27 February 2012 Comments Off

NPR’s new ethics guidelines set a gold standard

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.)








24 February 2012 Comments Off

Do scoops still matter?

A study commissioned by Craig Newmark  recently found that only six percent of respondents believed that being first to report a story was the most important factor in choosing a source for election news.

The national survey of likely voters by Lincoln Park Strategies found that an overwhelming plurality–49 percent–said that being “trustworthy” was most important and an additional 23 percent cited “in-depth analysis” as the most important factor.

The audience may be ahead of the media on this. The news cycle that once drove our judgments has basically disappeared, yet news organizations continue to be locked into a speed arms race.  Speed is in the stock: Audiences are no longer wedded to specific news sources, like print newspapers or websites, but are plugged into an information matrix as both consumers and publishers. Being first to say something important has happened matters much less than being first to explain what it means.

Among other findings:

  • Newspapers (22 percent), network TV (21 percent) and cable TV (21 percent) are trusted about equally.
  • About twice as many respondents (34 percent) said social media has had a negative impact on news reporting rather than a positive impact (17 percent). However, 28 percent said there had been no impact and 17 percent didn’t know.

My reading list:

  • Alex Johnson, a fine writer and editor with whom I worked at MSNBC.com, takes a look at the outrage over an ESPN headline about Jeremy Lin that contained a racial slur and sees a media world in which young journalists have every right to be petrified of the consequences of a mistake. In the days when Alex and I were breaking into journalism on smallish daily newspapers, if you made a mistake, maybe 50,000 readers would see it. Now, as Alex points out, anyone with an Internet connection can see it and employers are unforgiving.
  • Just in time for Sunday’s Academy Awards show, Slate’s  Elbert Ventura argues that Alexander Payne’s multi-Oscar nominated “The Descendants” is more than the sum of its considerable surface pleasures. “Don’t let the soothing uke and sun-dappled sadness fool you—The Descendants is no less interested in the cosmic than that exegete’s delight The Tree of Life,”  he writes. Payne is a favorite of mine; in “The Descendants,” “Election,” “About Schmidt” and “Sideways” he gives us a view of American life that’s not out of central casting.
  • Reuters’ Jack Shafer takes a clear-eyed and unhysterical look at the prospect of an investment group headed by Democratic pol Ed Rendell buying the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. Shafer reminds us that having politicians involved in media is not exactly a recent development in the U.S. and that established publishers and “philosopher kings” aren’t queuing up to bid on the Philadelphia papers. Besides, he notes, “politicos have been refashioning themselves as TV newsers for several decades in the contemporary era, replaying scenes from the yellow journalism period.” Like Shafer, I’m pained that it’s becoming so difficult for cities to support daily papers that can both make money and make great journalism. Would a paper controlled by a politician be worse than no paper at all?





22 February 2012 Comments Off

Is the golden age of journalism upon us?

Could we be entering a golden age of journalism?

That may sound like heresy  when, among other things, ESPN fires an editor for writing an offensive headline about NBA star Jeremy Lin;  Reuters makes five major corrections on one story about Republican Sen. Marco Rubio; London tabloid journalists and cops keep getting arrested and accused of bribery; and the U.S. newspaper industry keeps bleeding ad revenue.

It can be tempting, especially for news veterans of a certain age, to look with misty eyes to the past–a past where, it is said, standards mattered, brave reporters followed stories to the very depths of hell and Hollywood made some pretty good movies about newspaper publishers.

That’s not an entirely false picture of the past but it’s also a portrait of what’s beginning to happen today. [...]