(Cross-posting this entry in both NCPR blogs because of the importance of the issue to our audiences, friends, supporters and all who interact with NCPR. –ER)
Recently, the NCPR news team, joined by web manager Dale Hobson, program director Jackie Sauter, and I met to grapple with an issue we talk about informally all the time. We met to begin the process of formalizing our policies on these questions:
What distinguishes straight fact-based reporting from news analysis and opinion pieces? Further, what’s the difference between analysis and opinion? Does it matter? And, if we codify guidelines for our news team, do those guidelines apply to other station employees, including the station manager?
Okay, this may sound like incredibly insider-wonky stuff. It’s not. Not by a long shot. It’s at the heart of our trust relationship with all of you and it is integral to our capacity to do top-shelf journalism.
If you’re not following, or just don’t see why you should care, think NPR and Juan Williams. That episode became a debacle because NPR’s policies regarding news vs. analysis vs. opinion were either not clearly stated or inadequately communicated and/or enforced. And, clearly, NPR failed to impress upon Juan that those distinctions had to apply in all of Juan’s work–whether in his work for NPR or at any other media or public appearance.
The problem is further complicated in the world of access to information on digital platforms. For our NCPR team, in the early days of maintaining a robust web presence, we tended to be more casual when we wrote for the web, sometimes abandoning the rigorous neutrality we have applied for decades to our broadcast news and information. You know–new medium, everyone is jumping in, let’s experiment, etc.
The digital world may be changing on a daily basis, but it is firmly established as a part of most of our lives–including as a source used by many people to get the news.
Standards are standards. News is news. Period. Regardless of platform.
Our basic guidebook is the NPR Code of Ethics (which itself is currently being revisited and refined by NPR staff for final Board approval). Now, we are working on an NCPR code of ethics and practices to make sure our standards are clear in all of the real life situations faced by our staff.
Until we share the final document with you, here are the key points that came out of our conversation:
1. We must clearly define the differences between news, news analysis, and opinion/commentary–so all on staff and the general public understand those differences.
2. NCPR news team members and other staff (yes, including the station manager) may not do public opinion or commentary pieces–on NCPR platforms, in other media, or at public events. That’s a fact of life for journalists and those who work at serious news organizations.
3. NCPR reporters with expertise on a particular issue or news beat may be asked to provide analysis, both on the air and on digital platforms. It is understood that this analysis is designed to advance public understanding of the topic rather than to promote a personal opinion.
I’d love to end this entry right here, but it would be dishonest to do so without admitting to having personally crossed the line into opinion pieces on several occasions–on the air and online. Specifically: regarding the issue of gay marriage (most recently, here) and on the air I know I did a piece about the US invasion of Iraq at the onset of that war.
So this leads to the further philosophical question: if one believes something is inherently a black and white issue (no pun intended, but the example we used in our conversation today was the violent mistreatment of black Americans in the South during the civil rights movement of the ’50s and’60s) is there a place for putting the news organization on one side of the fence (in the example given, this would mean openly opposing the Jim Crow laws). Of course, the problem is: who gets to decide what those absolute good/bad issues are?
Well, I’m done with opinion pieces on anything controversial. I may tell you that I prefer yellow corn to butter and sugar corn, but you won’t hear my opinion on whether or not we should grow corn for fuel. But, I may ask you your opinion. That’s a good job for us–convening the community conversation about…anything.
Again, once we’ve completed our ethics code, we’ll share it with you. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your opinions on all of this.
Here are some links to other discussions of this issue which you may find interesting:
Slate, from about 5 years ago.
Baltimore Sun, from last fall after the Juan Williams firing.
Wikipedia, on objectivity in journalism.
Wikipedia, on ethics and standards in journalism.