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NPR Tries to Get its Pressthink Right

Feb.
26
It now commits itself to avoiding the worst excesses of “he said, she said” journalism. It says to itself that a report characterized by false balance is a false report. It introduces a new and potentially powerful concept of fairness: being “fair to the truth.” My verdict: Bravo, NPR.

Within the world of pressthink there are occasional “events,” things that happen and by happening bring to light shifts in thought. It happened last week when NPR released a new document, an ethics handbook headlined: This is NPR. And these are the standards of our journalism.

Much of what’s in the handbook is Journalism 101. Much of it resembles an earlier document, The NPR Code of Ethics and Practices, which I reviewed in the writing of this post. (The new handbook replaces that earlier code.) But there are some crucial differences, and some of them speak directly to earlier posts at PressThink about the troubles at NPR.

In my view the most important changes are these passages:

In all our stories, especially matters of controversy, we strive to consider the strongest arguments we can find on all sides, seeking to deliver both nuance and clarity. 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.

and….

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.

With these words, NPR commits itself as an organization to avoid the worst excesses of “he said, she said” journalism. It says to itself that a report characterized by false balance is a false report. It introduces a new and potentially powerful concept of fairness: being “fair to the truth,” which as we know is not always evenly distributed among the sides in a public dispute.

Maintaining the “appearance of balance” isn’t good enough, NPR says. “If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side…” we have to say so. When we are spun, we don’t just report it. “We tell our audience…” This is spin!

There was nothing like that in the old Code of Ethics and Practices, which dates from 2003. So why the change? I asked Matt Thompson, Editorial Product Manager at NPR. He co-wrote the handbook with Mark Memmott of NPR. Here’s our exchange:

Matt Thompson: In this Handbook, we aimed to be as clear as possible in defining and elucidating terms that are open to varying interpretations. The change from the previous Code of Ethics to the guidance you see here is less a wholesale change than an evolution of our thinking and an addition of context. The definition of fairness given in the code was “that we present all important views on a subject.” The development of the Handbook allowed us to expand on what that really means.

In the brief section on fairness in the previous code, the focus was on how we treat those we cover. That focus hasn’t really changed. Most of the guidance in the section on fairness dwells on how to do right by them – representing their words faithfully, giving them time to respond to criticism, following through on promises of anonymity, etc. It’s vital to treat these stakeholders fairly because it’s difficult to do thorough, accurate reporting when one side of an issue doesn’t trust you enough to cooperate with your reporting.

But it’s important to remember that the public is our primary stakeholder, and we wanted to emphasize that. 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. We’re striving to give the public the strongest perspectives on the various sides of a debate. We expand on that in the section on completeness:

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.

In a section that’s mostly about how we treat those we report on, we felt it was necessary to underscore the primary importance of those we report for.

PressThink: I noticed that the term “unbiased” doesn’t play the same role in the new document as it did in the old. Why is this?

Matt Thompson: The word “unbiased” appears twice in the old code. By my count, it appears twice in the Handbook as well, but a related term – “impartial” – appears more often in the Handbook.

In part, syntax made “impartial” a stronger word choice for us. There is no noun form of the adjective “unbiased,” so the word itself doesn’t work in the list of ten principles that guide NPR’s journalism (e.g. accuracy, fairness, honesty, impartiality, etc.).

On a personal note, the word geek in me also likes that “impartial” comes from the same root as “party.” It suggests not favoring any side in a dispute. We talk about impartial officials and impartial judges, folks who act without favoring particular people. That’s more solid than “unbiased,” which suggests, more open-endedly, having no prejudices. The majority of guidance in the Handbook concerns how we treat and relate to people. We like that the word “impartial” is solidly grounded in the notion of how we treat and relate to people as well.

More philosophically, the Handbook format allowed us to deepen the treatment of an idea, and to easily revisit topics. It allows us to acknowledge that yes, journalists – like all people – have opinions. But a strength of our journalism is that we strive to aggressively challenge those opinions and capture reality in a way that one can embrace no matter what perspective he or she comes from.

