New NPR Ethics Handbook Gets It Right
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.
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.
I’m happy to say there is meat on the bones of the new NPR Ethics Handbook. It points to useful tips and tools for accuracy and verification, offers two mini case studies of previous NPR reporting, and delivers clear guidance on how NPR journalists should report errors and help correct them.
Much of what’s in the document is universal, making the Ethics Handbook a useful resource for any journalist.
What impresses me most about NPR’s policy is that it doesn’t treat the Internet as a land of savages to be colonized and civilized. Instead it explains the New World of social media so staff may join it fruitfully and safely. I’ve not seen a passage like this before in a news organization’s social media policy:
To get the most out of social media we need to understand those communities. So we respect their cultures and treat those we encounter online with the same courtesy and understanding as anyone we deal with in the offline world. We do not impose ourselves on such sites. We are guests and behave as such.
Do we agree?