A new ethics handbook released by National Public Radio would seem to indicate the network is reacting in a positive way to persistent criticism of its “he said, she said” approach to the news. According to Jay Rosen of PressThink, the new handbook bluntly states that “a report characterized by false balance is a false report.” It calls for reportage that rejects false balance in favor of reportage that’s “fair to the truth.”
Rosen reprints two key passages from the new handbook:
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.
Fair to the truth — what a concept! New York Times columnist Paul Krugman argued for the same approach to the news back in July while criticizing the corporate news media:
News reports portray the [major political] parties as equally intransigent; pundits fantasize about some kind of ‘centrist’ uprising as if the problem was too much partisanship on both sides. Some of us have long complained about the cult of ‘balance,’ the insistence on portraying both parties as equally wrong and equally at fault on any issue, never mind the facts. I joked long ago that if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read “Views Differ on Shape of Planet.”
Is there a trend in progress? Will mainstream media outlets begin printing stories that are fair to the truth rather than constructed to present opposing sides of a story as equally true, regardless of what the facts indicate?
Probably not, but the NPR directive at least calls for reporters to strive for accuracy rather than report the “spin” that publicists and propagandists always prefer. Think how far the George W. Bush team would have gotten in pushing for a war in Iraq if the corporate news media had been fair to the truth. Imagine all the lives that might have been saved.
Footnote: From Jawbone, in Suburban Guerrilla: “I appreciate what the NPR guidelines say — but I will believe it when I see the principles in action and affecting actual reporting.”