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Public Media Ethics Never Log Off:

Guidelines for Public Media Employees in Their Off-Hour Activities Principles and Practice:


Ethical behavior is not what you do because you are paid to do it. It is what you do because it is the right thing to do.

Public Media’s Enduring Principles:

The bedrock of public media is its’ mission. A mission built on solid basic concepts:

To serve the public interest

To enriching culture and knowledge

To strengthen the fabric of a pluralistic democracy

The rush onto the Internet has increased the need for a clear set of policies based on core values. This is particularly relevant within a new media sphere that, despite its exciting advantages, comes with great excess… i.e., misinformation, chaotic communication, predatory behavior, etc.

First Principle-Serve the Public Interest

Noncommercial educational broadcasters, who are granted tax-exempt status and qualify for public subsidies, have a privilege that calls for a high level of duty. To serve in public media is to put the public interest ahead of self-interest or private interest.

Second Principle-Deserve the Public Trust

Public media relies on public trust and public trust is created through public service.

Public trust is social capital. It is the shared sense of purpose necessary for civil society to work well.

It is a valuable, yet intangible, commodity. It can be made and lost, but it cannot be bought and sold.

Attaining public trust is also a goal because, when attained, it produces healthy community alliances with public media institutions – undergirding fiscal support that enables everything from content creation and delivery to technological advancement and service innovation.

 The Principles in Policy and Practice

Upholding the “Objectivity and Balance” Standard

This standard, built into the legal authorization, is an attempt to lock-in public interest and public trust on behalf of the American people.

The method ought to be transparent, to account for competing perspectives, and to remain apart from partisan agendas.

The objectivity and balance standard does not preclude analysis, interpretation, debate or subjective opinion in content… but it may require those devices be labeled as such.

Finding a Basis for Combined Personal/Professional Ethics: The Journalistic Model

Professional journalists in the United States have developed ethics codes that guide their personal and professional behavior to assure public trust in the profession. These codes typically espouse fundamental values such as accuracy, fairness, completeness, impartiality, independence, transparency and accountability.

Acknowledging Journalism’s Binding Role in Public Media

News reporting promises to hold its subjects up for scrutiny, accountability and public judgment. To do this well and with credibility requires a disciplined environment uncontaminated by self-interest, hypocrisy or other glaring flaws that subvert the ability or credibility of the examiner.

Setting the Bar in Place: Employers as Ethics Keepers

Policies with respect to employees’ private behavior require a balancing act between the individual’s inherent right to free and private action and the employer’s legitimate right to meet its mission effectively. Some would argue that “personal” and “professional” are separate compartments and should not be combined; the fact is that they are often entwined. Nowhere is that more true and common than in social media publishing where personal and professional communication can be blurred.

There is no right to serve in public media; it is a privilege granted by an employer. It is accepted practice (and legally sustained) to provide guidance and admonitions so that the employer’s interests (and all of public broadcasting’s interests) are protected.

Aligning Professional and Personal Standards

The guidelines introduced here do not assume the force of rule or law. Nothing in them should be construed as abridgement of state or federal law.

However, employers must also recognize the limits of their control and should understand the loss of trust that results from any perceived abuse of control. (For example, it would violate a spirit of mutual trust were employers to pursue active monitoring of off-hour activities by employees.)

It is also true that an employee may loosely don a service mentality and its attendant behavior for the sake of a paycheck. However, when the workday is done, there is a catch in public media that all individuals who work in it must consider. The catch is the public trust. This currency is always open to trade… regardless of the time of day.

Given all of this, a particular ethos is asserted: public media employees should strive for congruency in personal and professional behavior.