NPR Tackles 'False Equivalence'

Through the years I've written about the media's difficulties with "false equivalence" -- the strong tendency to give equal time and credence to varying "sides" of a story, even if one of the sides is objectively true and the other is just made up. Eg: "The governor contends that the state legislature has no legal power to declare war on Iran, but critics say that he is being weak in the face of this mounting threat."

Congratulations to NPR*, for a recent, serious attempt to grapple with this issue. Its new guidelines say that its reporters and analysts should give a higher priority to listeners' interests in understanding the "truth" of complex questions than to partisans' attempts to make sure that even bogus contentions are heard. As Jay Rosen, of PressThink, says about NPR's new "Ethics Handbook" (emphasis added by me):

In my view the most important changes are these passages:
"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."
"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."
With these words, NPR 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.

Good for NPR! On the other hand: a reader sends this illustration of the challenge still to be overcome:

I think I've found a new low in egregious fairness and balance at the expense of truth and fact. [A NY Times story says, with emphasis added by the reader]:
"This week that narrative hit a bump when a furor erupted over a bill before the Virginia legislature that required women to undergo a vaginal ultrasound before having an abortion. Mr. McDonnell watched as left-leaning television show hosts mocked it and -- though vaginal ultrasounds are standard practice for viewing a first-trimester fetus -- some opponents denounced it as a "rape bill."
So if I understand [the story] correctly, it's wrong to call this law requiring that machinery being forced into women's bodies against their will analogous to rape because sometimes women choose to have this procedure of their own consenting accord. I'm blessedly sheltered when it comes to this topic but I'm almost certain a physical act doesn't have to be something no woman ever willingly participates in for it to qualify as rape when forced on her against her will.

If by chance you don't get the point of the closing sentence on first reading, look at it again. Nicely put.
* Standard disclosure: I have never been an NPR employee but have contributed to NPR programs often over the years, most recently as an analyst on Weekend All Things Considered.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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