WBEZ Code of Ethics in Journalism
We work for a publicly engaged organization – one that seeks to nourish, curate, and elevate the public conversation. We believe our mission and our work are tied to broad core values, which include: respect, civility, independence, fairness, accuracy, accountability, truth and creativity. We believe our ability to serve those values, our mission, and ultimately the public good, rests on our credibility and reputation. We believe that our credibility and reputation are precious and vulnerable, and must be protected with good judgment, strength of character, and integrity.
As a values and mission-driven organization, we believe that these principles encompass and apply to everyone, regardless of their role in the organization. Our credibility and reputation are vulnerable not just through what we do, but with whom we are associated. For that reason, we all work proactively to think about the potential impact of our actions and associations, and discuss them when concerns arise
As the foundation of our code of ethics -- we begin with these expressions of our core values:
Respect. We, as a station, and a system, strive to nourish and serve the public good. We believe that dialogue, over any matter, is best fostered on a foundation of respect -- for each other, for our communities, and for the idea that America benefits from a diversity of voices. We know that respect is the precursor to understanding, and the moorings to any bridge that can reach across disagreement -- a crucial civic service, and one we strive to perform.
Civility. We know that in the full spectrum of the public conversation, voices can and will be raised from time to time. Sometimes raised voices can nourish the public good and democracy we serve. But while our voices should be strong and sturdy in service of our values and mission, they should never be uncivil -- as that degrades our ability to serve a role of fair-handed curation.
Independence. We are a public media organization. We are committed to serving the public, the public good -- free of commercial interests and a single-minded quest to maximize profit. We are also protective of our default position of fairness-driven neutrality when it comes to the public conversation – in contrast to those, including some peers, who take a position of advocacy. We know that on the slope of advocacy and activism, trust of facts is harder to build. We are aware that dialogue requires a spectrum of thought and ideas, placed in meaningful conversation with each other -- where the first impulse towards difference is the fostering of respect towards beliefs, positions, and ideas. We know there are universal values and entities we can and must stand in defense of -- human rights, the law, the truth -- but we also know our primary role is to illuminate the feelings, thoughts, and ideas of others. To this end, we avoid being associated with one side or another in the sphere of opinion -- especially political opinion -- because it would work against our ability to nurture a dialogue between those of differing views. We also know that when that role is especially threatened -- in a deeply divisive and tense environment -- such a neutral, independent space is even more valuable.
Fairness. Our role is as fair-handed stewards, initiators and curators of the public conversation. We know that participation in that conversation by people of varied views serves the democracy and the public good -- and we know that such participation requires trust. That trust is built on an expectation of fairness. For that reason, we challenge assumptions – our own and those of others – and we approach our work, speech, communication and associations with care -- so that we do not jeopardize the expectation that diverse voices can get a fair hearing.
Truth. As much as we are champions for a diverse range of voices, we are just as fierce champions for truth and fact. Truth is also within the bedrock of understanding each other, the world around us, and conversations that serve the public good. Our mission is to find it, illuminate it, hold it up before the public, and to fight on its behalf. While we believe democracy is served when differing views are treated with civility -- we also have a duty to assert truth to power, and to level it forcefully against falsehoods. Furthermore, while we diligently avoid taking sides in the public conversation, we are on the side of truth, and fundamental values derived from truth, such as honesty, transparency, and human rights. While we always try to be inclusive, we never sacrifice truth, honesty or allow misinformation for the sake of inclusivity.
Accuracy. As an organization that strives to serve truth, we know that accuracy is the binding agent of our work. We know that poorly or inadequately verified information is a threat to truth and is unworthy of our mission. For these reasons we are rigorous about verification before we present facts.
Accountability. To uphold the values articulated above, we must be accountable for our work. Thus, we take responsibility for our work and must be willing to answer for it, especially when it falls short of our highest standards. Mistakes made during reporting and editing are to be followed by prompt corrections, clarifications, and updates. We are transparent about our work, including the sourcing of information from third-party news organizations. We then commit to learning from such mistakes. We strive to make it clear how community members can reach us with questions, criticisms, and suggestions.
Creativity. We seek to document our world, to tell meaningful stories, to celebrate and record the human experience. We strive to bring richness into the lives we reach through our work, to bridge difference with understanding, to illuminate truths, to entertain and spread joy. We do the many things we do out of a belief that it will make the world better. We know all of this work requires dedication and character -- but also, fundamentally, innovation and creativity. Serving our mission with impact is a task that demands engaging work. Making engaging work requires craft and innovation -- and a preference for risks of creativity over the costs of complacency.
While we believe these values are enduring, our service to them is very much a living, breathing process. This document deliberately leans on the judgment and values of our staff and relies on active discussion, consultation and collaboration.
Whom this Applies To
These principles and policies apply to all journalists in the employ of Chicago Public Media, as well as independent reporters, producers, editors, and others asked to create journalistic content for CPM. Editors or producers who hire or collaborate with independent journalists or other outlets on content intended for CPM shall ensure that those producers are aware of and adhere to the principles and practices laid out in this policy.
Whom to Turn to
In many instances, this handbook is intended to raise questions, not offer answers. Some of those will be questions you feel perfectly comfortable answering yourself. Others might give you pause, or require guidance from a colleague.
Alongside this code, your two best sources of help in making ethical decisions are (1) your supervisor, and (2) senior leadership.
All of these people are positioned to help you raise the right questions. They are well-versed in the workings of our organization, and can help you make a thoughtful, decision consistent with our values – one that pulls in the appropriate stakeholders.
When confronted with an ethical question or issue that warrants the input of another, proceed as follows:
If you’re looking for a basic gut check – someone to bounce your thoughts off of, to test whether your thinking is sound or whether others should be involved in the decision, talk to your supervisor. Many matters can be handled at this level. Your supervisor will help you determine whether the issue is clear-cut and merits an immediate decision, and whether others should be notified about the matter. If there’s any question of whether the matter should be brought to the attention of others, supervisors will err on the side of caution and reach out. This is not a shortcoming, but rather an act of strength and conscientiousness.
If you need help interpreting this code or navigating territory that isn’t covered here, if you’re concerned about a matter that’s out of your jurisdiction, or if the code notes that the decision may require the sign-off of supervisors, talk to your supervisor. They’ll decide whether the issue needs to be elevated to a higher level and, if so, where it should be directed.
If for any reason you feel uncomfortable discussing a matter with your supervisor, talk to senior leadership. That includes our CEO and department Vice Presidents. For those in the newsroom, you can also turn to the Managing Editor or Senior Editors.
We encourage questions – answers aren’t always self-evident. Consultation and collaboration make us better at what we do.
Reporting and Editing
At Chicago Public Media, we expect high journalistic standards from everyone.
We believe fact and truth are the foundation of a healthy public and civic conversation. For that reason, we approach facts skeptically, and rigorously confirm them through various sources -- with double sourcing and primary sourcing being our baselines standards.
We clearly avoid, and take very seriously, transgressions of journalistic ethics -- including, but not limited to, dishonesty, plagiarism, misrepresentation, and fabrication.
We know we are members of a larger journalistic community -- one that is nourished by collegiality and respect. For that reason, we credit our peers with original reporting.
We also know that, as much as ever, bad information can propagate rapidly. As much as we seek to disseminate good information, we equally aspire to stop bad information. For that reason, we independently confirm facts and reporting. Lacking independent verification, we attribute those facts and reporting -- both to credit the work of our peers, and to communicate to the public when said facts do not yet meet our standards for verification. In cases where we must first rely on the reporting work of peers (e.g., breaking news), we will credit those peers and work to independently verify that information. In cases where that peer reporting was incorrect, we will update our audiences about that as soon as we know so that we can correct the record and inform the public accurately.
We edit and present material in the service of clarity, understanding, and truth. For that reason, we do not alter audio or present material in ways that change the speaker’s original meaning.
We expect our journalists to have the independent judgment to recognize situations that challenge our journalistic ethics, to proactively seek consultation with others in the organization, and to flag issues for editorial leaders when there is any doubt.
Social media and the internet offer another sphere of the public conversation -- one with unique and new challenges. We know that all digital communication can become public -- from a screenshot of a private email, to someone publicly quoting a private social media posting. We ask people to operate thoughtfully in this area, in the same way you would in any other public place -- with our same core values of respect, civility, fairness, independence, accuracy and truth.
Our guidelines for social media align with our mission, values and this code of ethics. Verify information before passing it along, and aspire to stop the propagation of bad or inaccurate information. If you are a journalist, always be honest about your intent as a journalist. Avoid actions that might discredit your professional impartiality and credibility, and, by association, our organization’s impartiality and credibility. Always remember that you represent Chicago Public Media and public radio.
