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A Statement of WAMU’s Editorial Independence and Transparency

By the WAMU Journalism Task Force
Adopted: October 2018

Purpose of this document
This statement was written by a WAMU Journalism Task Force appointed by JJ Yore, WAMU’s General Manager. He asked the group to develop and recommend policies based on journalism ethics and best practices at other news media companies for:

  •  WAMU journalists covering WAMU
  • WAMU journalists covering American University
  • The editorial relationship between WAMU and American University

WAMU’s Mission

WAMU is dedicated to journalism based on facts and focused on public service and the public interest. It is built on the core principles of editorial independence free of outside influence, a commitment to accuracy, verification and a diversity of voices, as well as high standards of transparency and the courage to embrace controversy. WAMU has adopted the NPR Ethics Handbook as a way of expressing its journalism standards.

WAMU also seeks to connect those in the Washington region with each other and the world. The regional news team –and local and national news programs — do that through fair, thoughtful, intelligent and independent journalism. The station’s goal is to provide Washington-area residents with the information and perspectives they need to make the region a better place to live.

WAMU’s relationship with American University is based on those precepts.

WAMU’s editorial independence

To ensure that WAMU remains independent and can fulfill its mission, the boundaries between WAMU and American University on all editorial matters must be real and understood by both sides. At no point in the editorial process should AU have special access or influence over how WAMU’s editorial work is published, broadcast or conveyed. This includes both official and unofficial interactions between WAMU and AU staff or affiliates at any level of seniority. It is by observing this editorial separation that WAMU can best provide the information Washingtonians count on to make decisions, understand their region and learn about their neighbors.

Editorial independence and accountability means WAMU welcomes criticism of its coverage from the university or its employees. But it also requires that the university not have special access or ability to demand special treatment.

If a member of the AU community has substantial concerns about a news report that has been broadcast or published, he or she will be directed to the WAMU General Manager, Senior Director of Content or News Director. The General Manager, Senior Director of Content or News Director will decide whether other WAMU journalists should be brought into any discussion.

The same firewall exists between AU board members and the WAMU newsroom. Like any member of the AU administration, board members do not have direct or special access to the WAMU newsroom or WAMU programs. Their point of contact is the General Manager. The same principle would apply to any causes or entities they represent, are invested in or affiliated with. Such groups or causes would not have any special status or be treated as priorities for editorial consideration. (See section on public disclosure of AU board member affiliation).

The responsibility of WAMU staff to properly identify themselves

This is how WAMU staff members should identify themselves in different situations regarding American University:

  • If working in a non-editorial capacity (i.e. on campus for training or other business) WAMU staff should identify themselves as both WAMU and AU staff.
  • If working in a purely editorial capacity (i.e. working on a story about the university), WAMU staff should identify themselves as only from WAMU. In this capacity, WAMU staff should not expect or be granted additional access to AU staff, resources or locations because of their status as AU employees.
  • If in a “bridge” capacity (i.e. appearing at an AU event) WAMU staff should make every effort to clearly explain that AU holds WAMU’s license but does not influence WAMU’s editorial decision-making or journalism.

Publicly describing WAMU’s relationship with American University

Whenever WAMU content refers to American University or a person associated with it, WAMU ought to be transparent about the relationship. Whether on air or online, a version of this phrase generally should be used near the first reference to AU: American University holds the license to WAMU.

WAMU’s coverage of American University when AU makes news

WAMU should cover American University as it would any other prominent college or university in the Washington, D.C., region. Any special programs or events sponsored by AU or held on AU property should be accorded the same news judgment as would any research or study done by a local university. Similarly, any negative news related to AU or its faculty, staff or students should be judged as if it occurred at any college or university in the region.

WAMU, at its discretion, may seek guidance from an independent journalism expert when deciding whether and how to cover news related to American University.

WAMU’s coverage of itself when it makes news

When WAMU makes news, the coverage takes its cue from the NPR Ethics Handbook. In this case, WAMU journalists seek to cover WAMU as they would any other entity.

When such events occur, the journalists involved in reporting on WAMU separate themselves as best as possible from internal events, and any individuals in WAMU’s senior leadership avoid imposing any influence on those journalists. Any coverage of WAMU itself is handled by WAMU journalists with no involvement in the issue at hand — or by contracting an independent entity.

This means that when a WAMU journalist’s actions or work are “news” — for good or bad — those who were involved in the assigning, reporting, editing and producing do not then play any part in the coverage. Our goal is to cover any such story just as we would if it involved another organization, and to take all such actions necessary to ensure that is possible.

On-air coverage should have a disclosure that includes a version of this sentence:

  • WAMU’s executives were not allowed to review what was reported for this story before it was broadcast.

Online coverage should have a disclosure that includes a version of this sentence:

  • WAMU’s executives were not allowed to review what was reported for this story before it was published.

About the task force

The WAMU Journalism Task Force held in-person meetings, teleconferences and exchanged ideas electronically as part of this process. Note that the task force believes that this should be treated as a living document, that as new situations arise or technology changes, the statement itself might need amending.

The members of the WAMU Journalism Task Force are:

  • 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