Mission Control

Wednesdays

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

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The House impeachment inquiry into President Trump has meant a ratcheting up of partisan scrutiny of NPR journalists' work. Unlike some of the critics, I think that overall the coverage has been journalistically strong (more on that in an upcoming column).

We last wrote about NPR's efforts to reduce the number of errors it makes about a year ago. At that point, the newsroom had set itself a goal to cut in half the number of items each month requiring corrections, and it had fallen far short.

After five-plus years, NPR's chief executive, Jarl Mohn, is leaving the role in mid-October. He will transition to part-time volunteer roles as president emeritus, a board member of the NPR Foundation (which raises money) and co-chair of NPR's 50th anniversary capital campaign.

Listeners have reacted with sadness to the news that Cokie Roberts, an NPR "founding mother," died this morning of complications from breast cancer.

As one listener wrote to our office, "she had a plumb, level and straight presence that promised that we would get through this hail and lightning storm."

One of the favorite parts of my job is when I get to talk directly to NPR listeners and readers at events organized by NPR member stations. At a recent Boulder, Colo., event held by the local station KUNC, a listener asked about what is known internally at NPR as a "level set" or a "context set."

A listener asked:

As language shifts, terms take on new meanings. But when is it appropriate for media organizations to reflect those changes?

Public media is built on a foundation of what I'd call basic decency. NPR's ethics handbook promises it will hold its journalists to the same high standards that it holds public officials and others it reports on: that it will treat the people it interviews with respect, and that it will be transparent and accountable for all it does.

Sounding Like A Reporter — And A Real Person, Too

Aug 7, 2019

What comes to mind when you imagine an "NPR voice"? You might hear the rich baritone of Bob Edwards. You might think of Terry Gross' velvety timbre. Or you might hear the hushed monotone parodied in Saturday Night Live's iconic "Schweddy Balls" sketch. Whatever you think of, you're not alone: Many listeners have an idea of what an NPR voice should sound like.

Morning Edition's regular half-minute of filler material (known internally as a "return") is meant to be light-hearted or funny, but the July 12 report hit a wrong tone for one listener. She wrote:

The inbox overflowed this past week with passionate (and yes, often angry) listener and reader feedback about NPR's decision to use the word "racist" to describe President Trump's tweets that certain members of Congress should "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came." He didn't name the members of Congress, but it was clear he was referring to four Democrats: women of color known as "The Squad," three of whom were born in the U.S.

Does NPR have a gender problem? A history problem?

Two high-profile men were arrested in recent days and charged with sexual crimes involving minors. Listeners had concerns about how NPR in some instances referred to those allegations, arguing that the language sanitized the severity of the charges.

NPR listeners and readers have strong and varied opinions about how NPR should apportion its reporting efforts. But over many months, one topic has come up again and again: climate change.

Considering All Things—Even Sex

Jun 14, 2019

NPR reports on divisive topics regularly. This month, it aired stories covering statewide abortion bans, the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and claims made by Michael Wolff in his new book, Siege: Trump Under Fire.

But a recent series from NPR's All Things Considered sought to approach a sensitive topic differently from how it is usually covered in the news.

The topic? Sex.

When is a "spoiler alert" not a spoiler alert? One clue: when the alert is actually a spoiler itself.

When reviewing or reporting on movies, TV shows and the like, NPR's arts desk and the newsroom overall are generally quite good about not revealing plot endings. Or, at least, they give listeners and readers a heads up that a spoiler is coming (so they can turn off the radio or not read the article).

The debate over abortion rights is emotionally charged. The language NPR uses to discuss the issue should not add to the drama.

This principle applies, of course, to any number of topics in the news that NPR covers. But the legal battle over the right to an abortion is particularly fraught, and the language used to discuss it has become a key tactical weapon used by both sides as they seek to tap into those emotions.

Who's On NPR?

May 21, 2019

An email from a reader or listener to this office can quickly turn into an Abbott and Costello routine: Who reported the story on what platform? Where? When? And how can audience members provide feedback? The editorial uncertainty stems from confusion over which content is produced by NPR, which comes from other producers and how to contact those who have power over editorial decision-making.

Morning Edition listeners could not have been surprised: NPR gave them lots of heads up that new theme music was coming this week, the first change since the show went on the air 40 years ago. And the music is actually better described as "new-ish" than "new."

Hitting A Wall

Apr 29, 2019

An April 22 online story about a new study examining the carbon footprint of meal kit delivery services prompted some constructive criticism from an npr.org reader, who wrote: "I have read many articles in the science category that reference a study and will state what university and person(s) have conducted it.

What better time to tackle the issue of NPR's policy around on-air pronunciation of non-English words than when the devastating fire in France's Notre Dame Cathedral has been in the news?

Some accents have been better than others, but across the board on NPR I've heard only a French pronunciation: "No-treh Daahm," instead of the Anglicized "Noter Dame." Not that a single listener has objected when hearing it pronounced more or less as the locals in France would say it. And that's telling.

The language used to describe immigration is one of the most common topics of concern when we hear from NPR listeners and readers. That's no surprise, really, given the rapidly evolving nature of what is happening at the Southwest border and the way some words ("crisis" and "illegal" come to mind) have been marshaled for political ends.

Assessing NPR's Recent Venezuela Coverage

Apr 9, 2019

NPR reporting on the crisis in Venezuela over the last several months has raised an outsized number of complaints. Are listeners getting the fullest picture of the political turmoil and its contributing factors? Is NPR directly or indirectly, as some listeners believe, helping make the case for White House intervention in the political affairs of another country?

Three little words. Or even just two. That's all it takes.

NPR has come in for criticism this week for some of the wording it has used to refer to special counsel Robert Mueller's report on his 22-month investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections. The most prominent criticism was on Twitter from Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, Democratic presidential candidate and chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Nancy Barnes started as NPR's senior vice president of news and editorial director in late November, replacing the yearlong interim newsroom leader Christopher Turpin (who replaced the ousted Michael Oreskes). Barnes has been quiet about her priorities for NPR since, citing a desire to listen and learn during her first three months.

Late last week, NPR's Invisibilia podcast released a new hour-long episode on the topic of pain. True to the show's mission to examine "the invisible forces that shape human behavior, our thoughts, our emotions, our expectations," the episode was a complex and thought-provoking exploration of how pain, in the opinion of some, might be related to the attention we pay to it.

Conscientious journalists try to avoid engaging in false equivalence and spreading misinformation while doing so.

They also try to tell stories fully, respectfully presenting multiple perspectives on the facts — facts being the baseline of all reporting — so listeners can make up their own minds.

They also try to hear directly from the people they are reporting about.

When a U.S. president schedules a Rose Garden announcement to talk about declaring a national emergency, it's a pretty safe bet that NPR will carry it live.

That was the case this morning, when NPR started airing "special coverage" of President Trump's declaration of a national emergency in order to help finance a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

NPR rolled out its labor-intensive process of almost simultaneous fact-checking on Tuesday night for President Trump's State of the Union speech. It also checked Stacey Abrams' Democratic response.

An announcement from NPR today is sure to make at least a couple of listeners and readers happy: NPR has changed the official title of my job to "Public Editor," from "Ombudsman."

A Dec. 17 report on All Things Considered about the Indian Child Welfare Act prompted harsh criticism from the Native American Journalists Association, which called it "inaccurate and imprecise." A meeting between NAJA leaders and NPR editors resulted in a clarification being posted on the online version of the piece, but NAJA members continued to have concerns about the reporting.

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