Search Results for: Memmos


Guidance On Facebook & ‘NPR Live’ #

When a story involves Facebook, when and what do we need to say or write about “NPR Live?”

The best advice is to err on the side of disclosure. When the news is about Facebook’s business or about controversies such as whether it does or does not “suppress” conservative stories, we should say something like this (from a David Folkenflik report):

“Facebook pays NPR and other leading news organizations to produce live video streams that run on the site. The network calls its offerings NPR live.”

Other information that can be added includes the fact that Facebook has “no role in the content of the videos” (a line from NPR Extra). The part of the line about what NPR calls its offerings is certainly optional.

If the story has little or no connection to Facebook’s “business,” such as COO Sheryl Sandberg’s thoughts about the challenge of being a single mother, a line about NPR Live may not be necessary. Senior editors and show executive producers should be making the call, with guidance from the deputy managing editors or standards & practices editor.

(“Memmos;” May 19, 2016)


‘Choice’ Is Not The Word To Use #

Several times we have said the so-called bathroom bill in North Carolina is about whether transgender people should be able “to use the public bathrooms of their choice.”

In this case, “choice” is a loaded word. Proponents of laws restricting bathroom access to the sex on someone’s birth certificate say transgender people want to “choose” which bathroom to use, which also implies that being transgender is a “choice.” But transgender people say choice isn’t involved; that that this is about people using the bathrooms that match the genders they identify with. They say being transgender is who they are, not a choice.

We look for neutral language. One way to talk about this subject is to say it’s a debate over whether transgender people should be allowed to use public bathrooms “based on their gender identities or, instead, what’s stated on their birth certificates.”

As for “gender identity,” the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association defines it as “an individual’s emotional and psychological sense of having a gender; feeling like a man, woman, both or neither (gender nonconformity). Does not necessarily align with an individual’s sex at birth.”

We’re going to be using “gender identity” again. It could help our audience understand the phrase if we take a moment when possible to explain it, perhaps simply as “the way we feel about ourselves.”


Reminder: It’s ‘Transgender,’ Not ‘Transgendered’

On Gender Identity

– NPR Issues New Guidance On Manning’s Gender Identity

(“Memmos;” May 16, 2016)


Reminder: It’s “Transgender,’ Not ‘Transgendered’ #

As we report about the administration’s letter to schools, the HB2 law in North Carolina and related stories, here’s a reminder: Someone is “transgender,” not “transgendered.” And it’s “transgender people,” not “transgendered people.”

Vox has written about the difference between “transgender” and “transgendered” here:

The National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association has helpful language resources here:

Related posts:

–  On Gender Identity

–  NPR Issues New Guidance On Manning’s Gender Identity

(“Memmos;” May 13, 2016)


‘I Mostly Listen’: One Key To Avoid ‘Othering’ #

“Othering,” or “otherizing,” has been a topic of conversations on the campaign trail this year and in newsrooms for many years.

I think of it this way: Othering is when a story feels like it’s about “them” and that “they” aren’t like “us.” They’re “others.” It can look and sound as if the news outlet or reporter is tone deaf or condescending. The stories often feel like the reporters began with preconceived notions and looked for confirmation.

This post isn’t about a case of othering. Read or listen to Debbie Elliott’s piece this week about “transgender rights, the new front in culture wars.” The central character is LBGTQ advocate Lane Galbraith. I didn’t detect any othering, so I asked Debbie about the way she reports.

“You know, my approach is always to just try to get to know the people I’m interviewing as people first, not ‘subjects,’ ” she said in an email. “I get rather familiar quickly, but always say something like, ‘OK, now I’m going to get a little nosy or into private territory, please don’t be offended and feel free to wave me off if it’s too personal.’ I will also be honest and admit that I’m not sure a question is appropriate, but ‘here’s what I’d like to know.’

“Generally, I find that people are longing to tell their story, so I mostly listen. And in this case, we had spoken a few times before during the same sex marriage battles in Alabama, so I had a bit of a foundation to build from. …

“There are some interviews you do that are mostly about gathering facts, or (let’s be honest here) getting the sound bite you need. But if you’re looking to share a deeper truth, and get below the surface of the news of the day, it requires a different approach.  You have to care about a person’s story and give them the time and space to tell it.  And that’s hardly ever linear or even logical.  Those kind of interviews are certainly less efficient, but can yield priceless insights.”

There’s a key point there: “I mostly listen.” Also, yes, we tell stories. But they’re not about us or our preconceived notions. As Debbie says, “people are longing to tell their story … give them the time and space to tell it.”

No news outlet gets this right every time. We should keep talking about othering and how to avoid it. Please flag “good” and “bad” examples.

Related:Don’t ‘radiosplain’ and other ways to report on communities that aren’t your own.”

(“Memmos;” May 12, 2016)


Guidance On North Carolina’s ‘HB2′ #

First, the “long version” describing what HB2 is all about:

HB2 is the controversial North Carolina law limiting civil rights protections for LGBT people. It excludes LGBT people from the state’s non-discrimination laws and prevents local governments from offering discrimination protections that go beyond the state’s. It also requires people to use public restrooms that correspond with the sex indicated on their birth certificates.

The law also eliminates the ability to sue in state court over a discrimination claim and prevents local governments from requiring contractors to pay a higher minimum wage than the state’s.

Then, a shorter (hopefully intro- and spot-friendly) version:

HB2 is the controversial North Carolina law that limits civil rights protections for LGBT people.

“So-called bathroom bill” is acceptable in billboards and as a subsequent reference in stories. Material from the “long version” can certainly be folded into pieces in different places.

Note: LGBT is acceptable on first reference. Somewhere else in the story, spell out “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.”

Thanks go out to Brent Wolfe at WUNC, Russell Lewis, Theo Balcomb and Renita Jablonski.

(“Memmos;” May 11, 2016)


Reminder: Sometimes ‘Can I Get Your Name?’ Isn’t Enough #

In some situations and before some interviews, it is very important to make sure the people we’re speaking to have agreed to let us use their names and that they understand our reports — and their names — will “live” on digital platforms, in theory at least, forever.

We’ve discussed this before, in posts about:

How To Explain Why We Won’t ‘Take Down’ A Story.

‘This Story About You Is Going To Be On The Web Forever And You May Come To Regret That.’

Right here, we’ll stop to state what should be obvious: This is not about situations where it isn’t safe or practical to have a detailed conversation about the difference between NPR’s broadcast and digital platforms. Don’t stop running from the gunshots to discuss the fact that the story’s going on as well. Also, this isn’t about interviews with public officials, corporate executives and others who are familiar with how the media works.

This is mostly about sensitive stories (chronic health issues; addictions; criminal histories; hate crimes; etc.) during which someone has expressed concern about being identified or we know that how we’re going to ID them requires careful thought. This is also often about stories involving minors.

Be sure it’s clear to people in such situations that we’re more than a radio network. You’d be surprised how often people still don’t realize that what we do goes on to various platforms.

Having them on tape acknowledging it’s OK to use their names is ideal. If there’s a discussion about some type of anonymity, follow the guidance on:

- The ‘don’ts’ of anonymity.

- A supervisor decides if anonymous news is shared.

- Whether To Go With ‘First-Name-Only’ Needs To Be Discussed And Explained.

- Our word is binding.

Getting this right is in line with one of our core principles: Respect.

Getting it right will also make it less likely that in later months or years someone will ask us to remove them from a story because “I didn’t say you could use my name.” If you ever receive such a request, by the way, don’t immediately reply. Forward it to your supervisor and the Standards & Practices editor.

(“Memmos;” May 5, 2016)


On ‘Presumptive’ #

Here’s a definition we dust off every four years. It will come into play, but not just yet:

Presumptive nominee: Has accumulated the required number of delegates to be the Democratic or Republican party’s nominee, but hasn’t been officially made the nominee. Basically, it’s a designation that applies from when someone gets the required number of delegates up to the vote at the convention (after that, the person is a plain old “nominee”).

Obviously, at this point there are clear front-runners for the Republican and Democratic nominations. For some sharp analysis about where they stand and how likely they are to be the nominees, check Domenico’s post from early this morning.

(“Memmos;” April 27, 2016)


‘Factoid’ Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does #

If you use the word “factoid” to describe a single bit of important information or “factoids” to talk about several pieces of such data, we will get complaints.

Here’s why:

Norman Mailer gets the credit for coming up with the word “factoid,” which he used in a 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe. Merriam-Webster notes that Mailer called them “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority.”

Mailer seems to have chosen the suffix “oid” because it forms “resembling” nouns. Think of it this way: A “humanoid” resembles a human — but isn’t human. A “factoid,” then, resembles a fact — but isn’t one, according to Mailer’s definition. Judging from our email traffic, plenty of people agree with him.

Now, English is a living language. Meanings do change. In 1993, William Safire worried that the word would come to mean “a little-known bit of information; trivial but interesting data.”

Safire was right. Webster’s New World dictionary defines the word as “a single fact or statistic variously regarded as being trivial, useless, unsubstantiated, etc.”

The Grammarist blog points out that that in the U.S., at least, “‘factoid’ is now almost exclusively used to mean ‘a brief interesting fact.’ … This definition is still considered incorrect by people who follow English usage, but it’s so widespread those who dislike it may eventually have to accept it, even if it does contradict the word’s original sense.”

Where does this leave us? If you want to be cheered rather than jeered for your attention to language, save “factoid” for those occasions when the subject is something that resembles a fact, but isn’t one. Or for things that are “trivial, useless [and] unsubstantiated.” For everything else, the simple word “fact” is accurate and you can save yourself a syllable.

As for words such as “literally,” “founder” and “reticent,” there are many online lists of those we all misuse. Here’s a Huffington Post version with 50 entries.

Our own list is here.

(“Memmos;” April 25, 2016)


A Reminder About A Word We Shouldn’t Use And Some More Thoughts On Avoiding Labels #

We said this week that a man was “mentally retarded.”

“Retarded” is not a word we use to describe anyone. It’s among the “words that hurt.”

Joe Shapiro, who has done a lot of reporting and thinking about this, suggests phrases such as “intellectual disability” or “developmentally disabled” and that they be used with a “people first” approach. That is, put the person before the condition. Say “a man with an intellectual disability” rather than “a mentally retarded man.”

If you can’t seem to avoid a label, the AP recommends “mentally disabled,” “intellectually disabled” or “developmentally disabled.” But those aren’t great alternatives, as is often the case with labels.

As for labels, reminders are in order:

No. 1: “It is generally best to avoid labeling people, especially with terms that partisans have chosen.” Use “action words” to describe people rather than pinning them with labels.

No. 2: It’s certainly almost always best “to avoid labeling people who have medical conditions.” As we’ve written before, “it’s better to say someone ‘has been diagnosed with schizophrenia’ rather than ‘is a schizophrenic.’ Or, ‘she is being treated for anorexia’ rather than ‘she is an anorexic.’ Or, ‘he is diabetic,’ instead of ‘he is a diabetic.’ ”

No. 3: Pay particularly close attention to the way you refer to people who have gone through traumatic experiences. We’ve previously discussed the language regarding survivors of sexual assault.

This isn’t about political correctness. It’s about respect for those we report about (and “Respect” is one of our core principles) and it’s about accuracy (another core principle).

(“Memmos;” April 22, 2016)


Guidance On The Name Of The Ukrainian Pilot #

Going forward, the Ukrainian military pilot who is jailed in Russia should be referred to as “Nadiya Savchenko,” not “Nadezhda Savchenko.” We want to state and write her first name the way a Ukrainian would, not a Russian.

Yes, we realize other news outlets are using “Nadezhda.”

Courtesy of Corey Flintoff, here is pronunciation guidance for her last name: “SAHV-chen-ko.”

(“Memmos;” April 20, 2016)


Reminder: ‘When Language Is Politicized, Seek Neutral Words That Foster Understanding’ #

The news from North Carolina about its gender identity law and from several states about laws allowing businesses to refuse service to LGBT customers make this a good time to reread our guidance on avoiding politicized, or loaded, language. It’s here.

Some key points:

– “Strive to use words and phrases that accurately deliver information without taking sides on emotional or political issues.”

– “In such cases we go with what’s accurate. And err on the side of neutrality.”

– “We also take the time to explain to our audience how certain words or phrases have taken on politically loaded meanings.”

– “Politically loaded language not only violates our commitment to be fair, but also gets in the way of telling good stories.”

Basically, beware the language and labels that any side wants us to use. We figure out for ourselves what’s the clearest thing to say.

(“Memmos;” April 15, 2016)


Korva Discovers That Hailstones Come In ‘Grapefruit’ And ‘Softball’ Sizes; Diatribe About Clichés Averted #

We were prepared to issue another rant about clichés this morning after hearing during the 6 a.m. ET Newscast that hailstones ranging in size from “grapefruits to softballs” fell in Dallas on Monday. Can’t we find some other comparisons?

We were also prepared to complain that grapefruits and softballs are basically the same size, so there really wasn’t a “range.”

But, as she sometimes is, Korva was on to something. NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center has posted a “traditional object-to-size conversion for assessment and translation of severe hail reports.”

Based on the diameters (in inches), here are NOAA’s conversions:

0.50 … marble or moth ball
0.75 … penny
0.88 … nickel
1.00 … quarter

1.25 … half dollar
1.50 … walnut or ping pong ball
1.75 … golf ball
2.00 … hen egg

2.50 … tennis ball
2.75 … baseball
3.00 … tea cup
4.00 … grapefruit
4.50 … softball

Thus, it appears there is official paperwork that blesses weather-worn clichés about hail. And as you see, there’s official word confirming there is a (slight) range between grapefruits and softballs.

However, the fight against clichés will continue. Previous posts:

No, Virginia, It ‘Tisn’t The Season
Let’s Toss ‘Hat In The Ring’ Into The Cliché Round File
We Wave A Lot; Perhaps We Should Stem The Tide

Jonathan Kern’s thoughts about cliches are also worth rereading:

Cliches and shopworn phrases: “This decision comes in the wake of a ruling last week,” “the long-simmering dispute has provoked a storm of controversy,” “investors have been taken for a wild ride by the roller coaster stock market,” “public school teachers are leaving in droves” – these are just a few examples of the hundreds of modular phrases journalists use to write with a minimum of effort. It’s understandable: the reporters and news writers are under deadline pressure, and these are the phrases that spring to mind. The editor’s job is not to let them get away with it.

(“Memmos;” April 12, 2016)


Don’t Be Fooled #

The first thing to say is that it’s “April Fools’ Day,” not “April Fool’s Day.” Be careful where you put the apostrophe.

The second thing to say is “be careful.” It’s already April 1 in some places. For the next day or so news sites, blogs and social media will be trying to trick others into reporting, retweeting and posting their “reports” as if they’re true.

For tips on some of the clues to look for when trying to figure out what’s real and what’s fake, listen to the conversation that Messrs. Zwerdling, Silverman and Gordemer had on Weekend All Things Considered.

For a look at some of the media mischief in the past, check out Linton’s post from last March.

(“Memmos;” March 31, 2016)


You May Hear The Word ‘Sniveling’ More Times Today Than In All Of NPR’s Previous 46 Years #

We hadn’t heard a presidential candidate call an opponent a “sniveling coward” until yesterday. But there it was, in newscasts and on Add it to the many things we hadn’t heard before this campaign.

Language lovers may be wondering:

Has that phrase or just the word “sniveling” been heard on NPR before?

A search of our transcripts, which go back to 1990, turns up two examples of the specific phrase.

- A 1991 piece from Sylvia Poggioli in which Croatian soldiers and “Serb insurgents” are heard trading insults on their walkie-talkies. “You’re a sniveling coward,” one Croatian called his enemy. (Google Translate tells us that in Croatian it would be “sniveling kukavica.”)

- A 1995 report by John Burnett about closing arguments in the trial of 11 Branch Davidians. The U.S. attorney said one of the defendants was a “sniveling coward” for firing at law officers from a place where there were children hiding.

“Sniveling” or “snivelling” turn up in transcripts 39 times. The closest example to this week’s usage is from 1992 when Mary Matalin, political director of President George H.W. Bush’s re-election campaign, said Bill Clinton’s campaign was full of “sniveling hypocrites.” She later apologized. She also later married Clinton campaign strategist James Carville.

A search of turns up 16 examples of “sniveling” or “snivelling.”

