Can NPR Legitimize Bias With new Handbook?

Jay Rosen at Press Think is pleased with new journalist guidelines issued by NPR. As many currently view NPR as maintaining a liberal bias and they seem to acknowledge some issues along ideological lines, it seems fair to ask if the guidelines would allow NPR to institutionalize bias, as opposed to preventing it.

It now commits itself to avoiding 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.” My verdict: Bravo, NPR.

Nowhere in Rosen's piece, or the NPR handbook excerpts he quotes do you find the word facts; however, it is important to point out that they do affirm a commitment to reporting both sides. Still, this new approach at least appears to leave their reporting open to some amount of interpretation by NPR journalists - in effect, encouraging them to draw conclusions, as opposed to only reporting facts.

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.

Taken together, the first paragraph below from the handbook and the second paragraph from NPR Editorial Product Manager Matt Thompson to Rosen notes that some, if not most news stories are controversial, which suggests there are competing points of view involved. Fair enough. But how is one to know how an NPR journalist weighs those views before presenting some final product deemed "complete" and intended to be read as truth? A conservative's truth and a liberal's truth may differ on various stories. They often do.

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.

When we say our reporting is complete, it means we understand the bigger picture of a story – which facts are most important and how they relate to one another. It’s unrealistic to expect that every story should represent every perspective on an issue. But in our reporting, we must do our best to be aware of all perspectives, the facts supporting or opposing each, and the different groups of stakeholders affected by the issue. Only then can we determine what’s best to include in the time and space we have.

Thompson does broach the topic of bias in his communication with Rosen; yet, one finds nothing special to guard against it other than the usual assurances, while encouraging NPR journalists to determine and report truth, in Rosen's view. Perhaps there is no practical way to deal with that problem. But given that many on the right already distrust NPR's reporting, it's unclear what, if anything, the new guidelines do to resolve that issue.

More philosophically, the Handbook format allowed us to deepen the treatment of an idea, and to easily revisit topics. It allows us to acknowledge that yes, journalists – like all people – have opinions. But a strength of our journalism is that we strive to aggressively challenge those opinions and capture reality in a way that one can embrace no matter what perspective he or she comes from.

Anthropomorphic, or man made Global Warning has been much in the news of late, as it appears some, if not much of what has routinely been presented as truth has not exactly been that.

Maintaining the “appearance of balance” isn’t good enough, NPR says. “If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side…” we have to say so. When we are spun, we don’t just report it. “We tell our audience…” This is spin!

Nothing in Rosen's piece points to guidelines that would prevent something like that from happening again on that, or another topic. As long as that's the case - and it may always be - that NPR journalists are being given license to report some alleged truth, with no reliable concrete steps defined as to how they will objectively determine it may only increase skepticism among those who view NPR as inherently biased.

Reporting the facts as accurately and detailed as possible, while allowing readers or listeners to draw their own conclusions may seem old, somehow - but that doesn't necessarily mean it's bad, or wrong. Ultimately, the broader marketplace may be the best means of determining truth. The more a media source is trusted, the more likely it is to be widely read and supported. But then, that argument would suggest doing away with tax payer funded media altogether may be the best approach to solving NPR's problems.

But is that a viewpoint an NPR handbook, or journalist, would ever consider a valid truth? Perhaps not.


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