Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Journalistic Standards: A reasonable interpretation

A response to WOUB’s contention that Democracy Now does not measure up to the journalistic standards of objectivity, balance, and fairness (November 21, 2007).

by Bob Sheak

I am participating with a local group of citizens from Athens and other areas of Ohio in a group called Athens Free Press. We have been having a dialogue with the managers of the local public radio/television station, WOUB, asking them to include the award-winning program Democracy Now in their programming. We have met with them twice and they have rejected our proposal. What stands out in their rejection is the contention that Democracy Now does not measure up to the journalistic standards that guides their programming decisions. These standards, they maintain, come from the policies of NPR, PBS, and OU. In their rejection of Democracy Now, WOUB managers focused on the standards of objectivity, fairness and balance.

In the following document, I try to tease out the meaning of these standards from the three sources WOUB provided us and from other relevant sources as well. My first purpose is to consider the meaning and implications of these and other related standards. I also have a second related purpose. My analysis of journalistic standards will provide a framework for considering a series of comparisons of how NPR and PBS, as opposed to Democracy Now, cover and analyze certain important issues. In another report, I have focused on the example of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s address to the United Nations’ Security Council on February 5, 2003.

My principal argument is that by adding Democracy Now to their programming, WOUB would reflect a greater and more diversified range of coverage and analysis of important issues and events than they now do. My argument can be summarized in three contentions.

One, Democracy Now covers some important issues not covered by NPR/PBS/WOUB.

Two, Democracy Now covers some of the same stories that are covered by public radio and television. In some cases, they overlap in coverage, though their respective coverage has a different thrust. This is to be welcomed, as it would illuminate more aspects of a story than otherwise, a reflection of different sources of information, differing perspectives of guests, and differences in the amount of coverage.

Three, in other cases, the coverage of Democracy Now and public radio/television is quite different and sometimes antithetical, reflecting differences in basic political philosophy and attitudes towards events and policies as well as different sources, guests, and coverage.

As I’ve noted, the focus of another article is on the third contention and examines the disparate coverage of NPR/PBS as opposed to Democracy Now on Colin Powell’s address to the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003. Powell’s address was touted by the Bush administration, and then by the majority of media, as one that brought together the best evidence to document that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. While all major aspects of Powell’s presentation were later found to be false, Powell’s address, at the time, added legitimacy to the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq on March 20, 2003. While the major commercial and public media rallied around the administration’s policy, uncritically going along with Powell’s misleading and mistaken “evidence,” there were many in the “alternative” or “independent” media that were not swayed by the government’s propaganda. These media had opposed such a war long before Powell’s UN address, remained skeptical of the evidence he presented to the UN Security council, and continued to voice their criticisms afterwards. They were right, and the major public and commercial media were wrong. One of the independent media that got it right was Democracy Now.

I'll now turn to an analysis of the journalistic standards invoked by WOUB managers in their rejection of our proposal to include Democracy Now in their programming. I try to support an argument that the journalistic standards that they used to reject Democracy Now are open to interpretation and are not always consistently applied. I suggest, therefore, that the interpretation and application of journalistic standards must recognize this reality, take into account standards beyond objectivity, balance, and fairness while including them as a flexible part of the mix, and while additionally taking into account records of a program’s performance.

The example of Powell’s UN speech demonstrates the need for nuanced and practically applied standards and also for the inclusion of a greater range of perspectives in public broadcasting. It is through diversity in programming that NPR, PBS, and WOUB can increase the chances that their audiences will have a chance to assess and weigh more than one viewpoint, or variations on it, when it comes to an important policy-influencing event like Powell’s UN speech. Diversity of views also is more consistent with the heterogeneity of the citizenry and the touted pluralistic political system of the United States.

Journalistic Standards: The Limits of “Objectivity”

WOUB managers provided our group with documents on journalistic standards from OU, NPR, and PBS. Objectivity from these sources means that news and related information and analysis should be acquired and presented in a “neutral way” (PBS).

(1) Over-simplifies the journalistic process and pretends to expunge subjectivity from this process.

I think that this definition of objectivity oversimplifies the dynamic, multidimensional, and disputed aspects of virtually all important human and social events and issues. It is unreasonable to believe that a producer or journalist of news and analysis can sift through the relevant information and achieve a computer-like neutrality that is true to the issues at hand. A “neutral” conception of objectivity ignores or underplays how there are always subjective judgments on which events and issues are selected for coverage, how stories are written and edited, how they are contextualized, and how much space or time is devoted to them.

(2) The simplistic conception of objectivity pays little attention to how evidence is collected or verified.

Objectivity-as-neutral fails to address the question of how facts are identified in the first place, and then by what method they are verified. As the Committee of Concerned Journalists maintain, the conceptualization of objectivity as “bias” confuses the method of journalistic work with the journalist. The committee’s statement on “the lost meaning of objectivity” goes on to elaborate “some important implications” of this distinction, as follows. (Committee of Concerned Journalists, “The Lost Meaning of Objectivity,” www.concernedjournalists.org/lost-meaning-objectivity August 27, 2007)

“One is that the impartial voice employed by many news organizations, that familiar, supposedly neutral style of newswriting, is not a fundamental principle of journalism. Rather, it is an often helpful device news organizations use to highlight that they are trying to produce something obtained by objective methods. The second implication is that this neutral voice, without a discipline of verification, creates a veneer covering something hollow. Journalists who select sources to express what is really their own point of view, and then use the neutral voice to make it seem objective, are engaged in a form of deception. This damages the credibility of the whole profession by making it seem unprincipled, dishonest, and biased. This is an important caution in an age when the standards of the press are so in doubt.”

The committee also points out that “There is nothing approaching standard rules of evidence, as in the law, or an agreed-upon method of observation, as in the conduct of scientific experiments.” Journalists have developed “various techniques and conventions for determining facts.” But this is typically based on the judgment of journalists themselves, through “word of mouth from reporter to reporter, through “trial and error,” and on the basis of such rules as information gathered by journalists should be verified by at least one other source. The committee notes that the group Investigative Reporters and Editors “has tried to develop a methodology for how to use public records, read documents, and produce Freedom of Information Act requests,” but “these [still] informal strategies have not been pulled together into the widely understood discipline that [Walter] Lippmann and others imagined,” that is [as Lippmann once wrote] a “common intellectual method and a common area of valid fact.”

(3) PBS acknowledges the subjective – and creative – element in journalism in some of its statements on journalistic standards:

According to PBS’ statement on standards: “PBS recognizes that the producer of informational content deals neither in absolute truth nor in absolute objectivity. Information is by nature fragmentary; the honesty of a program, Web site, or other content can never be measured by a precise, scientifically verifiable formula. Therefore, content quality must depend, at bottom, on the producer’s professionalism, independence, honesty, integrity, sound judgment, common sense, open mindedness, and intention to inform, not to propagandize.”

On this point, Brent Cunnigham has an article in Columbian Journalism Review (issue 4, July-August 2003) titled “Re-thinking Objectivity,” in which the principle of objectivity can make journalists “passive recipients of news, rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers of it.” Cunningham also notes there is little agreement among journalists on the meaning of objectivity and that the narrow and ambiguous conception of objectivity “makes reporters hesitant to inject issues into the news that aren’t already out there. He also argues that “objectivity excuses lazy reporting,” and tends to lead journalists to rely on a limited number of sources. He refers to a study by media analyst Andrew Tyndall of “414 stories on Iraq broadcast on NBC, ABC and CBS from last September [2202] to February [2003]” that found “all but thirty-four originated at the White House, Pentagon, and State Department.” One of the implicit problems is that the media are hesitant to force elected officials to address important issues that are not among the stories of concern to “official” government. After discussing these and other problems that stifle the journalists quest for a truthful documentation and reporting on important issue, Cunningham refers to a report on a symposium on objectivity in which “a good reporter who is well-steeped in his subject matter and who isn’t out to prove his cleverness, but rather is sweating out a detailed understanding of a topic worth exploring, will probably develop intelligent opinions that will inform and perhaps be expressed in his journalism.” Cunningham later adds: “Letting them write what they know and encouraging them to dig toward some deeper understanding of things is not bias, it is essential.”

(4) Journalists should seek sources on controversial issues and also pay attention to sources among dissident voices of the society that are outside of the media mainstream. The PBS statement on journalistic standards maintains that “content that provides courageous and responsible treatment of issues, and that reports and comments, with honesty and candor, on social, political, and economic tensions, disagreements, and divisions. The surest road to intellectual stagnation and social isolation is to stifle the expression of uncommon ideas; today’s dissent may be tomorrow’s orthodoxy. The ultimate task of weighing and judging information and viewpoints is, in a free and open society, the task of the audience. Therefore, PBS seeks to assure that its overall content offerings contains a broad range of opinions and points of view, including those from outside society’s existing consensus, presented in a responsible manner and consistent with the standards set forth in these Standards and Policies.”