Where does the word “snivel” come from?

- Oxford Dictionaries says “Late Old English (recorded only in the verbal noun  snyflung ‘mucus’), from snofl, in the same sense; compare with snuffle.”

- Webster’s says “[Middle English] snivlen < [Old English] snyflan < base seen in snofl, mucus.”

What does “snivel” mean?

- In the context put forward this week, it is “to fret or complain in a whining, tearful manner … to make a whining, tearful, often false display of grief, sympathy, disappointment, etc.” (Webster’s)

Did Shakespeare ever use the word?

- Shakespeare search engines indicate the answer is no. But here’s one highfalutin place it shows up: In playwright Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Abigail Williams calls Elizabeth “Goody” Proctor “a lying, cold, sniveling woman.”

Why is this post attached to the NPR Ethics Handbook?

- As you’ve hopefully figured out the past two years, “Memmos” aren’t always about ethical issues. Sometimes we just have a few minutes to spare during lunch and start poking around.

(“Memmos;” March 25, 2016)


Guidance On Podcast ‘Back Announces’ #

Chris Turpin, V.P. for news programming and operations, writes:

As podcasts grow in number and popularity we are talking about them more often in our news programs.  We are also fielding more and more questions from news staff and Member stations about our policies for referring to podcasts on air.  To that end, we want to establish some common standards, especially for language in back announces. Our hope is to establish basic principles that are easy to understand and allow plenty of flexibility for creativity.  These guidelines apply to all podcasts, whether produced by NPR or by other entities.

– No Call to Action:We won’t tell people to actively download a podcast or where to find them. No mentions of, iTunes, Stitcher, NPR One, etc.


“That’s Linda Holmes of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast and our blogger on the same subject and Bob Mondello, NPR’s film critic. Thanks so much.


“OK, everyone. You can download Alt.Latino from iTunes and, of course, via the NPR One app.

– Informational, not Promotional: When referring to podcasts, and the people who host, produce, or contribute to them, we will mention the name of the podcast but not in a way that explicitly endorses it.  References should not specifically promote the content of the podcast (e.g.,  “This week, the Politics Podcast team digs into delegate math.”) If you feel a podcast title needs explaining (e.g. Hidden Brain), some additional language can be added (e.g., “That’s Shankar Vedantam, he hosts a podcast that explores the unseen patterns of human behavior. It’s called, Hidden Brain” ). Just to repeat: Be creative in how you back announce podcasts, but please avoid outright promotion.

– No NPR One: For now, NPR One will not be promoted on the air.

There will be exceptions to these rules, but when in doubt let these principles be your guide.

If you have specific practical questions the Holmes Brothers or Mark Memmott are great places to go for answers.

And, as always, I’m happy to discuss any aspect of this decision.

(“Memmos;” March 16, 2016)


This May Make You Smile: A 12-Year-Old’s Polite Note About ‘Kids’ #

We get several emails a day from folks who want to correct our grammar. Many start like this:

“Would you please inform [insert name of NPR journalist] that to say [insert mistake, often about “lie” or “lay”] is incorrect.” Then they usually question the quality of our educations.

We recently got a warmer wag of a finger. Jarrod Jackson in Audience Relations passed along an actual letter – on paper – from 12-year-old Sylvia Seay of Crozet, Va. She chided us just a bit while also being absolutely charming, at least in the eyes of many in the newsroom.

-          Page 1 is here.

-          Be sure to open Page 2 as well.

Sylvia is a fan of NPR, but she has an issue:

“I have noticed that you refer to parents as ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers,’ rather than ‘moms’ and ‘dads.’ Despite this, children are still dubbed ‘kids.’ …

“I find this improper because the definition for ‘kid’ in Webster’s 7th New Collegiate Dictionary is as follows:  ‘A young goat, or various related animals.’

“A child does not fall under this category. I myself am a child in 8th grade and of twelve years. I would suggest another term in place of ‘kid,’ such as: child, youth, younger population, teen, minor, or whippersnapper (haha).”

A search of turns up about 1,300 mentions of “kids” in the past year and 1,400 of “children.”

The numbers wouldn’t have been that close, I bet, a few decades ago. I told Sylvia in an email that I remember being admonished by an editor nearly 40 years ago. “Children are not ‘kids,’” he said.

But, I added, “over time, the word has become more accepted.”

Perhaps we can put some of the blame on Madison Avenue. Remember that Armour hot dogs commercial from the ‘60s and  ‘70s?

I also told Sylvia that:

“You’ve touched on an issue we deal with every day. We want to be careful with our words and we try not to make grammatical mistakes. But we also want to be conversational and ‘sound like America.’ English is a living language and we change with the times. That said … ‘kids’ is a word that works better in fun, or lighter, stories. A guideline might be that if you wouldn’t use the words ‘mom’ and ‘dad,’ then ‘kids’ probably isn’t appropriate either.”

Now, if only more of our language police were like Sylvia. She’s a good … person.

(“Memmos;” March 15, 2016)


Guidance On The Titles ‘Analyst’ & ‘Commentator’ #

“News reporting and analysis are at the center of our work,” The Ethics Handbook says. “Valid news analysis flows naturally from deep, thorough reporting. Its role is to provide interpretation, explanation and context.”

In other words, analytical reporting is a big part of what we do.

It isn’t commentary – “the expression of opinion on items of public interest.” We leave that to others. If we bring them on the air to explain things and offer their opinions, they are “commentators.”

Can we also call them “analysts?” No.

We want to be very clear. There’s a difference between “analysis” and “commentary.” Our journalists analyze events and issues. So do some guests. Others offer commentary.

Related note: Though they analyze, we don’t refer to our journalists as “analysts.” First, that makes it sound like they work on Wall Street or in a laboratory. Second, there is too much potential for confusion. The words “analyst” and “commentator” have become interchangeable in many listeners’ minds, even though they mean different things.

(“Memmos;” March 14, 2016)


Do Spring Forward, But Don’t Say ‘Daylight Savings’ #

Korva and her fellow Arizonans refuse to get on board with the idea of adjusting clocks, but most of the nation will spring forward an hour this weekend.

That means we need to remind everyone that it’s “daylight saving time” that’s starting again, not “daylight savingS time.”

Also, as we’ve said before:

Arizona and Hawaii don’t observe daylight saving time. Clocks in those states (except on  the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona) don’t need to be adjusted. Also not time-shifting this weekend: “Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Marianas Islands.”

(“Memmos;” March 10, 2016)


Is That Cut From A Skype Conversation? Then You Must Tell Listeners #

If you use Skype to interview a guest and some of the conversation gets into a piece or two-way, then you need to say that you used Skype.

There are various ways to do it, including:

-          “We reached her on Skype.”

-          “She spoke to us on Skype.”

-          “He joins us on Skype.”

Give the credit once before you cut to the clip or go to the conversation. Treat this just like those mandatory credits to networks on debate nights. It’s part of the deal when you download and use Skype.

Meanwhile, check the terms of service of any similar Internet service you use. Google’s voice and video chat services, for instance, do not require these credits – and may be alternatives you’d like to explore.

(“Memmos;” March 7, 2016)


Before Super Tuesday, A Reminder About Social Media #

On Super Tuesday Eve, here’s a reminder: there’s “no cheering [or booing] in the press box.”  

This is very important, so we’re recirculating the guidance we posted last October about social media. It still applies. 

Everyone should be familiar with our thinking:

The presidential campaign … and breaking news events … draw many of us to social media. We want to monitor the news, post our reporting, share the interesting information we find and offer our thoughts.

That’s great. Have fun out there.

But … (there’s always a “but”) … all of us — journalists as well as those in other departments — need to remember that what we post and retweet can reflect on NPR. None of us want NPR’s reputation for fairness to be put in doubt because of things we do on digital platforms.

Our resources:

– The “Social Media” section of the handbook. The introduction specifically mentions NPR’s journalists, but the principles apply to others here as well. If you’re in doubt, talk to your supervisor:

“The Internet and the social media communities it encompasses can be incredible resources. They offer both a remarkably robust amount of historical material and an incredible amount of ‘real-time’ reporting from people at the scenes of breaking news events. But they also present new and unfamiliar challenges, and they tend to amplify the effects of any ethical misjudgments you might make. So tread carefully. Conduct yourself online just as you would in any other public circumstances as an NPR journalist. Treat those you encounter online with fairness, honesty and respect, just as you would offline. Verify information before passing it along. Be honest about your intent when reporting. Avoid actions that might discredit your professional impartiality. And always remember, you represent NPR.”

– “Some Guidance About Social Media On Election Day.” You could substitute the words “Debate Night” [or "Super Tuesday"]  for “Election Day.”

– “Reminder: There Is No Privacy On The Web, And ‘Personal’ Pages Are Not Safe Zones.”  Here’s a key paragraph:

“Matt Thompson offers a test. Before posting something about your work or a news event or an issue, even if you’re putting it on what you think of as a personal page, ask this question: ‘Is it helping my journalism, or is it hurting my journalism?’ ”

(“Memmos;” Feb. 29, 2016)


Refused Or Declined? It Depends On The Tone #

When a company, politician or organization won’t comment on something, have they “refused” or “declined?”

“Refused” works, according to Webster’s New World, if the “no” has been “emphatic” or “blunt.” Maybe a phone has been slammed* in your ear or an email has included language we wouldn’t repeat on the air.

But “declined” is the word to go with in most cases. True, the words are close in meaning. But Webster’s notes that to decline is a polite way of refusing. If a spokesman simply says “we’re not going to comment,” that’s a polite response.


Ina Jaffe was correct this week when she reported that a nursing home had “refused” to readmit a patient. Here’s why: As the BBC notes, “to ‘refuse‘ is the opposite of to ‘accept’ ” and it is done “firmly.” In this case, the hospital said “no” even after being ordered by the state of California to accept the patient. That’s a firm decision.

*In the old days, people had phones that had to be “hung up” to end a call. If you were angry at the person on other end of the line, you might slam the handset (which was attached to a cord) down on the “cradle.” There was also a “dial” on the phone.

(“Memmos;” Feb. 26, 2016)


Refresh My Memory: When Can We Stop Saying ‘Alleged?’ #

The man under arrest in Kalamazoo is a “suspect.” He “allegedly” killed six people.

The basic procedure is that we use such qualifiers, or others such as “who police say …,” until someone is convicted or has entered a guilty plea.

Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik are not “suspects” or “alleged” killers. They are the couple who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif.

They were not convicted and did not confess to authorities. Why drop the qualifiers?

Because they’re dead?

That’s a factor, but not necessarily the determining one.

As we’ve said before,  ”at some point … it just makes common sense to stop inserting” words such as “suspected” and “allegedly.”

But as we’ve also said before, here are some of the “questions to ask before any shift in language:”

– Has the person [or persons] been positively and publicly identified as the killer[s] by proper authorities?

– Have authorities ruled out the possibility of someone else being involved?

– Were there many witnesses? (In other words, did dozens or more see this unfold?)

– Is there considerable video evidence? …

– Has the inevitable confusion that comes when such events happen been resolved? Often, for example, witnesses and authorities initially get things wrong — including the name of the person responsible.

(“Memmos;” Feb. 23, 2016)


Here’s A Way To Stop Me From Nagging You #

Because some words and phrases come up often, because there are new folks on most desks and shows, because some people have shifted jobs in recent months and because many of us have lousy memories, a reminder is in order.

We have guidance on a wide variety of words and phrases that need to be handled carefully. The guidance should be used.

For instance:

– Do we say “abortion clinics?” No. We refer to “clinics that perform abortions.” Read more.

– “Illegal immigrants?” “Undocumented immigrants?” No and no. We prefer action phrases such as “people in the country illegally.” Read more.

– “Assault rifle?” Probably not. In most cases it’s “assault-style.” Read more.

– “Migrants” or “refugees?” They aren’t interchangeable. Read more.

– “Gay marriage?” No. “Same-sex marriage” is the phrase to use. Read more.

– “Islamic terrorists?” No. The word to use is “Islamist.” Read more.

There are several places to go to find such guidance. We all should read through them occasionally to see what’s there, refresh our memories and head off annoying notes from editors. The resources include two that are open to the public:

The Ethics Handbook.

The “Memmos.”

More is posted on our radio and digital style guides – which remain, for now at least, inside our Intranet. It’s not that hard to get to them. They’re just a couple clicks away. Go to the Intranet, click on the little “link” icon in the top left corner and a dropdown box will appear. Then click on “Wiki.” Note: There are “radio” and “digital” guides mostly because some things need to be spelled out or expressed slightly differently depending on the platform.

You’ll find our link to the AP Style Guide is there as well.

If you’re outside our Intranet, the RAD team or I can see if there’s guidance on your issue.

Other suggestions:

- Walk over and look at the white wall by Newscast. There’s quite a bit of information on it.

- Talk to the journalists here who have already thought through the issue you’ve got. The Science Desk, for example, comes to mind on subjects such as climate change and abortion.

(“Memmos;” Feb. 19, 2016)


Seven Wonderful Words About Set-Top Boxes #

Here’s the first line of a Brian Naylor spot this morning:

“The cable TV set-top box, which is actually probably under your TV, is pretty easy to ignore.”

Brilliant. Brian winks at listeners. It’s engaging. A “real” person is reporting the news and he knows that “set-top box” is one of those phrases that lives on after it no longer makes sense. What could have been a dull report pops instead.

Imagine the other words or phrases that offer such opportunities. “Glove compartment” comes to mind. I know mine has never contained a pair of gloves.

(Memmos; Feb. 18, 2016)


Be Sure To Ask ‘Experts’ About Connections To The Candidates #

This is already happening, but it’s important not to forget that as we line up experts for two-ways and interviews about public policy issues, we need to know if they’re connected to or publicly support one of the presidential campaigns. A standard question these days should be something like “are you advising any of the campaigns?” Or, “have you been called by any of the campaigns or candidates?” Or, “are you publicly supporting one of the candidates?”

Check with them about connections to public policy groups and advocacy organizations as well.

We look for expertise on a wide variety of subjects that are campaign issues. They include climate change, criminal justice, economics, foreign affairs, immigration, national security and tax policy. The list could go on.

A “yes” response to one of our questions doesn’t automatically disqualify someone, but it is information we need to know, weigh and tell our listeners and readers if it’s decided that person should be part of our report.

Meanwhile, our responsibility doesn’t end with a “no” response from the expert. Trust, but verify. Do some searches to be sure that person hasn’t shown up in stories about “economists who support Smith” or “historians who are advising Jones.” The expert may have an explanation. After all, campaigns sometimes exaggerate their support and academics sometimes sign on to things without quite realizing what they’ve done.

It’s also important to know whether someone has advised candidates or groups in the past. That information may help put the expert’s thinking in context.

How far down the ballot do we need to go? It’s wise to ask whether they’re connected to any House, Senate or statewide races. We would also want to know if an expert in a particular field has gotten involved in a specific story — the Flint water crisis, for example.

(“Memmos;” Feb. 11, 2016)


In Our Latest Edition Of ‘Don’t Do What They Did’: A Deal We Wouldn’t Want To Make #

It’s clearly stated in the Ethics Handbook that “we don’t allow sources to dictate how a topic will be covered.”

That’s a pretty basic rule.

We’re bringing it up now because of reports about 2009 email exchanges between then-Atlantic contributing editor Marc Ambinder and Philippe Reines, spokesman for then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

- “This Is How Hillary Clinton Gets the Coverage She Wants” (Gawker)

- “Corrupt journalism doesn’t pay. Nor does abetting it.”(The Washington Post)

According to those reports, Ambinder got a scoop about a Clinton speech by agreeing to Reines’ “conditions.” One: that the address be described as “muscular.” Two: That he report that Clinton’s high-profile deputies would be there to show their support for the secretary.

Ambinder tells Gawker that the transaction “made me uncomfortable then, and it makes me uncomfortable today.”

“Unacceptable” is the word that comes to our mind.

Other “don’t do what they did” posts:

Unlike A ‘Rolling Stone,’ We Don’t Change Names Or Share Stories With Sources

Don’t Trust, Do Verify: The Vaping Hoax

Don’t Trust Your Mother Or The Internet

Free Laptops, Big Shrimp And #Ethicsschmetics

Plagiarism: The Offense That Keeps On Repeating

Don’t Always Believe What You Remember

(“Memmos;” Feb. 10, 2016)


Laugh Break: Interviewing Tips From Bob & Ray #

Be sure to listen to All Things Considered’s look back at the work of radio comedian Bob Elliott. Just what we can all use: Tips that make us smile!

