NPR Rethinks Its Reporting

Will "he said/she said" go away for good?

Last week, NPR released a new ethics document that the blogosphere announced would end the “he said/she said” reporting the country’s premier radio network has been known to use in its reports. Goodness, even Jay Rosen was ecstatic. “Bravo NPR,” said Rosen on his PressThink blog, noting that the new ethics handbook “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.”

Over the past year, I, too, have observed some pretty lopsided reporting by NPR, especially about Social Security and Medicare. Last May, for instance, NPR built a story about Medicare’s money troubles around an interview with a single source—Eugene Steuerle, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. The reporter “offered no background or context,” I wrote, “allowing the show to convey that Steuerle had all the answers.” In an All Things Considered piece on Social Security, NPR stacked the story with comments from five Republicans who generally gave the impression Social Security’s days were numbered. It featured two Dems and one independent to rebut the GOP’s premise. “I suppose that’s one way to measure bias,” I noted. “Another way is to think about what NPR left out.”

So after critiquing stories like these, I was delighted to see the new ethics statement, which NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos told me “is not a change of policy,” but a “clarification,” an “evolution.” “The brilliance of the it (the document) is that its not prescriptive. It’s principles instead of rules,” said Schumacher-Matos. He said sometimes reporters “were hiding behind the rules,” and “so long as you didn’t violate the rules it was okay. You got it down, right. It was accurate but not fair. He said/she said is a perfect example.”

The new document lists a number of principles all journos supposedly embrace, including accuracy, fairness, honesty, independence, impartiality, respect, and excellence. It then discusses how NPR reporters should think about them. Under fairness, for example, the document says:

In all our stories, especially matter 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.
Finding the truth can be tough, especially in our polarized, political milieu. But at least NPR is starting to think about that, and perhaps realizing it may have occasionally shortchanged listeners in the truth department. Schumacher-Matos says “the whole idea is to make you question yourself and to make editors aware of these questions.”

I was particularly interested in the section on accountability, which describes how NPR reporters should behave: “We take full responsibility for our work so we must always be ready and willing to answer for it. So we welcome questions or criticisms from our stakeholders and to the best of our ability we respond.”

It’s great to know NPR reporters will now talk about their work. In December, when I tried to chat with one reporter about the sources she used for a man-on-the street interview, she did not answer my e-mails. I was responding to commenters on our site who raised a legitimate question about whether she had pre-selected the people she found on the street. With ethics principles down in black and white, maybe it won’t be so hard getting NPR reporters to explain what they did.

The finest NPR story I ever heard aired during the run-up to health reform. The network looked at the challenges five Americans had in getting health care for various illnesses, and then examined how people with the same conditions got their care in five European countries. NPR sent reporters abroad and their conclusion: people in countries with national health systems generally fared better. The narrative and the storytelling were superb, and left the listener wondering why we could not do the same here. There was he said/she said balance of a sort in those pieces—the Americans versus their counterparts in other countries. Yet the series was an example of how NPR told “the truest story possible,” one of the tenets of its new ethics code. Let’s hope the new handbook guides them back to this kind of reporting.

“NPR is one of the first to publish a handbook and guide,” said Schumacher-Matos. Here’s my question: Will PBS be next to embrace the principles inside the guide?

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , , ,