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For years, NPR committed itself to a brand of journalism that often focused not on telling the truth, but on telling competing sides of a story.

This false journalistic balance – presenting two sides of a story even when one side is propped up by spin or compromised facts – has been a hallmark of NPR's reportage on political matters both foreign and domestic for far too long.  

However, as journalism scholar and critic Jay Rosen reports, NPR has formally disavowed this form of "he said, she said" journalism in favor of a journalism that is "fair to the truth."

As Rosen notes, NPR last week replaced its old code, The NPR Code of Ethics and Practices, with a new ethics handbook that seems to direct journalists to abandon reportage that strives for balance at the cost of accuracy.

Rosen's reaction after reading NPR's new ethics guide (emphasis mine):

NPR [now] commits itself as an organization to avoid 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,” which as we know is not always evenly distributed among the sides in a public dispute.

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!

There was nothing like that in the old Code of Ethics and Practices.

Indeed, several sections in NPR's new ethics handbook speak to this new commitment to serve not balance but accuracy. Among those is this sparkling example:
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.
Already, some NPR journalists are grappling with this new code of ethics and how, exactly, their reportage will fit (or not) into the new guideline to be "impartial" and "fair to the truth."

And already, listeners – including myself – have noticed NPR journalists being a bit more dogged about calling out dubious facts when they are presented by advocates for a particular side of a story.

Will this new ethics handbook adopted by NPR usher in a radical shift in its reportage – a shift desperately needed and, perhaps, inspired by the rise of so-called new media? Time will tell.

Though taking the new handbook at its word – as well as NPR's ostensibly new commitment to reporting the truth of a story rather than presenting competing sides of a story – it seems the answer is a resounding yes.

And for that, I add my voice to a chorus of others and say, Bravo, NPR.

Bravo!

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Follow me on Twitter @David_EHG
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Author's Note 1:

Chris Bowers has pointed me to a Daily Kos action item: a petition to NPR thanking the institution for its new handbook's rejection of false balance.

You can sign it here.

Author's Note 2:

Rosen spoke with Matt Thompson, Editorial Product Manager at NPR and co-author of the new handbook, about the shifts seen in the new guide, and their conversation is well worth reading.

Originally posted to Writing by David Harris Gershon on Tue Feb 28, 2012 at 07:23 PM PST.

Also republished by Good News.

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