Also, check out Here & Now’s remembrance, including a 2007 interview with Bob Elliott:

(“Memmos’: Feb. 5, 2016)


There’s No Need To Run Through Some People’s Résumés On First Reference #

It’s been drilled into our heads that we should include at least a bit of a person’s biography on first reference. So this guidance is a break from tradition. Here goes:

If someone is well-known, it will often feel and sound more natural to move that bio material to later in a Newscast spot, blog post or show piece. In some cases it may not even be necessary to include all the biographical information you’re tempted to fold in.

For instance, rather than beginning with a reference to “2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin” or “former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin” or “former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin,” simply slip one of those reminders in later.

In most cases, there’s no need to remind the audience on first reference that Hillary Clinton is a “former secretary of state,” “former senator” or “former first lady.” You may need to say “Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton,” but there are more conversational ways to get that information across as well. For instance, by talking about “Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the White House” and getting the word “Democratic” in at another point.

It’s unlikely you would start a conversation with a friend by saying “Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.” You would say “Bernie Sanders.” In many cases, we can do the same and let the references to his run for the Democratic nomination, the senate and Vermont come in naturally.

This guidance is mostly about politicians, but can apply to others as well. “Former Beatle” doesn’t always have to go in front of “Paul McCartney.” Oprah Winfrey can stand on her own for a line or two. “Boxer Muhammad Ali” may not be necessary on first reference.

Here’s the takeaway: We don’t have to be bound to the notion that first references must be mini résumés. Use your judgment.

Related notes:

– This does not change the way we refer to sitting presidents, vice presidents and other world leaders. We’re sticking with formalities on first references to them.

– Party IDs are key information in stories about policy makers and politicians. If you don’t include an “R,” a “D,” a “Democrat” or a “Republican,” you will hear from readers and listeners who say you’re trying to hide someone’s affiliation.

– If the news is about legislation that’s being introduced, a hearing that’s being held, results of an investigation that are being released or other official business, we stick with tradition. It would be “Sen. Jane Doe” or “Attorney Gen. John Doe” on first reference.

– It should always be “Conqueror of the Unpronounceable Word Korva Coleman” on first reference.

(“Memmos;” Feb. 1, 2016)


Guidance: Don’t Use ‘Ride-Sharing’ #

“Ride-sharing” doesn’t accurately describe the service that Uber and others offer. As Webster’s says, “share … generally connotes a giving or receiving a part of something.” With these services, nothing’s being given away.

The AP suggests “ride-hailing” or “ride-booking.” Other suggestions are welcome.

People we interview may say “ride-sharing.” That’s perfectly fine. We should not.

(“Memmos;” Jan. 21, 2016)


Let’s Bury These Winter Clichés Before They Pile Up Like … #

Unless their tongue is firmly in their frozen cheek, the first person who uses any of these words or phrases this week has to shovel Korva’s long driveway:

-          Big chill

-          Brave the elements

-          Hunker down

-          White stuff

-          Old man winter (or Ol’ Man Winter)

-          Jack Frost

-          Deep freeze

-          Nipping at our noses (or anything else)

-          Enough is enough

-          First flakes

-          Bone-chilling

-          Snowpocalypse

-          Snowmageddon

-          Winter wonderland

Feel free to ban any other winter-related clichés that I missed.

Let’s not overdo some sounds, either. Snow shovels. Snow plows. Sleds. Etc.

Stay warm.

(“Memmos;” Jan. 20, 2016)


Flint Water Crisis: Say ‘Government Officials’ #

When referring to the decision to switch Flint’s water supply, unless you’re going to go into a long explanation please say the decision was made by “government officials.” As Michigan Radio’s timeline shows, there were many players. To call them simply “city officials” is problematic because state-appointed emergency managers were also involved.

For further guidance, consult Ken Barcus or the editor sitting in for him this week (Russell Lewis). Luis Clemens is also up to speed on the situation.

(“Memmos;” Jan. 19, 2016)

Warning: Invalid argument supplied for foreach() in /var/www/ethics/wp-content/themes/ethics/loop-search.php on line 14

The NPR Accuracy Checklist: It’s A Must-Read & A Must-Use #

This list went out last January. A year later, we’re still making too many of the same mistakes. See for yourself on the corrections page:

As we said last year:

The checklist that follows is a reminder of things we all know we should do. It’s meant to be particularly useful to correspondents and producers. They collect the information we put on the air and online and they are expected to do all they can to make sure that what we report is accurate.

Think of the checklist as a tool. Print a copy for yourself and please use it. We know we will make mistakes. But we all need to do what we can to reduce them.

NPR REPORTERS, CORRESPONDENTS, PRODUCERS and MULTIMEDIA JOURNALISTS who collect and write the information we broadcast or post online will double-check:

–  SUPERLATIVES. If something is said to be the “first,” “last,” “best,” “worst,” “only,” “oldest,” “youngest” etc., that claim must be verified. If it can’t be, the claim should be deleted or qualified – and clearly attributed.

– PERSONAL NAMES. Verify them, spell them correctly (for radio and the Web) and confirm pronunciations.

–  AGES. Get a person’s date of birth and do the math.

– TITLES. President, CEO, professor, etc. They must be accurate.


–  DAYS and DATES. Are you sure this happened then?

–  HISTORICAL “FACTS.” Are you sure it happened that way?

–  LOCATIONS. Is that where this happened? Is that where this person is from? Is that really the capital?

–  NUMBERS and CALCULATIONS. Do the math yourself. Should it be millions, billions or trillions? Is the decimal in the correct place? Is it percent or percentage point?

–  QUOTES. They must be attributed to the right person.

–  WEB ADDRESSES and PHONE NUMBERS. They have to be tested.

–  GRAMMAR and SPELLING.  Note: What goes in a radio script may end up on the Web.

When an NPR journalist says something is ready for editing, that journalist IS CONFIRMING that all such double-checking has been done. If something hasn’t yet been nailed down, the journalist will alert the editor. When news is breaking and we’re covering it live, NPR journalists make clear what is “known” and what is ”not known.”


–  Will ask: Has everything that needs to be double-checked been double-checked?

–  Will still check: The accuracy of the reporting.


–  We own them. THIS IS IMPORTANT:  If you realize a mistake has been made, email and notify the appropriate editor or producer. Senior managers need to be told about “serious” mistakes.

–  We correct them.


  • – NAMES
  • – AGES
  • – TITLES
  • – DAYS and DATES
  • – QUOTES

(Memmos; Jan. 13, 2016)


Unlike A ‘Rolling Stone,’ We Don’t Change Names Or Share Stories With Sources #

Give Rolling Stone some credit for transparency. Sean Penn’s account of his trip to meet Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán is topped with this editor’s note:

“Disclosure: Some names have had to be changed, locations not named, and an understanding was brokered with the subject that this piece would be submitted for the subject’s approval before publication. The subject did not ask for any changes.”

There’s a good discussion to be had about the line between activism and journalism and how far across it the “El Chapo Speaks” piece goes. Let’s set that aside for now.

This post is about two simpler issues.

First, NPR does not create pseudonyms for sources. Doing so gives the audience a reason to ask what else might have been made up. If we need to protect someone’s identity, we most often use real first names, sometimes real middle names, sometimes real “street” or nicknames that the source is known by and sometimes descriptions (the “husband,” the “sister,” the “officer,” etc.). Whatever we do, we explain it in our reports. We include the reason why the person needs anonymity.

We also pay attention to “the ‘don’ts’ of anonymity.” That is, no attacks, no disguises and no offers. The Ethics Handbook’s guidance on anonymous sourcing is collected here. Of particular importance is this guideline: “Describe Anonymous Sources As Clearly As You Can Without Identifying Them.”

Second, NPR does not show its stories to sources before broadcast or posting. Here is our guidance:

“For purposes of accuracy and fairness, there are times when we may want to review portions of a script with a source or read back a quotation to ensure we captured it correctly. We may also play audio or read transcripts of an interview to a third party if the purpose is to get that party’s reaction to what another person has said. Otherwise, however, the public is the first audience for our work — we don’t preview scripts or stories in advance of their broadcast or posting with sources, subjects of coverage or other parties outside NPR.”

(“Memmos;” Jan. 11, 2016)


Language To Use And Not Use When Reporting About The Occupation In Oregon #

As of Monday, Jan. 4 a.m. 10 a.m. ET:

– We are not using the words “militia” or “militiamen” on their own. A “militia” is organized to “resemble an army” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fifth Edition). At most, this group may be called a “self-described” or “self-styled” militia. It doesn’t “resemble an army.” Note: Reporting indicates there may only be a dozen or so men doing the occupying.

– We are not calling this a “standoff.” A standoff requires two sides. Right now, one group is occupying some lands and buildings while the other (the government) is considering what to do. There’s an “occupation” and it may become a “standoff,” but it’s not there yet.

– We have been using the words “protesters” and “armed protesters.” But the word “protesters” is not entirely adequate. These are armed individuals who have occupied government property. They are not simply citizens peacefully expressing their opinions, which is how the word “protesters” is more often used. This is an “armed occupation.” They are “armed occupiers.” They are “armed men” or “armed individuals.”

“Militants” is a better word than “protesters.” A militant is “ready and willing to fight,” according to Webster’s. These men say they are. The dictionary also says a militant is “vigorous or aggressive in supporting or promoting a cause.”

– As we’ve previously discussed, it’s best to avoid labels if possible. Use action words to describe who these people are and what they want. They are an armed group. They want an end to federal management of public land in the west. They are armed anti-federalists who want the states to control public lands in the west (referring to them simply as “anti-government” is not quite right).

Addition at 1:30 p.m. ET: 

When referring to the dispute that Cliven Bundy and others have with the federal government, don’t say it’s over “grazing rights.” Instead, say “grazing fees,” “grazing privileges,” “grazing permits” or some combination of those words — such as “grazing permits and fees.”

 (“Memmos;” Jan. 4, 2016)


Keep KISSing In 2016 #

Much of the best work we did this year had this in common: direct, evocative writing. Editors have long said it’s best to “keep it simple, stupid.” That’s not as easy as it sounds. But, we’ve often done it well. Here are six examples, in no particular order. Many more could be listed. Thanks go out to correspondents and editors who craft lines such as these every day:

– Julie McCarthy describing an earthquake survivor in Nepal: “A physician from Doctors Without Borders hovers over Aitimaya, inspecting her head injury while an IV drains into her bony arm. Stretched out on a dirty mattress, the only motion she can muster is a limp swat at the flies.”

– Gene Demby on the disturbing reason he and two friends (“black journos,” as Gene wrote) were having dinner in St. Louis: “We weren’t gathered for a birthday, or happy hour, but because a young black man’s body had lain out for four hours on a sweltering street.”

– Robert Siegel reflecting on the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris: “No one ever summed up the French Enlightenment by saying: ‘I disapprove of what you order at the cafe, but I will defend to the death your right to order it.’ But what happened here shows there is a real connection between big ideas about freedom and small, casual acts of friendship and recreation. One person publishing a biting satire and another reacting to it over a bite at the bistro are two sides of the same coin. The gunmen and suicide bombers who came here claiming divine authority understood that. The guns that were aimed at the few in January were fired without distinction in November. Everyone was a target. The French are Charlie. And in their grief, they need no reminding of it.”

– Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, Tyler Fisher, Kainaz Amaria, Lauren Migaki, Claire O’Neill, Wes Lindamood and Becky Lettenberger on a fascinating “Look At This” digital trip to the Amazon. It begins with two simple sentences that draw visitors right in: “You were taught in school that the rain forest is like the lungs of our planet. It’s not that simple.” The lines that follow on the other images are all examples of spare, compelling storytelling.

Jasmine Garsd on why it’s significant that Ruben Blades’ character in Fear The Walking Dead isn’t another Latin American stereotype and is revealing the scars many Latin Americans bear: “Here’s what’s important about discussing our historical wounds and our cultural fears: rather than divide us, they bring us closer to one another. Sometimes, they highlight the fact that we all have the capacity to be monsters.”

– Wade Goodwyn, summing up a performance by opera singer Frederica von Stade and a choir of homeless people: “It was an evening they said they’d remember the rest of their lives. For a night, two dozen of Dallas’s homeless were lifted from the city’s cold streets and sidewalks to bask in the warm glow of spotlights. For the usual hostility and indifference to their fate, they were traded love, respect and goodwill — one performance only.

Jonathan Kern advised in Sound Recording that “the goal is to write the way you wish you could speak — or the way you speak on your best day, when you’ve had just the right amount of caffeine and sleep.” He recommended “short, repetitive sentences.”

It looks like we’re still heeding Jonathan’s advice.


– Precision Writing & Editing: 5 Timeless Tips 

(Memmos; Dec. 29, 2015)


What Did We Say About That? A Guide To The 2015 ‘Memmos’ #

What did Mark annoy us about in 2015? Here are the year’s “Memmos,” divided into categories:



-         An Anonymous Editor Thinks What The ‘Times’ Did Was Funny

-         Single Source Approval Process



-         When News Breaks, Keep A Couple Things In Mind



-         Your Keyboard Is A Live Mic (Or, If You Write It They May Say It)

-         NPR’s ‘Minor Consent Form’: Spanish Version

-         Guidance: On Station Reporters & News About Their Universities Or Institutions

-         Resource: Guidelines About The ‘Morning Edition’ Book Club, Fundraising & The Firewall Between Them


-         Ben Affleck, ‘Finding Your Roots’ And Why Our Standards Point To A Different Decision

-         On Gender Identity

-         Yes, Journalists Can Give To Charities That Are Helping People In Need

-         Guidance on: Coverage of books written by NPR staffers

-         When We’re Asked To Remove A Photo, Here’s What We Do


-         Proofread DACS Lines; Mistakes In Them Can End Up On Our Website

-         On Why It’s Not OK To Ask Friends, Family Or Fixers To Take Photos For Us

-         DACS Lines Are Journalism

-         Guidance On The Use Of ‘Disturbing’ Videos And Audio

-         Online News Commentaries


-         This Is An Important Reminder About Dealing With Those Who Are Vulnerable; Please Read It

-         When There’s No Evidence To Support A Claim, We Should Say That

-         Guidance On Music In Broadcast Pieces

-         Reminder: If The Facts Don’t Support Someone’s Claim, Say That



-         The ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Cartoons And NPR’s Decision Not To Publish Them

-         Gyrocopter Story Raises An Old Question: When Should Journalists Intervene?

-         On The Plagiarism Case And How It Was Handled



-         Repetitive Acronyms

-         Reminder: References To War Camps Must Be Precise

-         Don’t Be Careless With The Word ‘Countless’

-         Here’s Why We Use The Word ‘Islamist’

-         Analysts, Critics, Experts & Officials Agree: We Talk About Them An Awful Lot


-         Some So-called Guidance

-         Watch What You Say: It’s National Grammar Day

-         In The ‘Vast Majority’ Of Cases, Are We Sure We Should Use Those Words?

