NPR’s new journalistic standards and being fair to the truth

NPR recently updated its journalistic standards. This includes new wording on NPR’s mission and core principles. You can read every word here, though most of it is pretty basic stuff.

Except this:

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 this:

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.

The two passages above are pulled from NPR’s new standards by Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at NYU. And here’s a snippet of his take on them:

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.

Rosen goes on in his piece (which is a good, quick read) to ask why this change is happening now. And he gets answers, too, from NPR editorial product manager, Matt Thompson.

Go ahead, read it. And let us know what you think.

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7 Responses to “NPR’s new journalistic standards and being fair to the truth”

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  1. Bob Falesch says:

    How invigorating!

    “If our sources try to mislead us or put a false spin on the information they give us, we tell our audience.”

    This strikes me as risky for NPR, but clearly, knowingly so on their behalves.

    “If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports.”

    On first read, I was thinking: “So, what’s new here? NPR has been this kind of organization all along.” But on reflection and another read, I conclude it is incredibly bold and even provocative to state this as policy.

    “…NPR commits itself…to avoid the worst excesses of “he said, she said” journalism…a report characterized by false balance is a false report”

    One interpretation of this is that NPR is claiming good reporting can rarely feature traditional balance or neutrality because the world is not really like that. Secondly, NPR could be said to imply that good reporting always requires analysis (and even opinion — would that follow?).

    I have not yet read the full Prof.Rosen piece, but when I have a clearer head, I’ll follow Jonathan’s link.

    Wow. This is invigorating.

  2. Walker says:

    If they really do this, I predict a new round of NPR budget-bashing in Congress.

  3. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Whoh! Truth, awesome concept.

  4. Terence says:

    Very encouraging. Neutrality is a pretence. Media-savvy spokesmen have been manipulating those ‘he-said/she-said’ journalists for years in order to get airtime and inflate the credibility of untenable positions, as if every viewpoint — no matter how outlandish or patently false — must be given full and equal consideration.

    Much better to make your stance clear — after a vigorous attempt to follow the other side’s reasoning. It’s almost never the facts that are in question, anyway: rather, it’s our differing interpretations of those facts.

    Unfortunately, I have to agree with Walker: NPR is in for some tough scrutiny in Congress.

  5. Bob Falesch says:

    I just read the Rosen piece. The professor rounded off the edges a bit by his genteel style. The crux of his summation is that the old 2003 code was defensive in its effort to ensure credibility of NPR and that the new Handbook character is more affirmative. Okay, fair enough.

    Matt Thompson (the NPR guy who wrote the new handbook) somewhat agreed with the professor regarding being more affirmative — it’s a handbook, after all, he explained. But he also came back with the real nut of it: He claims the goal is also to be provocative.

    …to provoke thought. How invigorating!

  6. OnewifeVetNewt says:

    I think this is possible (if true, and I suspect it is) exactly because NPR itself, (if not affiliates like NCPR), has a base not from government, but from both institutional and individual members who place a high value on the truth. NPR, we are told, gets little money from government, and is therefore not beholden to it. Nor is dependent upon corporate sponsorship for the bulk of it’s support, unlike commercial news media. Rather, it is dependent on us, and knows we will support NPR if it takes strong stands in support of the truth.
    Or so I chose to believe.

  7. Anita says:

    This is good stuff! The devil will be in the details as NPR puts the new standards into practice, but I am very happy to see an clearly written policy that puts fact above balance.