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PBS Standards

Stations Licensed to Universities Should Insist on Editorial Independence
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Stations licensed to universities and colleges have a unique challenge. While these stations are usually located on campus and receive some financial support from the university, there likely will be times when they need to report on their licensees.

This relationship makes it critically important for these stations to have editorial independence from their university licensees—and to have that independence memorialized in a written policy before any issues or concerns arise.

“Not to say that the station never has anything on the air about the university. But that’s our decision. That’s not the university’s decision,” explained Tom Rieland, general manager of PBS member station WOSU Public Media. The Ohio State University holds WOSU’s license.

For example, WOSU broadcasts every commencement ceremony at The Ohio State University because they see it as a public service not because the university requires it.

But the station’s audience is not only the university. WOSU also must think about the larger community that they serve.

“It’s not about rah-rah Ohio State,” Rieland said. “It’s about how I serve Columbus, Ohio, and the 2.2 million citizens that live there. And that comes through the programming. That’s all you can do is build trust through what you provide.”

Universities first started obtaining licenses for public radio stations in the 1920s as a way to extend the university into the community. The stations gave universities the ability to provide citizens with a broader education, Rieland explained.

There are currently 49 university and college public television licensees.

While Rieland was conducting research for a book he wrote, “Sparks Flew,” about the history of WOSU and the university’s early involvement, he came across clips from 1987. An assistant to the president of the university tried to force the general manager of the station to air a program at a certain time. Interference by the president’s office with the operations of the licensed public television station developed into a significant controversy.

It damaged the trust WOSU had built up, but it damaged the university president’s office even more, Rieland said.

Nothing like that has happened since at WOSU. And Rieland feels fortunate that five years ago Ohio State signed off on WOSU’s Code of Editorial Integrity, which includes a key section about undue influence by the university.

WOSU's code states in part that the university “must enable professional management to operate in a way that will give the public full confidence in the editorial integrity of our programming, meaning the responsible application by professional practitioners of a free and independent decision-making process which is ultimately accountable to the public.”

As Rieland explains, “The public, the community has to have trust in us. If they don’t, you’re lost. So those standards are really important.”

Rieland hopes that WOSU can serve as a good example of what can be achieved if a university licensee is willing to agree to strong editorial standards, because television and radio stations owned by universities are still struggling with these issues.

In 2018, NPR member station WAMU adopted a statement of independence relating to its licensee, American University, which reads in part: “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.”

A recent example of a university interfering with a station’s editorial independence unfolded in Illinois. NPR Illinois, whose license is held by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, reported on how the university handles accusations of sexual misconduct against faculty. The station offered confidentiality to those who contacted the newsroom to share their stories. But the university argued that the station’s journalists, as university employees, were required to notify the school of any allegations of misconduct (thereby revealing their sources).

In an open letter to the university president, the NPR Illinois staff wrote, “Asking journalists to reveal sources or prohibiting them from receiving confidential information is antithetical to freedom of the press and editorial independence.” They argued that the university’s policy “impedes our ability to report on misconduct at our license holder.”

This experience shows why it’s essential to develop and firmly adopt an editorial independence policy, so that the rules for how the university and the station interact are promulgated and well understood in advance of any issues.

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In this clip, Rieland discusses the importance of timing, noting that when WOSU created its Code of Editorial Integrity, the university's then-senior vice president of communications was supportive.

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