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Ethics in Journalism Today

Audio

Aired 8/26/09

Ombudsman Alicia Shepard for National Public Radio talks about ethics in journalism today. If it looks like torture, sounds like torture and apparently feels like torture, should reporters call it torture? Is the term health care reform actually a partisan slap against our current form of health care? Shepard answers these and other questions.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. If it looks like torture, sounds like torture and apparently feels like torture, should reporters call it torture? Is the term healthcare reform actually a partisan slap against our current form of health care? And what happens when a National Public Radio reporter says something inaccurate or misleading, even on another network? Well, what happens first is that my guest, Alicia Shepard, starts to get a lot of emails. She is the National Public Radio Ombudsman. That role requires Ms. Shepard to act as the public's representative, to look into complaints of inaccuracies or bias, and try to bring transparency to NPR's editorial decision-making process. Alicia Shepard has been NPR Ombudsman since 2007 after teaching journalism and writing two books about the lives and practice of journalists. She is visiting Southern California and has been kind enough to come on the show this morning. Alicia, thanks for being here. Welcome to These Days.

ALICIA SHEPARD (NPR Ombudsman): Thank you. I love being here.

CAVANAUGH: And we'd like to invite our audience to take the opportunity if you have a question about the way NPR has covered a news story or you have a comment about something you've heard on NPR, now's the time to give us a call. 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. Now, Alicia, NPR was the first broadcast news organization to create an ombudsman position. Why did they decide to do that?

SHEPARD: Kevin Klose, who was the longtime CEO/President came out of newspapers and it's a stronger position in newspapers, much more common. And he felt that as a Public Radio service that there needed to be someone independent representing the public. And it is – it's a really fun job, it's very challenging but the unique difference as someone who's come out of newspapers and magazines is how much a sense of ownership Public Radio listeners feel, partially because they donate and they do it on a voluntary basis and the other is just the intimacy of radio that just makes you feel more connected to it.

CAVANAUGH: Absolutely. Now I gave a very truncated version of what it is that you do. Can you explain a little bit more this role of ombudsman?

SHEPARD: Sure. The idea is, as I see it, is to be – explain NPR to the listeners and the listeners to NPR. As I said, Public Radio listeners really care about NPR but they don't always understand why NPR does what it does. And I feel that adding to transparency, I can explain that and maybe they'll have a better respect for the work that journalists do. On the other hand, there's a bit of a wall between the listeners and the reporters and so I have like a hall pass, if you will, inside NPR and I can take these concerns that listeners have that raise to the level of being legitimate or significant and, you know, I get a mix, as you can imagine. I mean, there's some people who are just angry at NPR, some people think they do a great job and some people are very specific about their concerns, and those are the ones that, really, I'm more likely to jump on rather than NPR is so biased or – Because that's very hard to look into.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder—we're going to talk about some hot button issues as we go along in this interview—but I wonder if you could give us an example of something that you've brought perhaps to the attention of a reporter and maybe a story has changed or some – something has been different because of the feedback from the public.

SHEPARD: Well, without going into a whole long list…

CAVANAUGH: Sure.

SHEPARD: …the story behind the story, you know, there was a case where there was something on the air and it was, if you listened to it – I also teach Media Ethics at Georgetown University to the grad students, and I played this particular piece for them and when you listened to it, it was clear that it was about a young man whose sister would not put him up when he wanted to come to Washington, D.C. for the inauguration. And you listened to this and you thought, wow, that sister is a jerk. And, unequivocally, anyone I play the story for will say that. And I thought, well, wait, what about the sister? And then I asked the reporter, did you talk to the sister? No, they hadn't. And I thought, well, we don't know her side and we certainly know how siblings are fraught with, you know, tension and, for all we know, she could've said you can't stay at my house because you drink too much or you, you know, are – don't clean up, or whatever. So that's just a small example where it makes the reporter sort of step back and think because somebody is paying attention to what they do.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Alicia Shepard and she is NPR Ombudsman. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. I do want to ask you about what you've been speaking about recently, though. You've been speaking about Ethics in the Digital Media and I was interested yesterday in hearing that Wikipedia is hiring an editor for its entries on living people so that it's not this open source anymore and the unfortunate inaccuracies that come with that open sourcing. Is accuracy beginning to be more important for internet journalists?

