Mission Control

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

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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.

A listener wrote: "What ethical calculus has been used to decide that NPR will broadcast POTUS live?"

He was referring to President Trump's Oval Office address tonight, his first from that venue. It is expected to be on the topic of immigration and his demand, as part of the negotiations to end the partial government shutdown, for funding for some kind of barrier on the southwest border.

NPR's use of temporary employees has been in the news, prompting questions to the Ombudsman Office.

Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, along with the broader questions about Russian interference in the 2016 election, are among the most pressing stories of the moment. They also are viewed through highly partisan lenses.

For those reasons (as well as for basic journalistic ones), NPR needs to get the story right. Yet for the second time this month, NPR has had to walk back a published report on the topic.

All world leaders and high-profile public figures leave behind complicated legacies, even the great ones. For three major deaths in a row (former President George H.W. Bush, Sen. John McCain and religious leader Billy Graham) the Ombudsman Office has heard from unhappy listeners who feel NPR's coverage has skewed toward the laudatory, while overlooking flaws in the person's legacy.

Even a public editor needs a week's break.

The Ombudsman Office is here to provide a voice in the newsroom for NPR listeners and readers. As I recently reported to NPR's board of directors, in the last year (November to November) that meant reading (and sharing with the newsroom, when appropriate) some 6,000 of your emails and countless tweets.

A few weeks back, a reader wrote the Ombudsman Office with "a small simple gripe." He had a thought about a story and wanted to get a comment to the NPR journalist who wrote it. He couldn't figure out a way to do that, noting that he uses no social media channels. "I e-mail, that's all."

He concluded: "Please allow for some sort of 'contact via email' access."

Having a diverse newsroom is crucial if NPR wants to tell stories that matter to an increasingly diverse country. For that reason, in each year of my tenure I have requested the newsroom staff diversity statistics from NPR's human resources department. Numbers don't tell the whole story, of course, but they offer one way to keep NPR's progress (or lack of significant progress in recent years) front and center.

The 2018 midterm elections are less than a week away. Jammed into that short span, President Trump has scheduled another ten of his usually raucous rallies in support of Republican candidates.

In June, the editor who oversees NPR's standards and practices, Mark Memmott, laid out what I called an "ambitious" goal: to halve the number of monthly mistakes. At that point, NPR was posting corrections at a rate of about 100 a month, which he called "unacceptable."

A new newsroom system was put in place. Memmott set a target date of October.

The tail end of Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination process released a powerful next phase in the #MeToo movement, as women poured out their previously untold stories of sexual assault. The political wrangling, meanwhile, provoked a furious, largely partisan, clash.

Two stories entwined, each offering multiple individual threads to explore. NPR's listeners and readers found plenty to praise and also to critique across the 12 hours of live special coverage and extensive newsmagazine and online coverage.

Longstanding NPR policy is to reserve the title of "Dr." for an individual who holds a doctor of dental surgery, medicine, optometry, osteopathic medicine, podiatric medicine or veterinary medicine.

NPR's Planet Money team specializes in making complex economic stories compelling and understandable. That often means stripping stories down to essentials and using anecdotes as a story device (the "show, not tell" school of journalism). The approach, which is dependent on deep reporting and very precise and tightly constructed storytelling, has worked well for a decade.

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.

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