Mission Control

Wednesdays

Mission Control is a blog sharing information about the operation of NPR Illinois.

To share your thoughts on NPR Illinois or other nonprofits, use a contact option on this page.

NPR newsroom leaders have concluded their investigation into the work of a longtime freelance contributor, Danielle Karson, one month after they said they had discovered she had recycled sound bites in some of her radio reports.

Matt Penning selfie on his recumbent tricycle.
Matt Penning / mattpenning.com

It is a joyful event when NPR Illinois is able to hire new staff.  

Newsrooms aren't perfect. Trustworthy newsrooms, however, make adjustments (preferably quickly) when their errors are pointed out.

This office gets weekly complaints about what is perceived to be an imbalance in guests: There are too many Republicans interviewed and not enough Democrats. Or vice versa. Or a partisan from one side is interviewed without a corresponding counterpoint.

So I was pleased to see that NPR on Friday pulled back the curtain a bit about its attempts last week to book politicians to discuss the Paul Manafort verdict and the Michael Cohen guilty plea: The scarcity of Republican politicians, in this case (as occasionally happens with Democrats, too), wasn't for a lack of trying.

Morning Edition listeners will have noticed this week that the newscasts, or headlines, have moved around. Newscasts had aired each hour at 1 minute after the hour and again at 19 minutes and 42 minutes after the hour. Now, while there is the same amount of newscast time, it is grouped in just two breaks, at more intuitive times at the top and bottom of the hour — as was the case for most of Morning Edition's nearly four-decade history.

Sunday's "Unite the Right 2" rally across from the White House was a bust, when just a couple of dozen protesters turned up. But the outrage against NPR over its coverage leading up to the event will likely live for a long time.

NPR said Friday that it discovered that a longtime freelance contributor, Danielle Karson, had recycled sound bites in more than two dozen reports that aired from 2011 until recently. NPR has handled the discovery, which was made by a producer and an editor, quickly and transparently, as it should.

Wildfires are ravaging hundreds of thousands of acres of the western United States and Canada this summer, taking lives and homes in California, closing parts of Yosemite National Park to visitors and racing through forests and grasslands in Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado and British Columbia. Smoke from those fires is causing breathing difficulties as far away as Maine.

'Adjusting Appropriately' To Words That Hurt

Aug 8, 2018

In recent weeks, the Ombudsman's Office received complaints from listeners and readers about a handful of specific words used by the newsroom. These listeners and readers argued that the words have racial histories that made them inappropriate.

This is an ongoing concern of NPR audience members: words that are in common usage, but that a growing number of people now understand have racial or ethnic roots that make them offensive to some, at least in some situations.

Last week, NPR released the fourth year of internal studies examining the diversity of its sources: people who are interviewed or quoted in stories, either on-air or online.

Late in 2015, this office released the third-year results of an internal NPR study examining the diversity of the outside sources heard on NPR's weekday radio newsmagazines. (Outside sources are the people interviewed and quoted by NPR; they do not include NPR's own reporters and hosts.) Now we have a fourth year of that analysis, this time looking at the makeup of the sources that NPR used in five online blogs during the 2016 fiscal year (Oct.

On June 30, NPR's Weekend All Things Considered aired a lighthearted World Cup piece discussing why the Brits use "football" and the Americans use "soccer" to refer to the same game. The subsequent debate this piece sparked has nothing to do with soccer and is not remotely lighthearted.

Update: Four days after this column was published, NPR changed its policy. According to a July 2 memo from Sara Goo, an NPR managing editor who oversees digital content, to the newsroom, "opinion content published on NPR.org must now include 'Opinion:' as the first word of the headline."

Can NPR reduce the number of monthly mistakes it makes in half, by October? That's the newsroom's ambitious goal.

On Monday, referencing an error rate that he called "unacceptable," NPR's standards and practices editor Mark Memmott laid out a new newsroom system that he hopes will lead to fewer corrections.

With two suicides this week of well-known Americans, "best practices" for reporting such deaths are again relevant. NPR's reporting has mostly been exemplary, even as it has missed the mark at least twice.

