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Community Broadcaster: Radio News Ethics and Inclusion

Treading through the ethical news jungle

The author is membership program director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. NFCB commentaries are featured regularly at

A new social media dispute should get your community radio station thinking about its own commitment to local news.

This week, journalist Jenni Monet, keynote at the upcoming Community Media Conference, ignited a spirited debate that has been brewing in community and public media for some time. What role, if any, does identity play in reporting? And what are an organization’s responsibilities related to communities and coverage?

Community media has had no shortage of conversations about journalism. WORT’s Molly Stentz wrote in December for Current that it wasn’t her obligation as a news director to “police” reporters’ political activism and public opinions. Other news organizations, including many others in community radio, are not nearly as lax. My old station and scores of others set particular news department guidelines for people collecting news for stations, whether or not they’re paid reporters or volunteers.

For instance, earlier this year, Lewis Wallace was fired from Marketplace after reposting a blog essay against journalistic objectivity, which Wallace had apparently initially agreed to take down. It’s a termination that launched a thousand public media hot takes, even if the employer’s decision seems rather straightforward (e.g. if your boss tells you to take something down, you agree, then renege on that pledge, one has to expect disciplinary action).

This latest matter, though, takes the discussion of expression a step further.

In her public Facebook post, Monet criticized a decision to fund a media project on Native American treaties that ostensibly did not include an indigenous journalist. The ensuing debate over identity, community and ethics underscored tensions long within communities of color, and speak to core values, legitimacy and representation for public and community media.

Many community radio stations produce news programming. More want to do so. No matter if you’re a veteran community media newsroom or a freshly launched news department, what happening this year should get you thinking about your local news coverage.

First and foremost for community radio stations creating local news, it’s deciding basic guidelines for your journalism, regardless of whether you staff with volunteers or not.

As someone who’s worked in a daily newspaper newsroom, with newsweeklies and in community radio news, I am sympathetic to journalists stressed about the world we live in. Still, I think community radio must tread carefully when it comes to matters like allowing individual reporters’ opinions and identities to shape stories.

A common, though circular, argument community radio leaders tell me they have with some stakeholders is about the right of station volunteers to opinions. I have to remind them that news is about listeners first, and their trust is the basis for everything. I also suggest it’s helpful to test that assessment against personal biases. If it’s okay for a local protest leader to cover, say, the mayor or police with whom they’ve had run-ins, is it okay for an anti-immigrant journalist to cover immigration? How about someone with public Alt-Right sympathies covering African-Americans in your community? I’m surprised to sometimes encounter resistance to the last two, when the first answer may have been to the affirmative.

Resources like the Online News Association’s Build Your Own Ethics Code tool can be really illustrative for your local news ethics process. The Media Consortium explored at its most recent conference the need to create new ethics guidelines for community media.

Second, whichever way your community radio organization goes related to ethics, transparency matters, your audience is more curious than ever about how organizations make news decisions, the policies they follow and what goes into creating news programming. Communicate early and often with your audience. It builds trust, and maybe even fosters a new relationship your station did not have before.

Finally, the issues Monet brings up related to diversity, representation and communities are also compelling.

All stations want to be inclusive and to attract nontraditional audiences. Doing so requires intention and attention to the voices these communities find credible. Community media groups should take notice of such nuances.

From #OscarsSoWhite to #PublicMediaVoice, social media has created a different platform upon which legacy media like radio is held to account. For many diverse constituencies, how they are represented, who has access and how communities are consulted matter quite a bit. In an increasingly connected world, listeners have their own microphone as never before. The decisions you make can affect your relationships with these communities, possibly for years to come.

Although the topics Monet raises in her Facebook post are worthy of dialogue locally and nationally for noncommercial media, it’s important to understand such issues can affect every organization, including yours.

For community radio, which is overwhelmingly dependent on volunteers, and where stations can have a take-what-you-get or an otherwise all-are-welcome philosophy, the position Stentz articulates may not be terribly uncommon. However, while you don’t have to monitor volunteer reporters constantly, the public’s expectation of fairness is important. As well, diversity and inclusion have gained social capital in a way that pushes stations to be more sensitive to and aware of the nation’s currents.