NPR has released a new ethics handbook entitled “This is NPR. And these are the standards of our journalism” that’s getting a tremendous amount of attention in media circles, and for good reason. Here’s a key paragraph:
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. We strive to give our audience confidence that all sides have been considered and represented fairly.
As we discussed in an earlier post regarding The New York Times editorial that asked “Should the Times be a truth Vigilante” (answer: yes!) — there is an insidious slide in journalism toward what’s known as “He said, she said” reporting. Jay Rosen at PressThink describes it this way:
* There’s a public dispute.
* The dispute makes news.
* No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)
* The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.
* The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.
The result, of course, is a reader who’s left to guess where the truth lies. In short, an uninformed reader. And we think this is lazy journalism. The new NPR handbook strives to get the balance right, and in the process coins a new phrase: be fair to the truth. In fact, they are now very explicit about this at the very start of the handbook:
The mission of NPR, in partnership with its member stations, is to create a more informed public, one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas, and culture within the United States and across the globe. To this end, NPR reports, produces, acquires and distributes news, information and other content that meet the highest standards of public service in journalism and cultural expression.