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…but, what if you don’t work there?

by on November 29, 2011

This is a question that has haunted the ethical minds of journalists for some time, but has really gained some prominence in recent months concerning movements like Occupy Wall Street. Lisa Simeone, a woman who hosts an opera show distributed through National Public Radio (NPR), but is based out of WDAV in Davidson, North Carolina, unfortunately had to answer this question. Simeone hosts two programs, both aired through NPR, but is not officially associated with NPR, and is actually not an employee either. NPR dismissed Simeone’s program, as she violated the rule that public figures representing NPR must not involve themselves in political issues that NPR covers. Even though Simeone was not talking about issues on her program, she was still seen as compromising NPR’s integrity by making public comments about a movement that other NPR figures have reported on. On the other hand, WDAV did not dismiss Simeone’s program, and were quoted as saying the following: “[it] was only interested in the arts, not Simeone’s or anyone’s outside political involvement.”

The action, and lack thereof, of these two stations makes clear that there is really no universal rule to apply to situations like this. Organizations like WDAV choose to operate under the assumption that Simeone’s political activism will not compromise anything other figures within the station have to say about matters; perhaps they even give their listeners a bit more credit in assuming that they will be able to differentiate between a single advocate’s views and those of the organization. NPR, as progressive as they seem, operate under this assumption: “NPR-identified employees—even if they aren’t really employees per se—represent the entire network and managers have to gauge the behavior of on-air talent with that lens.”

Given the situation, my question is this: should unofficial “employees” of organizations be held to the same ethical standards as those directly employed by an organization, such as the issue with Simeone and NPR? Does perceived affiliation trump official affiliation? If not, then should freelance and syndicated programs carry a disclaimer that they are expressing their own views, and not those of the host organization? If this practice is applied, would it be enough for an organization if an individual makes that disclaimer?

The issues concerned in this post can be found in this article.

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