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Round Two: News and NPR's Sponsors

Mar 28, 2012

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My recent post about acknowledgment of sponsors in news reports provoked hundreds of responses and a lively debate on the blog and on Facebook. Some made me squirm and go back to read what I wrote. Almost all the responses were sharp and smart, as one would expect from NPR readers and listeners. So, I thought I might summarize some of the main objections and try to answer them here.

1. "You either trust NPR's reporters and editors to be impartial, or you don't" is equivalent to saying "take it or leave it" to NPR's listeners. This statement is dismissive of listeners' concerns.

Response: Taken by itself, the tone of that statement is indeed dismissive. I was worried when I read those complaints that in taking a clear stance, I had communicated something I had not intended. After re-reading the column, I don't think I did so. I know that I had no intention to be dismissive. I genuinely take to heart all your comments. I am fully aware that I can be wrong. But here is the full statement of what I said. You decide if this sounds dismissive:

There is no way to totally eliminate the appearance of all conflicts of interest, and sometimes the conflict itself. Any system comes down at some point to trust. You either trust NPR's reporters and editors to be impartial, or you don't.

This is not to say that when a reporter or editor has a personal or professional stake in a story that it should be allowed. It shouldn't. This is also not to say that if for some reason a conflict is unavoidable, it should not be disclosed. It should. The new handbook is admirably clear on this.....

And then further down in the post:

And even if disclosure were done, you still have to trust that the NPR staffers involved didn't shade the story one way or the other because of the sponsor. This is what I mean by how it always comes down to trust in the end.

Audience trust is what any news operation must maintain above all. This is why NPR has an ombudsman, so that you know that someone independent is actually listening to criticisms you have of any shortcomings in NPR news reports and investigates them. I don't always agree with the criticisms, however, and you wouldn't expect that of me. What some listeners and readers don't like, moreover, others do. I hope that you see that whichever side I come down on, however right or wrong I might be, that I take great pains to investigate your criticisms and parse the nuances of what I find. I often am uncertain, say so and ask you for your guidance. I do all this out of respect for the sophistication of NPR's audience.

In this particular case, I wasn't suggesting that listeners either be satisfied with NPR's standards and programming or stop listening. Rather, I intended to convey that even if NPR reporters and hosts made every possible on-air disclosure, the public must ultimately put some trust in the organization that is delivering the news.

Journalists, meanwhile, must continually work to retain the trust of their listeners by adhering to the highest journalistic standards of fairness, accuracy and impartiality. The firewall between the money and editorial sides of NPR must remain impregnable. We must all be alert for the slightest breach.

2. Of course, NPR should disclose its sponsors. This post proves NPR is selling out.

Response: NPR already discloses each and every corporate sponsor publicly. You know who they are because you hear the sponsor announcements on the air or see their sponsorship banners and boxes on the web. They also are listed publicly in one convenient place in the annual report on NPR's website. None are secret.

3. Acknowledgment is not as complicated or difficult as the post suggests. If a simple acknowledgment would put NPR's audience at ease, NPR should do so. That would build trust. It's too hard isn't an excuse.

Response: As stated above, there already is disclosure. To add more acknowledgment in news stories takes away valuable time and space from reporting the news itself. Which would you prefer? I come down on the side of not cluttering news items and shows with rote announcements that become meaningless with time and that to me are unnecessary for transparency. I think most listeners agree.

But there are times when the connection between a news item and a company's sponsorship is so direct that additional acknowledgement may be required to defuse what could be a strong appearance of a conflict of interest. This is the case, for example, when a company—or a foundation—sponsors a section of the news and that company or foundation is in a news item. This very concern has come up with bank sponsorship of Planet Money reports. Few rules can cover all cases. NPR's new Ethics Handbook is being revised to come up with principles to help guide editors in deciding what sorts of sponsor connections appear to be so direct as to require this additional disclosure. I look forward to seeing the language of the revisions.

4. The insipidness of the 5-Hour Energy segment proves a corporate bias that goes hand-in-hand with my protecting sponsors.

Response: I will let my conclusion on the 5-Hour Energy segment speak for itself:

But to not even mention that the health risks for adults and, especially, students are so front and center in today's public debate seems to me to be such an obvious omission. It turns the segment into such a puff piece that it is no wonder listeners questioned a conflict of interest. This was, at best, unfortunate.

In fairness, the piece was a business one that tried to profile the curious and little known Indian-born founder of the company that makes the energy drink. It did so by interviewing a magazine reporter who had written about the founder. The segment didn't work well. But not all of them do. As they say, things happen.

If anything, the piece stood out because so much of what NPR does is of such high standards. That, at least, is my humble opinion. What's yours?

Please continue the discussion on Twitter @SchumacherMatos or at my Facebook page.

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