In general, we act with caution, and we remain aware that anything we say or do in a digital environment is effectively a documented public statement. Statements made in “private” digital spaces can be copied and disseminated. We ask that everyone approach this dimension of the public conversation with the same overarching mission, good judgment and good character that define us elsewhere. We ask everyone to flag instances where there might be questions or doubts about social media activity/use, and err on the side of discussing those more widely with your supervisor, editorial leadership, and station leadership. These activities affect our credibility and reputation, and we would rather err on the side of more thorough and proactive discussion than to make missteps out of inadequate discussion. When there is doubt, start with your supervisor – or others in leadership as outlined in “Whom to Turn to.” Supervisors and others will take the lead on making sure relevant and necessary parties can be brought into to the conversation, and help grapple with the question(s) in order to make a plan.
Facts, images, information, and authenticity have different and unique vulnerabilities in digital and social media environments. Yet, our core principles are still applicable. We approach information with skepticism and rigor. We aspire to disseminate good, relevant information, and to halt and remedy bad information.
We know that, because of association with Chicago Public Media, its values and reputation, people look to us, even as individuals, to be a force for fairness, civility, transparency and good in the public conversation. We use our power to amplify ideas, opinions and points of view responsibly and fairly on other platforms -- and we take our power to amplify voices just as seriously in digital spaces. We use that power to serve our core values and mission.
As in other public forums we know that because of our affiliation with Chicago Public Media, our actions reflect on and affect the organization and its ability to do good and serve its mission. As in other public spaces, we must be careful not to speak on the organization’s behalf inappropriately.
Working with Sources
We believe transparency has a symbiotic relationship with truth. For that reason, we identify our sources and interviewees. While we may consider protecting a source or information with anonymity, we avoid doing it frequently, because it poses editorial hazards, and because anonymity can be abused and harm public trust. When we do take the exceptional step to grant anonymity, we grant it on the basis of danger and threats to the source, and ultimately, on the basis of serving the public good. Such decisions, in general, should always be discussed with editorial and department leadership.
We strive to do our reporting on the record so that we can be transparent about our sourcing. However, in certain circumstances, on the record reporting may not be possible and it may be necessary to protect sources from harm in an effort to effectively inform the public. In such circumstances, the journalist(s) must consult the Managing Editor before proceeding. In addition, we must be clear with news sources about what is on the record, off the record, and on background – as well as what those terms mean. When we are dealing with news sources who are not accustomed to dealing with the press, we take the initiative to make sure they understand what we will do with the information they give us, and, for people in sensitive or vulnerable situations, the impact it may have on them.
For the purposes of clarity, the following definitions apply (as referenced in the AP Stylebook):
Off the record: The information cannot be used for publication (or broadcast). The source cannot be identified.
On background: The information can be published (or broadcast) but only under conditions negotiated with the source. In most cases, the sources will not want their names published (or broadcast) but will agree to a description of their position (e.g. “...a senior administration official”).
Furthermore, when working with sources, it is important to note the nature of digital media is such that content, once posted or published, is permanently available online. Therefore, we make sure to clearly convey the implications of that permanence upon sources (especially minors) when requesting consent. We make clear that resulting stories may be publicly available in perpetuity online.
In addition to those considerations, we operate with other ethical guidelines.
- We try to ensure that the source knows that interviews, quotations, photographs, video footage and other media will be read, heard, or seen by others.
- We take care to make sure that sources understand what they’ve said — and that they are expressing what they mean.
- We consider how confident we are that the source understands the significance of his or her remarks.
In an overarching sense, we believe the rights and vulnerabilities of minors are especially sensitive, and we know the ethical considerations around interviewing them are frequently complicated. For those reasons, we take particular care when interviewing minors, reporting on them, and placing their stories in public view.
There is no statute that directly addresses the legality of interviewing minors (anyone under 18), and there is little case law. For that reason, there are not abundant legal requirements, nor is there abundant legal guidance. The case law that does exist focuses on issues of privacy and emotional distress, which are, of course, synonymous with our instinctual concerns as responsible journalists and ethical, decent people.
Parental consent to conduct interviews with minors, preferably written, is always the preferred route. If there is no reason not to, we secure that consent by explaining to a parent or guardian what the interview will be about and generally how audio recordings, quotations, photographs, video footage, or other materials gathered during reporting may be used.