(5) Professional Integrity

Similarly, the Society of Professional Journalists views the role of the journalist as active and creative, not passive and neutral, and as based on professional integrity. The Society puts it this way:

“Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.”

(6) Other considerations in the quest for accurate and valid renditions of important issues and events: The example of Democracy Now

There are many ways to judge a program’s quality and its relatively “objective” coverage and analysis of important issues and events. Consider the following examples of a record of “excellence” with respect to Democracy Now.

A record of excellent performance - One may take into account the record of performance of a program, its hosts, and staff, as well as, other indicators of its achievements (e.g., how it has been assessed by other media organizations, professional awards, reputation). Consider some of indicators of Democracy Now’s excellence that are implicitly a testament to the program’s growing popularity.

· Awards: Amy Goodman and 'Democracy Now!' have won numerous awards for their journalistic and broadcasting excellence, including the George Polk Award, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Prize, Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Award, Edwin H. "Major" Armstrong Award, National Federation of Community Broadcasters, Golden Reels, Project Censored Award, Social Society of Professional Journalists, and awards from AP, UPI and CPB.

· Amy Goodman, host and executive producer, is the author, with her brother David Goodman, of two best-selling books (The Exception to the Rulers, chosen as one of the top 50 nonfiction books of 2004 by the editors of Publishers Weekly, and Static, presently on the NYT and LA Times best-seller lists). Networks including CNN, CSPAN, MSNBC, as well as NPR programs, regard Amy as a credible journalist and regularly invite her to speak.

· An outstanding host/interviewer – Amy is an outstanding interviewer, invariably well prepared for interviews, adept at drawing out the views of her guests, and able when appropriate to contextualize the issue being discussed. She does not typically or explicitly interject her own views. She does not harangue her guests but asks tough, well informed questions.

· Juan Gonzales – a columnist at the New York Daily News since 1988 – “has won numerous awards for his investigative reporting including the George Polk Aware in 1988 and was recently elected President of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. He is also the author of two books: Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America and Fallout: The Environmental Consequences of the World Trade Center Collapse.

· A diversity of notable guests: Tariq Ali, Christopher Hitchens, Hugo Chavez, Noam Chomsky, Bill Clinton, Alan Dershowitz, Robert Fisk, Bill Moyers Greg Palast, Scott Ritter, Aroundahti Roy, Edward Said, Howard Zinn….

· Fund raising – Democracy Now! outperforms all other programs during radio station fundraising drives, including NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

· Independence – As a news show that is funded entirely through contributions from listeners, viewers, broadcasting stations and non-corporate foundations, Democracy Now! maintains its editorial independence, providing a counterweight to media consolidation. DN! “does not accept advertisers, donations from corporations, or donations from governments.” This is not true of “public” media outlets, which “accept funding from major corporations, as well as from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Every Corporation for Public Broadcasting board member is appointed by the White House and confirmed by the Senate” (source: Democracy Now!)

(7) One danger of being guided by narrow conceptions of “objectivity” is to become, in effect, a channel for powerful interests in the society.

There is the danger that journalists in the public, as well as the private, media are not able, perhaps sometimes unwilling, to bring an active and creative practice to their coverage and discussions of important events and issues. Critics of the mainstream media have asserted as much and offered explanations for why this is too often the case, including for example: concentrated corporate ownership, conservative influences in the federal government, inadequate funding, bureaucratic constraints, and so forth. John Pilger, a well-known film documentarian, journalist and author suggests what some of the unfortunate outcomes are (www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Pilger_John/Pilger_interview.html (Nov. 2002),

“Many journalists now are no more than channelers and echoers of what Orwell called the official truth. They simply cipher and transmit lies. It really grieves me that so many of my fellow journalists can be so manipulated that they become really what the French describe as functionaries, functionaries, not journalists.”

“Many journalists become very defensive when you suggest to them that they are anything but impartial and objective. The problem with those words ‘impartiality’ and ‘objectivity’ is that they have lost their dictionary meaning. They’ve been taken over. ‘Impartiality’ and ‘objectivity’ now mean the establishment point of view. Whenever a journalist says to me, ‘Oh, you don’t understand, I’m impartial, I’m objective,’ I know what he’s saying. I can decode it immediately. It means he channels the official truth. Almost always. That protestation means he speaks for a consensual view of the establishment. This is internalized. Journalists don’t sit down think, ‘I’m now going to speak for the establishment.’ Of course not.