PressThink: My reading of the old code, as compared to the new handbook, is that the document that dates from 2003 is kind of defensive: it’s about preserving something it calls “credibility.” It then details all the ways credibility can be lost, and warns against them. The new document, it seems to me, tries to be more affirmative. Rather than assuming credibility and defending against its loss, the 2012 handbook is really about the production of trust and what it takes to be trust-worthy, the NPR way. That’s not a huge shift, but it is a difference. What accounts for that?

Matt Thompson: What you’re seeing there is a consequence of the shift from a “Code” – a compendium of rules – to a “Handbook” – a how-to guide. We did certainly make a conscious effort to make the document an affirmative presentation of how journalists can approach their work rather than a list of thou-shalt-nots. In several places, we emphasize that the goal is to provoke thought, not to preempt it. We’d rather a journalist approach a decision by thinking about stakeholders, choices and values than by outsourcing the decision-making process to a rulebook. Bob Steele, who was a terrific guide in this process, often says that rules are brittle. They tend to break down in complex situations. So in most places where we have laid out rules in this Handbook, we’ve tried our best to connect them to an explanation of our thinking.

* * *

Thanks, Matt! I think the key words here are: “We felt it was necessary to underscore the primary importance of those we report for.” Journalists aren’t primary. Sources aren’t primary. Not even the story is primary. The users are. That may seem obvious. But it wasn’t obvious in the old code. And it hasn’t been obvious in the bitter culture war controversies that have rocked NPR, like the Juan Williams firing in 2010 and the resignation of Vivian Schiller in 2011. (See PressThink on those events here and here. Also lurking in the background: Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?)

This is the way the old code began:

I. Statement of purpose

Credibility.

NPR is primarily a news organization. We are always testing and questioning the credibility of others. We have to stand that test ourselves, whether we are functioning as reporters, hosts, newscasters, writers, editors, directors, photographers or producers of news, music or other content. Our news content must meet the highest standards of credibility.

The purpose of this code is to protect the credibility of NPR’s programming by ensuring high standards of honesty, integrity, impartiality and staff conduct…

Notice the strange jump cut from “statement of purpose” to “credibility.” The purpose of NPR can’t be to maintain its credibility. That doesn’t make sense. It’s a confused, thin, and I would say insular way of introducing what NPR is about.

Now here’s the way the new handbook starts:

Our Mission.

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.

There is an attempt to get the pressthink right. The “big idea” behind NPR, the reason we should care, is not protecting professional reputation, or newsroom credibility. Way too thin! The creation of an informed public that is capable of dealing with its many challenges: that’s what NPR is about. Bravo.

Final comment. There’s a common misconception about codes of ethics. They don’t dictate practice; they distill an existing culture. The NPR handbook is clear about this.

We didn’t have a written, public ethics policy until 2003. But well before that, our journalists were poring over technical documents to make sure they had described an obscure detail correctly, or were politely hounding the subjects of critical stories because true fairness means not being satisfied with “no comment.”

A policy or handbook – no matter how great – is not what creates a culture this strong. If anything, it’s quite the reverse.

Amen. Now I know what some of you are thinking. What good are these fancy declarations, if “he said, she said” remains in common practice at NPR? It wouldn’t surprise me if that happens. But if it happens, we have stronger grounds on which to criticize NPR. The people inside who want to change things have a stronger hand. What is legitimate, and what is not, has shifted ground. That counts.

36 Comments

  1. Terry Heaton says:

    The greatest test of any leader is to turn around and see if anybody’s following. Congratulations, Jay. We need and appreciate your leadership.

    • mellow_cake says:

      The “Truth” is completely subjective. There is no such thing as an objective “Truth”. So, I guess NPR decided to no longer be objective in its reporting. At least they’re honest about it.

      • Mike says:

        Thank you, Obi-wan.

      • David says:

        Did you read the article? There is very much objective truth in what they are going to be reporting on.

        If two politicians make opposite claims, instead of just saying “he said this, and he said that” – they will instead look into the issue and see which one is right and which one is wrong. This is especially easy on claims regarding documented statistics.

