There is a developing thin line in mainstream journalism ethics between what’s acceptable and what’s not in defining impartial, independent news coverage.
National Public Radio and CNN are the latest examples of straddling standards that prohibit conflicts of interest and the appearance of bias in presenting the news.
The reasons are hard to grasp for old-school journalists, such as myself, groomed to keep an open mind, avoid advocacy and let evidence and facts, not personal beliefs, tell the story.
I’m talking here about fair news reporting, not opinion journalism, which by definition is espousal.
CNN does its reputation no good by continuing to feature Chris Cuomo in prime time. He admitted last May to advising his older brother, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, on how to respond to accusations of sexual harassment and a toxic work environment.
The situation is fraught with conflict, dating to Chris’ adoring banter on CNN with his brother last year at the height of efforts to control the virus. The “Brothers Cuomo” show on CNN stopped once the governor became ensnared in a controversy over underreported nursing home deaths.
The sexual conduct scandal erupted last winter when three former aides to the governor came forward with claims of sexual harassment and bullying. Chris Cuomo admitted he had counseled his brother on how to respond. He said that was a mistake that caused a problem for CNN. He vowed not to cover or comment on his brother’s plight again.
Already he had crossed an ethical line. CNN didn’t mind. His show rolled on, including this week after release of the New York Attorney General’s investigative report detailing sexual harassment accusations against the governor by 11 women, nine of them current or former state employees, in violation of state and federal law.
The report listed brother Chris as one of the governor’s primary advisors on how to handle the accusations.
“I’m family first, job second,” Chris Cuomo said in May.
That’s understandable — and also cause for dismissal because of actual and apparent conflict with his CNN role as a host of a show ostensibly aimed at providing public accountability..
As for NPR, it recently unbuckled its restrictive ethics code, allowing journalists to advocate for “the freedom and dignity of human beings” on social media and by participating in marches, rallies and public events that comport with that definition.
That’s a roomy definition that NPR insists is compatible with its mission to “hold ourselves to the core principles of honesty, integrity, independence, accuracy, contextual truth and fairness for the people we serve and the people we cover.”
It is also a problematic policy change.
Journalists who march and tweet their dislike or embrace of a disputed issue they consider centered on human dignity will inevitably invite howls of prejudice from rival viewpoints that will reverberate across the NPR landscape. Even if the journalists cannot cover the issues they engage in personally.
Separating personal activism of a news outlet’s journalists from the organization’s professional responsibility for accuracy based on impartiality asks too much of public trust.
This is a deeply polarizing time for journalists. On the right, we are siloed as liberal toadies; on the left, we are seen as not tough enough on the far right. There are fewer and fewer neutral-minded who follow the news.
So why feed into the folly?
The digital revolution has dramatically changed the way journalism is produced and delivered. Yet there remains a compelling need for public trust.
Traditional ethics boundaries to avoid conflicts and perceived bias remain vital if we hope to preserve and improve journalism’s credibility.
Bill Ketter is CNHI’s senior vice president of news. Reach him at email@example.com.