National Public Radio has just adopted new ethics guidelines. We can only hope they signal the beginning of a wide trend in the media.
The new code stresses the importance of accuracy over false balance; it appears–finally–to abandon the “he said, she said” approach (what I have elsewhere called “stenography masquerading as reporting”) that all too often distorts truth in favor of a phony “fairness.”
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.
One of my gripes over the past several years has been the abandonment of precisely this tenet of good journalism. A good example has been environmental reporting–how many times have media sources reported on climate change, for example, by giving equal time and weight to the settled science and the deniers, without ever noting that the deniers constitute less than 1% of all climate scientists, and are generally regarded as a kooky fringe? That’s “balance,” but it certainly isn’t “fair to the truth.”
A few years ago, this sort of false equivalency was illustrated by one of my all-time favorite Daily Show skits. The “senior journalism reporter” was explaining the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks on John Kerry to Jon Stewart. “The Swift Boat Veterans say this happened; the Kerry Campaign says it didn’t. Back to you, Jon!” When Stewart then asked “But aren’t you going to tell us who is telling the truth?” the response was dead-on. “Absolutely not, Jon. This is journalism.”
Far too often, reporters pursue artificial balance at the expense of truth. If a Democratic campaign plays a dirty trick, reporters rush to remind their audience of a similar transgression by Republicans, and vice-versa. This search for equivalency may be well-intentioned, but it misrepresents reality and misleads those of us who depend upon the media for accurate information.
NPR’s recognition of this pernicious practice, and it’s new Code of Ethics, are a welcome sign that at least some journalists might be returning to Job One: telling us the unembellished truth.