      • Mike says:

        I don’t think “truth” means what you think it means…

      • Frank says:

        If the republicans started saying the world is flat, the New York Times headline would read, “Congressional Views Differ on Shape of Earth.”

        Sometimes newsmakers intentionally attempt to deceive the public. They take advantage of the “unbiased” media to present their press releases as journalism. Sometimes the truth isn’t as complicated as you might think.

      • Torg says:

        Of course there is. Just because no one can agree on what it is in a given situation doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and I fail to see why throwing up your hands and saying “well, I guess we’ll never find out” is a better procedure.

      • Beth says:

        I guess NPR now has the unfavorable duty to start telling the truth about feminism: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5OdQGbVNa4

    • CraigNewmark says:

      Jeff, I second Terry’s comment, this is really impressive, both NPR’s stand and your analysis.

  2. Cheryl says:

    Is this a consequence of the new leadership at NPR? And, maybe, that the new leader (name escapes me) wasn’t around during the Bush years to get intimidated?

    • Jay Rosen says:

      The drive to overhaul the code began under Vivian Schiller, well before the arrival of Gary Knell as new president and CEO. I think the new thinking is probably more a product of NPR’s culture, which, when you take away the board and the politics of funding, has a lot of solid journalistic talent and backbone. That’s my sense from the outside. But I don’t know what role Knell played.

  3. Keith says:

    We can try to encourage NPR to take this new handbook seriously. Would an immediate surge of donations work? Perhaps it’d be worth organizing such a movement in the next week or so. I’d hate to see these ideas ignored like the code at the NYT so often is.

  4. Joe Charlier says:

    Great, now NPR is going to only report the “truth”. Thank god the world has NPR to tell us what that is!

    Oh and congrats to the folks congratulating NPR on their new overt policy of propaganda.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      From the code:

      “Our experiences and perspectives are valuable assets to our journalism. We enjoy the right to robust personal lives, yet we accept some unique professional obligations and limitations. Because our words and actions can damage the public’s opinion of NPR, we comport ourselves in ways that honor our professional impartiality. We have opinions, like all people. But the public deserves factual reporting and informed analysis without our opinions influencing what they hear or see. So we strive to report and produce stories that transcend our biases and treat all views fairly. We aggressively challenge our own perspectives and pursue a diverse range of others, aiming always to present the truth as completely as we can tell it.”

      • Joe Charlier says:

        From the Chinese Constitution:

        “Article 34. All citizens of the People’s Republic of China who have reached the age of 18 have the right to vote and stand for election, regardless of nationality, race, sex, occupation, family background, religious belief, education, property status, or length of residence, except persons deprived of political rights according to law.

        Article 35. Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.

        Article 36. Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.

        Article 37. The freedom of person of citizens of the People’s Republic of China is inviolable. No citizen may be arrested except with the approval or by decision of a people’s procuratorate or by decision of a people’s court, and arrests must be made by a public security organ. Unlawful deprivation or restriction of citizens’ freedom of person by detention or other means is prohibited; and unlawful search of the person of citizens is prohibited.

        Article 38. The personal dignity of citizens of the People’s Republic of China is inviolable. Insult, libel, false charge or frame-up directed against citizens by any means is prohibited.

        Article 39. The home of citizens of the People’s Republic of China is inviolable. Unlawful search of, or intrusion into, a citizen’s home is prohibited.

        Article 40. The freedom and privacy of correspondence of citizens of the People’s Republic of China are protected by law. No organization or individual may, on any ground, infringe upon the freedom and privacy of citizens’ correspondence except in cases where, to meet the needs of state security or of investigation into criminal offences, public security or procuratorial organs are permitted to censor correspondence in accordance with procedures prescribed by law.

        Article 41. Citizens of the People’s Republic of China have the right to criticize and make suggestions to any state organ or functionary. Citizens have the right to make to relevant state organs complaints and charges against, or exposures of, violation of the law or dereliction of duty by any state organ or functionary; but fabrication or distortion of facts with the intention of libel or frame-up is prohibited. In case of complaints, charges or exposures made by citizens, the state organ concerned must deal with them in a responsible manner after ascertaining the facts. No one may suppress such complaints, charges and exposures, or retaliate against the citizens making them. Citizens who have suffered losses through infringement of their civil rights by any state organ or functionary have the right to compensation in accordance with the law.”

