NPR Ethics Handbook Targets False Balance: Reporters Must Note ‘If The Balance of Evidence … Weighs Heavily On One Side’

NPR now commits itself to avoiding the worst excesses of “he said, she said” journalism.

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! (Update: The new policy is already having an effect.)

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 purposeCredibility.

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.

— Jay Rosen is a writer, media critic and professor of journalism at New York University. This piece was originally published at his blog, PressThink, and was re-printed with permission.Joe Romm Addendum: “False balance” is a problem I write about at length here. I asked Rosen to explain the significance of the new document with respect to false balance. He replied:

No one thinks false balance is going to disappear. “He said, she said” will continue to be heard at NPR. The significance of the new document is that its legitimacy has been withdrawn. Those who were impatient with it will be emboldened. Those who were insistent upon it will be weakened. Over time, that can make a difference.

I hope other media outlets adopt similarly explicit guidelines: