Honesty Principle: Honesty


Journalists who conduct themselves honestly prove themselves worthy of trust. In the course of our work, we are genuine and candid. We attribute information we receive from others, making perfectly clear to our audience what information comes from which source. We avoid hyperbole and sensational conjecture. We may sometimes construct hypotheticals to help explain issues and events, but we reveal any fabrication, and do not otherwise mix fiction with our news reporting. We edit and present information honestly, without deception, and we identify ourselves as NPR journalists when we report. Only in the rarest of instances – such as when public safety is at issue, or when lives are at stake – might we disguise our identity or intent when reporting. Before we take such a step, we engage in rigorous deliberation and consider all alternatives. Then, when we tell the story, we fully disclose what we did and why.

Honesty in reporting and interviewing

Journalism should be done in plain sight, and our standards are clear. When we are working, we identify ourselves as NPR journalists to those we interview and interact with. We do not conceal our identities, pose as someone or something we are not, use hidden microphones or cameras to collect information, or record phone calls without the permission of all parties on the line, except in the very rarest of circumstances, outlined below.

Do we need to announce ourselves every time we're in a line at the supermarket and overhear what people are saying about the news of the day? Of course not. But if we want to quote what one of those people said, we need to introduce ourselves as NPR journalists and assume our "working journalist" role.

Do we need to wear our IDs around our necks at all times? No. We are allowed to be "off-duty."


Is deception ever warranted?

As the expression says, "rules are meant to be broken." But only highly unusual and extremely important situations would compel us to be less than open. Our foreign correspondents are most likely to confront such issues.

There could be a situation — perhaps in a war zone — where an NPR journalist feels endangered and decides that in order to get to safety s/he would be better off not letting others know s/he is a journalist. And that experience might turn into a first-person account of what the flight to safety was like. But we would not use it as an excuse to report information that otherwise violates our standards on openness.

If a repressive regime is arresting reporters and telling citizens not to speak with journalists, the only way to have conversations with people might be to keep our identities under wraps. We do not put anyone in danger, however, with our reporting on such conversations.

And if a repressive government is not allowing reporters inside its borders, we might not declare on our visa applications that we're journalists. Such decisions need to be discussed in advance. Senior news management must be included in the conversations.

Other situations in foreign settings might require some deviation from our guidelines on openness. We trust our correspondents to make good decisions, to consult with their editors and to be transparent with listeners and readers about their work. We also talk about foreseeable problems — such as corrupt border guards who demand "tips" — before we venture out and work through how we will respond.

Domestically, there could conceivably be a story that's so important we might consider the use of a hidden microphone because we exhausted all other ways to get the information. But only the rarest of circumstances might merit that decision. Some of the questions we would ask include:

  • Is the story of profound importance?
  • Are lives at stake?
  • Can the information be obtained any other way?
  • Would the story irrevocably suffer without the information?

We would only proceed with the approval of top NPR editors and after consultation with NPR's legal department. The subjects of any criticism stemming from the material would be given a chance to respond. And when reporting on what we discover, we would fully disclose our methods to readers and listeners.

If we ever do consider taking the highly unusual step of recording an interview without the knowledge of one or more party, we follow the applicable state and/or local laws about the taping of conversations. A resource our legal team uses to determine which laws apply is a chart called "A Practical Guide to Taping Phone Calls and In-Person Conversations in the 50 States and D.C.," prepared by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Again, our legal team should be consulted on any decision to act on this information.

But rather than focusing on theoretical exceptions, the point to remember is this: We do not deceive and we do our work in the open.

Honesty in presenting information

Guideline: Our audience should always know which information comes from what source.

Plagiarism – taking someone else's work and intentionally presenting it as if it is your own – is theft. At NPR it's an unforgivable offense. But it's not enough that we don't intend to deceive our audience. Our standard is to make clear to our audience where the information we bring them comes from.

That means no material from another source should ever be included verbatim, or substantially so, without attribution. This includes material from Associated Press reports. We do not, for example, produce news "spots" or other pieces that closely resemble wire service stories. NPR's standard is that our writing should be our own. There is no excuse for writing that repeats the wire stories that we use word-for-word, or nearly so.

It also means that whenever we present someone's words verbatim in text, we encase them within quotes or, in an audio report, make it clear that we are using the source's wording. If we paraphrase for space or clarity, we transparently credit the source of the ideas. And we don't lightly edit quotes just to avoid putting them in quotes; we use brackets, ellipses and other signals to make clear we've changed what someone said.

Guideline: We avoid fabrication in our news reports.

"Public radio reporters and producers," Sound Reporting advises, "do not 'manufacture' scenes for news programs. If you arrive at an office 15 minutes after the employees finish holding a prayer vigil for their kidnapped boss, you cannot ask them to reconvene so you can record a simulation of the event. By the same token, you shouldn't ask people to pretend they are answering the phone, or typing a letter, or fixing breakfast, so that you can get sound of those activities. You should never use sound effects that could be mistaken for actualities or for ambiance that has been recorded on site."


Sound advice: the archival audio that wasn't.

When an independent producer submitted a piece to NPR about an old shipwreck, it included what sounded like archival audio of a marine forecast from the 1940s.

But, as Jonathan Kern wrote in Sound Reporting, "when asked how he happened to have a recording of a radio broadcast for the very day of the shipwreck, the producer confessed he had written it himself and put it together in his own studio."

The piece was remixed to remove that clip and other re-creations.


Using hypotheticals to explain complex stories.

