Mission Control

Wednesdays

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

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In the wake of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death, one of the most popular stories NPR produced was a 9-minute essay by Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg on her 48-year friendship with the legendary judge.

When a reporter asked President Donald Trump for his thoughts on the teenager who killed two protesters and injured a third person in Kenosha, Wisc., Trump said, it looked like "self-defense."

The lead of the NPR story later that day reads that Trump claimed "without evidence, that it appeared the gunman was acting in self-defense."

When an ammonium nitrate explosion damaged half of Beirut last week, NPR's Lebanon correspondent Ruth Sherlock was in England, having recently returned to work from maternity leave, but unable to travel to her post because of the pandemic. Less than a mile from the explosion, freelance journalist Nada Homsi, who has been working with NPR, was in her apartment.

As federal agents guarding the courthouse from Portland protesters grew more violent throughout July, NPR, and member station Oregon Public Broadcasting, offered extensive coverage, including 40 stories and updates in 70 newscasts.

Many news organizations, including NPR, didn't immediately understand how things were heating up in Portland, but then jumped into covering the story with fervor.

NPR's four-member "election security team" is responsible for covering all things about American voting, from access, to fraud to innova

Protesters confront a car in Louisville, Ky.

News consumers are asking NPR to obscure the faces of protesters who have not given their explicit consent to have their images published.

These requests have come into the Public Editor inbox, and we've been tagged in conversations on social media. Newsrooms everywhere are facing similar requests.

Since a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd on Memorial Day, NPR has faced ethical challenges every hour of every day, including how to describe the killing, how to use the audio of Floyd's last words, how to document Floyd's life and how to describe the mass demonstrations.

The best answer to every one of these questions is: embrace precision, be descriptive, use more words. The more this happens, the better the journalism. When news organizations, including NPR, sometimes fall short, it's usually because of an attempt to economize words.

When journalists write or broadcast these words — "unarmed black man"— what do you hear? It's a phrase that has become pervasive in the American news media, including on NPR's airwaves and in its digital news stories.

Since a string of deaths of young black men at the hands of police gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, the phrase has become journalistic shorthand for this message: white people unjustly shooting a black man, because their racial prejudice led them to assume he was a threat.

That's a lot of work for three words.

On March 25, a community radio station in New York aired segments of a one-hour podcast interview with Tara Reade, who told a story of being sexually assaulted in 1993 by then Sen. Joe Biden, whom she worked for in his Senate office.

Last week, I was listening to Morning Edition when I heard Scott Horsley's story exploring the benefits and drawbacks of the federally enhanced unemployment benefits. Even before the Internet exploded, I had some questions.

Within a single hour last week, while listening to Morning Edition, I was first charmed by a delightful conversation between Peyton and Lola, 4- and 6-year-old cousins, describing their new reality; I then became enraged by an interview with U.N.

Years ago, when I worked at the New York Daily News, I had a busy day: two stories about CBS on the front page. They ran under a single headline that was, in my opinion, a very witty play on the title of the 1950s thriller, "Bad Day at Black Rock."

KUOW, an NPR Member station in Seattle, said earlier this week that it will no longer air the daily White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings live. The announcement was both praised and condemned by listeners who contacted the Public Editor's office.

Last week, I wrote about the listeners we heard from who want to hear more varied perspectives — from outside the DC beltway and the coasts, from rural areas — and some developments that I find hopeful. Here's one more.

As I finish up my tenure as NPR's Public Editor, I've been looking back over some of the persistent themes that have run through the audience concerns I've heard. One in particular has come up routinely. Broadly speaking, many in NPR's nationwide audience say they feel that NPR's representation of the U.S. focuses far too much on Washington, D.C., and the largest East and West Coast cities, and not nearly enough on the non-coastal rest of the country.

Late last year, many listeners and readers rightly objected when NPR released statistics tracking the diversity of its on-air sources and didn't include a category for Native or Indigenous sources, because the numbers were so low.

This is National News Literacy Week. In that spirit, here are some thoughts on the journalistic ethics surrounding the interview that NPR's Mary Louise Kelly conducted last week with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the aftermath, prompted by questions to my office.

As I prepare to wrap up my five years as Public Editor, I want to look at some of the broad themes that you — the listeners and readers — have raised repeatedly with my office. No surprise, one of the biggest concerns of the last four years has been NPR's coverage of then-candidate, now president, Donald Trump.

In July, we took a deep look at NPR's coverage of climate change and promised a follow-up once the newsroom had concluded its evaluation of whether changes were needed.

Listeners and readers have asked about NPR's policy regarding the use of the word "assassination" to describe the targeted killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. We asked the newsroom to explain.

New research into the diversity of NPR's on-air sources shows that in fiscal year 2018 (ended Sept. 30, 2018), the voices heard on NPR weekday newsmagazines were 83% white and 33% female.

The Public Editor's office received 8,958 emails from Nov. 1, 2018, through Nov. 1, 2019. That's some 3,000 more than last year, most certainly a reflection of the heightened public interest in news coverage of political affairs. Sprinkled in amid the concerns that our office is here to address, we sometimes find praise from listeners and readers. In the spirit of this week, we offer up thanks from you, and us, for just some of the NPR reporting we've appreciated this past year.

In fiscal year 2019, NPR's newsroom makeup was just over 28% people of color and just under 71% white. Nearly 57% of the staff was female, according to newsroom staff diversity statistics provided, at the request of the Public Editor's office, by NPR's human resources department.

Committees of the House of Representatives are conducting an impeachment inquiry into President Trump. The committees and the full House are controlled by the Democrats. Does that make it the "Democratic impeachment inquiry," as NPR regularly refers to it?

As the inquiry has progressed in recent weeks, our office has received a steady stream of listener objections to NPR's frequent characterization of the proceedings in partisan terms.

Here's a Monday newscast:

I wrote last week about what we in my office informally call "missing stories," those stories that NPR listeners and readers feel have been under-covered. Newsrooms have to set priorities, of course, and they can't cover everything. But this week's "missing story" is a particularly notable omission.

We are living through a period of unrelentingly mirthless headlines: An impeachment inquiry into the president's actions, an upsurge in the long-running war in Syria, climate crisis, disagreement over how to handle asylum seekers that has led to the separation of parents and children at the southern border. Readers seeking a break from that grim litany may be the only reason I can think of that an Oct.

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.

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