The preferred approach is to secure approvals with parents or guardians through a signed CPM release form in advance of any interview or related reporting. In certain news situations, that may not be possible and thus a verbally recorded consent can be obtained from the minor and their parent or legal guardian. While some schools and districts may have releases on file that apply to media interviews, practices and language can vary widely. Therefore, reporters should obtain a copy of that release before proceeding to confirm that the language does indeed provide consent in interview situations. If not, the journalists should undertake the CPM steps outlined above.
If written consent is not possible, recorded verbal consent is preferred -- followed by non-recorded verbal consent, followed by implied consent, and finally by a decision to operate without the consent of an adult. Because minors are less capable of understanding the implications of talking to the media, and less capable of making decisions for themselves, we take this final option seriously -- and recognize the judgment, responsibility and ethical fortitude it demands.
Written permission forms, written releases, recorded verbal consent should be sent to the Managing Editor, with long-term storage applied as specified by Chicago Public Media document retention policies.
As we make choices to operate with greater or lesser degrees of consent we factor in a number of considerations:
- The Age of the Child: The younger the child, the more likely we should require parental consent. A minor’s consent requires that the minor is capable of truly appreciating the nature of the activity.
- Topic of the Interview: When we are interviewing minors about sensitive topics -- wrongdoing, cheating, family matters, criminal activity, sexual matters, or potentially embarrassing situations -- the need for parental consent becomes more acute. Similarly, non-controversial topics -- sports, books, quotidian childhood activities -- lessen the need for explicit, more documented consent, or the need for parental consent at all.
- The Location of the Activity: If the activity of the minor, and the topic or interview, is a public activity, consent is less of a concern.
- The Involvement of a School: Interviews and taping on school grounds create an additional layer of consideration. If we tape minors who are in the care of their school, we should obtain permission from the school/school district. That does not, however, alleviate our desire to give parents agency -- and, especially in situations regarding sensitive or controversial matters, parents should still be consulted, and consent granted.
- Risk vs. Public Good: We consider the dangers to the minor, the need for consent, and the care we take in the context of the public good. We are less inclined to extend ourselves in ethical considerations if the material is less pertinent to the public good. We take risks for journalistic reasons and in service of the mission -- not because we don’t want to do the work.
If you have questions about a situation involving a minor, consult with a news supervisor, editorial leadership and the general counsel. The more significant the concern, the more complex the question, the more people should be involved.
Our editorial independence is an essential and sacred element of who we are. For that reason, Chicago Public Media maintains full and independent decision making authority over its editorial content. The independence of the newsroom is critical to maintaining our journalistic integrity and the trust we have established with our listeners and readers.
For that reason, Chicago Public Media has adopted an Editorial Independence Policy. This Policy codifies the existence of a firewall between CPM’s news coverage decisions, its sources of revenue and its Board of Directors. Neither the Board of Directors of Chicago Public Media nor its Donors have any influence over editorial decisions that are made. We do not make editorial decisions with funders or their representatives. We eschew funders who expect editorial influence. Under no circumstances will a donation, whether large or small, influence editorial content or news judgement.
We acknowledge that, in the course of reporting, Chicago Public Media journalists may come across an organization or major donor that funds the station. To the best of our knowledge and ability, when these relationships raise a perceived conflict of interest we will proactively and clearly disclose them to the audience. When in doubt, we err on the side of disclosure.
We work for a publicly engaged organization – one that seeks to nourish, curate and elevate the public conversation. We know that serving our values in the political discourse -- particularly independence and fairness -- come with particular and notable challenges.
We are, as stewards of the public conversation, expected to broker a fair environment for disparate voices, ideologies, and perspectives. At all times, we must avoid activity that could undermine our integrity and credibility as a fair curator by trafficking in opinion and bias, political or otherwise. This part of our ethics policy applies most forcefully to those among us who have a listener-facing or public-facing role – whether as a content creator, a fundraiser, a member of the community engagement team or station leadership. But, all of us need to be aware of the potential impact of our actions. People who may not consider their roles to be public-facing, could, by association with CPM, undermine the perception and expectation that our space is a fair one. If there’s a situation that requires judgment, or falls into a gray area, we expect that there will be a conversation about it.
That is our general outlook on political activity and speech. Some situations call for greater clarification. Here are some:
- We support our employees’ right to vote in situations that do not require public support of specific candidates. That includes party primaries such as those in Illinois, which require party selection to vote, but does not require the voter to publicly support a specific candidate.
- We ask that employees avoid activities that require them publicly support specific political candidate’s political causes or political campaigns because their affiliation might raise questions about the fairness of our coverage. Some examples include: caucuses, straw polls, protests or the displaying of political signs.