“But they internalize a whole set of assumptions, and one of the most potent assumptions is that the world should be seen in terms of its usefulness to the West, not humanity. This leads journalists to make a distinction between people who matter and people who don’t matter. The people who died in the Twin Towers in that terrible crime mattered. The people who were bombed to death in dusty villages in Afghanistan don’t matter, even though it now seems that their numbers were greater. The people who will die in Iraq don’t matter. Iraq has been successfully demonized as if everybody who lives there is Saddam Hussein. In the build-up to this attack on Iraq, journalists have almost universally excluded the prospect of civilian deaths, the numbers of people who would die, because those people don’t matter.

“It’s only when journalists understand the role they play in this propaganda. It’s only when they realize they can’t be both independent, honest journalists and agents of power, that things begin to change.”

In summary, the equation of objectivity as “neutral” reporting and analysis of important issues and events leads to the following:

· over-simplification and thus missing the dynamic complexity of what’s going on;

· the false assumption that there is no selectivity, let alone bias, in how evidence is collected

· a limited method of verification, often based on seeking a confirmation of a source’s information, while ignoring the problem of redundancy or multiple sources that hold the same or similar views;

· the implicit, if not explicit, assumption that producers and journalists are blank-slate recorders of important issues and events, or alternatively, stenographers who simply aggregate or filter true facts from untrue facts;

· the assumption that valid and reputable sources of evidence are routinely identified amidst controversy and distinguished from invalid and disreputable sources;

· a conception of professional integrity, if it is considered at all, that is said to be about collecting facts, often disputed facts, accurately and from sources considered to be authoritative – a self-supporting circular claim;

· the assumption that excellence is not identified by recognition by even highly reputable organizations;

· the belief that journalists, in the passive mode, are immune from being influenced by their powerful sources.

What does “balance” mean to the public media?

Some argue that “balance” is achieved when there are guests on a program with two different, if not opposing, views, or when guests with different views are given comparable amounts of time on subsequent programs, or when guests representing different constituencies, interests, or demographic groups are included in programs. However, the statements on “fairness” in the journalistic standards by PBS, NPR, and OU are not so clear cut.

According to OU standards for broadcasters and journalists (Section 396 (g) (1)), there is no simple formula for achieving balance in the sense of giving different viewpoints “equal time.” The goal should be to incorporate a range of viewpoints in a program over time.

“Balance cannot be guaranteed by a simple, precise formula such as ‘equal time,’ since the result may be a distorting of complex relationships and the undermining of the role of intelligent journalism, which is to make sense out of confused and complicated issues. Most serious issues pose many “sides,’ not just two starkly opposed views that can be accommodated by a neat, even treatment. Balance requires the honest, unceasing effort to recognize that represent this full range of views.”

In the “Editorial Standard s” of PBS, the goal is “to present, over time, content that addresses a broad range of subjects from a variety of viewpoints. PBS may, however, choose to consider not only the extent to which the content contributes to balance overall, but also the extent to which specific content is fairly presented in light of available evidence.” Thus, balance for PBS is about diversity of viewpoints and, additionally, about taking into account the credibility of potential sources. In some cases, PBS may provide links to help expand or correct limited or misleading information. In other words, editorial judgment may be employed. On this point, the PBS statement is as follows:

“Where appropriate, PBS may condition acceptance of content on the producer’s willingness to further the goal of balance by deleting designated footage or by including other points of view on the issues presented or material from which the public might draw a conclusion different from that suggested by the content. Material to be added may range from a few words, to a complete content segment, to an added episode in a series of programs, to the production of an entirely separate, new program. Where PBS deems it appropriate, PBS may arrange for the production of additional content by a producer other the producer of the original content material. For Online Content, links to credible, high-quality, related resources may be used to provide access to additional information or viewpoints.”

NPR’s News Code of Ethics and Practices also emphasizes that it is important to have a range of diverse views. It states: “This range of views may be encompassed in a single story on a controversial topic, or it may play out over a body of coverage or series of commentaries.” The statement elaborates this point as follows: “at all times the commitment to presenting all important views must be conscious and affirmative, and it must be timely if it is being accomplished over the course of more than one story.”