        • Renny says:

          I’m assuming by quoting the Chinese constitution, you are implying that an organization can have a positive creed, but not follow it. I would think instead of declaring “propaganda!” and posting copy-pasta, you’d actually put forth an example.

          Unless, of course, your intent is not to discuss or argue, but to disparage and troll. In which case, your skills could do with some improvement.

      • Jay Rosen says:

        In other words: the parts of the code that Joe doesn’t like mean something and all should be alarmed by them.

        For example, words like being “fair to the truth.”

        Dangerous!

        But….

        The parts of the code Joe likes mean nothing; they’re as empty as China’s constitutional guarantees.

        For example: “We strive to report and produce stories that transcend our biases and treat all views fairly. ”

        Meaningless!

  5. Greg Lee says:

    A great start to this revised policy would be for the execs at NPR to send their current ombudsman packing — the one who decided the euphemism “enhanced interrogation” should still be used in NPR stories, rather than calling It what It is and has been for decades in international law: torture. One of NPR’s biggest sins was continuing to spew the Orwellian line of the previous administration in the war on terror.

    • Contrarian says:

      Exactly! What has forever stained NPR in my estimation is not that they made a mistake in their approach to reporting on torture, but their continued refusal to admit that mistake.

      NY Times too.

  6. Aaron Read says:

    Hi Jay – is there any way to compare and contrast NPR’s new Code to the Codes of other major journalistic enterprises? Such as CBS/NBC/ABC News, The New York Times, Fox News, the BBC World Service, etc.

  7. Jay Rosen says:

    Vice President and Editorial Page editor of the Dallas Morning News…

    Here, here! This gets away from the old three-paragraphs-of-pro content must be matched by three-paragraphs-of-con content. No more word counting to assure a falsely predicated “evenness” for my editors of old! This requires reporters and editors to use common sense, something, if you’ll forgive me, that seems like common sense.

    It’s dicey, yes, and calls for judgment calls at each step of the way. It will be controversial and done sloppily it will backfire and has the potential to hugely injure a news organization’s credibility.

    But this step forward makes great sense to me because – assuming, of course, that those judgment calls are carefully made by honest, thorough and well-trained people in the full light of day – it will result in providing readers with much more meaningful, more valuable information. Its benefits should be tangible and long lasting.

    And in the ultimate free market practice, if readers don’t trust the result, they can seek their news and information elsewhere.

    I couldn’t agree more with Rosen’s point that a report characterized by a false balance is, by definition, a false report. We as an industry need to get away from that. We need to assure that codes of conduct are written in ways that instill a culture of fairness to the truth.

    http://dallasmorningviewsblog.dallasnews.com/archives/2012/02/ethics-guidelin.html

    • “And in the ultimate free market practice, if readers don’t trust the result, they can seek their news and information elsewhere.”

      In other words, we admit that the internet or blogosphere or whatever term you want to use it the ultimate source of reconfirmation of user world views. Maybe real journalism can only take place where Lou Grant is the editor or in the Wire… both interesting fictions.

  8. Tom McCool says:

    Think there are enough listeners left to tell if there really is a change?
    Before donating, perhaps a taste of the new pudding is in order.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Huh? NPR is stronger than it’s ever been. Its board is weak, but that’s because it’s dominated by the local stations. NPR’s listenership has been growing. And it far more diverse that cultural warriors understand. It is massively popular online. It could easily survive the loss of Federal funding.

  9. Jay I wouldn’t say it would “easily” survive the loss of Federal funding. I mean you are on the outside and all…I don’t know how true that is. (I think it’s a giant question mark what would really happen. But “easy” it wouldn’t be.)

    Speaking of how federal funding is effecting things, I’ve heard PBS’s NewsHour has had some cutback in budgeting precisely because of LESS funding from Corporation for Public Broadcasting has less.

