Freedom of expression should not exclude journalists

Recently, producer Lisa Simeone was fired from her position on the staff of Soundprint, a journalistic program which broadcasts to about 35 different NPR stations.

The reason behind the firing? According to independent distributor Soundprint Media, Simeone violated Soundprint’s code of ethics — which was adopted from NPR’s own code of ethics.

Simeone held a leadership role in a group called October 2011, which aims to promote a political agenda similar to that of Occupy Wall Street. NPR’s ethics code explicitly prohibits journalists from participating in politics, running for office, or participating in marches and rallies that NPR covers.

Simeone wasn’t fired from World of Opera, another NPR-affiliated show that she hosts — according to NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos, Simeone “has no influence or role in NPR news” and is not an NPR employee. Yet she was fired from a documentary show that NPR airs because the president of Soundprint, Moira Rankin, believed Simeone’s political involvement would compromise her work.

Certainly we agree that it is a conflict of interest for a journalist to actively participate in, say, a protest that she is covering. But barring any participation by any employee in anything NPR covers is excessive. As long as journalists refrain from reporting on issues they are deeply involved in, expressing personal views and participating in issues should not be a problem.

While journalistic impartiality is an important part of any publication or news source, it’s also important to remember that journalists are human, too. We journalists are not wholly neutral beings; we each come with our own set of biases, perceptions, and views about the world around us. Deny such biases does not mean that they do not exist. While journalists should restrain these biases in their work, that does not mean that they should have to do the same in their private lives.

Journalists should of course strive to cover events in an unbiased manner. However, if they choose to participate in political events that do not affect or influence their work, they should not be penalized for it.

The host of a documentary or classical music broadcast should be able to lead or join an unrelated protest on her own time; if that violates a journalistic code of ethics, then that code is too unforgiving.