-         On The Word ‘Suicide’

-         Let’s Toss ‘Hat In The Ring’ Into The Cliché Round File


-         Guidance On The Words ‘Protests’ And ‘Protesters’

-         Guidance: ‘Same-Sex Marriage

-         Guidance: If ‘We’ Are Not Part Of The Story, Keep ‘Us’ Out Of It

-         No Joke: A Reminder About Writing, Courtesy Of ‘The Daily Show’

-         Guidance On Key Words That Come Up In The Planned Parenthood Stories


-         Save Yourself A Word And Make The Latin Teachers Happy

-         No Change In The Way We Introduce The Islamic State (later revised; see next entry in this list)

-         New Guidance On ‘ISIS’ & ‘Islamic State’

-         On ‘Migrants’ And ‘Refugees’

-         Pleonasms: Words That Don’t Need To Be Together

-         Take Care When Describing Weapons


-         There’s No Debate About This: We’ll Get Complaints If We Say The Candidates Are Behind Podiums

-         Take The ‘Sting’ Out Of References To The ‘Planned Parenthood Videos’

-         “Let’s Reduce Our ‘Buts’ “

-         Words We Get Wrong: The List

-         New Guidance On References To Myanmar


-         As Great Uncle Frederick Said, ‘More’ Or ‘Most’ Probably Don’t Belong In Front Of An Adjective With One Syllable

-         It’s ‘Boy With Autism,’ Not ‘Autistic Boy’

-         Keep Your Enemies Close And Your Antecedents Closer

-         No, Virginia, It ‘Tisn’t The Season



-         We’re Making More Than A Few

-         Serious Mistakes Need To Be Flagged Immediately

-         The NPR Accuracy Checklist

-         Please Read The ‘CJR’ Report About ‘Rolling Stone’

-         Don’t Trust, Do Verify: The Vaping Hoax


-         Reminder: When Posting Corrections, The Correspondents/Bloggers/Editors Who Allegedly Committed The Errors Need To Be Involved

-         Don’t Trust Your Mother Or The Internet

-         Stories About Illinois Police Officer’s Death Underscore Need To Attribute

-         Put On-Air Corrections With The Original Stories



-         Guidance On The Name Of Argentina’s President

-         Reminders On Two Names (Ofeibea Quist-Arcton & Leila Fadel)

-         Reminders: Say ‘MURZ’ & ‘STEHF-in’

-         “It’s ‘Argentine,’ Not ‘Argentinian’ “



-         Bleep The Whole @#$%&*! Word

-         Resending: The ‘NPR Policy On Use Of Potentially Offensive Language’ And Related Notes

-         No Exceptions: Any Clip With Offensive Language, Bleeped Or Not, Must Be Approved Well Ahead Of Broadcast

-         Warning: This Post Contains Language That May Offend; Such Words Should Not Be Used In Podcasts Or On The Air

-         If We’ve Bleeped It, Do We Also Need To Warn Listeners? Maybe Not



-         For Comparison Purposes: The BBC’s Updated Guidance On Social Media

-         False Alarms About The Queen Reinforce Why We Think Before We Tweet

-         Read This If You Use Social Media; Everyone Should Know Our Thinking

-         Reporter’s Suspension For A Tweet Makes This Is A Good Time To Read Our Social Media Guidance



-         Encore! Encore!

-         Hey, You Should Read This: We Put The ‘Superbug’ News In Its Proper Place

-         Do Listen To This: A Walk Through Sandtown That Is Compelling And Instructive

-         A Thanks And Two Reminders On Describing Weapons And Adding Sources To ‘Reportable’ Notes

-         Kudos For Some Solid Reporting, Careful Writing & Smart Blogging



-         Click here to see that list

(“Memmos;” Dec. 22, 2015)


Reminder: If The Facts Don’t Support Someone’s Claim, Say That #

We wrote about this last month. The New York Times’ public editor weighed in this week. It’s worth repeating:

When politicians and public officials (or anyone, for that matter) say things that don’t fit the facts, we should point it out – and we are, as the “Break It Down” fact-checks show.

Our earlier post suggested several ways to say and write that what Candidate A or City Official B just said doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The Times’ Margaret Sullivan pointed to other approaches, such as noting that they spoke “without citing any evidence” or that the statement “has no basis in fact.”

If the evidence shows that a claim clearly doesn’t add up, we don’t need to qualify with a “critics contend” or a “some say.” State what is known and how we’ve reached that conclusion (for example, “an NPR search of news accounts and police records found no evidence to support the claim”).

Sullivan also noted something we agree with: that as much as possible, the fact-checking should be done “in real time.” That is, as soon as possible after a claim is made. We’ve been doing that very effectively after the presidential debates and notable claims by candidates.

Obviously, politicians and public officials aren’t the only people who make claims that can’t be substantiated. Keep in mind that, as the Ethics Handbook says, “our purpose is to pursue the truth. Diligent verification is critical. We take great care to ensure that statements of fact in our journalism are both correct and in context.” Also, we shouldn’t “just spread information. Be careful and skeptical.”

(Memmos; Dec. 17, 2015)


A Thanks And Two Reminders On Describing Weapons And Adding Sources To ‘Reportable’ Notes #

Many thanks to everyone for the care that’s been taken with the information coming in from San Bernardino. Our language has been precise, we’ve added important context and we’ve been clear about what’s known and what isn’t.

The “reportable” and “guidance” notes from editors and reporters have been extremely helpful. One thing: Please remember to include language about the sources of that information. It’s very important that we be able to tell listeners and readers where we’re getting our information.

Also, please continue to be careful about descriptions of the weapons. To many in the audience, “assault rifles” are fully automatic weapons that cannot be legally purchased. At this point, it’s better to refer to the rifles used in San Bernardino as “assault-style.”

But again, thanks. We’ve gotten many messages such as this one posted on Facebook:

“Thank you for reporting only the facts while others in the media build a frenzy just to be the first with ‘new information’, credible or not.”

From October:Take Care When Describing Weapons.”

(“Memmos;” Dec. 3, 2015)


No, Virginia, It ‘Tisn’t The Season #

It’s that time of year again, so here’s a reminder:

If you feel a holiday cliché trying to tiptoe into your copy, please resist.

From last year’s post on this topic:

– “ ‘Tis the season to …” No, it ’tisn’t.

– “ ‘Twas the night before …” It ’twas?

– “Over the river and through the woods …” It’s been a while since we rode a sleigh to grandmother’s house.

– “Bah, humbug.” Be miserly with your references to Dickens.

– “Oh, the weather outside is …” Don’t put that song in my head!

– “It’s beginning to look a lot like …” Not that one either!

– “Yes, Virginia.” No, Korva.

– “Christmas came early for …” Really? Seems like it’s always on Dec. 25.

– “Jing-a-ling.” Jing-a-don’t.

– “A Christmas Grinch stole …” Every burglar doesn’t have to be be turned into a Dr. Seuss character this time of year.

– “Santa’s elves …” They’re everywhere!

– “On the Xth day of Christmas …” The song is boring enough as it is.

As we also said last year, you may be able to play around with these holiday evergreens. You might stand one on its head, so to speak.

But the guidance we’ve given about adjectives applies in most cases to clichés as well: if you see one, kill it.

In other words, say “no, no, no,” not “ho, ho, ho.”

(Memmos; Dec. 1, 2015)



Guidance On Music In Broadcast Pieces #

An editor once told me that if I asked 12 economists what was likely to happen I would get 13 opinions.

That line came to mind in recent days as I talked to people across NPR News about whether we do or do not allow music to be embedded in longer news stories. I’m talking about incidental music that is there, at the very least, to improve the listening experience, but otherwise has no obvious connection to the story. I’m also talking about longer pieces that are broadcast, not podcasts.

– “No …” I was told. NPR has a rule: No music; no sound effects. We don’t put anything in our broadcast pieces that isn’t “true” to the stories.

– “Sure …” I was assured. We’ve been adding music for years when it’s felt that “scoring” would improve a piece.

– “Well …” others said. Music can be used as a bookend or to create a bridge between sections of a long report. But it should never be layered beneath reporting.

– “But …” began some. If it’s obvious to listeners that the music is being used in a feature in a humorous way or in a long news story to set off a particular section, it’s OK to run it beneath the script.

– “Only …” said some. Music may be OK in features, but only rarely and with a “less is more” approach. That is, be sparing. We’re making news stories, not movies.

There was agreement on one thing. Music can’t be used in news stories to make editorial statements or to steer a listener toward judgments or conclusions. We don’t do those things – just as we would not tell the audience how to feel about the news we’re reporting.

But, but, but … what is an editorial statement and when is something manipulative? We can’t agree. There’s a “know it when we see it” sense.

After all that, here’s where are:

– There is no rule against putting music into broadcast pieces. It’s been done and is being done every week in features or special projects. Listen to WESUN’s “For The Record” series, a recent “Hidden Brain” piece that was recast for radio, Morning Edition’s report on “How The Libyan Revolution Opened The Door To The Islamic State” and the “Changing Lives of Women” essay from the “gray-haired granny” who has gone “punk rock.” Judge for yourself whether the music worked.

– Even those who advocate for the use of music say that “because it sounds cool” is not a reason to use it. Don’t do this either: Add music in the hope it will make a bad story better. There’s a problem with the story. Fix it or kill it.

– There’s agreement that music must be treated like any other piece of our journalism. An informed, editorially based decision is crucial. Be prepared to answer this question: “What’s that doing there?”

– We’re also in agreement that incidental music should not be layered beneath straight-forward, standard news stories.

– “Less is more” is a very important concept. Yes, there’s a case to be made that we need to keep up with the times and that some popular podcasts (including NPR’s) use music very effectively. But, we care deeply about principles such as honesty, transparency and fairness. Adding music can quickly raise questions in listeners’ minds about whether we’re staying true to our principles. A decade ago in Jonathan Kern’s Sound Reporting, Jay Kernis said that music could be added to “certain feature stories and mini-documentaries — on rare occasions.” The occasions are probably less rare these days, but we’re still thinking that they should be carefully considered.

This isn’t a “thou must” or “must not” note, as you can see. We have to take these thoughts and apply them as cases come up. That means talking to each other. Executive producers and desk heads need to be in on decisions about whether music should or shouldn’t be used in broadcast pieces. They should bring in the DMEs (Chuck Holmes and Gerry Holmes) or standards & practices editor (Mark Memmott) if outside opinions are needed. In coming months, watch for training opportunities about the use of music.

(“Memmos;” Nov. 30, 2015)


When There’s No Evidence To Support A Claim, We Should Say That #

Politicians, public officials and — yes — members of the press will say things that don’t check out.

– Brian Williams’ helicopter was not shot down.

– Hillary Clinton did not have to run to her car because of sniper fire at an airport in Bosnia.

– Toronto Mayor Rob Ford … pick your story.

When we can say some something definitive about such accounts, we should.

The latest case: Donald Trump’s statement that he “watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down.”

Regarding that account of what he says happened in New Jersey, we have told our audiences that:

– “Police say it didn’t happen.”

– “Local officials in New Jersey continue to dismiss Trump’s claims.”

– “New Jersey officials say it didn’t happen.”

Those lines add helpful context, but they also create a “he said, she said” situation. Trump says one thing, police and local officials say another. Have we done all we can to help listeners and Web users figure out who’s right?

In situations such as this, we should first ask whether we should repeat the claim. After all, repeating it might give it more life. But if the answer to that question is yes, we should get to the point and say what we’ve found. Here’s how The Two-Way has done it:

“We asked our library to look through contemporaneous news reports. They tell us that that they could not turn up any news accounts of American Muslims cheering or celebrating in the wake of Sept. 11.”

Another way to say that might be: “NPR has searched for credible news accounts about large groups of American Muslims celebrating during or after the Sept. 11 attacks. No such accounts have been found.”

We could also flatly report that “no evidence has been found in police or credible media accounts from the time to indicate there were large numbers of Muslim-Americans in New Jersey celebrating.” We have used the “no evidence” framing on the air.

Regarding The Washington Post report from Sept. 18, 2001, that Trump has cited, it stated that “in Jersey City, within hours of two jetliners’ plowing into the World Trade Center, law enforcement authorities detained and questioned a number of people who were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks and holding tailgate-style parties on rooftops while they watched the devastation on the other side of the river.” But as we said on Morning Edition this week, “there is no reference in the [Washington Post] article to Trump’s claim of seeing thousands and thousands Muslims celebrating in Jersey City.” has noted that:

“The Post story said that Jersey City police detained ‘a number of people’ who were ‘allegedly seen celebrating the attacks and holding a tailgate-style party’ in Jersey City. That allegation was unattributed and unverified. Even if it did happen, and there is no evidence of it, the celebrating was not on TV and did not involve ‘thousands and thousands of people.’ “

(“Memmos,” Nov. 25, 2015)


Put On-Air Corrections With The Original Stories #

When there’s an on-air correction, attach a copy of the audio file to the Webpage where the story originally appeared. See the example on this page:

That way, anyone who comes to the original story will get both a text correction (at the bottom of the page) and an audio correction right at the top.


– A How We Make Corrections memo.

– A document called A Common Corrections Scenario.”

(“Memmos,” Nov. 20, 2015)


Reporter’s Suspension For A Tweet Makes This Is A Good Time To Read Our Social Media Guidance #

CNN global affairs correspondent Elise Labott tweeted this Thursday afternoon:

“House passes bill that could limit Syrian refugees. Statue of Liberty bows head in anguish.”

That has gotten her suspended for two weeks.

The line between editorializing and engaging with the audience is not always easy to see. Also, bloggers, analysts and commentators may be able to do things on social media that we would not want our “traditional” journalists to do.

We have specialists – the social media team – who can help figure out what is and isn’t appropriate. Editors can take a look at tweets and posts before you hit publish. It pays to first ask others on your show or desk for their opinions.

We also have plenty of guidance online:

– The “social media” section of the Ethics Handbook. Here’s an important line: “Conduct yourself online just as you would in any other public circumstances as an NPR journalist.” In other words, if you wouldn’t say it on the air, don’t say it on other platforms.

– This “social media guideline,” which says, in part:

“Refrain from advocating for political or other polarizing issues online. … Don’t express personal views on a political or other controversial issue that you could not write for the air or post on These guidelines apply whether you are posting under your own name or — if the online site allows pseudonyms — your identity would not be readily apparent. In reality, anything you post online reflects both on you and on NPR.”

– There’s another guideline that’s helpfully headlined “When In Doubt, Consult The Social Media Team.”

– We have a post called “Remember: There Is No Privacy On The Web, And ‘Personal’ Pages Are Not Safe Zones.”

– Finally, these posts point to the particular problems that come with political seasons:

Read This If You Use Social Media; Everyone Should Know Our Thinking

Some Guidance About Social Media On Election Day

(“Memmos,” Nov. 20, 2015)


Single Source Approval Process #

As Chris said in his note, we’ve been covering the Paris attacks “with a commitment and sense of mission that other news organizations simply can’t match.” Scott Montgomery echoed those thoughts and called the work done so far “extraordinary.”

Thank you.

This story has many threads. Reporters have been working sources hard. The “first file” process that flags what is “reportable” and what is “guidance” is working well and has kept us from putting out bad information.

Now, we want to pause and review how we handle “single source” reports.

The first thing to say is that we operate on the assumption that information needs to be cross-checked and verified with multiple sources. Single source reports should be rare.

It’s true, though, that sometimes only one credible source has critical information. When NPR journalists get such information, and they and their editors believe it should be reported, they must get approval from one or more of the following people:

– SVP for News Mike Oreskes.

– VP for News Chris Turpin.

– Executive Editor Edith Chapin.

– Deputy Managing Editor Chuck Holmes.

– Deputy Managing Editor Gerry Holmes.

– Standards & Practices Editor Mark Memmott.

NPR journalists understand they will be expected to explain who the source is, why the source is in a position to know what he/she is telling us, why it’s important that we report the information and what’s been done to cross-check the information.

You don’t have to contact all six people on that list. Chuck and Gerry are the logical ones to consult first. One of them is on duty every day. They can draw in the others if they feel it’s necessary.

One other thing: Information from single sources can’t be classified as “reportable” in a “first file” note until it has been approved. The note should include a line stating that the single-sourcing has been OK’d and by whom. It should also clearly state how we will refer to that source — “person with direct knowledge of the investigation … law enforcement source who has seen the documents … intelligence official who has been briefed on the details … source close to the investigation … etc.”

Thanks again for all the hard work of the past few days. Thanks in advance for all the hard work of the next few days.

(“Memmos,” Nov. 16, 2015)


New Guidance On References To Myanmar #

When reporting about or from Myanmar, it is no longer necessary to say at the top that it is “Myanmar, also known as Burma,” as our style has been since 2011. We feel there are very few in the audience who still need that immediate reminder.

It is also no longer necessary to include the reminder about the name Burma in every report. Use your judgment. In longer pieces, and especially in those tracing the country’s recent history, an “also known as Burma” is appropriate and helpful.

Meanwhile, our guidance (and AP’s) has been that Myanmarese is the adjective to use when describing the people of that country. You should know, however, that there is disagreement over whether that is the proper adjectival form and that people in Myanmar do not refer to themselves that way. Many authorities say Burmese is the word to use, even when referring to the country as Myanmar. One way around all that, of course, is to say something such as “the people of Myanmar” or “the people here.”

