Thursday, April 7, 2011

Truth and Trust in the News

With all the changes in media, how can you be sure you’re getting the best and most trusted news from your public radio station?

Soon after I came to VPR 10 years ago, I was charged with writing the editorial policy for this station as it became more deeply involved in producing regional news.

I still have pages of notes that I used to draft that policy and in looking them over, I find they remain as relevant today as they did then. In part, that’s because professional journalism has widely accepted standards of excellence and accountability.

The standards rise from the station’s mission to be “essential and trusted” and an independent voice for news. They also rise from VPR’s stated values, which include best practices of journalism. Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, refers to these best practices as “first principals.”

Behind the scenes, that means that VPR’s news team carefully chooses what stories to cover. This starts with a “beat” system that assures that VPR pays attention to a wide range of topics important to listeners. At daily news meetings, reporters, producers and editors gather to discuss the possible stories of the day, how the station can provide depth and meaning to them, and what the various points of view might be in a given story. There are a number of ways to tell a story – an interview, a produced piece by a reporter, online text or audio or video, or a call-in program, for example. We aim to choose the format that tells the story most effectively.

Here are a few more examples of best practices…
  • The news staff strives for objectivity.
  • Stories are based on facts.
  • Accuracy is paramount and errors are corrected.
  • A virtual firewall separates news and development departments.
  • Stories go through a robust editing process, often by more than one editor or producer.
  • VPR does not use anonymous sources.
  • Sources are always told when the tape is turned on.
  • Accuracy and meaning are more important than being first with the news.
  • Conflicts of interest are disallowed.
  • All communications with listeners are read and answered.
But what about the various “sides” of a story? This is one of the areas that puts the professional journalist to the test. What information is the closest to the truth? How many different points of view are there? Is the truth of a story served only if all points are represented equally?

While VPR seeks balance, we try not to practice “she-said, he-said” journalism, where for every point made an equal and opposite reaction is reported that leaves the listener unable to determine where the true meaning of a story lies. Likewise, finding the extremes and picking the point in the middle is not good journalism. So we make professional judgments, and they are fact-based. The goal is to get as close to the truth as possible.

Hosts are encouraged to ask strong follow-up questions when they are interviewing news guests. The host is there to ask the questions the listener might have and to be aware of other opinions that might challenge the point of view at hand. However, they are not there to be adversaries. During the political debates of 2010, some listeners thought our hosts were too soft on the candidates; other listeners thought our hosts were much too aggressive. We strive for the right amount of push-back that gets at the truth without badgering a guest on our shows.

All people have beliefs and life experiences, from doctors to plumbers to journalists. But as professionals those experiences must not sway the quality of their work.

In my many years in journalism, I have seen Republican and Democratic governors tested and pressed by the media. I recall circumstances when the late Governor Snelling was challenged on his unwavering confidence in his own truth. But it wasn’t long before the same journalists were pressing former Governor Kunin on her what they perceived was too much circumspection.

Is this a perfect science? It is not. Yet we continually strive for that - the perfect story, the best information, the deepest meaning, the real truth, the most public service.

Public radio is well known for testing itself and for putting its policies and practices under a microscope. I think one of the best statements about fairness in journalism comes from the public radio guidebook, “Independence and Integrity:”

"Reporting that is fair, accurate and balanced is true to the ideals of journalism. Such reporting filters out bias in the traditional spirit of objectivity, while allowing reporters to apply their personal insights and engagement with the issues they cover. It results in the healthy skepticism, tempered by the positive pursuit of truth that marks the best journalists."

It’s one of the guiding principles of VPR’s Editorial Policy.

John Van Hoesen
VPR Vice President for News & Programming

No comments:

Post a Comment

We welcome your comments anytime, but please keep it civil and constructive! Also, please provide at least your full name and town. Thanks for reading!