According to WAMU General Manager, J. J. Yore, the genesis of the Statement about WAMU’s Editorial Independence and Transparency was an interesting podcast from Current hosted by Adam Ragusea expounding on university licensee codes of ethics and codes governing station relationships with their licensee.

After the podcast, J.J. went looking for the WAMU code. Not finding one, he inquired. According to his boss, who had had oversight of WAMU for over 20 years, WAMU didn’t have such a document.

JJ knew, “WAMU needed to codify the rules governing journalism and the stations’ news organization relationship with the university – not just for WAMU but for everyone.”

And why this needed to be done hit home when the WAMU news department covered American University race relations on campus, which drew concern from the University Marketing Department.

After resolving that issue, J.J. initiated talks with his boss and station staff, and colleagues on and off campus, trying to figure out a way to develop a code in the most credible way – for station, staff, university and the public.

J.J. concluded that an independent task force to study the issue and come up with a statement would be the best way to approach the task. He wanted representation from the station news department, from the University, and from credible and highly regarded independent journalists.

First, J.J. recruited the committee:

  • Jeffrey Katz, WAMU, News Director (Task Force Chairman)
  • Kelsey Proud, WAMU, Managing Editor for Digital
  • Amy Eisman, American University School of Communication, Director of the Journalism Division
  • Tom Rosenstiel, American Press Institute, Executive Director
  • Mark Memmott, NPR, Supervising Senior Editor for Standards & Practices
  • Terry Samuel, NPR, Deputy Managing Editor (formerly with the Washington Post)

Then he gave them their charter: Come up with proposed policies to govern three things:

  1. How should WAMU cover the University?
  2. What are the rules for the University in dealing with WAMU as a NEWS organization?
  3. What should the rules be if the journalism staff needs to cover news about WAMU or senior management at the station?

This was a multi-year effort beginning when JJ listened to the podcast in August of 2016 and continuing through the full year before the committee began its work which concluded with the adoption of the statement in October 2018

JJ felt it was important to establish a code when there WASN’T a crisis so that it could be adopted and in place for when there was one.

While the Task Force went about its business, JJ told people on campus about the effort. Since he reports to the American University Board of Trustees Communications Committee three times a year, he informed the Committee of the Task Force and its charter. He also told his boss and the head of AU Marketing and Communications. Everyone he spoke with was very supportive…although JJ does think that his transparency, in advance of the presentation of the final document, generated buy-in.

Over the weeks and months, the Task Force worked, drafted, and re-drafted the Ethics/Code document. When they brought it to JJ, he had suggestions, which led to additional meetings and drafts.

Once the final document was done and adopted by the Task Force, JJ took it to the President of AU to see how she wanted to deal with it.

After reading and digesting the document she proposed that she approve it, and make the AU Board aware of the task force work and the resulting document. WAMU then posted the Statement on its web site.

The rules are in place, but according to JJ, so far it hasn’t been tested. While WAMU had one situation that could have called it into use, the station navigated the challenge amicably without pulling out the rule book.

According to J.J., “Having the Statement gives us all a sense of confidence and comfort that we have the right rules in place surrounding potentially touchy areas.”

While JJ admits that being in Washington D.C. may have made expert participation easier, stations across the country can involve their own University professors, and call on well-respected local experts, as well as ask NPR and other national leaders to participate via teleconference. “In a University environment, or with a fiduciary board, a task force that balances station, university and community/national expertise is important. Any Board wants to know that you didn’t make it all up – they want to make sure they’re following the best practices,” JJ said.

He concluded, “As public media becomes more and more relied upon for news coverage, and as our platforms and audiences expand, it is going to be more important than ever to have strong, well-articulated, codes of conduct in place for when we need them.”