(Memmos; Nov. 13, 2015)


Keep Your Enemies Close And Your Antecedents Closer #

“Korva said she would tell her driver, Pat, to start warming the car at 3:07 a.m. each day instead of 3:05 just as soon as she returns from the organic smoothie shop.”

Who’s at the organic smoothie shop? Pat or Korva? Who’s the “she?” When will she get back with that smoothie?

We offer this presumably fictional and rather convoluted sentence because many of us aren’t careful about making sure that the pronouns we use are clearly connected to the antecedents they replace. Editors see antecedent/pronoun problems in copy every day.

Let’s pick apart the opening scene. This is what was happening:

–  Korva wanted the car started at 3:07 a.m., not 3:05.

–  Pat was at the organic smoothie shop getting Korva’s Mango/Kale/Chia Supreme.

– Korva would have to wait until Pat returned to tell her about the new starting time.

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style offers this advice: “The relative pronoun should come, in most instances, immediately after its antecedent.” Note, for instance, how much clearer it reads to say Korva would have to “wait until Pat returned to tell her.” Just four small words separate the antecedent from the pronoun. It’s clear that Pat is “her.”

Please also take care to pair singular pronouns with singular antecedents and plurals with plurals. Gender agreement is important as well, but bear in mind that the choice of pronoun may be a sensitive issue when the subject is a transgender person.

(Memmos; Nov. 11, 2015)


It’s ‘Boy With Autism,’ Not ‘Autistic Boy’ #

Jeremy Mardis, the boy killed in Louisiana, had autism.

We should say and write that he was “a boy with autism,” not an “autistic boy.”

As we’ve said before about individuals with medical conditions, please avoid labels and use action words. We hear from many who say, “I’m not just a [insert condition]. I am a son/daughter/father/mother with [insert medical condition].”

(“Memmos;” Nov. 9, 2015)


As Great Uncle Frederick Said, ‘More’ Or ‘Most’ Probably Don’t Belong In Front Of An Adjective With One Syllable #

Did Myanmar hold its “most free elections in decades?”

No, as a listener told us, it held its “freest elections in decades.”

Today’s question: When should we use more or most instead of -er or -est to form comparatives and superlatives?

To figure out the answer, it helps to count syllables.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage says that “adjectives of one or two syllables normally form their comparative and superlative forms by adding –er and –est. … Adjectives of more than two syllables are normally preceded by more or most …”

The BBC puts it this way: “It is clear that adjectives of one syllable normally end in -er and –est in their comparative and superlative forms whilst the comparative and superlative of adjectives with three or more syllables are formed with more and most.”

The Chicago Manual of Style agrees. It notes, however, that “a few one-syllable adjectives – such as real, right, and wrong – can take only more and most. … Eager, proper, and somber, unlike many two-syllable adjectives, also take only more and most.” It sagely advises consulting “a good dictionary.” (NPR uses Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fifth Edition.)

Finally, in 1925 my great uncle Frederick Memmott and fellow educator Nell Young, in the sixth grade edition of their textbooks Good English in Speaking and Writing, told students that “nearly all our adjectives containing only one syllable are compared by adding the syllables -er and -est. Some of our adjectives containing two or more syllables are compared by adding -er and -est, but others require the use of the words more and most. All the adjectives containing more than two syllables require the use of more and most in comparing things.”

There you go. If the adjective has one or two syllables, you almost always add –er and –est. When there are three or more syllables, more and most are almost certainly the words to choose. Check the dictionary if you’re not sure.

Uncle Frederick died 32 years before I was born. I don’t know this for sure, but I trust he would have thanked us for keeping these guidelines in mind.

(Memmos; Nov. 6, 2015)


Stories About Illinois Police Officer’s Death Underscore Need To Attribute #

A look back at our coverage of what happened to Illinois police Lt. Charles Gliniewicz, who authorities now say killed himself, highlights the importance of attributing information and not getting ahead of ourselves when stories are breaking and investigations are under way.

Here are lines from five stories we aired or posted in the first few days after the news broke:

– Gliniewicz “was shot to death in the line of duty on Tuesday — while chasing three suspects on foot.”

– “Investigators acknowledge they still only have vague descriptions of the three men Fox Lake police officer Charles Joseph Gliniewicz was trying to apprehend when he was shot and killed Tuesday morning.”

– “Lt. Gliniewicz was pursuing those suspects–two white men and a black man– on foot when he lost radio contact with a dispatcher.”

– ”Before he was shot and killed Tuesday morning, Lt Charles Joseph Gliniewicz told dispatchers he was pursing three suspicious men on foot — two of them white and the third, black.”

– “The officer radioed to dispatchers that he was going to check on suspicious activity around 8 a.m. local time in the community of Fox Lake, Lake County sheriff’s office spokesman Christopher Covelli said at a news conference. The officer, who has not yet been identified, then said he was in a ‘foot pursuit,’ before losing contact. Covelli said responding officers arrived and found the officer injured from a gunshot wound and without his service weapon. The officer died at the scene.”

The first three examples flatly say that Gliniewicz was chasing suspects when he was shot. The last two examples make it clear that Gliniewicz said he was in pursuit of three suspects.

Examples 1-3 skipped a key fact — that it was Gliniewicz who reported he was chasing three suspects. He was the source for that information. He was a single source. In hindsight, the attribution was critical.

Two other phrases in our early reports are interesting to think about now: “Shot to death” and “shot and killed.” Gliniewicz was shot. He did die. However, those phrases make it sound as if someone else did the shooting. If we had known he took his own life, we wouldn’t have used them. We couldn’t have known that, of course. But there’s a case to be made that we should have thought through the possibilities and said “before he was shot and died” or some other phrasing that didn’t include the word “killed.”

(Memmos; Nov. 4, 2015)


Words We Get Wrong: The List #

We speak and write well most of the time.

There are, however, words and phrases that trip us up. Listeners, readers and our colleagues cringe at the mistakes.

This is going to be a living post. We’re starting with some of the common mistakes. There are some links to where you can get help on the proper usages. We’ll add to the list as suggestions — perhaps we should say “complaints” – come in. The hope is that if the problem cases are identified, they’ll become less common as times goes on.

– Advance planning: One of many pleonasms we should avoid.

Anniversary: It is redundant to say “one-year” or “five-year” or “10-year” … “anniversary.”

– Begs the question: If you think that means “raises the question,” you will incur the wrath of dozens or more audience members.

– But: It’s a little word we use far too often and in ways we shouldn’t.

-- Countless: Do you really mean there are “too many to count?” Or that there’s an “indefinitely large number?” Should you be saying “hundreds” or “thousands?”

– Data: At NPR, we use plural verbs and pronouns when referring to data — unless, that is, we’re confident we’re using the word as a collective noun. Tip: If you can substitute the word “information,” that’s a sign you’re using “data” as a collective noun. If the word “numbers” is the proper substitute, than you need plural verbs and pronouns.

– Farther and further: Use “farther” when discussing distances. “Further” is for issues involving matters of degree.

– Fewer or less? Do you choose your supermarket based on what the sign says over the express aisle? Some people do. “Fewer” is the word to use when things can be counted. “Less” is to be used when when you’re talking about mass quantities.

– Interpreters and translators: An interpreter turns spoken words into another language. A translator works with written words.

– Lay and lie: Stop and check yourself before choosing between these words. Go here or here. At the very least, remember this: You lay down a book; you lie down to rest.

– Lecterns and podiums: You stand on a podium. You put your notes on a lectern, which you sit or stand behind.

– Marine, sailor, soldier: A Marine is not a soldier or a sailor. A sailor is not a Marine or a soldier. A soldier is not a sailor or a Marine. Be careful when referring to them.

– Media: NPR treats “media” as a plural.

– Percent and percentage point: When comparing changes in two percentages, the difference is expressed in “percentage points.” For example, if 36% of Little Valley Central School’s class of ’76 show up at next year’s reunion, that will be an increase of 5 percentage points from the 31% turnout 10 years ago. Attendance, though, will go up 15%. That’s because the 15 who come next year would mark a 15% increase from the 13 who attended in ’06.

– Reticent and reluctant: They do not mean the same thing. Webster’s defines reticent as “habitually silent or uncommunicative; disinclined to speak readily; reserved; taciturn” and “having a restrained, quiet or understated quality.”

– Shrink, shrank and shrunk; sink, sank and sunk: William Safire weighed in on these words back in 1995.  Tip: The movie should have been called “Honey, I Shrank the Kids.”

– Vast majority: The best advice is to just not say it. You’ll probably be wrong. Use facts instead.

(Memmos; Nov. 3, 2015)


On The Plagiarism Case And How It Was Handled #

If you haven’t read the news we posted Thursday, please do. Click on these headlines:

- Editor’s Note: Ethics Violations Identified In Several NPR Music And WQXR Reports
- Stories By A Contributing Writer Published On That Contain Plagiarism
- NPR Acknowledges Plagiarism In 10 Music Stories

The ombudsman has also posted:

- Plagiarism Found In 10 NPR Music Stories

Before describing how this situation was handled, we should note that the Ethics Handbook is clear: “Plagiarism – taking someone else’s work and intentionally presenting it as if it is your own – is theft. At NPR it’s an unforgivable offense.”

The Handbook goes on to say:

“That means no material from another source should ever be included verbatim, or substantially so, without attribution. This includes material from Associated Press reports. We do not, for example, produce news ‘spots’ or other pieces that closely resemble wire service stories. NPR’s standard is that our writing should be our own. There is no excuse for writing that repeats the wire stories that we use word-for-word, or nearly so.”

Now, about how things were handled once we knew the extent of the problem.

We started from the position that when we make mistakes, we acknowledge them. Steps were taken to do that:

1. We stated as clearly as possible, in multiple places, what had happened and what we had done to correct the mistakes. That’s why there is an editor’s note signed by Mike Oreskes and WQXR General Manager Graham Parker, an editor’s note on top of the page where the stories in question were collected and editor’s notes on each of the 10 pages where the pieces originally appeared.

2. We did not try to hide the stories. They were all put on one page because we felt that would be a simple and user-friendly way to make them available to anyone who wanted to see what was in those pieces that had appeared elsewhere before.

3. We highlighted the words and phrases that had appeared elsewhere and linked to the places they had been drawn from. Again, we aimed to make it as simple as possible for anyone to see what had been done.

4. A headline and link to the main editor’s note was put on the homepage.

5. The Two-Way was given no instructions other than to cover the news as it saw fit.

We will make mistakes, though hopefully none this serious. Steps similar to those taken in this situation may need to be repeated. Having them written down here may prove helpful in the future.

Before finishing, a couple more things should be noted.

The first sign that there was a problem came last Friday when copy editor Mark Mobley was checking an unusual spelling and came across a document with phrases much like those in the piece he was editing. He brought the duplication to the attention of editors at NPR Music. That was exactly the right thing to do. Mark was then asked to start going through the pieces the writer had done for in the past. His research turned up the multiple examples.

Tom Huizenga, Jessica Goldstein and Jacob Ganz worked through this situation with what I would say was “firm compassion.” It is not easy to deal with news such as this when it involves a person you like and have enjoyed working with. They stayed focused on what was the right thing to do for NPR and its audience.

We all owe Mark, Tom, Jessica and Jacob a thanks.

(Memmos; Oct. 30, 2015)


It’s ‘Argentine,’ Not ‘Argentinian’ #


As the AP notes, “Argentine” is “the preferred term for the people and culture of Argentina.” Don’t use “Argentinian.”

And as we said earlier this year, the pronunciation is “AHR-jen-tyne.” Not “teen.”

(Memmos; Oct. 28, 2015)


Let’s Reduce Our Buts #

We’re obsessed with our buts.

At least, that’s what I’ve been told by more than one person in the newsroom.

The problem is that we try to insert too many of them into places they don’t belong. We use but to signal a conflict that doesn’t exist or when the conjunction should  be “and.”

I asked Paul Soucy, a veteran copy editor and former colleague, to send me a note he wrote for the staff at USA Today a decade or so ago. Here are excerpts from the memo he titled, “But. Why?

“One objection is mainly stylistic. An over-reliance on but — not just as a word but as a rhetorical device — results in a story that reads like a Ping-Pong match:

– “A, but B.

– “C, but D.

– “E, but F. …

“… all the way to the end.”

“The other major objection to but is linguistic. … Without getting too grammar-y, let’s just say that but is best used to illustrate contradiction, not just contrast. What comes after but should have some impact on what comes before but; it shouldn’t just be something different.

“We run a lot of sentences constructed like this one: ‘Chet has a red Ford, but Ned has a blue Toyota.’

“Why but? There’s contrast in this sentence, but no contradiction. The fact that Ned has a blue Toyota has no bearing whatsoever on the fact that Chet has a red Ford. … If there is no contradiction, there’s no need for but.

“We could just as easily say … ‘Chet has a red Ford and Ned has a blue Toyota.’ [Or] ‘Chet has a red Ford. Ned has a blue Toyota.’ “

Paul finished with three tips:

– “The troublesome buts will usually jump out at you. The best buts are invisible.”

– “Not sure whether a but belongs? Try just taking it out.”

– “If the sentence can be written without the but, perhaps it should be.”

If you’ve read this far, you may have a song in your head: Schoolhouse Rock’s “Conjunction Junction.”

This post also may have brought back memories of last year’s nagging about sentences that start with “so.” If you haven’t read that one, please do. We’re still “soing” a lot.

Other language issues we’ve droned on about include:

Begs The Question

Farther And Further


Imagined Elegance

Lay And Lie

With that, I’ll butt out.

(Memmos; Oct. 22, 2015)



Take The ‘Sting’ Out Of References To The ‘Planned Parenthood Videos’ #

Please use phrases such as “secretly recorded” and “covertly recorded” when referring to the videos made by anti-abortion activists.

“Undercover” is another useful word. True, it may invoke in some listeners’ minds the image of a government spy who has gone under cover, but as an adjective it means “acting or carried out in secret.”

We have concluded that “sting” doesn’t apply because it is defined as “an elaborate confidence game” or “an elaborately planned operation engaged in by law enforcement agents to entrap criminals.” Those don’t fit in this context.

(Memmos; Oct. 14, 2015)


There’s No Debate About This: We’ll Get Complaints If We Say The Candidates Are Behind Podiums #

The five candidates on stage tonight in Las Vegas will be standing at lecterns, not podiums, as many emailers have reminded us already.

From Webster’s New World College Dictionary:

“lectern … a stand for holding the notes, written speech, etc., as of a lecturer.”

“podium … a low platform, esp. for the conductor of an orchestra; dais.”

(Memmos; Oct. 13, 2015)


Read This If You Use Social Media; Everyone Should Know Our Thinking #

The presidential campaign, particularly the debates, and breaking news events such as this week’s mass shooting in Oregon draw many of us to social media. We want to monitor the news, post our reporting, share the interesting information we find and offer our thoughts.

That’s great. Have fun out there.

But … (there’s always a “but”) … all of us — journalists as well as those in other departments — need to remember that what we post and retweet can reflect on NPR. None of us want NPR’s reputation for fairness to be put in doubt because of things we do on digital platforms.

We’ve issued guidance on this before. Everyone is expected to be familiar with our thinking. Please reread:

The “Social Media” section of the handbook. The introduction specifically mentions NPR’s journalists, but the principles apply to others here as well. If you’re in doubt, talk to your supervisor:

“The Internet and the social media communities it encompasses can be incredible resources. They offer both a remarkably robust amount of historical material and an incredible amount of ‘real-time’ reporting from people at the scenes of breaking news events. But they also present new and unfamiliar challenges, and they tend to amplify the effects of any ethical misjudgments you might make. So tread carefully. Conduct yourself online just as you would in any other public circumstances as an NPR journalist. Treat those you encounter online with fairness, honesty and respect, just as you would offline. Verify information before passing it along. Be honest about your intent when reporting. Avoid actions that might discredit your professional impartiality. And always remember, you represent NPR.”

– “Some Guidance About Social Media On Election Day.” You could substitute the words “Debate Night” for “Election Day.”

– “Reminder: There Is No Privacy On The Web, And ‘Personal’ Pages Are Not Safe Zones.”  Here’s a key paragraph:

“Matt Thompson offers a test. Before posting something about your work or a news event or an issue, even if you’re putting it on what you think of as a personal page, ask this question: ‘Is it helping my journalism, or is it hurting my journalism?’ ”

(Memmos; Oct. 2, 2015)


Take Care When Describing Weapons #

As we cover news about the mass shooting in Oregon, we will get reports and see reports about the weapons that were used.