SHEPARD: It definitely is. And it's a – You know, one of the things that I do talk about is just to remind people that we are in the midst of a media revolution because of the internet and that it's really exciting but just like any revolution, the boundaries aren't clear. What the guidelines are are still being formed and so Wikipedia is a great example. I mean, it was built with the idea that everybody could participate and then they realized that incorrect information was being put up there. And so now they're going to have what they call volunteer editors, which, I thought, you know, is this a career opportunity? You know, Wikipedia's looking for editors or do you voluntarily do that and they sanction your doing it? But one of the things I think really is very important, Maureen, is that, you know, thoroughness, accuracy, fairness are still values that need to be thought about in any kind of journalism on the web. And there's a cesspool, if you will, of information out there and so credibility is very important. You – Media literacy is also something that we need to be teaching young people about, about what are credible news sources and what are not and what are just repeating rumors.

CAVANAUGH: We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 for the NPR Ombudsman, Alicia Shepard. Right now, let's go to George in Kensington, and good morning, George. Welcome to These Days.

GEORGE (Caller, Kensington): Thank you. This question may – is a little off the topic perhaps of ethics or wrongdoing but I'm curious. I've read where NPR is actually thinking of starting to charge or try to get revenue from people looking at its website.

SHEPARD: Oh, no, no, no. Let me…

GEORGE: And I'm wondering if that's true and whether that would actually be a service or a disservice to the public.

SHEPARD: I think, George, what you've read is that newspapers are thinking along that lines (sic). And Rupert Murdoch just came out with this 'let's all hold hands together and go ahead and charge.' But if there's one thing that I am sure of, the new CEO of NPR, Vivian Schiller, is adamant about not charging for content. In fact, she was the, I think, the Vice President of Technology at the New York Times at the time when they did charge for certain content and she was singlehandedly responsible for them getting rid of that so she feels very strongly about not charging, and particularly since NPR is a public service organization. And, lastly, I will say that they just redid the website on July 27th, and decided to stop charging for transcripts. So that's completely the opposite of what you might expect.

CAVANAUGH: Going in the opposite direction entirely.

SHEPARD: Right.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Daniel is calling from Hillcrest. Good morning, Daniel, and welcome to These Days.

DANIEL (Caller, Hillcrest): Good morning. Thank you very much. I find the news on NPR to be consistently biased against Israel but the point I'm interested in particularly is that I find this to be the case with the BBC. I know that there was a report that the BBC suppressed about this. And I'm wondering if NPR and, in particular, our ombudsman is willing to take responsibility and do something about it when it – news that are coming from another outlet like the BBC.

SHEPARD: Well, I'm aware that the BBC did do an investigation about one report, and that's one out of many that did conclude that they were biased in a particular story. And I'll just say to you, Daniel, that this topic probably the most contentious topic that I deal with as the ombudsman, and a lot of it has to do what – with what people's personal beliefs are. So I can tell you that during the latest rift with – between Gaza and Israel, that within ten minutes one day, I got a phone call from someone saying that NPR was nothing more than National 'Palestinian' Radio and went on and on about that, and ten minutes later I was told that NPR was a mouthpiece for Israel. So I'm not saying that NPR doesn't, you know, make mistakes in its coverage or doesn't – you know, that their perceptions of bias might, you know, can be there but I think that the only way for you to really judge NPR's coverage—and this is what the organization has determined—is look at a lot of the stories, don't just go by one story. And they do aggregate all of the Middle East stories and I'd be – if you want to send me an e-mail at ashepard@NPR.org I'd be happy to send you the link and you can evaluate the stories.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Alicia, what is NPR's code of ethics for its journalists?

SHEPARD: Well, it's on my website, NPR.org/ombudsman. They have a very extensive ethics code. I think it's almost 14 or 15 pages. What it is lacking and what I've been pushing is that there's not a digital media component and that is true of a lot of news organizations now. And so I think that that is something that is necessary, you know, how do journalists behave on the internet? Can they have personal blogs? Do they – are they allowed to Twitter? And do they need to check things that they put up there? Because anybody who works for a news organization ultimately also represents that news organization.

CAVANAUGH: And there actually is a general code of ethics for journalists as well.

SHEPARD: Right, yes, and I always – and I can tell you off the top of my head, it is seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you recently did a blog about the issue of – regarding the word torture in NPR news reports about enhanced interrogation techniques. And in it, you came down basically – you examined the topic very carefully and you basically said your conclusion was that journalists should not be making these decisions as to what constitutes torture. Was that basically in a nutshell?