  10. Cameron says:

    I’ll believe it when I see a change in NPR’s performance. As Chomsky and Herman have so thoroughly documented, “journalists” internalize the lies their publishers require. The lies become habit. I doubt long-time NPR staff can change their ways: breaking free of the propaganda stream takes a clarity of thought that’s beyond most human beings’ abilities. Most people, ESPECIALLY journalists, choose the blue pill.

  11. roy says:

    NPR has a long history of coddling the government and other powerful interests (as bad as any of the other mainstream media just with more pretense of being “real journalists”)so I’ll believe this when I see it – kind of like NYTimes promise to try not to rely on anonymous sources (that lasted what? a day?)

  12. Tom Paulson says:

    Hi Jay,

    As a former newspaper hack hired by NPR to launch one of its local news blogs in Seattle, I’ve experienced the internal struggle here at NPR and at affiliate KPLU in trying to create a “voice” and do “engagement” as a blogging journalist — while also adhering to the previous ethical guidelines put forth by NPR.

    Still working on shifting from newspaper reporter to blogger, as a matter of fact.

    I think the new guidelines are better. But I wonder if they provide enough clarity for some of what I see as inherent tension points that arise from new media styles of reporting.

    It sounds reasonable enough to say everyone should seek to remain “impartial.” But this is more an aspirational target than anything an honest individual will ever claim to achieve. As I’ve said many times, only journalists believe journalists are unbiased. Our job is to do our best to be fair, which is what I think the new NPR guidelines are trying to achieve.

    But it’s much harder to always strike the right balance in a fast-moving medium like a blog. More importantly, we are told to have “voice,” to demonstrate “expertise” and “engage” with the community you report on in order to succeed as a blogger.

    I try to achieve a balanced perspective not so much in everything I post (which, frankly, would be impossible since I sometimes just re-post or ‘curate’ stories and opinion pieces from Fox News to The Guardian) as in what I post over time.

    I make mistakes and sometimes reveal my ignorance, but I think I do have voice and have become quite engaged with the community (global health, aid and development).

    Do I meet NPR’s new standards? I have no idea. But I’m sure I’ll find out.

    Thoughts?

  13. Gary D says:

    I will assume they remain corporate centrists, liberal-moderate on social issues and conservative-centrist on economic and foreign issues until I hear differently. If I notice an on-air change I’ll quit calling them Nice Polite Republicans.

  14. yowzah powzah! says:

    Now
    Pandering to
    Republicans but with a better mission statement!

    Agree..until they fire their ombudsman and apologize for enabling the crippling Bush Decade NPR is Fresh Air and music only for me. I used to enjoy the carbon waste that is Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. As the Bush years revealed their horrors I realized it was comedians making jokes about the decline of Empire that NPR has managed to avoid covering.

  15. Michael says:

    Perhaps now that the truth is your goal, you could consider interviewing Stefan Molyneux the host of Freedomain Radio- the world’s largest philosophical discussion.

    He has released multiple books ranging from treatises on truth and morality, to novels and comedies, and they are all free at his website: freedomainradio.com

    It’d be quite interesting to match your journalistic integrity to the rigors of reason and evidence.

  16. Edward says:

    From what I have seen NPR already works this way for the most part. Naturally this type of journalism will lead to people on the right calling NPR out for a liberal bias since anything that doesn’t toe their party line is considered biased in the other direction.

  17. Chris says:

    Fair to the truth. Treat all views fairly.

    The difficult case is always when there is an ‘accepted view’ that nevertheless has flaws and outcomes that can’t be explained away.

    Alternative views often stem from efforts to explain these flaws and as such are narrow and potentially erroneous outside of that area of correction.

    So the onus on a reporter to understand the distinction and nuance involved is substantially increased. This is a good thing if followed through.

    It’s why the best blogs work – they normally have someone at their core who understands the field that they are blogging about.

    In most ‘contentious’ fields, when I am am reading I first want to know that the writer understands the field. Only then am I interested in opinion or analysis. It can be simple mistakes that flag a report as lacking, and as indicated, primarily that is lacking fairness in the treatment of views. Just because a view is narrowly held, doesn’t mean it should be treated unfairly. A view doesn’t have to be treated unfairly to be disagreed with.

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