Until we have solid information from the authorities, we need to be careful about descriptions of those weapons. Words to avoid unless we are sure of them include: “automatic,” “semi-automatic,” “assault” and “assault-style.” They are often misused.

Obviously, the shooter had “guns.” It is being reported that he had both “handguns” and a “rifle.” Those are good words because of their breadth. It is best to stick to such words until authorities release details.

The AP Stylebook has a substantial entry for “weapons” that has good guidance. If you’re on our intranet, you can get to the Stylebook here:

We also have hard copies of the Stylebook. There’s one with The Two-Way team and others with copy editors Susan Vavrick, Amy Morgan and Pam Webster.

(Memmos; Oct. 2, 2015)


This Is An Important Reminder About Dealing With Those Who Are Vulnerable; Please Read It #

There have been a couple times in recent weeks when people we’ve interviewed asked that we remove their names from the stories we posted on the Web. We have issued guidance on this topic several times before. Reminders seem to be in order about how to avoid getting into such situations and how to handle them if they arise.

Click on these headlines to see our guidance:

– ‘This Story About You Is Going To Be On The Web Forever And You May Come To Regret That

– Reminder: Whether To Go With ‘First-Name-Only’ Needs To Be Discussed And Explained

– How To Explain Why We Won’t ‘Take Down’ A Story

When We’re Asked To Remove A Photo, Here’s What We Do

Here are some important points from those notes:

– We’re not saying that Sen. Doe or Mayor Smith or CEO Jones need to be reminded that what they say to us is on the record and will be available to anyone with a Web connection. They should know what they’re doing.

– The notes don’t cover “reporting done in war zones or situations when stopping to have a long conversation about the long tail of the Web isn’t safe or practical.”

– But the guidance does cover other situations involving people who are vulnerable. Those include survivors of sexual assault, people with serious medical conditions and those whose lives may be put in danger if they are fully identified. As the handbook says, “we minimize undue harm and take special care with those who are vulnerable or suffering.”

We do not preview our stories for those we interview. But it is essential that vulnerable individuals understand in general how we will be using the information we get from them, how we will identify them and whether any images of them will be published (remember: visuals are important parts of our journalism and we treat them that way). There may be times when people say we can use their full names and photos and we are not comfortable doing so.

It must be made clear to such individuals that our stories do not only air on the radio — they live on various digital forms and will be searchable on the Web. 

How such individuals’ names, biographical details and images will be handled must be discussed with a senior editor well before anything is aired or published. That means a supervising senior editor, a deputy managing editor or the standards & practices editor. In reality, they’ll all probably be involved.

One other reminder (because we’re asked about it at least once a week):

When we decide to withhold a source’s name from a story, we don’t invent a pseudonym for that source.”

 (“Memmos;” Sept. 29, 2015)


Pleonasms: Words That Don’t Need To Be Together #

Here’s a word that a search indicates may never have been said on NPR: “pleonasm.”

But we and other news outlets put pleonasms on the air and on the Web every day.

What is a pleonasm?

“The use of more words than are necessary for the expression of an idea; redundancy.”

Some examples:

– There’s been a “mass exodus” of Syrians.

An “exodus” is the departure of a large, massive group.

“What I did was legally permitted, first and foremost,” says Hillary Clinton.

“Foremost” means “first in place or time.”

Homes that were in the path of a wildfire were “completely destroyed.”

If they were destroyed, enough’s been said.

John McIntyre, the “veteran drudge” at the Baltimore Sun, has collected pleonasms, here and here.

A few of the more common:

–  “Safe haven.”

–  “Final results.”

–  “Advance planning.”

You can probably think of many more.

There are times when pleonasms are useful – for instance, when you want to make sure listeners really, really, really understand the point you’re making. Also, they are common expressions and we do try to be conversational.

But, they annoy some listeners, might add nothing to your story and take up space when you may be fighting to squeeze in valuable information.  Feel free to cut them.

Related post:Do You Suffer From RAS Syndrome?

(Memmos; Sept. 15, 2015)


Guidance: Online News Commentaries #

There have been some questions in recent days about how we handle commentaries online.

Basically, the same principles that apply to on-air news commentaries from outside voices should apply to those commissioned for blogs and other digital platforms.

Let’s start this discussion with a bit of what the Ethics Handbook says about commentaries:

“In selecting commentaries from independent writers, we honor our commitments to impartiality and fairness by presenting our audience with a variety of voices, encompassing many sides of an issue. Our commentaries must also hew to other Guiding Principles, reflecting honesty, accuracy and transparency.”

More on fairness below.

On the air, commentators have always been identified as … well … commentators. Listeners have also heard at least brief bios to establish the commentators’ credentials.

Online, users should know immediately that what they’re seeing is an opinion piece and they should see biographical details about the writer or writers. There are different ways to do it, including assigning commentaries to a category called … wait for it … “commentary.” Then there are combinations of these approaches:

– The headline could begin with “Commentary:”

– An editor’s note at the top might simply state something like: “Social scientist Jane Doe has spent the last 10 years studying [insert the issue]. She has watched the recent events in [insert location]. Doe has some ideas about how to prevent it from happening again.”

– A bio box near the top of the page could spell out who the author is and why she has some expertise.

Now, on fairness.

This is obvious — the commentaries we put online must be fair. It’s also obvious that a writer needs to make well-reasoned, articulate points.

The right thing to do when a commentator is suggesting a person or institution is guilty of bad judgment, malfeasance or some serious misdeed, is to reflect the other person’s side of the story. On the air it’s often been a case of saying something like: “As we just heard, congressman John Doe said today that the $1 million he took from [insert name of shady character] was a gift, not a bribe. Jane Smith, a former federal prosecutor in Texas, doesn’t buy Doe’s explanation and predicts the Justice Department won’t either.”

Online, approaches can include a recap of what the other side says in response to our questions or (if we get a “no comment”) what that side has said in the past. The digital audience should be told what we find out. If the only thing we can say is “they had no comment,” that should be stated. There are several ways to present the information, including: As an editor’s note; as an inset box; or as a separate post that is linked to prominently.

Consider how a recent Goats and Soda commentary turned out. At the top of the post headlined “Taylor Swift Is Dreaming Of A Very White Africa” is a box that begins “this essay reflects the opinions of the authors, Viviane Rutabingwa and James Kassaga Arinaitwe.” Substantial bios of each author follow. Directly below them is a link to a post headlined “The Director Of The Taylor Swift Video Defends His Work.”

To recap: Commentaries must be fair; they must be labeled; the authors’ credentials need to be spelled out; and if the “other side” of the story needs to be told or restated or prominently linked to, we need to do one or more of those things for our Web users.

Side note: An arts critic is a type of commentator. But this guidance is not about critics’ reviews. They certainly shouldn’t be mean-spirited, but are not the same as commentaries on the news or people in the news.

(Memmos; Sept. 11, 2015)


On ‘Migrants’ And ‘Refugees’ #

We don’t base our decisions on whether to refer to those who are heading to Europe as “refugees” or “migrants” simply on what the U.N. or any governments say.

We also do not use words or phrases just because advocates on one side or another say we should.

There’s been discussion about whether the news media should only use the word “refugees” when referring to those who are in Europe or trying to get there. The word choice has legal ramifications and “refugees” is the word that human rights groups want to see used.

News outlets, including NPR, have leaned on “migrants” as the word that encompasses all those who are on the move.

Both words have a place in this story.

There is a migration under way. Large numbers of people are entering and crossing Europe. It is a migrant crisis. The people fit the dictionary definition of “migrants” because to migrate is to “move from one place to another.”

Obviously, given the makeup of the population, there’s a strong case to be made that most of the people are refugees. Here is the Webster’s New World College Dictionary definition: “A person who flees from home or country to seek refuge elsewhere, as in a time of war or of political or religious persecution.” Those fleeing conflict zones such as Syria and Afghanistan and places of persecution like Eritrea are almost surely refugees. But people fleeing poverty aren’t automatically refugees.

Our guidance:

– “Migrants” is a word that covers all those who are on the move, whether it’s because they’re fleeing a war zone or hoping for better lives somewhere new.

– “Refugee” and “refugees” can stand alone when there is evidence that a person or group has left home because of war or persecution or when we’re reporting about people from specific places such as Syria. For instance, it made sense to have our headline say “Number Of Refugees Found Dead In Austrian Truck Rises To 71” because Syrian travel documents were found with the bodies.

But do not assume that “refugees” is the word that works in all cases.

– Phrases such as “hundreds of refugees and other migrants” may be extremely useful.

– Also useful: Thinking of it as a migrant crisis “fueled by refugees from [country or countries].”

– Listen to how Steve Inskeep and Joanna Kakissis handled the words Friday on Morning Edition. Steve framed the conversation by talking about “why so many people risk their lives to move across Europe,” referring to them as “migrants.” Then as he and Joanna dug into the story, they folded in logical references to refugees.

– It will make sense in most cases to employ action words to describe who we’re reporting about —  ”families fleeing the war in Syria,” for instance.

– We turn to the dictionary for help, not the legal definitions. But everyone reporting this story should be familiar with the legalese because it may be necessary to explain it to listeners/readers.

(Memmos; Aug. 28, 2015)


New Guidance On ‘ISIS’ & ‘Islamic State’ #

Enough time has gone by and so many stories have been reported that it’s been decided we no longer need to always use words such as “self-declared,” “self-proclaimed” or “self-styled” with first references to the “Islamic State.”

Also, we believe the audience is familiar enough with that group to allow us to say “ISIS” on first reference.

Please note that we are not issuing a rule that it must be “ISIS” on first reference. Also, “self-declared Islamic State” (or some variation) on first reference is not being banned. The change being made is that we’re no longer saying the first reference has to be done a certain way.

It will still make sense in many cases to remind listeners and readers that ISIS is “the group known as the Islamic State” or some other formulation that spells out exactly what and who we’re referring to. Also, we’ll still have to deal with officials and guests who want to call it “ISIL” or “Daesh,” which will require us to throw in an “also known as.”

This note mostly supersedes our previous guidance. There’s a “mostly” in that sentence because the guidance about not using “so-called” remains in effect.

(“Memmos;” Aug. 19, 2015)


If We’ve Bleeped It, Do We Also Need To Warn Listeners? Maybe Not #

Is it necessary to alert listeners that there’s offensive/disturbing/troubling/etc. language in a report if we’ve already bleeped the nettlesome word or words?

The short answer is, “not always.”

Previous guidance has been too strict on this point. Let’s try this:

If it’s been decided after discussions with senior editors that a word or phrase will be bleeped, don’t assume listeners do or do not need to be alerted. Instead, consider the context.

– Is the cut still intense, graphic or disturbing even after it’s been bleeped? Then a heads up for listeners could be warranted. By the way, it may not have to be a line that sounds like a warning. The language can be conversational and informational (more on that below).

– Is the cut funny and a naughty word or two are said in jest? Then a heads up probably isn’t necessary.

– Is it one bleep in an otherwise family-friendly piece and the word wasn’t said in anger? Then, again, there could be no need for a heads up.

Basically, it’s a judgment call. Talk to the deputy managing editors (Chuck Holmes & Gerry Holmes) and/or the standards & practices editor (Mark Memmott). It will get figured out.

Two related notes:

– Here’s the part about being conversational and informational. If we think listeners should be alerted, we don’t always need to say something like “we should warn you.” On Morning Edition recently, there was a piece about the comic Chris Gethard. Two F-bombs were bleeped. In the introduction, David Greene said of Gethard that, “Chris is funny and weird. But he doesn’t shock audiences. You’ll only hear a couple of bleeps this morning.” That told listeners something about Gethard and tipped them off to what was coming without saying they needed to be on guard.

– Any time there’s bleeped language in a piece, the DACS line must tell stations what that word is, when it appears (or approximately if we’re still editing) and that it will be bleeped. Obviously, on the occasions when we don’t bleep offensive language, the DACS need to explain that.

NPR’s “Policy On Use Of Potentially Offensive Language” is posted here.

(Memmos; Aug. 18, 2015)


Guidance On The Use Of ‘Disturbing’ Videos And Audio #

Videos and audio clips of someone being shot, a disaster victim crying for help, bodies being recovered and other potentially disturbing scenes present us with challenges.

When weighing whether to post such videos online and to use any clips on the air, keep in mind that:

– Conversations are required. The senior news manager on duty (a DME or the designated supervisor) must be consulted. The Visuals team should be pulled in. Other senior editors may be as well.

– The conversations start from this position: We report the news, good and bad.

– But we can’t be callous. The video may show someone’s death. Out of respect for that person and that person’s family, we consider carefully what should be shown or heard. Our general rule is that we do not post video or play audio of someone’s moment of death. There will be exceptions, but only after discussion.

– We also respect our audience. They want the facts. But for many, reading or hearing descriptions will be more than enough. Seeing or hearing disturbing events could leave them too shaken to follow the rest of a story.

– “Every other news outlet else is using it” is not on its own a justification for posting or broadcasting anything.

– Especially in the first minutes and hours after such content surfaces, its credibility may be in doubt. Proceed with caution.

– The content may be propaganda. For example, extremist groups spread their messages and try to spread terror by putting out videos of hostages being murdered. We do not blindly post or air propaganda. It would be highly unusual for us to even link to it.

Rigid rules about what to do won’t work. Each situation is different. However:

– If it’s decided that videos with potentially disturbing content can be posted, they should never start automatically when a webpage loads. They must require a “click” to begin. They must either have a warning note embedded in them or it must appear directly above them.

– Likewise, on the air listeners should never hear potentially disturbing content without first being told that it’s coming. For instance, cellphone audio of gunshots that kill a man should not be heard until after a caution has been given.

– We should consider whether a video’s disturbing moments and sounds can and should be blurred and bleeped, for posting online and using on the air.

– If the original content is too disturbing to post and we do not have a blurred/bleeped version that we are comfortable using, we may decide to link to another news outlet’s edited version if it is in line with our standards. We should caution readers that it includes potentially disturbing content. The language should be simple and clear. For example:  ”The Daily Planet has posted a clip from the video here. Reminder: It is graphic.”

– When a member station is chasing the same story, we should talk with the news director about how to handle the content. Often, we’ll be in agreement and can link to the station’s coverage.

But, But, But:

– Does this mean we’ll never put such content online or on the air?

No. See above: “We report the news, good and bad.” We would not have edited a video of the Challenger explosion, for example, to blur the key moments.

– Are we treating the audience like children?

Some will say we are. We believe we’re making editorial judgments.

Note: The guidance above applies to images as well. We do not post potentially disturbing photos without first discussing.

(Memmos; Aug. 11, 2015. This guidance has also been posted under “Respect.”)


Save Yourself A Word And Make The Latin Teachers Happy #

We’ve gotten a steady stream of emails the past few days reminding us that it’s redundant to say “one-year anniversary” since anniversary comes from the Latin annus, or “year.”

Just say “first anniversary.”

This isn’t a new issue, of course:

(Memmos; Aug. 11, 2015)


Guidance On Key Words That Come Up In The Planned Parenthood Stories #

Flatly saying or writing that Planned Parenthood officials have been secretly recorded discussing the sale of fetal tissue is akin to concluding that they committed a crime. That is a problem. We should not attach such judgments to people or institutions until the confessions or convictions are in.

We’ve been on the story. Meanwhile, both and PolitiFact have explored what is and isn’t known at this point about what Planned Parenthood has done. FactCheck links to the 1993 law that defines what is and is not legal regarding the use of fetal tissue. Here are two key sections:

– “PURCHASE OF TISSUE — It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly acquire, receive, or otherwise transfer any human fetal tissue for valuable consideration if the transfer affects interstate commerce.”

– “The term ‘valuable consideration’ does not include reasonable payments associated with the transportation,  implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue.”

The video makers and other Planned Parenthood critics say the organization was selling fetal tissue. Planned Parenthood says the tissue has been donated, not sold, and that only the organization’s costs (reasonable payments) have been covered.

The facts are not all in.

For now, just as we would report that “prosecutors say John Doe robbed the bank,” we should attribute references to fetal tissue being sold. They’re coming from “Planned Parenthood’s critics,” for example. Conversely, at this point it is for Planned Parenthood to say — not us — that these were donations, not sales.