SHEPARD: Well, I would – I have to always remind people that this is really a political debate and the debate goes like this, that, you know, the Bush administration did certain things, the CIA, and we're learning them, you know, right as we speak. Today's paper is filled with them. But they did things that they felt they needed to use, rough, harsh, brutal interrogation techniques to get information to protect the United States for national security reasons. So they said this is why we did these things. Others say those things are torture. Torture is a legal concept and so to acknowledge that, you know, the word torture is just putting it out there like it's a normal word, would indicate that, you know, laws were broken. So I always – I am quick to say that, personally, you know, what I think – or, not – what I would say, professionally what I think is that journalists should just shy away from the word and shy away from enhanced interrogation techniques, because I think that's kind of a bogus term as well, and just describe these techniques because good journalism puts the facts out there and with fairness and accuracy and in context and then lets the listener decide. And so, personally, if I hear about, you know, someone stuffing a rag in someone's mouth and pouring water over their face, I consider that torture. But I understand the need to sort of separate. And it is definitely tough and I think it'll be really interesting in the next coming days to see how NPR handles that word 'torture'…

CAVANAUGH: We have…

SHEPARD: …because it's everywhere right now.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, it certainly is. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call, and we do have a caller on the line, Bill in Santee. Good morning, Bill, and welcome to These Days.

BILL (Caller, Santee): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. Actually, you just kind of covered the topic of my question but maybe I could ask the women whether much – maybe describe the process. Was there internal discussion within NPR with the journalists as to whether to use torture or not or what kind of layers of editing goes through in making that decision because, personally, I think if it's torture, it's a legal term defined in domestic and international law and sometimes if you avoid the word you're misinforming the public as well.

SHEPARD: Well, I think that, one, you let the public know that there is a debate about this particular word and I think that all media have let that happen. But in terms of how it was handled internally, it really – there was no set policy until in April when the so-called torture memos were released by the Justice Department and it became clear that NPR needed to take a – you know, take a stand on what language reporters could use. And the language that they chose is very similar to what the Washington Post and the New York Times do as well, to try to not use that word 'torture' or to say 'allegations of torture.' So a memo was sent out and it's really interesting to me, and this may have to do with Public Radio, but somehow, you know, I've written about this on my column twice and I have just – I've gotten tremendous feedback, a lot of ad hominem attacks, and yet the other news organizations, I'm friends with the ombudsman, the Public Editor from the New York Times, and people don't seem to be as angry at the New York Times as they are at NPR.

CAVANAUGH: Well, it's that sense of ownership that you were talking about probably.

SHEPARD: Umm-hmm. And an expectation that Public Radio will be a little more to the left even if it's not true.

CAVANAUGH: Well, here, I have a question, Alicia, just about that very topic. And I've been wondering when we have debates that are sort of lopsided, in our current healthcare legislation debate, one side is talking about facts, the other seems to be repeating slogans that often have no basis in fact. And I wonder how a journalist can point that out without being accused of bias.

SHEPARD: Yeah, I don't – I don't think the journalists have done a very good job of educating the public on this issue of healthcare overhaul versus reform because they're – the perception still exists that there are these death panels out there and it doesn't seem – it seems to me that journalists know what it says in the bills and that, you know, very few people say, yes, you're going to have to, at a certain state of your life, you know, speak with someone and make an end of life plan. I mean, that's not the way that it's written. And yet you can't seem to knock that down. NBC, last week, did a poll that said something like, you know, 54% of—and don't quote me on that—but believe that that was in the bill. And that immigrants, illegal immigrants, would also get free healthcare, that that's in the bill. And there's a tremendous misuse of information and I think that has to do with the fractionalization of the internet and people getting news, going to sources and getting the kind of news that they believe in.

CAVANAUGH: And it may also have to do with this new bias in television newscasts.

SHEPARD: You mean cable TV.

CAVANAUGH: Yes. You have Fox News geared toward rightwing Republican ideology. MSNBC now seems to be leaning towards the left. What do you think of this trend?

SHEPARD: I think that if it's clear what the flavor is then that is good because at least you know what you're getting and I mean but I also think that people who would typically watch Fox should also watch MSNBC. I feel that it's so important that as Americans that we get a wide range of information. You know, John Bolton was – there was an interview with him on NPR a few weeks ago and people were just so angry that NPR would even put him on the air. And I just think that's wrong, that it's important to hear a diversity of voice and voices that you don't agree with.

CAVANAUGH: He, the former Bush U.N. ambassador.

