To tell the truest story possible, it is essential that we treat those we interview and report on with scrupulous fairness, guided by a spirit of professionalism. We make every effort to gather responses from those who are the subjects of criticism, unfavorable allegations or other negative assertions in our stories. What we broadcast and put online is edited for time and clarity. Whenever we quote, edit or otherwise interpret what people tell us, we aim to be faithful to their meaning, so our stories ring true to those we interview. 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. Our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth.
Fairness in presenting the news
The “court of public opinion” is an expression, not a legal forum. When a person or company has been charged with wrongdoing by official sources, we must carefully avoid presenting facts in a manner that presumes guilt. When covering legal cases, always tell our listeners and readers if the defendant has entered a plea. Be scrupulous about accurately using words such as “arrested,” “charged,” “indicted” and other legal terms.
Unidentified sources should rarely be heard at all and should never be heard attacking or praising others in our reports (with the possible rare exceptions of whistleblowers and individuals making allegations of sexual assault; see the longer discussion of anonymous sources in the section on transparency). While we recognize that some valuable information can only be obtained off the record, it is unfair to air a source’s opinion on a subject of coverage when the source’s identity and motives are shielded from scrutiny. And of course, we do not include anonymous attacks posted on the Web in our reports.
In a 1999 message to the staff, Jonathan Kern discussed the use of “labels” to describe groups and organizations — and how they can help listeners or readers put what they’re hearing in the proper context and judge whether they’re being given a fair story. NPR seeks to describe groups accurately. If the terms “liberal” or “conservative” are oversimplifications, we take the extra time and space to add a longer phrase or sentence that more accurately describes the organization.
As Jonathan wrote, our goal is to answer for listeners and readers the question “who is speaking?” And not just by giving a name and a title, but by adding the context that describes where that person is coming from.
No one we interview should be surprised by what they hear or read themselves saying. The conversation and quotes should “ring true” to them. That’s why NPR hosts, producers, bookers and correspondents make sure that the people we speak with know that the discussions will be edited — but that we will be true to the meaning of their words.
“You don’t want guests to be shocked — or feel they were misled — when they hear themselves on the air and discover that most of what they said has been cut out,” Jonathan Kern writes in Sound Reporting.
All Things Considered host Robert Siegel says that when he’s doing a “two-way” (NPR’s term of art for an interview) for broadcast later, “I inform people that this is not live, that it will be edited and that we will talk longer than what will be broadcast on the air.” He also makes sure the guest knows about how long the edited conversation will end up being. “And I say that if you make a factual error, or I do, tell us and we will ask the question again.”
Telling someone that we will be editing an interview does not, obviously, give us the right to do just anything. We “exercise good judgment … [and] consider the editorial ramifications of the editing process,” Kern says.
In Sound Reporting, Kern warns that when cutting an audio interview in particular, “you may be tempted to go too far — collapsing two answers into one, rearranging the order of questions, and so on. When you make such extensive changes, the result may not reflect what actually happened in the studio.”
So we practice “ethical editing,” Jonathan adds. “Be careful that you don’t change the meaning of what someone said when you trim an answer or question,” he writes. And recognize, he says, that “you can … cross onto shaky editorial ground if you keep all the sentences [from an interview] intact, but change their order.” The speaker’s inflections might be altered — meaning that while the words might be the same, the way they’re understood could be changed.
If you have any doubt about what a person you interviewed meant, speak with them before broadcast or publication to prevent any misunderstandings.
News outlets are “driven by deadlines, and under time pressure, you are sure to make mistakes — about names, affiliations, places, and so on. These errors are regrettable, and you should always correct them. … But they are not nearly as serious as failing to be fair and unbiased. That may not only discourage people from listening; it can undermine your station’s or network’s reputation — one of its greatest assets. Even occasional lapses have serious consequences. The price of good journalism is eternal vigilance.”1
We place a high value on earning the respect and trust of all sides when reporting on complex or controversial subjects. That means we stick to facts and to language that is clear, compelling and neutral. We avoid loaded words preferred by a particular side in a debate. We write and speak in ways that will illuminate issues, not inflame them.
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.
- Jonathan Kern in Sound Reporting. [↩]
Fairness in reporting and interviewing
Make sure that a guest or interview subject knows when an interview has begun and when it has ended. There should be no question about what is or isn’t for broadcast, and what is on the record or not.
The process starts “with the bookers and the producers,” adds Scott Simon. They are charged with finding the right guests, doing some pre-interviews and determining both that the guest is conversant with the subject and is fully informed about what will be happening.
As an ethical matter, we would not want to reveal the identity of an anonymous source unless that person has consented to the disclosure. That’s why we take the granting of anonymity seriously.
