PBS Editorial Standards and Practices
The PBS Editorial Standards and Practices are the cornerstone of PBS’s commitment to serving the public interest and preserving the public’s trust.
The following core principles—which are of equal importance—ensure the quality and integrity of all content distributed by PBS. These principles govern the work of producers and PBS staff, who must apply them in good faith and using their best judgment.
Editorial independence is essential to serving the public interest and preserving the public’s trust. Content distributed by PBS must be free of undue influence from third-party funders, political interests, and other outside forces. PBS must remain unwavering in its commitment to distributing content that exemplifies ethical and journalistic integrity rather than advancing commercial interests. This obligation is achieved through the good-faith professional judgment of producers and PBS staff and by carefully listening to the public. Editorial independence gives producers the intellectual freedom to achieve the other principles below.
Accuracy means honesty, fidelity to facts, and humility on the part of producers and PBS staff to question their own assumptions about the subjects they are handling. Accuracy includes more than simply verifying whether information is correct; facts must be placed in sufficient context based on the nature of the piece to ensure that the public is not misled. For example, facts can lack necessary context if they are presented in a way that omits important details, quotes someone without correctly reflecting what the person was asked, or distorts what occurred. Producers must also be mindful of the language used to frame the facts to avoid deceiving or misleading the audience or encouraging false inferences. A commitment to accuracy also requires gathering, updating, and promptly correcting information as a story develops. Producers must exercise the highest level of care in verifying information, especially when it relates to any accusations of wrongdoing.
Producers must consider all relevant facts and perspectives on a particular subject and present information in a respectful and responsible manner—without favoritism or discrimination. Fairness does not require that equal time be given to conflicting opinions or viewpoints. Fairness does, however, require producers to be open-minded when evaluating the merits and assessing the credibility of all opinions or viewpoints while also managing their own personal opinions and biases. One purpose of fairness is for audiences to appreciate and learn from content, even if they disagree with its conclusions. Fairness also requires that producers carefully represent the words and actions of individuals they interview or otherwise cover. Producers must never manipulate the views of those they cover in an effort to cast them in stereotypical roles or to support predetermined perspectives. Instead, producers must be mindful of the culture, history, and social customs of those they cover when presenting their views. Producers must give those they cover the opportunity to present their strongest case, while always providing appropriate context to the audience, and producers must give those who are the subject of attack or criticism a reasonable opportunity to respond.
Transparency is the principle that content should be produced in a way that allows the audience to evaluate the credibility of the work and determine for themselves whether it is trustworthy. Producers must be open with the audience—to the extent practical—about how the work was done. Being transparent is the proof, in effect, that the editorial principles outlined in these standards are living principles that inform a professional and ethical editorial process—not simply words on a page. While specific methods may vary by circumstance and platform, transparency means respecting that the audience is entitled to understand significant underlying editorial decisions. If producers arrive at a certain conclusion or a point of view, the audience should be able to evaluate how that conclusion or view was reached. Producers who face difficult editorial decisions should consider explaining why certain choices were made; if relevant questions cannot be answered, producers should endeavor to explain why. Sources must be clearly identified, and, in those rare instances when confidential sources need to be used, producers must explain the decision to allow anonymity. Transparency also means using labels or other disclosures when presenting information that might be unclear or confusing to the audience. Finally, transparency requires that producers disclose to the audience all sources of funding for the production and distribution of content.
PBS strives to contribute to informed debate by presenting, over time, content that addresses a broad range of ideas, information, and perspectives. Inclusiveness means that content should reflect views from different backgrounds, such as geographic areas, ethnicities, genders, age groups, religious beliefs, political viewpoints, and income levels. Where appropriate, PBS may condition acceptance of content on the producer’s willingness to further the goal of inclusivity by including viewpoints from which the public might draw a range of different conclusions. For instance, PBS may request that supplemental material be added, such as a new segment, an additional episode in a series of programs, or links to credible, high-quality, related resources that provide access to additional information with diverse viewpoints.
Producers and PBS staff must remain accountable and responsive to the audience, PBS’s public editor, and PBS member stations. Accountability requires producers to stand by their work and to be prepared and willing to respond to relevant inquiries about it, including through active and thoughtful digital engagement with the audience. Accountability also means that producers must adhere to the highest professional standards of conduct and diligently pursue and report the truth. Conflicts of interest must be avoided, and any real or perceived conflicts that could have the appearance of influencing content must be disclosed to PBS. Producers must correct errors, in close consultation with PBS, as soon as they determine that errors occurred. Producers must also work closely with PBS to respond in a timely manner, and to the best of their abilities, to questions or criticisms from the public about significant editorial decisions or ethical issues related to content.
Updated: August 2018