Earning The Public Trust

Apr 28, 2016

As you might imagine, JPR gets a fair amount of listener feedback. A recent email from one listener criticized JPR for an episode of RadioLab we aired which this listener contended was the final straw that proved JPR supported the proliferation and use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs have been a hot topic in recent years, both regionally and nationally, with bans approved by voters in Jackson and Josephine counties and the narrow defeat of an Oregon statewide GMO food labeling initiative in 2014.

We feel like we've done our best work when we find knowledgeable, articulate spokespeople able to give our listeners clear dimension and perspective about issues central to our democratic society.

While I suspect most listeners know that JPR doesn’t take positions on any political issue in order to maintain our editorial integrity in covering all sides of important civic debates, it’s worth saying. JPR doesn’t believe it’s our job to tell our listeners how to think or vote on any issue. Rather, our mission is to inform the public with fact-based, contextual, in-depth journalism that helps our listeners think for themselves. Unlike many newspapers which take positions on issues and endorse political candidates on their editorial pages, JPR believes that taking sides on issues of public importance would damage the trust we’ve earned with our listeners to be a fair, independent source of news and information. I hope you hear this philosophy at work each day when you listen to JPR.

RadioLab airs at noon on Saturdays on JPR's Rhythm & News service and online at www.ijpr.org.

  I was curious what might have triggered the belief that JPR had taken a stance on the GMO issue. And so I did a search of JPR’s GMO coverage on our website at ijpr.org. The search yielded 110 results, which included numerous voices on both sides of the GMO debate. Among the anti-GMO voices we interviewed were Elise Higley, an organic farmer and director of Our Family Farms Coalition in Jackson County; Mary Middleton, organizer of the Josephine County drive against GMOs and leader of Oregonians for Safe Farms and Families; Dr. Raj Patel, a research professor specializing in global food systems at the University of Texas and author of Stuffed and Starved; George Kimbrell, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety in Portland; and Dr. Vandana Shiva, a scientist and environmental activist who opposes genetically engineered crops and corporate-patented seeds. Among the pro-GMO voices we interviewed were Katie Fast, Vice President of Public Policy at the Oregon Farm Bureau; Jim and Marliyn Frink, family farmers in Sams Valley who grow genetically-modified alfalfa, wheat and barley; John Watt, a former Oregon legislator representing Good Neighbor Farmers; and Gail Greenman, National Affairs Director for the Oregon Farm Bureau.

In addition to these perspectives, we also conducted our own original enterprise reporting that included an analysis of where funds were coming from to support both sides of the pro and anti GMO ballot initiatives and talked to experts like Dr. Dan Arp, Oregon State University’s Dean of Agricultural Sciences and co-convener of the Governor’s Task Force on Genetically Engineered Agriculture.

In selecting national programs that we air on JPR, we apply the same values we would in creating local programming. Only in the case of national programs, we can’t possibly listen to and screen every program episode prior to its broadcast on JPR, nor do I think we should. Instead, we carefully evaluate the credentials and experience of each program producer and listen to the body of work they’ve created before scheduling a program we’ll stand behind.

Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich are the hosts of Radiolab.
Credit CREDIT MARCO LAU / MARCOANTONIO.COM

In the case of RadioLab, we love the program’s ability to attract a new generation of public radio listeners by inspiring curiosity around science, philosophy and culture. Radiolab is co-hosted and produced by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. Jad Abumrad is the recipient of a 2011 “Genius Award” by the MacArthur Foundation for “engaging audio explorations of scientific and philosophic questions” which “captivate listeners and bring broadcast journalism a distinctive new aesthetic.” Abumrad is the Lebanese-American son of a doctor and a scientist and a fresh, diverse voice in public radio.                                                                                                               

Robert Krulwich earned his Juris Doctor degree from Columbia Law School in 1974. He abandoned his pursuit of a law career to cover the Watergate hearings for Pacific Radio. Since then he’s been an NPR Science reporter and produced segments for PBS’s Frontline, Nova and NOW with Bill Moyers. Krulwich has won numerous awards, including a Peabody and an American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism Award. If you haven’t heard RadioLab, I would encourage you to check out the program—it airs on JPR’s Rhythm and News Service on Sundays at noon.

Each week, nearly 100,000 people tune to JPR. I have no doubt that given the range of topics we cover and the diverse experiences and perspectives of our audience, at some point every one of our listeners will think: “Hmmm, I’m not sure I agree with that.” We trust our audience as tolerant, critical thinkers and educated media consumers. And we do our best to focus on the quality of the information we provide, on as many sides of political and civic issues as we can see. We feel like we’ve done our best work when we find knowledgeable, articulate spokespeople able to give our listeners clear dimension and perspective about issues central to our democratic society. That said, the feedback we get from listeners is a vital part of public radio’s mission and an essential element that keeps us humble, introspective and corrective when we get something wrong.

Paul Westhelle is JPR’s Executive Director.