National Public Radio’s new ethics handbook sets a great example for news organizations trying to find their way in our increasingly polarized culture.
It’s written with remarkable, jargon-free clarity and it’s organized in a logical, straightforward, user-friendly way. But most importantly, it takes on the question of what constitutes “fairness” and comes down squarely on the side of providing real truth for NPR’s audience and avoiding the false balance of what NYU’s Jay Rosen has termed “he said, she said” journalism.
A couple of key passages:
- “Our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth.”
- “At all times, we report for our readers and listeners, not our sources. So our primary consideration when presenting the news is that we are fair to the truth. If our sources try to mislead us or put a false spin on the information they give us, we tell our audience. If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports[Italics mine]. We strive to give our audience confidence that all sides have been considered and represented fairly.”
With this guidance, NPR is acknowledging that delivering truth to an audience is not the same thing as merely delivering two sides of a story. It’s important to use all available tools–not just stenography–in service of the truth. Here’s part of how the guidelines address dealing with sources:
- “…Our challenge is not to be dependent on what any particular source tells us, but to have enough mastery of our subject that we can accurately situate each source’s knowledge and perspective within a broader context. This means we strive to know enough about a subject that we can tell when a source is advocating a disputed position, advancing a vested interest or making a faulty claim.”
NPR’s editorial product manager, Matt Thompson, talks about this issue in an interview with Rosen, whom he tells: ”It’s critical that we earn and preserve the trust of our sources and subjects of coverage, but it’s always most vital to tell the public what we know to be true.”
Those nine words–”Tell the public what we know to be true”–provide the core of what should be the mission of any news organization that is devoted to serving the public and not merely the people and institutions it covers.
There are those who argue that NPR and other news organizations are incapable of telling the public what they know to be true because journalists are hopelessly “biased” in one direction or another and incapable of rising above those biases. Instead, journalists should, they argue, report what public figures and institutions say and do and let the audience figure out the truth. That’s asking too much of an audience that depends on journalists to be aware of and provide the larger context of a story. Merely reporting what the actors said doesn’t tell an audience much about the play.
Here’s what the NPR guidelines say about completeness in reporting:
- “When we say our reporting is complete, it means we understand the bigger picture of a story – which facts are most important and how they relate to one another. It’s unrealistic to expect that every story should represent every perspective on an issue. But in our reporting, we must do our best to be aware of all perspectives, the facts supporting or opposing each, and the different groups of stakeholders affected by the issue. Only then can we determine what’s best to include in the time and space we have.”
That’s asking a lot of journalists and there will be times when they fall short. Then it’s up to journalists and their employers to acknowledge their errors and shortcomings. But kudos to NPR for setting a strong standard–”seek the truth”– and being transparent about it.
(Full disclosure: While at Reuters in 2006, I worked briefly with Rosen on the terms of a gift Reuters made to his NewAssignment.net project.)