- We ask that employees not sign political or policy petitions because we cover that realm of the public conversation, and believe our fairness and perceived fairness is critical to that coverage.
- We do not engage in campaigns, donate to campaigns, speak on behalf of -- or in association with -- political causes, or accept gifts from anyone in those sectors for all of the aforementioned reasons.
To fulfill our mission, and serve as a force for understanding and good in our democracy, we have to be a fair space for different voices and views. We ask that people use their judgment and not engage in activity that could undermine that goal, or lead people to perceive bias in our organization.
Conflicts of Interest
We must avoid conflicts of interest. Conflicts of interest, real or perceived, are a threat to the reputation and credibility that are crucial to what we do.
Some of the implications of this are obvious, and follow common sense and good judgment. We do not accept money, gifts of significant value, meals, etc. from people whom we cover or from whom we should maintain a distance of independence. We don’t pay for interviews or information. We only accept media access to events as relevant to our work and service, and there should be no expectations of anything in return.
We may only accept gifts of nominal value (less than $40) from those we interact with journalistically -- with the strict avoidance of anything that might create a real or perceived conflict of interest. If the relationship, circumstances, or size of gift (even a nominal gift) could ever create perceptions, real or perceived, that our independence has been compromised, we politely refuse.
Employees or their immediate family members may not maintain a business or financial interest, or engage in any outside business or financial activity, that conflicts with the interests of Chicago Public Media. Again, in this area as well, if there are any potential questions, we expect everyone to have the judgment to identify those situations and discuss them with their supervisors.
If we are a full-time employee of CPM, our primary professional commitment is to CPM and to the values of the organization.
As part of our mission, we work to be widely engaged in public activities and civic conversation. At the same time, however, we recognize that there are many ways outside work and outside appearances can compromise our primary commitment to CPM. They can draw on our time, and cut into our work at CPM. They can force us to choose between CPM and a competitor for opportunities -- who we book a guest for or pitch a project to. They can have editorial implications. They can ask us to step outside of journalism and analysis, and venture into opinion and advocacy, which threatens our reputation for fairness, independence and neutrality. We are an employer of creative, editorial and business professionals. If we are their primary employer, we expect to be their primary professional allegiance.
We proactively flag concerns in this area, and discuss them with our supervisors to make good decisions. We do so with enough lead time for an adequate and thorough discussion.
Employees must receive approval from their supervisor before accepting outside employment (whether as an employee, freelancer, speaker or independent contractor). This is especially important if that work could impact their work at Chicago Public Media and their primary commitment, which is to the station. CPM reserves the right to request that employees forgo outside opportunities if it feels that work would, or could, present a conflict. Supervisors are expected to weigh potential conflicts with the interests of CPM in mind.
This is not to say that we want to grapple with every outside appearance or engagement. If you are receiving an honorarium for speaking at an elementary school on your own time, we do not expect that to be brought up with your supervisor or leadership. If you are planning to, or already are, engaging in significant work -- writing or reporting for another organization, teaching a class as an adjunct, serving as a regular contributor -- we do expect those situations to be raised with your supervisor and station leadership.
We believe in our staff taking a public role through appearances and charity work. We also know that, editorially, appearances and affiliations can affect our reputation, credibility, and ability to assert our role as a fair broker in the public conversation. We consider those vulnerabilities when agreeing to make appearances or create affiliations, and we avoid accepting engagements that could or would be problematic.
It is our expectation that we are forthcoming, discuss outside work, and have the judgment to know when other appearances or engagements warrant discussion.
Business Gifts, Personal Consideration, Plugola, and Payola
Consideration of any form must be avoided. Just as we diligently avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest in journalistic and editorial matters, we diligently avoid them in our business dealings as well. Gifts of appreciable value (over $40) must be avoided. More importantly, we avoid any activity that would professionally undercut the perception of our loyalty to the station, its values and its mission.
Employees may not request gifts from any customer, vendor, supplier, or other business contact.
Plugola (receiving consideration for promoting an outside person/event/service on-air) and Payola (receiving consideration for playing recorded music on air) are major violations of federal law, and could cost a broadcaster her/his freedom and career, and Chicago Public Media, its license. Employees may be required on an annual basis to sign an affidavit agreeing to comply with the provision of Sections 317 and 508 of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended. Both Federal Communications Commission rules and Chicago Public Media prohibit Plugola, Payola, Personal Gain, and the misappropriation of Chicago Public Media’s property.