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NPR Ethics Chief Visits Campus, Talks News

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A National Public Radio editor returned to the University at Albany on Wednesday to discuss the role of media ethics in today’s society.

Mark Memmott, NPR’s Standards and Practices’ Editor, graduated from UAlbany in 1979, where he was involved heavily in the Albany Student Press and the journalism department. After interning at the Saratogian newspaper, coincidentally with journalism professor Barbara Lombardo, then went on to work for the newly-created USA Today, before becoming the S&P editor for NPR.

Memmott began his discussion, which was coordinated by Lombardo, by asking the audience, “Are journalism’s truths still self-evident?”

The truths he referred to are the journalism field’s goal of reporting the news with unbiased neutrality, and not passing judgment on any of it. With the recent political climate, Memmott brought up that there has been talk that media outlets such as NPR have been too “soft,” and that they do not hold the politicians in question as accountable as the media should.

“Journalism does not have a [political] party; journalism gets to the truth,” the editor said.

Memmott brought up an incident in which NPR received valid criticism for being seen as too “soft” on their decision to not use the word “lie” as other news outlets have done when reporting on the recent claims by the presidential administration that the inauguration had a larger attendance than it was shown to have.

NPR backed their decision to not use the word “lie” because there was no way to prove that the lies were intentional, and the use of “lie” may have distracted readers from the actual meaning and focus of the article, according to Memmott.

The goal of journalists to relay the news without any sort of opinion can end up hurting the opinion of the media, as this can lead individuals to believe the media is condoning the news, even if the publication may not agree with the events of what they are reporting on.

This goal of unbiased reporting is what NPR strives for, the UAlbany alum said.

An audience member questioned the inherent censorship of NPR, with FCC regulations, to which Memmot explained that this is also taken into consideration during his duties as the S&P editor. A station or broadcaster can be fined if they air “offensive content,” and the guidelines for what is considered offensive are vague.

Word choice is one of the biggest daily considerations that NPR faces, which Memmott believes is one of the biggest challenges presented to S&P editors across the country.

Calling something a lie without proof of intent that the person who said the false claim actively knew what they were saying was false, could deter readers. In an industry that needs to find new ways to being in new viewers daily, offending people, is not something that NPR wants to do, Memmott said.

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