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Feb 29 / King Kaufman

NPR Ethics Handbook: A master class in doing it right

NPR logoNPR has released a new Ethics Handbook that’s getting quite a bit of buzz in Journalism Nerdworld.

The talk is over NPR’s move away from what press critic Jay Rosen calls “He said, she said journalism,” meaning news organizations trying to maintain “balance” or “objectivity” by simply presenting two sides of any disagreement or controversy as though each were equally valid, without trying to ascertain where the truth lies.

A key passage in the handbook reads:

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.

This business of attempts at balance and objectivity sometimes distorting the truth—the more outrageous the statements on one side of an issue, the closer to that outrageousness a news organization has to move to stay in the “middle”—is huge in the journalism game these days.

New York Times public editor Arthur S. Brisbane blew up the J-internet last month with his column asking “whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” More than 300 commenters as well as bloggers and commenters all over the web and social media wondered what exactly the Times was supposed to be doing if not trying to ascertain the truth, rather than just writing down what people say.

Fortunately, all of this is of little concern for Bleacher Report writers because B/R’s bread and butter is opinion. We’re not trying to maintain a wise, detached view from the middle ground of every controversy—Rosen has a name for that too: “the view from nowhere.” We’re on one side of the other, arguing.

That said, NPR’s new Ethics Handbook is like a master class in journalism ethics, including the organization’s newfound fidelity to truth over balance. Anyone who’s writing should take the few minutes it takes to read it.

Just keeping most of the subject headings in mind will probably benefit you as you write: Fairness, Completeness, Honesty, Independence, Transparency, Accountability, Respect, Excellence.

  • Anonymous

    It’s true that B/R’s mission differs from NPR’s in significant ways, but I can’t recommend the Ethics Handbook enough to all B/R writers.

    The “Accuracy” principle ( in particular provides useful tips in these key areas:

    • Making it clear to readers where information originates
    • Taking special care with sensitive subject matter
    • Using an “accuracy checklist” before publishing
    • Being able to factually support everything you publish
    • Thinking critically about breaking news reports
    • Attributing everything that isn’t your original opinion
    • Avoiding the use of deceptive/misleading language
    • Conducting yourself professionally via social media

  • Kelly

    If this actually affects the way news reports politics we’ll be living in a better country.

  • Karlo Silverio L. Sevilla III

    “…fidelity to truth over balance.” Amen to that.