Existential Journalism

I was introduced to blogging through a journalism class in community college, where we set up a class blog through Blogger. We posted the opinion articles, as well as a few of the local "hard news" stories that we were assigned. (I posted one article about the college library's door being closed, and the foot traffic re-routed.) This piece about NPR's 2012 update to its ethics handbook is one of my best.

The Truth is Out There, and NPR Wants to Find It

April 5, 2012




Reading NPR's latest ethics handbook gives the impression of a solid and admirable document, the product of years of analyzed experience and deep thought. However, Jay Rosen's enthusiastic praise of the handbook on the blog Pressthink opens the door to highly contentious debate about the nature of truth and the authority of the media and of institutions.

Rosen emphasizes the idealism of the new policy in his February 26 article, “NPR Tries to Get its Pressthink Right.”  Rosen praises the new handbook, citing the passages in the section on fairness about reporting truth for the audience rather than creating the “appearance of balance,” and about acknowledging which side the “balance of evidence” falls on. In the section of the handbook about fairness, NPR commits itself to be “fair to the truth.” Rosen's comment qualifies “fair to the truth” with “which as we know is not evenly distributed among the sides in a public dispute.” The Pressthink article implies that one of the greatest benefits is the media giving itself permission to declare plainly the objective truth to the public.

The Pressthink blog post received comments of diverse opinion. Those expressing a negative reaction condemn NPR for bias. The commenters simply can't point to the direction in which that propaganda runs; some call NPR liberal while others accuse it of being a tool of the Republican establishment.

It is unfair to dismiss the handbook as an excuse to manipulate the public, as some of those comments speculate. No harm can possibly come from a firm commitment to the integrity of journalism, and it is true that the truth often runs deeper than two opposing sides in a contraversy.

Rosen interviewed the co-author of the new ethics handbook, NPR Editorial Product Manager Matt Thompson, who says, “It's critical that we earn and preserve the trust of our sources and subjects of coverage, but it's always most vital to tell the public what we know to be true.” There is no question that telling the truth to the best of knowledge is good, and should in fact be the standard for any news organization. It should be unthinkable that journalists would not make such a deep commitment to the truth.

However, there is a danger in the lofty idealism of the new ethics code, one that the Pressthink article may emphasize by ignoring it. This danger is rooted in two questions – whether truth is really objective, and whether any institution has the right to make truth judgments for the public.

If one does not believe in objective truth, there would be little point in deciding what is most important for the public or what side in a controversy is right. “The 'Truth' is completely subjective,” wrote a commenter, expressing this point succinctly. “There is no such thing as an objective 'Truth'. So, I guess NPR decided to no longer be objective in its reporting. At least they're honest about it.”

To my mind, this is not the problem. If there is no objective truth, is that the plain objective truth? The second question is even more worrisome. The above comment was responded to several times. “Of course there is,” wrote the person behind the screen name “Torg.” “Just because no one can agree on what it is in a given situation doesn't mean it doesn't exist, and I fail to see why throwing up your hands and saying 'well, I guess we'll never find out' is a better procedure.”

The fact that no one can agree on truth may indeed not be a good enough reason for individual people not to seek truth earnestly for themselves. Perhaps it may be a good enough reason for the media – especially a highly institutional media outlet like NPR – not to claim to have the truth.

“The difficult case is when there is an 'accepted view' that nevertheless has flaws and outcomes that can't be explained away,” wrote a very reasonable commenter who posted as “Chris.” Despite the fact that our society is so segmented and multicultural, there are still many accepted views. And there are even more reasons why some people cannot accept the accepted views. There are always flaws in all accepted wisdom, and that is reason enough for people to keep looking.

Not all minority views are held because of personal hangups. Many researchers, such as the scientists at the Institute for Creation Research, honestly believe that the hard evidence goes against the theory of evolution, and the holes that will always be present in scientific theories justify their belief. More orthodox scientists may say that creationism is categorically unscientific, but that is meaningless since the term “scientific” was invented by other scholars, and no institution is able to coin the truth. Many people believe that the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 – or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy – were orchestrated or allowed to one degree or another by factions within the United States. These conspiracy theorists really believe that something dark is at work in their country, and it would be irresponsible of them to ignore such a dire conviction. These views and many more are serious and real. The threat with the pro-active journalism that NPR is adopting is that these minority views may be outwardly disgraced by the accepted media. As Chris said in his or her comment, “Just because a view is narrowly held, doesn't mean it should be treated unfairly.”

Despite all this risk, it is very hard to condemn NPR's commitment. Real situations do often require analysis, and it may indeed be irresponsible in some cases to stick too legalistically to a policy of “balance.” Real situations call for judgment, and people will inevitably base their judgments on their biases and values. As a comment to the Pressthink article attributed to Tom Paulson points out, impartiality is “more an aspirational target than anything an honest individual will ever claim to achieve.”

The handbook itself offers no indication as to whether or not NPR will abuse its status as a major media outlet in connection with its analysis of the truth. Human nature being what it is, NPR will very likely take too much authority in defining truth from time to time, but it probably won't be the worst thing that has ever been in the news.

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