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On Ethics

On Air Ombudsman: WOSU's 'All Sides with Ann Fisher'

On Air radio sign
istockphoto.com
On Air radio sign
istockphoto.com

I appeared today on WOSU's local call-in show All Sides with Ann Fisher out of Columbus, OH. Following a brief interview with NPR's new CEO Gary Knell, Fisher and listeners asked me questions about the challenges – and joys – of being NPR's ombudsman. Following are some excerpts of what I said. Take a listen to the full audio segment online and share your reactions on the blog.

Ann Fisher, Host: So you have your chops in the newspaper business, as do I. How does that translate to broadcast journalism?

Edward Schumacher-Matos: The journalism is the same. We all know what the standards should be and we want to keep them as high as we can. What is different is that radio brings a few other elements, which have to do with voice and tone and things like that. And, you know, I actually love having to deal with that. I'm a bit of a ham myself so I kind of like the audio part.

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Fisher: How much of what you do, Edward, involves semantics?

Schumacher-Matos: There's a lot, there's a lot. Inside newsrooms, as you know Ann, there's constant debates over words — Which is the appropriate word? When is it torture? When is it enhanced interrogation? Things on abortion rights, things on gay rights. So many words are so sensitive and words change meaning over time. Different people hear words different ways, so it's a constant debate about picking what we think is the most fair word and none of us have the final truth. But we have to toil with this and do the best we can and constantly be aware of the impact of the language we use.

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Thatcher, caller, Columbus, OH: I have issues with reporting trying to be fair and balanced and that is often deceptively not representative of the truth. Let's say take climate change as an easy example. Whereas you have the vast majority of scientists in the field that say, "Look it's happening. It may or may not be because of what we're doing or whatever, there are issues about it, but it's clearly happening." And then there's a small percentage of people, politicians among them, who are in denial of what the facts are telling us. So then in presenting a story if you say well, "OK. We'll give a minute to this side and a minute to that side." Then the folks listening aren't getting really a true read on the fact that the majority of the evidence is really towards one side.

Schumacher-Matos: ...I totally agree with you and that goes back to that previous discussion about the question of false equivalence. And that's exactly the point that you're making on climate change, the perfect example, of how you can actually mislead the public by giving so-called equal time or a great voice to a totally discredited position that just doesn't hold up. And somewhere editors have to make the decision, you know, what's fact based, what do we accept and what don't we accept. And you can still tip your hat to another point of view, but at some point you have to decide that it's just discredited. And truth is a very hard thing to decide, but there are some things that are true or as true as we're ever going to know them and you just have to go with that.

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