerge. If further consultation is needed, the issue should go to the WBUR Ethics Committee and in some cases the chief content officer or chief executive officer.

It’s up to individual journalists to be judicious in deciding when and why they might feel it imperative to publicly participate as an expression of their personal values and to raise the issue in advance. WBUR leadership vows to respect those requests and to thoughtfully reach a fair and justifiable decision.

Guideline: We don't serve on government boards and commissions.

WBUR journalists may not serve on government boards or commissions. Generally, we avoid serving on any boards of directors, and we don't hold offices with non-profit organizations that would create conflicts of interest between our work for WBUR and our responsibilities to the other institution. We may make an exception to allow journalists to serve on the boards of institutions where such conflicts are unlikely, such as other journalism organizations or journalism-related educational institutions. All such exceptions require approval from supervisors. And of course, if a WBUR journalist serves on the board of an institution that becomes the subject of WBUR’s reporting, that journalist should be recused from any related coverage.

Guideline: Don't act any differently online than you would in any other public setting.

Social media outlets are public spaces. The line between private and public activity has been blurred by these digital platforms, and we should assume everything we do on social media is public. And regardless of how careful we try to keep them separate, our professional and our personal lives overlap when we're online.

In reality, anything you post online is findable and reflects both on you and on WBUR. Tweets, Facebook group messages, Instagram posts and other social media communications — even if they're intended to be personal messages to friends or family — can be easily circulated beyond the intended audiences. The content, therefore, represents us personally and WBUR to the outside world — as do our radio pieces and digital stories. As in all of our reporting, the WBUR Guiding Principles help us to navigate our use of social media.

We should conduct ourselves on social media with an eye to how our behavior might appear if we were called upon to defend them as being appropriate for a journalist. Of course, what is deemed “appropriate” is often subjective, and reasonable, well-intentioned people will disagree. That’s why these guidelines are meant truly as just that: guidelines.

As a general rule, we do not advocate for political or other causes online or in the digital space. We don’t endorse candidates, referenda, or political advocacy campaigns. This extends to other areas of active public debate that WBUR covers or may cover. We hold power and responsibility in our role as journalists, and we should be cautious about how we wield our tools of communication and information.

These guidelines are not intended to restrict our ability to share and discuss issues we find important. In fact, social media has enabled us to be more transparent with our audience. It is a valuable tool for building trust and providing context for our reporting.

But we need to be mindful that what we share could impact WBUR’s capacity to independently cover issues of public debate. We want to participate in the public discourse on the biggest issues of our time, but our role is not to advocate or display partisanship. A guiding principle is that we show our work. We explain how our reporting and experience leads to our understanding. We use evidence and storytelling to provide context and fact-based reasoning in order to shed light on complex issues.

Guideline: We accept criticism, not abuse or threats.

Journalists are just like those in other professions. We enjoy being praised when we do good work. But unlike those in occupations that aren't in the public eye, journalists have to accept that being criticized is part of the job. We have to be willing to put up with some pushback from the public.

We do not, however, tolerate abuse. We do not have to put up with being personally attacked because of our gender, race, sexuality, religion or any other identifying factor. Increasingly, journalists are becoming targets of organized abuse campaigns by bad faith actors to discredit, harass and otherwise harm us. It is an ethical obligation of WBUR to do all that it can to protect our journalists when they come under attack. WBUR journalists should know first that they are not alone in these moments.

If a message is threatening or you feel you are being targeted for abuse, contact the executive editors for news and digital and the director of engineering, infrastructure, operations and IT. They will take appropriate actions and keep you updated. In some cases that action may be to document the threat and provide support. In others, WBUR may involve law enforcement and take safety precautions including digital or physical protection.

Social media is an effective means to spread our journalism and hear from the public. But it's become increasingly clear that social media communities can give rise to toxicity and harm. WBUR journalists should know that there is support available to them when they come under attack.

Guideline: Recognize and avoid conflicts of interest.

It's not always easy to detect when we have a personal or professional stake that might conflict — or even appear to conflict — with our journalistic duty. Conflicts of interest come in many shapes — financial holdings, romantic relationships, family ties, book deals, speaking engagements, and other situations. It's important to regularly review how our connections are entangled with the subjects of our reporting, and when necessary, to take action.

In minor cases, we might satisfy an apparent conflict by prominently disclosing it, and perhaps explaining to the public why it doesn't compromise our work. When presented with more significant conflicts, our best response is to avoid them. Certain conflicts are unavoidable, and may require us to recuse ourselves from certain coverage. More specific guidance on how to make these decisions appears in the sections below.

Guideline: Know when to disclose, and when to recuse.

All WBUR journalists must tell supervisors in advance about potential conflicts of interest. When first assigned to cover or work on a matter, disclose to your immediate supervisors any business, commercial, financial or personal interests where such interests might reasonably be construed as being in actual, apparent or potential conflict with our duties. This includes situations in which a spouse, family member or companion is an active participant in a subject area that you cover. In the financial category, this does not include an investment by you or your spouse, family member or companion in mutual funds or pension funds that are invested by fund managers in a broad range of companies (unless, of course, the assignment concerns those specific funds).

When a spouse, family member, partner or companion is involved in political activity, be sensitive that this could create real or perceived conflicts of interest. In such instances, advise your supervisor so that it can be determined whether you should recuse yourself from a certain story or area of coverage.

Guideline: Consult with supervisors on outside work.

WBUR offers its journalists the chance to reach huge audiences across all of our platforms. We agree to not compete with WBUR and to make it the primary outlet for the journalism created by WBUR staff.

WBUR journalists are able to take advantage of other opportunities so long as they do not interfere or conflict with the work we do for WBUR. WBUR journalists sometimes write books, magazine pieces and newspaper articles, appear on panels and give speeches and presentations. Our expertise is extremely valuable. Universities may ask us to teach and lecture. These are opportunities that can provide benefits and offer us the chance to stretch, to reflect on our work and to broaden the reach of our journalism.

But outside work can also present challenges. It requires working with organizations that might have different goals and standards than WBUR. It can sometimes present entanglements that conflict with our journalistic independence.

We must be selective about these opportunities and vigilant about the challenges they pose. WBUR journalists are expected to abide by our ethical standards while doing outside work. Supervisors should be consulted (and return a quick answer) on freelance journalistic work.

WBUR CitySpace and Public Events

How WBUR Journalists Respond to Requests for Public Appearances

There is great value in WBUR journalists engaging with the public beyond our news programming. We can contribute our journalistic expertise and we also have the opportunity to connect with and learn from members of the communities that we serve. WBUR’s CitySpace offers us a unique opportunity for such connections. Other WBUR produced events can offer similar value. And some non-WBUR community events can provide meaningful engagement with the public.

That said, we consider each request on its own merit and recognize that our journalists always represent WBUR in any public forum or event. Our journalistic integrity and the reputation of WBUR are always paramount.

Requests for WBUR journalists to speak at events from outside organizations such as academic, non-profit and professional organizations as well as businesses or other organizations should be vetted to ensure these appearances adhere to WBUR standards. Even other news organization requests should be carefully considered based on the standards and reputation of the news organization and expectations of that organization related to the specific invitation. To manage these requests, we collaborate with our WBUR colleagues in marketing and communications.

Journalists may accept honorariums, paid travel and meals for speaking engagements and awards ceremonies from educational or nonprofit groups not engaged in significant lobbying, political activity or advocacy. Journalists should consult their supervisor before accepting payments for an engagement.

It’s essential that the journalist’s role in the event focuses on journalistic expertise. Our role is not to engage in direct fundraising for organizations other than WBUR. In all cases, it’s important for the supervisors to discuss the request with the WBUR journalist who would be participating in the event. Supervisors will strive for a prompt decision, and will provide an explanation if the invitation to participate must be declined.

Interaction with those who support our work.

CitySpace and live events are valuable platforms for our journalism and engagement with the public. They can also offer opportunities to financially support our work. There might be multiple WBUR departments involved in such events that involve sponsors or funders, and it’s essential that everyone agrees to protect the independence of WBUR’s journalism

This includes any public presentation involving WBUR journalists as well as interactions with event sponsors and/or station funders. While there is benefit in tapping into the expertise of our journalists and there is value for the station to showcase our talent and foster relationships with our audiences and our supporters, it is also imperative to protect the independence and editorial integrity of our journalism.

When WBUR journalists host or moderate events, they maintain complete editorial control over the questioning and direction of the conversation. Guests and panelists are selected for their expertise, whether that is through personal or professional experience, and to reflect a diversity of thought and communities. Journalists leading conversations should play a leading role in shaping the composition of panels and hold final veto power.

