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The Integrity and Ethics of Broadcast Engineers

Ethics
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The author of this commentary is general counsel of the Society of Broadcast Engineers.

I am moved to write about a matter now before the Media Bureau at the FCC. The subject is the ethical obligations of broadcast engineers.

Having served as SBE general counsel for 40 years now, I can count on one hand the number of times that the SBE board of directors has found it necessary to revoke an engineer’s SBE membership, and still have some fingers left over.

This, I think, speaks highly of the overall integrity and dedication to ethical principles of the SBE’s membership, and of broadcast engineers overall.

In that same amount of time, I can honestly say that I have never had occasion to question the ethical integrity of any of the engineers that work at the commission.

Sure, we have disagreed, often actively, on policy matters, but on technical matters, I can always count on the accuracy and truth of technical findings by FCC staff. This speaks very well of the high level of integrity of the commission’s engineers.

The only times during my tenure that an SBE member has had that membership revoked were those few cases when an engineer was found as a matter of fact to have violated the SBE Canons of Ethics.

The SBE puts a lot of stock in the Canons of Ethics, and rightly so. The SBE’s Bylaws, at Section 3(a), say that “(a)ny Member may be suspended for a period or expelled for cause, such as violation of any of the By-Laws or Canons of Ethics of the Society or for conduct prejudicial to the best interests of the Society.”

The Canons of Ethics have not been revised or amended in a very long time, largely because they don’t need to be; they state principles of conduct for engineers that simply don’t change.

The preamble to the SBE Canons of Ethics reads as follows: “Honesty, justice and courtesy form a moral philosophy when associated with mutual interest between human beings. This constitutes the foundation of ethics. Broadcast engineers should recognize such a standard of behavior not in passive observance, but as dynamic principles guiding their conduct and way of life. It is the duty of all broadcast engineers to practice their profession according to this Canon of Ethics.

“The keystone of professional conduct is integrity. Broadcast engineers will discharge their duties with fidelity to the public and to their employers, and with impartiality to all. Broadcast engineers must uphold the dignity of their profession and avoid association with any enterprise of questionable character. Broadcast engineers will strive to be fair, tolerant, and open minded.”

To me, the key element of this is the obligation of impartiality. It is what gives broadcast engineers the reputation for the highest levels of integrity.

Indeed, Section 5 of the SBE Canons of Ethics states: “The Broadcast Engineer will express an opinion when it is founded on adequate knowledge and honest conviction while he or she is serving as a witness before a court, commission or other tribunal.”

ETHICAL COMPANY

The SBE is not alone in its strong dedication to the highest level of integrity of its engineer members.

Article V, Section 3 of the Bylaws of the Association of Federal Communications Consulting Engineers (AFCCE) establishes as a standing committee the “Professional Ethics and Grievances Committee” whose job it is to “consider and report on all efforts to improve the professional conduct and ethics of engineering practitioners in the communication field, make such investigations of professional conduct and of abuses in connection with engineering practice by members and furnish information and make recommendations on the foregoing subjects to the Board of Directors and the Association.”

Ethics is obviously a principal focus of AFCCE, which is laudable.

So when the integrity and impartiality of a consulting engineer is drawn into question by the FCC, we tend to sit up and take notice.

In a proceeding now ongoing in the Media Bureau, a low-power FM station has been accused by a second adjacent full-power FM station of causing interference to listeners of the full-power FM at various points near the transmitter site of the LPFM. In such cases, the accused LPFM is entitled to show that the alleged interference either does not exist or that the LPFM station is not the cause of the interference.

The licensee of the LPFM therefore retained a well-respected consulting engineer (and SBE-certified CPBE) who is located in a different state from the LPFM, to investigate the interference. The engineer did so using accepted methodologies, at all sites where the interference was claimed to have been experienced, and the engineer submitted a written report to the Audio Division, Media Bureau, concluding that no interference was found at the locations where the listeners of the full power FM station reported interference, or even at the transmitter site of the LPFM, where second-adjacent interference potential would be the worst. There was no rebuttal of the engineer’s showing by the full-power FM station.

There are a lot of other facts involved in the case, but the Audio Division’s response to the interference study submitted by the LPFM as a part of its response was this: “We also decline to consider [the consulting engineer’s] interference test results because [the consulting engineer] was retained by [the LPFM] and thus is not an independent party.”

It is difficult to understand why the Audio Division concluded, as it did, that all consulting engineers are biased in favor of their client to the point that their work is summarily deemed unreliable.

If a licensee is precluded from engaging an independent consulting engineer to conduct a technical analysis and to fairly present the engineer’s technical conclusions, simply because the licensee is paying for the engineering work, how, precisely, is the licensee supposed to address the technical issue presented?

This case is now on administrative appeal. It is hoped that the commission doesn’t really have this low an impression of the ethics, impartiality and integrity of broadcast engineers.

This article originally appeared in SBE’s newsletter “The Signal.” Learn about SBE membership at sbe.org.