In the short space of a Newscast spot, an “allegedly” or “accused of” may be required when there isn’t time to say more.

There are cases to be made for saying that Planned Parenthood officials were heard discussing how they could “provide” fetal tissue to researchers, or how those researchers could “procure” or “obtain” it. The issue of money being paid should be addressed in most reports. But, again, attribution is important when characterizing those payments.

(Memmos; Aug. 4, 2015)


No Joke: A Reminder About Writing, Courtesy Of ‘The Daily Show’ #

Crusty editors aren’t the only ones who extol the merits of “precision writing and editing.”

Here’s what comedian Hasan Minaj had to say about Jon Stewart during Elizabeth Blair’s piece on Morning Edition today:

“He’s always been really great about cutting. … Because we only have 22 minutes to convey a lot and in a field piece you only have 4 1/2, 5 minutes, maybe 6 minutes tops. … Cutting out extraneous stuff, even if it’s extra laughs. … Cutting those things out to convey the story and to convey the narrative and the argument. And you’ll still get great jokes in there. But once you really establish and lay that groundwork out, that’s where it goes to that next level.”

Also on writing:

When Looking For The Right Words, Beware Of ‘Imagined Elegance’

Let’s Toss ‘Hat In The Ring’ Into The Cliché Round File

We Wave A Lot; Perhaps We Should Stem The Tide

Don’t Be Reticent Or Reluctant About Flagging The Words We Overuse, Misuse Or Otherwise Abuse

Weak language is sometimes a symptom of weak journalism

(Memmos; Aug. 3, 2015)


DACS Lines Are Journalism #

By Chuck Holmes:

DACS lines are many things. A thumbnail description of a story. A necessity. And, yes, often a pain in the backside.

But above all, they are journalism. And they reach ­a vast audience. They are the prime means to inform the network of the stories we’re telling. Shows, Digital News, Member Stations — all rely on them.

A DACS line must be brief, accurate, up to date and reflective of the story. Too often they are written in haste, not updated or simply do not exist.

Bad DACS lines can have a serious cascade effect. In recent weeks, a show billboard was incorrect because information was lifted from a dated DACS line. It was an easily avoidable mistake that was heard by listeners around the world. We too often see imprecise headlines on, again because the DACS line doesn’t accurately reflect the content of the story. On weekends especially, member stations often read our DACS lines — word for word — on air as promotional copy to highlight upcoming stories.

DACS lines are the responsibility, first and foremost, of Desk reporters and Desk editors or, in the case of 2-ways, Show editors and Show producers. Like a story, they should be written, edited and updated. And DACS lines from Desks may be further edited by Shows and Digital News, as warranted.

Here are the rules:

– Every NewsFlex entry needs a DACS line. And every DACS line needs to be updated as the story changes. If you’re creating a NewsFlex entry, you own it and will be accountable for it.

– Keep DACS lines tight and to the point. Think tweet. DACS lines should not be more than a short sentence or two. (If a language advisory or embargo note must be included, those can run longer.)

–  The DACS line needs to say something, even on a story that is developing. Unacceptable: “lines tk.” But it shouldn’t say too much. Unacceptable: a cut and paste of the first few grafs of the piece.

–  Do not include names of reporters, hosts, contributors in the DACS lines for pieces. (A byline will appear automatically on the web rundown and the note to stations).

– In a DACS line for a 2-way, only include the name of a guest when the guest is not affiliated with NPR or a member station. (An issue expert, newsmaker, etc.)

– In our hectic daily routine, it may not be the reporter who creates the DACS line, but in the end the reporter’s name is associated with it. So, if you’re a reporter, it is in your best interest to make sure the DACS line accurately reflects the story.

– Follow-up. If a story changes, let the Show and Digital News know that the DACS line needs to change, too.

We’re putting together a more extensive style guide to DACS lines and will be working with the Shows and Digital News to codify a standard workflow.  More to come.


– Proofread DACS Lines; Mistakes In Them Can End Up On Our Website

– Your Keyboard Is A Live Mic (Or, If You Write It They May Say It)

– No Exceptions: Any Clip With Offensive Language, Bleeped Or Not, Must Be Approved Well Ahead Of Broadcast

(Memmos; July 21, 2015)


Warning: This Post Contains Language That May Offend; Such Words Should Not Be Used In Podcasts Or On The Air #

There was a good discussion this week among correspondents and editors in the New York bureau about whether we can use some offensive language in podcasts that we can’t on the air.

The immediate question was this (NOTE: sensitive readers may find the next sentence objectionable):

Can we call an asshole an asshole?

The answer was “no,” we don’t want an NPR correspondent to say that on a podcast.

The process, by the way, worked. A correspondent consulted his editor. The editor consulted his boss and the Standards & Practices noodge. A case was made, consideration was given and a decision was reached that everyone understood.

This is a good time to ask: How do we feel about offensive language in podcasts?

As an organization, we respect our audience and “set a high bar on use of language that may be offensive.”

That line was originally written about what we say on the air, but we made clear three years ago when the Ethics Handbook was published that the bar applies to our other platforms as well:

“Online, if sound or text containing potentially offensive language has been approved for use by a Managing Editor or someone above that level, it too must be preceded by text (and in the case of audio, a verbal warning as well) advising the audience that what follows contains language some may find offensive.”

The environment is changing quickly. Some very popular podcasts do not worry about whether their language might offend. Their hosts’ conversational and sometimes profane ways of speaking are probably pulling in far more listeners than they repel.

We don’t want to seem boring and out-of-step. We do want to sound like America. But, the bar that NPR journalists need to get over before using such language themselves has to be set incredibly high — so high, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to get over.

We’re professional communicators at a major news organization. What we say and write in public reflects on NPR. No matter what platform we’re using or where we’re appearing, we should live up to our own standards. Yes, there’s more room in podcasts to let guests speak freely and for our journalists to be looser with their language. But it doesn’t mean NPR correspondents are free to use words or phrases in podcasts that they would never use on the air.

We should always be the news outlet that revels in language. There are so many wonderful words. Use them!

The most common offensive words and phrases are among the least creative ways of expressing yourself. They’re akin to cliches in the sense that they’re easy ways out. We pride ourselves on using words that pop out because they’re funny, provocative, rarely heard or just perfect. Again, use them!

You may be asking: Who needs to sign off on what is permissible language in a podcast, what does and does not need to be bleeped and what kind of warnings need to be given to listeners? The people to consult are: the deputy managing editors (Chuck Holmes & Gerry Holmes) and the standards & practices editor (Mark Memmott).

(Memmos; July 16, 2015)


On Why It’s Not OK To Ask Friends, Family Or Fixers To Take Photos For Us #

Here’s what everyone needs to know: When on assignment, do not turn to friends, family members, freelance producers or foreign fixers and ask them to take a picture to go with the digital version of your story.

This has been happening in recent months and as the Visuals team notes, it’s a problem. Among the issues:

– In most cases, the people being asked to take photographs are not trained journalists, so NPR may not be able to vouch for the journalistic integrity of their image-making.

– In some cases, the person who’s been asked to take a photo is being employed by NPR to do a very specific job. Because the photo-making is not negotiated ahead of time, it’s asking someone to do more work than they’ve signed on to do.

– Why not just pay them another $50? Well, the budget for photos is limited, so Visuals must carefully weigh whether to hire a photographer to cover any particular story. If the budget gets drained by ad hoc arrangements, we may not be able to hire professionals for other stories.

– What’s wrong with having your son or daughter come along to take photos? Asking minors to work for us raises child labor issues, liability issues and ethical issues.

We understand that it can be hard to collect tape and make images and do everything else that goes into being a multi-platform journalist. Here’s what the Visuals team asks:

“If reporters think they won’t be able to handle gathering images in the field on their own, they and their editors should come to us and we’ll figure out a solution. If a story warrants original imagery, that decision and hire should be made by a photo editor on the Visuals team.”

Meanwhile, everyone should be on notice that photos taken by “my friend Buzz” or “my nephew who’s really good with a camera” will be turned down for one or more of the reasons above.

Bottom line: It’s important to remember that all assets for stories gathered in the field should be collected by NPR journalists, or NPR-commissioned journalists. The images that go with our reports are important. Think about it this way: Would you hand a microphone to that precocious niece of yours and have her do some interviews?

(Written with guidance from Kainaz Amaria, Ariel Zambelich and Emily Bogle of the Visuals team.)

(Memmos; July 7, 2015)


Proofread DACS Lines; Mistakes In Them Can End Up On Our Website #

Here’s a DACS line as it appears in Newsflex:

“A village of Portsoy is reviving an old seamen’s superstition by banning bananas during it’s annual boat festival. NPR’s Lynn Neary talks to festival chairman Roger Goodyear.”

Here’s the introduction to that piece, as posted on one of our transcripts pages:

“A village of Portsoy is reviving an old seamen’s superstition by banning bananas during it’s annual boat festival. NPR’s Lynn Neary talks to festival chairman Roger Goodyear.”

The DACS line was picked up and posted verbatim, including the typos.

We’ve noted before that the information in “DACS lines, scripts and Web teasers could end up as copy on our website and as language read on the air by us or a member station.”

Yes, the transcript editor should spot obvious problems and either fix or write around them. Yes, an “it’s” when it should be “its” and a confusing phrase such as “a village of Portsoy” are not the biggest mistakes we will make.

And, yes, DACS lines have to do a lot (remember to include warnings about offensive language!).

But they should be as clean and accurate as possible from the start. Remember, “your keyboard is a live mic.”

(Memmos; July 6, 2015)


When News Breaks, Keep A Couple Things In Mind #

Nice work by all those involved in today’s news from the Navy Yard. We did not fall into the traps that some other media outlets did. We stuck with what was known, we were clear about what was not known, and we stayed away from rumors.

A couple things to keep in mind:

– When passing along information to the lead editor(s) and, please be as specific as you can about the source. For example, if the news is that the “all clear” has been given, tell us who’s saying that. A police lieutenant you just spoke to? The public information officer on the scene? The mayor’s chief of staff? Knowing that will help Newscast, The Two-Way and editors as they sort through what are often conflicting reports.

– When passing along information, be clear about what you feel “can be reported” and what “cannot be reported” (but is something you want editors to be aware of). That will also help Newscast, The Two-Way and editors as they sort through what are often conflicting reports.

Again, those are points to keep in mind. But the most important thing to take away from today is how well we did when it came to reporting solid information and staying away from thinly sourced rumors. Thanks.

Related: Our “Breaking News Playbook” is on the NPR Intranet here. Some of the names have changed since it was first posted, but the guidance remains relevant.

(Memmos; July 2, 2015)


No Exceptions: Any Clip With Offensive Language, Bleeped Or Not, Must Be Approved Well Ahead Of Broadcast #

There have been times in recent weeks when potentially offensive language — bleeped, thankfully — was broadcast without a discussion beforehand with senior editors. That’s disturbing given the number of reminders that have gone out concerning such language and our policy. It should not happen.

Hopefully the points that follow are clear:

1. We have a detailed “Policy On Use Of Potentially Offensive Language.” Print it and read it.

2. Any clip with offensive language must be brought to the attention of the DMEs well before air time. Basically, as soon as you think you might be using it, talk to them. They may need time to consult with Legal.

Note: It does not matter if the words have already been bleeped. Be prepared to justify their use.

a. By the way, it’s assumed show executive producers and desk chiefs will already have been consulted.
b. The standards & practices editor should also be flagged.

3. The DMEs have yea-or-nay authority.

4. DACs lines must tell stations the specific language that is in the cut, when it occurs and whether it is bleeped. Those lines must go out with as much lead time as we can give.

5. If the words are bleeped, they must be completely bleeped. No syllable can be heard.

6. We do all this because we respect our audience and know that certain language will offend many. We also know that community standards vary around the nation and that complaints to the FCC can be costly to our member stations.

7. Overall, NPR is conservative about potentially offensive language — not permissive. There’s a key line right at the top of our policy statement: “NPR has always set a high bar on use of language that may be offensive to our audience.” The words must be important to the piece.

Questions? See Chuck, Gerry or me.

(Memmos; June 16, 2015)


When We’re Asked To Remove A Photo, Here’s What We Do #

Occasionally, someone in a photo we have posted asks that we remove the image from our website.

Any such request must be redirected to:

–  Kainaz Amaria or another editor from the Visuals team.

–  Chuck and/or Gerry Holmes, the deputy managing editors.

In most cases, the correspondent producer or staff photographer who took the image will already be aware of the request, as will the editor who handed the report. If not, they will be drawn into the discussion by Kainaz, Chuck and/or Gerry.

Others who will be brought in:

–  Digital ME Scott Montgomery.

–  Standards & Practices editor Mark Memmott.

The executive editor, VP for News and SVP for News will be looped in too.

The issue of whether to remove an image is a serious matter. As we’ve said before when discussing requests to take down stories, we agree with the AP that:

“We are guided by a newsroom policy that says it is inappropriate to remove content from our Website. If a report is inaccurate, we will correct it and state why it has been altered. If relevant new information emerges, we will update or do a follow-up story.

“But our content is a matter of public record and is part of our contract with our audience. To simply remove it from the archive diminishes transparency and trust and, in effect, erases history. This is not a practice engaged in by credible news organizations or in line with ethical journalism.”

A key question that will be asked when such requests come in: What was the person told about how the photo or photos would be used?

It is important that people know we’re not doing stories that only go on the air. We spend time making sure they understand that the stories live on our website and that the photos we take will be there as well. And as we’ve said before:

“Kainaz Amaria from NPR’s visuals team says she has found ‘that the more transparent I am about my intentions with people in my story, the more they are willing to share their time and moments. It may sound counterintuitive, but in fact it’s been proven to me every time I step out of the office and into someone’s life. If people trust you, trust you are there to listen and learn, you’ll be surprised at the access they will offer you. … If people say, ‘Wait you are radio, why do you want my picture?’ I usually say something like, ‘Well, many of our stories go online to reach a wider audience and to get more eyeballs. Chances are if they see you, then they will connect with your story.’ ”

Kainaz and the Visuals team have considerable experience dealing with this issue. If a request comes in, they should take the lead. In most cases, it should be someone from Visuals who gets back to the person who wants a photo removed.

(Memmos; June 15, 2015)





Don’t Trust Your Mother Or The Internet #

The old newsroom adage “if your mother says she loves you, check it out,” applies to information on the Internet as well.

We all know this, but occasionally we get reminders of how important it is not to trust everything we see on the Web and to be sure to do our due diligence before passing along any information we get from there.

Case in point: On Wednesday, WAMU’s Diane Rehm said to Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., “senator, you have dual citizenship with Israel.” Sanders quickly corrected her, but Diane went on to say that his name was on a list of lawmakers with such dual citizenship. Sanders told her that was “some of the nonsense that goes on in the Internet.”

Diane later issued a statement saying she had gotten the incorrect information from “a comment on Facebook.”

Diane has apologized. She stated as fact something that wasn’t.

We didn’t learn something from this episode. This is a relearning.

We have an entry about this in the Ethics Handbook entitled “Give preference to original sources.” Here’s what it says:

 ”For years, NPR journalists have been cautioned by their editors that an all- too-common pitfall of fact checking is verifying ‘facts’ through second sources, such as other news media outlets, that do not have ‘direct’ knowledge about what they supposedly know. The problem has only gotten more serious as the Internet has made it ever easier to find what others have reported as ‘fact.’ That’s why we value primary sources for our facts and we check them before broadcast or publication. And we value the work of the NPR reference librarians in helping our journalists get to those original sources (to email them, look for ‘NPR Library’ in the NPR internal email address book).

“We value our own reporting and fact-gathering over that done by other news outlets. We strongly prefer to confirm and verify information ourselves before reporting. When reporting on events we did not witness personally, we seek multiple independent perspectives to get a sharper, more accurate understanding of what happened. And if we can’t verify what others are reporting, but still believe the news is important and needs to be reported, we tell listeners and readers that NPR has not yet independently confirmed the news. Too often, incorrect information is passed down from one news story to another because of the failure of the first outlet to get it right. We strive to never pass on errors in this way.”

In other words, check, double-check and triple-check those so-called facts you find on the Internet. Be very skeptical about the credibility of the sources. Get first-hand information. Go right to the original source.

Confirm with mom just how she feels.