When Planet Money did a series of reports in 2010 about so-called toxic assets, the Planet Money team decided to purchase one of these assets for themselves as part of their coverage of the issue. The show held an online contest for fans to nominate and vote for a name for the asset; the crowd chose "Toxie." The Planet Money team animated Toxie and used her to illustrate what they were discovering.

It was clear at all times what was going on. As Lynn Neary explained in her introduction to one report:

"We told you a couple of months ago about how our Planet Money team had made a rather risky investment. They pooled $1,000 of their own money and bought a toxic asset, one of those complicated bonds filled with home mortgages that almost brought the global economy to a halt.

"Well, we have some bad news to report today. The bond, which listeners have named Toxie, is not doing well at all."

The NPR "sciencey blog," Krulwich Wonders, also frequently animates its reports — and uses some imaginative scenes and dialogue — to make complicated issues more easy to understand. (Click here to see it.)

A critical point worth repeating: Planet Money and Krulwich Wonders were obvious when they used their imaginations in those ways. We do not mix such scenes with "straight" news reports.

Guideline: Our visual journalism must honestly depict reality.

When reporting on news events, the photographs we take and use depict them truthfully, honestly and without bias. They are only enhanced for technical clarity — to correct color or improve contrast, for example. We are careful in how we crop them to ensure that the scene is in proper context. We let events happen — we do not stage scenes to make them fit a story line. If we have to rely on "file" art from the past, we clearly state so in the caption and include the date. And when considering photos provided by other organizations (most often, The Associated Press), we view them with a critical eye to gauge whether they meet our standards.

When packages call for studio shots (of actors, for example; or prepared foods) it will be obvious to the viewer and if necessary it will be made perfectly clear in the accompanying caption information.

Likewise, when we choose for artistic or other reasons to create fictional images that include photos it will be clear to the viewer (and explained in the caption information) that what they're seeing is an illustration, not an actual event.

Photographs we take and choose to use must individually or collectively, show the events they depict truthfully, honestly and without bias. This requirement applies whether they are taken by NPR journalists or come from other sources (such as freelancers or photo agencies).

We take great care when we translate data into charts and "infographics." For example, while always striving to be accurate, we also guard against false precision. And we carefully consider the scales applied to the information we use, to guard against giving data either too much or too little significance. (For more detailed guidance, consult the discussion of accuracy.)

Guideline: Don't create pseudonyms for sources whose names we withhold.

When we decide to withhold a source's name from a story, we don't invent a pseudonym for that source. Again, our job is to present factual – not fabricated – information. Instead, we use pronouns and descriptions to make clear who is speaking or whom we're referring to. (Or we may refer to him or her without using a last name, if the source is comfortable with that degree of anonymity, and the situation meets our standards for granting anonymity. See the section on transparency for more.)

Honesty online

Just as we do in the "real" world, we identify ourselves as NPR journalists when we are working online. So, if as part of our work we are posting comments, asking questions, tweeting, retweeting, blogging, Facebooking or doing anything on social media or other online forums, we clearly identify ourselves and that we work for NPR. We do not use pseudonyms when doing such work.

NPR journalists may, in the course of their work, "follow" or "friend" Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and other social media sites created by political parties and advocacy groups. But we do so to monitor their news feeds, not to become participants, and we follow and friend sites created by advocates from all sides of the issues. It's as basic a tool as signing up to be on mailing lists used to be.

If in their personal lives NPR journalists join online forums and social media sites, they may follow the conventions of those outlets and use screen names that do not identify who they are. But we do not use information gathered from our interactions on such sites in our reports for NPR. If we get ideas for stories, we treat the information just as we would anything we see in the "real world" — as a starting point that needs to be followed by open, honest reporting.

Finally, we acknowledge that nothing on the Web is truly private. Even on purely recreational or cultural sites and even if what we're doing is personal and not identified as coming from someone at NPR, we understand that what we say and do could still reflect on NPR. So we do nothing that could undermine our credibility with the public, damage NPR's standing as an impartial source of news, or otherwise jeopardize NPR's reputation. In other words, we don't behave any differently than we would in any public setting or on an NPR broadcast.


There is no privacy on the Web.

Imagine, if you will, an NPR legal correspondent named Sue Zemencourt. She's a huge fan of Enormous University's basketball team and loves to chat online about EU. She posts comments on blogs under the screen name "enormous1." One day, an equally rabid fan of Gigormous State ("gigormous1") posts obnoxious comments about EU.

Sue snaps. Expletives and insults fly from her fingers on to the webpage. They're so out-of-line that the blog blocks her from submitting any more comments — and discovers that her i.p. address leads back to NPR. The blog's host posts that "someone at NPR is using language that the FCC definitely would not approve of" and describes what was said. Things go viral.

The basically good person that she is, Sue publicly acknowledges and apologizes for her mistake. But that doesn't stop The Daily Show from satirizing about the "NPRNormous Explosion."

Damage done.

Be circumspect about your behavior, even when the exchange feels private or anonymous. Even an email to a trusted recipient can be made public, with or without the recipient's knowledge or consent.

Guideline: Online sources should be on-the-record too.

In today's world, many contacts with sources are made online — via emails and social media sites. As we discuss in the guidelines about accuracy and transparency, NPR pushes to keep its interviews on-the-record. The same is true of our "virtual" interactions with sources. We make that clear to potential sources when we reach out to them.

(Editor's note on July 27, 2017: Click here to go to an updated special section about the do's and don't's of social media.)