The best protocol for these situations is for the WBUR staff member organizing a potential event to discuss the request for a journalist’s participation with their supervisor and the senior news manager, for example the executive editor for news or the executive producer in the case of WBUR’s nationally distributed programs and podcasts, and the chief content officer.

If an opportunity presents a new, complex or difficult ethical question, or if a supervisor and a journalist disagree about an event's merit, including ethical concerns, it should be discussed with the chief content officer, the executive editor for news, and relevant stakeholders. Journalists will not be obligated to participate in any event if they do not feel comfortable.

There are situations when a WBUR CitySpace event are of such news value that they are covered by WBUR journalists. When that happens, we should be transparent about WBUR’s involvement in the origin of the event.

Guideline: Make sure WBUR’s audience can clearly distinguish between editorial and non-editorial content.

Donors, corporations, local businesses, philanthropists and others support our journalism, and it is the integrity and independence of our journalism that provides part of the value that sponsors seek in associating their brands with WBUR. Therefore, it is in everyone’s interest that sponsorship, in whatever form it takes, be clearly labeled or otherwise demarcated for our audience in the platform where it appears.

This includes native advertising or “sponsored” or “branded” content. The commercial aspects of non-editorial content should be easily transparent to the audience; in other words, we should not deceive our audience about the nature and motivations of the content. In addition, the interview subjects of any WBUR-created non-editorial work, such as branded content, should be aware that the content is independent from our editorial work. These are non-editorial projects, and editorial staff should not be involved in their creation.

Advertisers and business partners have no influence over our journalism. Senior news managers and business team staff often communicate in order to identify opportunities to support our work and to fund editorial initiatives. However sponsors and other funders do not have any special access to our journalism. When advertisers become part of our coverage, they are treated just like any other subject in our journalism.

Interacting with funders

Our journalism is made possible by a diverse coalition of funding sources, including donations from members of the public, grants from foundations, public funding, and sponsorships. While we value all who support our work, those who fund us do so in the knowledge that our journalism serves only the public. We believe our strength as a business is premised solely on high-quality, independent journalism in the public interest. All WBUR employees – journalists as well as business, marketing and communications, and development staff – are committed first and foremost to that service.

At WBUR, senior news leadership has full and final authority over all of our journalism. We work with all other divisions of the organization toward the goal of supporting and protecting our journalism. This means we communicate with our business partnership and development colleagues to identify areas where we hope to expand our reporting.

WBUR journalists take part in promotional activities to support our editorial mission, including fundraising events, on-air fund drives and public radio audience-building initiatives. We observe a clear boundary line: WBUR journalists interact with funders only to further our editorial goals, not to serve the agendas of those who support us.

Guideline: Stick with storytelling. Steer clear of selling.

There's no one better than a WBUR journalist to describe the value, impact and character of our journalism. So we may be called upon to talk about our work with those who might support it, whether over the air during a pledge drive or in person during a meeting with prospective funders. But in all our interactions with potential funders, we observe this boundary: We're there to tell our story, not to discuss the agendas of our supporters. This means we may describe the goals and ambitions of our editorial work, promote the value of that work and the worthiness of supporting it, or recount what we've experienced in our reporting.

Understand that donors may express opinions about the subjects we cover. Our role is not to agree or disagree, but to share our journalism.

No WBUR journalist should feel compelled to participate in meetings with prospective donors, sponsors or foundations. Again, our business partnership and development colleagues support our service to the public, not vice versa. Part of the job of these departments is making our funders aware that we will be editorially blind to their support – that we'll conduct our journalism with no favor or slight to them or their interests. Our colleagues also vet potential supporters to make sure their interests don't present an actual or apparent conflict with our mission.

WBUR is a highly collaborative modern public media organization. Ideally, journalists at WBUR devote most of their work and efforts to journalism assignments. On occasion, journalists are called on to work on projects that involve or are initiated by other departments. We should consider these on a project by project basis, consulting with editorial leadership. We would consider what are the implications for the journalist’s primary work, and whether projects for other departments would present editorial conflicts of interest.

Journalists often speak of a “firewall” that separates the journalism from the funders. Properly understood, the firewall is a useful metaphor. In engineering, a firewall isn't an impassable boundary, but rather a barrier designed to contain the spread of a dangerous or corrupting force. Similarly, the purpose of our firewall is to hold in check the influence our funders have over our journalism and independence.


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