Keep in mind that the legal protection provided to journalists to keep source identities, outtakes, or other confidential information secret is not 100% secure. Courts can compel journalists to testify or reveal information even when confidentiality has been promised, and refusal to reveal the information can result in jail time or fines. Judith Miller of the New York Times, for example, spent three months in jail for refusing to identify the source of the leak that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA.
To make matters worse, if we have promised confidentiality to a source but disclose the source’s identity, we could be liable for breach of contract. In Cohen v. Cowles Media, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment does not protect the press from breach of contract lawsuits when a reporter breaches a promise of confidentiality.
It is therefore possible that if a journalist makes a promise of confidentiality but is later compelled to testify, s/he may either be jailed or ordered to pay money damages. Neither is a good situation. So consult with your supervisor and our legal team before you make a promise of confidentiality. Discuss whether the promise is necessary, what the exact scope of confidentiality will be, under what conditions the source might be willing to release you from the promise, and what the potential risks to you or NPR might be. We want to be sure we can keep whatever promises we make.
In 2005, NPR aired a story about the new editor of the Paris Review. Former staffers of the magazine — some of whom had been let go — were heard saying that the new leader was “betraying the vision” of the Review’s founder, George Plimpton. What was the editor’s response to that charge? He didn’t get the chance to say. Our interview with him was done before the critics were contacted, and the editor wasn’t contacted again.
NPR subsequently apologized on the air for not giving the editor the chance to answer his critics. As Bill Marimow, then-NPR vice president for news, said: “If the subject of the story doesn’t know what you’re going to report, how can we be fair to them?”
The NPR apology was broadcast on the air and attached to the online version of the report.
Contrast that with an NPR report on the drug company Merck and its painkiller Vioxx. Reporter Snigdha Prakash was investigating allegations that the company was trying to silence people who raised safety concerns about the drug. Before a key interview with company representatives, she “laid all my cards face up,” Snigdha says by giving them a chance to see all the documents she would be quoting from.1 Besides being the fair thing to do, it also meant that the company spokesmen were well-prepared to respond to specific questions about specific issues.
- Source: Jonathan Kern, Sound Reporting. [↩]
If our audience wonders what someone we report about had to say in his or her defense, and we haven’t provided that information or explained our efforts to get it, we have failed.
When we seek such responses, we give the subjects a reasonable amount of time to get back to us and multiple ways to do so (phone numbers, e-mail addresses, etc.). What we consider “a reasonable amount of time” will vary depending on the situation, determined after a thorough discussion involving the reporter and appropriate editors — up to the managing editor in high-profile or sensitive matters.
When news is breaking, make sure the people we’re attempting to reach know about our deadlines — for the next newscast and the next program, for example.
If, despite our best efforts, we cannot get a response but determine that we need to go ahead with the story, cull past reports and statements to pull out any previous comments made by the subject or organization that may help explain their positions. Look for proxies who may be able to defend their side. And tell our listeners and readers about our attempts to contact the subjects.
If we’re perceived as being unfair we not only risk losing the trust of our audience, we also put our reporting at risk. All individuals we report on should be able to trust that we’ll be fair not just in how we present their views, but in how we seek those views. This means we give those whom we cover the opportunity to respond to critical allegations in our reports, or to explain themselves when we suspect they’ve given us inaccurate information.
When sources — even those involved in some of the most controversial issues of the day — trust that we’re even-handed, our work benefits.
Fairness to colleagues
While there is no hard-and-fast rule on how much material we can fairly excerpt or quote from another organization’s work, we are guided by how we would feel if our work was being cited by others. We would welcome references to an important NPR story, or the use by others of a few key quotes from our report. But we’d want them to refrain from quoting so much that it feels like most or all of our story has been repeated elsewhere. And we hold ourselves to that same standard when referencing the work of others.
NPR owns the material that we collect and produce in the course of our work, whether it’s for use on-air or online. This material may not be reproduced elsewhere without the permission of NPR. Permission can be sought through the Rights and Reuse Office (look for Permissions in the NPR internal email address book) and requests should be forwarded accordingly.
Always be fair to your colleagues in the news media when drawing from their reports. Just as we insist that NPR be given credit for its work, we are generous in giving credit to others for their scoops and enterprise work.
When excerpting or quoting from other organizations’ work, we strive to call attention to it, not draw attention from it. Do not quote or paraphrase another organization’s material so much that you effectively make reading, watching or listening to their reports unnecessary. In its most egregious incarnations, excessive quotation is effectively plagiarism, which we take no part in. (For a longer discussion of plagiarism, see “Transparency.”)
Our colleagues in the journalism industry and at NPR are also stakeholders in our work. It’s easy to forget that our actions reflect not just on ourselves, but on our profession and on others in our company. Remember it, and be fair to those you work alongside.