SHEPARD: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Yes. I was wondering, does that make it harder, this fractionalization, for a news outlet that is unbiased or attempts to be unbiased in all aspects, NPR, does it – is it hard for it to be seen as unbiased?

SHEPARD: I don't think so. I think the people will judge the journalism based on what is actually done. I think the perception of NPR as being to the left actually stems from its history as starting back in 1971, All Things Considered, it was an alternative news medium. And over the years and particularly in the last ten years, it has become a mainstream news medium. That's how they see themselves. They feel that there's a duty to inform people. If you listened this morning, all you heard about was Ted Kennedy's death. They were well prepared. I was quite impressed actually. I'm not involved in any of the editorial decision-making. I don't know what's happening before. So I listen as a listener.

CAVANAUGH: Let's go to the phones again. Ed is calling us from Lakeside. Good morning, Ed, and welcome to These Days.

ED (Caller, Lakeside): Yes, thanks, guys. This is – I'd like to step back just a little bit as an octogenarian and this is regarding the importance of NPR, National Public Radio, which is so important. I've been listening since day one and what my point is, is that I have never heard any documentary describing how NPR happened to start. We haven't always had it, and Mrs. Shepard or Ms. Shepard just pointed out back to the early days. Well, in 1967 the Public Broadcasting Act was passed and the person who played the important role who was called the father of Public Broadcasting is the late Senator John O. Pastore from Rhode Island. And, ironically, Shepard, in Italian, is Pastore so…

SHEPARD: So you think I need to tell that story, Ed?

ED: Well, what I think is there should be a documentary and it should be repeated every few – five years or whatever…

SHEPARD: Umm-hmm.

ED: …that people understand, we haven't always had Public Radio and I shudder to think that we wouldn't be having this conversation right now if it had not been for the hard work of Senator John O. Pastore from Rhode Island.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that, Ed. That was lovely to hear about. Thanks. I'm wondering, Alicia, when you – Do you get satisfaction out of your work? I mean, when you actually explain to people who have a complaint what went into making that decision, do you get some positive feedback? Are they thankful for that?

SHEPARD: You know, I think that we live in a world now where people don't feel listened to. And so actually, as the ombudsman, when I pick up the phone and talk to people and I respond to their e-mails, I often get this, wow, I'm so surprised to get a reaction. So I do get that kind of satisfaction. And I also feel, as somebody with 30 years of journalism experience that, you know, I'm on a mission to explain how journalism works. Journalism has such a low, you know, opinion – or, the public has such a low opinion of journalists. And I just think that if they better understood the pressures journalists under – write under, how they work, what their thinking is, that they do agonize about whether to put that child on the air or whether is that story fair? Is everything included? And so the more than I can explain – Now, the problem will sometimes become is that I'm seen as a shill for NPR and I have to be, you know, careful. I have to also listen to legitimate criticisms and, you know, recently, you mentioned, you sort of pointed to Mara Liasson, who is a NPR political correspondent but she also appears on Fox News.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

SHEPARD: And so she said, a few weeks back, when the Cash for Clunkers program had hit its first bump that before there was the second round of funding, that she said that it was like a mini-Katrina for the administration. And, you know, I thought, what? Say what? And even though she said it on Fox News Channel, I got lots of e-mails about that. And that was something I responded to quickly. I asked her about it. She was very contrite, she was very apologetic, said, yeah, I shouldn't have said it. But, you know, I end up saying, you know, look, you represent NPR when you are on there and NPR's ethics code is such that you would not be allowed to have said that on NPR's air, and so you need to be very careful.

CAVANAUGH: I have to end it now but I do want you to tell us how people can get in touch with you.

SHEPARD: Absolutely. You can go to NPR.org and then hit 'contact us,' which on the new website is way down at the bottom. You can call, 202-513-3245. I also gave out my personal e-mail address, which my name is Alicia, the last name's Shepard, S-h-e-p-a-r-d, so that would be first initial, last name, at NPR.org.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you. I think that about covers it.

SHEPARD: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Alicia Shepard and she is NPR Ombudsman. And we want to thank everybody who called. We didn't get everybody on the air but you can post your comments about this topic at KPBS.org/TheseDays.

SHEPARD: Can I add one more thing? That they can go to NPR.org/ombudsman. Put your e-mail in the bucket on the right and anything I write will go to you and you can comment on the blog.

CAVANAUGH: Well, if people can't get through to you now, they're just not listening.

SHEPARD: Right.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Alicia.

SHEPARD: Thank you, Maureen.

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