On implication of the discussion of “balance” is that a radio and/or television station’s programming can be enriched when there is a diversity of credible source. No one program need encompass all relevant perspectives. Thus, the addition of the program Democracy Now to WOUB’s schedule of programs would make WOUB more “balanced” than it now is, because Democracy Now’s guests and sources are typically different from those of PBS and NPR. The outcome would help to expand and enrich the information that is offered audiences and enable WOUB to better fulfill its responsibility to the public interest.

The conceptualization of “fairness” seems to overlap in PBS’s editorial standards with that of “balance.” The issue of valid or accurate information comes up in statements on both of them. At the same time, the thrust of their meaning differs to some extent. Balance refers to both the need for diversity of guests and diversity of viewpoints. Fairness focuses more on the content of what is being reported or analyzed. In regards to the standard of fairness, PBS wants to capture for audiences the full meaning of what is being reported. They put it this way:

“Producers must neither oversimplify complex situations nor camouflage straightforward facts. PBS may reject a program or other content if PBS believes that it contains any unfair or misleading presentation of facts, including inaccurate statements of material fact, undocumented statements of fact that appear questionable on their face, misleading juxtapositions, misrepresentations, or distortions.”

In addition. PBS wants the information and evidence being broadcast to be transparent. Transparency is achieved when supplemental information is thought to be required to clarify information and when sources are identified.

“…producers should also adhere to the principles of transparency and honesty by providing appropriate labels, disclaimers, updates, or other information so that the public plainly understands what it is seeing. For example, content that includes commentary, points of view, or opinion should be appropriately identified, as should all sources of funding. Transparency also suggests producers maximize attribution of information and limit the use of anonymous sourcing to those cases when there is no alternative and the information is essential. Content that contains adult themes or other sensitive material should contain an appropriate disclosure.”

Furthermore, PBS links fairness to how guests on programs are treated, and how the subjects and their views on which reports are based are presented.

“Producers should treat the people who are the subjects of, who appear in, or who are referenced in the content they produce with fairness and respect. PBS will reject content if, in PBS’s judgment, it unfairly treats the people or misrepresents their views. Fair treatment of individuals generally requires that a producer represent the words and action of the people portrayed or identified in a way that present their strongest case, and gives individuals or organizations that are the subject of attack or criticism an opportunity to respond. Fairness also requires that a producer be willing to consider all relevant information and points of view.”

NPR’s statements on “respect” complement PBS’s statements on as aspect of balance, namely, that “Treating the people we cover and our listeners with respect means we recognize the diversity of the country and world on which we report and the diversity of interests, attitudes and experiences of our audience. We approach subjects in an open-minded, sensitive, and civil way.”

With respect to fairness, Democracy Now has guests from all walks of life, from different countries, from different genders and ethnic categories, experts, activists, and people just caught up in important events.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Excerpt from Bill Moyers' speech at the National Media Reform conference (Memphis, 1/07)

"It means reclaiming public broadcasting and restoring it to its original feisty, robust, fearless mission as an alternative to the dominant media, offering journalism you can afford and can trust, public affairs of which you are a part, and a wide range of civic and cultural discourse that leaves no one out."

watch video

"You can have an impact here. For one thing, we need to remind people that the federal commitment to public broadcasting in this country is about $1.50 per capita, compared to $28 to $85 per capita in other democracies...

"In moments of revelry, I imagine all of you returning home to organize a campaign to persuade your local public television station to start airing Democracy Now! I can’t think of a single act more likely to remind people of what public broadcasting should be.... We’ve got to get alternative content out there to people, or this country is going to die of too many lies.

"The opening rundown of news on Amy’s daily show is like nothing else on any television, corporate or public. It’s as if you opened the window in the morning and a fresh breeze rolls over you from the ocean. Amy doesn’t practice trickle-down journalism. She goes where the silence is, and she breaks the sound barrier. She doesn’t buy the Washington protocol that says the truth lies somewhere in the spectrum of opinion between the Democrats and the Republicans.

"On Democracy Now! the truth lies where the facts are hidden, and Amy digs for them. And above all, she believes the media should be a sanctuary for dissent, the Underground Railroad tunneling beneath the plantation. So go home and think about it. After all, you are the public in public broadcasting and not just during pledge breaks. You live there, and you can get the boss man at the big house to pay attention." [read full speech]