A newscast at 4 p.m. ET Thursday reported the means by which fashion designer Kate Spade took her life; the 1 p.m. Friday newscast reported the same for Anthony Bourdain, the chef-turned-food journalist. The headline reports that start each hour are the most-heard NPR reports. Listeners complained about both reports.

Very few people these days are going to the landing pages for NPR blogs such as The Two-Way (for breaking news) or Parallels (for international news) to catch up on the day's happenings. If you're one of them, however, you're going to encounter some changes come June 5.

A story breaks. An NPR reporter writing an online story (not a radio newsmagazine report, where there might be a firmer deadline) attempts to contact a subject of the news. How long is a reasonable amount of time to wait for a response before posting the story at NPR.org without one?

That debate is at the bottom of a complaint about an NPR story that ran last week. It is also a question newsrooms are facing daily in the #MeToo era as accusations against public figures proliferate.

NPR, like other news organizations, is in a fight for the attention of audiences. That means getting aggressive about putting NPR journalism where readers (and listeners) are. Increasingly, that's on their phones. As a result, NPR has ramped up its "push" notifications, the alerts that pop up on mobile phone home screens when news breaks. (NPR also sends out email alerts, which often duplicate the push notifications.)

My last column on the burgeoning number of politician interviews on NPR's newsmagazines, many live (and then rebroadcast over subsequent hours), provoked a good deal of response.

My essential point (channeling the frustrations of many listeners) was that the interviews, which have proliferated on NPR in the last year, too often do not add to listeners' understanding of the issues being discussed.

Live interviews with newsmakers. If I had to find a thread that runs through a couple of hundred listener emails, tweets and direct communications with my office in recent months, it would be concerns that stem from the challenges of doing live interviews. Those three- to five-minute conversations (or sometimes grillings) with politicians and policy experts are now a regular staple of Morning Edition and are being heard more frequently on the weekday All Things Considered, as well.

Listeners who tuned in to All Things Considered Wednesday may have heard a strangely vague on-air story retraction that raised as many questions as it answered — especially for those who didn't hear the original story on April 3.

Here's what was said:

Is NPR's newsroom a "rabble of pagans"?

Here's bad news for fans of NPR's 13.7 Cosmos & Culture. The 7-year-old opinion blog, "set at the intersection of science and culture," which featured the work of scientist-contributors — Adam Frank, Barbara J. King, Tania Lombrozo, Marcelo Gleiser and Alva Noë — is closing down April 14. The contributors will have a chance to write final posts before then.

Last Friday, All Things Considered aired a four-minute piece that was an extended on-air correction to an on-air interview that aired two days earlier, about Gina Haspel, President Trump's nominee for director of the CIA.

In recent weeks, many listeners have noticed something new: NPR hosts urging them to tell their smart speaker to play NPR. It's a sign that NPR is now available and prominently featured as a leading news source on Amazon's Alexa, Apple's HomePod, Samsung's Bixby, Microsoft's Cortana, and Google Home. But the messages have confused some listeners and raised concerns from others about why NPR is seemingly promoting the technology, and whether it is being paid to do so.

The report of an independent two-month investigation into how NPR's management handled allegations of sexual harassment by Michael Oreskes, the former Senior Vice President of News who was forced to resign Nov.

On Dec. 10, my office (as well as the NPR newsroom directly) received emails from a retired Bellingham, Wash., resident named Paul Vanderveen, requesting corrections to an NPR story.

My office gets requests for corrections nearly every week and normally we don't write about them. Occasional mistakes are a regrettable byproduct of journalism and it's more important that errors get corrected quickly, as I've found NPR usually does. But this one stood out, and seemed worth a closer look.

It's time for our annual update on the racial, ethnic and gender diversity of the NPR newsroom.

NPR's Visuals Team, specifically the Video team, had a formidable showing at the White House News Photographers Association's "2018 Eyes of History: Multimedia Contest" over the weekend. According to the association's website, "The Eyes of History contests are held annually to select the best in visual journalism across still, video, and multimedia disciplines."

The NPR Visuals team racked up a total of 12 awards across the nine categories.

NPR's news operation is a team effort. But a newsroom can't abruptly lose its leader — as NPR did in November when Michael Oreskes resigned under pressure amid allegations of sexual harassment — and expect to bounce back quickly or easily.

Pages