Mission Control

Wednesdays

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

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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.

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.

This week, Meghna Chakrabarti and David Folkenflik start the next chapter of their journalism careers as the new co-hosts of On Point, a public radio weekday news and talk program. We caught up with them to talk journalism, the radio landscape and more.

What's your pitch to new listeners about why they should listen to On Point?

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