(Memmos; June 11, 2015)


Reminders: Say ‘MURZ’ & ‘STEHF-in’ #

From the wide world of science: The acronym for Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is pronounced “MURZ.” Don’t end it with an “s.” You can hear how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it here.

From the wide world of sports: The star of the Golden State Warriors is “STEHF-in” Curry. Don’t be misled by the spelling of his name (Stephen). He isn’t “STEEV-in.” You can hear Curry say his name here.  

(Memmos; June 9, 2015)


Reminders On Two Names #

On the air, we have a habit of not pronouncing two correspondents’ names the way they do.

– Ofeibea Quist-Arcton says: off-EH-bee-ah.

We too often say: oh-FEH-bee-ah

– Leila Fadel says: FAW-duhl (“FAW” rhymes with “SAW;” it’s worth noting that many listeners hear “duhn” instead of “duhl;” that syllable is very soft).

We too often say: FAH-dill (with “FAH” sounding like “AAH” and the “dill” being hit pretty hard).

We get emails from listeners about this after almost every report from Ofeibea and Leila.

Our pronunciation guide still lives and is accessible through the internal Wiki. Go to the Intranet, click on the little “link” icon in the top left corner and a dropdown box will appear. Then click on “Wiki.”

(“Memmos; June 4, 2015)


False Alarms About The Queen Reinforce Why We Think Before We Tweet #

A BBC journalist tweeted Wednesday that Queen Elizabeth II had been admitted to King Edward VII’s Hospital in London, leading at least one other major news outlet — CNN — to tell its affiliates that the queen had been hospitalized and setting off speculation that she had died.

The queen is apparently fine and is not in the hospital. The backstory, according to the BBC, is that it was conducting “a technical rehearsal for an obituary” and “tweets were mistakenly sent from the account of a BBC journalist.”

The BBC has apologized. CNN, which tweeted the “news” without citing any source, subsequently told affiliates to “please disregard our previous tweet about Queen Elizabeth. It was sent in error.”

Poynter’s Benjamin Mullin has more here.

We should note that “there but for the grace of God go we.” But this is also a reminder of why, as the Ethics Handbook says, we do not “just spread information” we see on social media, even if it’s posted by usually reliable news outlets. We are “careful and skeptical.”

Here’s part of what we say in the handbook:

“When determining whether to pass along information being reported on social media sites by other news outlets or individuals, be thoughtful. When we point to what others are saying, in the eyes of many we are effectively reporting that information ourselves. …

“Above all, proceed with caution, especially when news is breaking and accounts vary widely about what is happening. Reach out to other sources for confirmation. And the general standard is simple: Tweet and retweet as if what you’re saying or passing along is information that you would put on the air or in a ‘traditional’ news story. If it needs context, attribution, clarification or ‘knocking down,’ provide it.

“News moves fast on the Internet, and we know that speed and accuracy are fierce rivals, so keep your guard up. Ask questions, report and engage as you would in any public setting. But remember that everything you say or do in a social media environment is effectively a public statement from an NPR journalist, so don’t pass along inaccurate information.”

(Memmos; June 3, 2015)


Guidance: If ‘We’ Are Not Part Of The Story, Keep ‘Us’ Out Of It #

Words such as “we,” “our” and “us” are sometimes being used in ways that they shouldn’t.

It isn’t appropriate, for example, to be discussing U.S. policy about a particular conflict and say “we” support one side over another. We — that is, NPR — report about such policies. We don’t make them or endorse them.

A news report isn’t the right place to say that “our” civil rights have been violated by the government. That’s language for an op-ed.

The Ethics Handbook offers this guidance:

“Strive to use words and phrases that accurately deliver information without taking sides on emotional or political issues.”

“We,” “our” and “us” can create the impression that a reporter has taken sides.

In some cases, the right substitute is as simple as “Americans” or “taxpayers.” Other times, it might be a couple words, such as “U.S. forces” or “the administration.”

Remember, “there’s no cheering in the press box.”

(Memmos; May 27, 2015)


Reminder: When Posting Corrections, The Correspondents/Bloggers/Editors Who Allegedly Committed The Errors Need To Be Involved #

There have been a couple times this week when corrections were added to Web pages without input from the correspondents or bloggers who committed the alleged infractions. In one case, we had to correct our correction because the blogger was right the first time. (On the plus side, at least we were recognized as having posted the “Holy Grail” of corrections. )

We’ve written before about our corrections process.

Other reference materials:

– A How We Make Corrections memo.

– A document called A Common Corrections Scenario.”

This note is a reminder that when we think an error has been made, the people who did the work need to be notified immediately so that they can help determine if it really was a mistake. Here’s a key step in our process:

“If you suspect an error, talk and/or send a message to the reporter/blogger/correspondent who was responsible, and the desk editor/producer or show editor/producer who handled the piece, 2-way or Web text. This is important: Include a link to the story and details about what show or blog is involved. This is also important: Make sure you cc Mark Memmott, the DMEs, Susan Vavrick and”

Obviously, if it’s a glaringly obvious and serious error, we need to get the digital text fixed as soon as possible and may not be able to wait for input from those who worked on the story. But they should still be notified immediately. Also, those who are on the receiving end of a message about a possible error need to respond as soon as possible.

(Memmos; May 22, 2015)


Guidance on: Coverage of books written by NPR staffers #

Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen has offered her thoughts here about how NPR should handle books written by its staffers.

Her post includes a note from Mike Oreskes. It says, in part:

“NPR has not had a written policy on this issue or even a consistent practice. We will now. NPR’s producers and editors will use the same standard they apply to outside books to decide whether works by our own staff merit coverage and on which of our programs and platforms. That decision must be approved by the Senior Vice President for News — that is, me.”

He adds that “for the future, NPR staff members will not appear on their own shows to discuss outside books or other works unrelated to NPR coverage.”

The Ethics Handbook has been updated here. The post includes these key points:

– The tests are the same as for any book. They include: Is it newsworthy? Is it of interest to our audience? The books desk, led by Ellen Silva, must be part of the discussion. So must the NPR News deputy managing editors.

– Staff members (hosts, producers, editors) cannot appear on their own shows to discuss “outside books.” Those are books not based on work they’ve done for NPR. In some cases, if a book is based on reporting done for NPR, they may be given the OK to talk about the book on their own show or file a report that airs on that show.

– Coverage plans must be approved by the Senior Vice President for News.

(Memmos; May 21, 2015)


Resending: The ‘NPR Policy On Use Of Potentially Offensive Language’ And Related Notes #

No, we haven’t had a language mishap (that I know of).

This note is just a reminder of some things because there have been questions in recent days.

– The “NPR Policy On Use Of Potentially Offensive Language” is posted here.

– As we’ve said a few times before, “if there’s potentially offensive language in a piece intended for broadcast — even if the words have been bleeped — stations need to be alerted in the DACS line. Listeners and readers online deserve to be warned as well, of course.”

– We “Bleep The Whole @#$%&*! Word.” Yes, that means no “bull.” Not even the “b.”

– As soon as you know that you might want to use some potentially offensive language, bring it to the attention of senior editors. Here’s a recent update to our Ethics Handbook:

  • Discussions Must Happen Well Before Any Broadcast:
    • If potentially offensive language is being considered for broadcast, senior editors (typically, the Deputy Managing Editors or Standards & Practices editor) must be consulted with enough lead time to allow for a substantive discussion and enough lead time to give the General Counsel time to provide guidance. If time for discussion is running short, the language must be cut from the report or “bleeped.”
    • This rule applies to acquired programs as well. As NPR’s policy on use of potentially offensive language states:
      • “In the case of programs under the ultimate direction of the Vice President for Programming, including all acquired programs, producers shall consult NPR’s Vice President for Programming or the VP’s designee as soon as possible, but in any event before the program is delivered to NPR for distribution to stations.”

(Memmos; May 11, 2015)


Guidance: ‘Same-Sex Marriage’ #

Our preference continues to be to say and write “same-sex marriage” or “marriages of same-sex couples” rather than “gay marriage.” In some listeners’ and readers’ minds, a “gay marriage” is between two men. In addition, the AP Style Book’s entry on the word “gay” says that “lesbian is the more common term for women.”

“Same-sex” addresses those issues.

Also, “gay marriage” is a mislabeling if one, or both, of the partners is bisexual. They are not gay or lesbian. But some bisexuals are in, or wish to be in, what listeners and readers can understand are “same-sex marriages.”

(Memmos; May 5, 2015)



Do Listen To This: A Walk Through Sandtown That Is Compelling And Instructive #

Nurith Aizenman’s piece today on Morning Edition is highly recommended listening.

Travon Addison, “an athletic 25-year-old with short cropped hair, a wispy beard and tattoos all over his arms,” takes her through the Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore. I won’t spoil it by giving away what listeners learned from Addison. You should definitely keep listening to the end. Addison is a compelling character. Nurith and her editors tell his story well.

There are two other things worth noting:

– We use Addison’s full name. That isn’t a minor detail. It helps the piece enormously. In stories in which key characters are not fully identified, we have to explain why. That takes time and can lead listeners to wonder what else that person might be hiding.

Nurith didn’t do what reporters at some news outlets do too often. She didn’t start with the presumption that Addison would want to use just his first name or perhaps even remain anonymous (because he had been arrested earlier in the week). She assumed he would be fully ID’d.

That is NPR’s standard. As we have discussed before, “we name names and do our due diligence.”  What’s more, “whether to go with ‘first-name-only’ needs to be discussed and explained.”

Nurith says another person she met in Baltimore — a white woman who was marching with protesters — initially wanted only her first name to be used in any story. The woman said she didn’t want to call attention to herself. Here’s how Nurith convinced the woman to give her full name: by pointing out that doing otherwise could have just called more attention to her and raised questions about why she wanted to cloak her identity.

– We seize the moment. As she headed to Baltimore, Nurith ran through in her mind the sorts of stories she wanted to tell and the voices who could be part of those pieces. Those characters included people who live in Sandtown and could talk about what happened last week and in recent decades.

Nurith heard Addison complaining about how he and others weren’t being heard from and how outsiders don’t know anything about his neighborhood and why there were riots. So she asked him to “show me your Baltimore.”

It was a simple request that produced an excellent story.

(Memmos; May 4, 2015)


Yes, Journalists Can Give To Charities That Are Helping People In Need #

Recent events have led several people to ask: Can journalists donate to charities that are helping people rebuild after tragedies?

Yes. But keep in mind that:

– The charity should be non-partisan.

– We do not want it to appear that NPR is endorsing one charity over another. That means @MarkMemmottNPR shouldn’t tweet about a donation he just made.

– It should not be a charity or organization that you cover or that is linked to a person, company, foundation or industry that you cover.

We can help people and remain objective.

(Memmos; April 28, 2015)


Guidance On The Words ‘Protests’ And ‘Protesters’ #

Please avoid referring to the people in Baltimore who have injured police officers, started fires, looted stores and vandalized properties as simply “protesters.”

Reports from Baltimore indicate that some people are taking advantage of the situation to lash out at authorities or to grab what they can from businesses. Those are not just protesters in the sense of the word that normally comes to mind.

Likewise, it is too simple to say that “protests turned violent.” That paints a picture of a peaceful gathering that changed into a rock-throwing, tear-gas flying confrontation between citizens and police. Reports from Baltimore indicate that’s not been the case in many instances.

As in other cases we’ve discussed, it’s wise to avoid labels. In this case, “protesters” is a label that’s too broad. The better approach is to focus on action words and describe what’s been happening.

On a Newscast this morning, Dave Mattingly said that “rioting [in Baltimore] yesterday injured 15 police officers. More than a dozen buildings and nearly 150 vehicles were set on fire.” He noted that the violence followed “the funeral for 25-year-old Freddie Gray.”

Korva Coleman used similar language, saying that Gov. Larry Hogan “has declared a state of emergency in Baltimore, after rioting broke out yesterday. … Some residents started fires and clashed with police.”

Morning Edition introduced a report from Jennifer Ludden with this language:

“Let’s go directly to Baltimore, this morning. That’s where people threw cinder blocks at police and set stores on fire. They did all that after the funeral for a black man who died in police custody. NPR’s Jennifer Ludden is tracking the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray. Jennifer, what’s it like in Baltimore?”


– Immigrants.

– Medical conditions.

– Teenager.

– “Victims” vs. “survivors.” (Particularly in cases of sexual assault.)

Update at 9:55 a.m. ET: 

We should also avoid saying that Freddie Gray died while “in police custody.” He had been arrested, so he had been taken into custody.  But it was a week after his arrest, and he was in a hospital, when he died. The phrase “in police custody” calls to mind someone who is in a jail cell, or who is in handcuffs in the back of a police cruiser.

(Memmos; April 28, 2015)


On Gender Identity #

Bruce Jenner’s appearance Friday on ABC-TV may generate news we want to report. If you’ll be involved in the coverage, it’s worth revisiting our guidance on gender identity.

The key points:

– People define their gender identities and we respect their decisions.

– We respect their wishes if they change their names.

– We respect their wishes on whether to be referred to as “he” or “she.”

– If they have been in the public eye in the past, we remind listeners/readers about their histories. Chelsea Manning’s story is a recent example.

The National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association adds that if someone, such as Jenner, “has not publicly announced a gender identity, the best practice is to refer to [them] by name rather than using pronouns.” The NLGJA has some useful resources here.

Update at 1:40 p.m. ET: Someone is “transgender.” Do not write or say  “transgendered.” There’s a good discussion of the difference here:

(Memmos; April 23, 2015)


Ben Affleck, ‘Finding Your Roots’ And Why Our Standards Point To A Different Decision #

The PBS-distributed show Finding Your Roots says its mission is to help people “discover long-lost relatives hidden for generations within the branches of their family trees.” But it granted actor Ben Affleck’s request that it not mention his slave-owning ancestor. Affleck says he was embarrassed by the discovery and “didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves.”

For the record, the decision made by Finding Your Roots was not in line with our standards.

Let’s keep this simple: The people we interview, the sources we use and the supporters who give us money do not shape or dictate what we report.

From the Ethics Handbook:

– “We don’t allow sources to dictate how a topic will be covered, or which other voices or ideas will be included in the stories we do.”

– “NPR greatly appreciates the financial support it receives from individuals, from foundations and from corporations. Their support is essential. At the same time, NPR makes its own decisions about what stories to cover and how to report them.”

– “Decisions about what we cover and how we do our work are made by our journalists.”

PBS ombudsman Michael Getler has had some things to say about what happened:

– “Any serious program about genealogy, especially dealing with celebrities, cannot leave out a slave-owning ancestor.”

– “This censorship should have been stopped cold and mistakes should have been admitted publicly.”

Code Switch blogger Gene Demby talked about all this today on Morning Edition.

(Memmos; April 22, 2015)


Don’t Trust, Do Verify: The Vaping Hoax #

Last week’s appearance in The New York Times of a “Joe Stevonson,” who turned out to be someone pretending to be a young man who enjoys vaping, underscores why it’s important to take steps to verify the identities of those who come our way via social media.

Here’s a repeat recommendation: Check out the Verification Handbook. Edited by Craig Silverman of the Regret the Error blog, it has tips and tools for verifying “user-generated content.”

Also: Don’t ignore the obvious things to do, such as a simple Google search of a person’s name, a visit to and a request for assistance from our librarians and the social media team. They can help figure out if a person is for real.

(Memmos; April 20, 2015)



Gyrocopter Story Raises An Old Question: When Should Journalists Intervene? #

The Tampa Bay Times knew well in advance that a Florida postal worker planned to fly a gyrocopter over Washington, D.C., and on to the grounds of the Capitol.

From what the Times has reported, there seems to have been no evidence that the man, identified as 61-year-old Doug Hughes, intended to do himself or anyone else any harm. There’s also a case to be made that the Times had reason to believe authorities were keeping tabs on Hughes. The Times knew he had been interviewed some months back by a Secret Service agent. That means Hughes was — in theory — on authorities’ virtual radar. (He wasn’t, it turns out, on any actual radar this week).

It isn’t the Times‘ job, or the job of any news outlet, to be the police.

But, the many ways things could have gone badly on Wednesday aren’t difficult to imagine. We’ll set aside the Hollywood scenarios of fighter jets and missiles.


– Hughes might have fooled the Times and had nefarious intentions.
– He could have been shot.
– If shots were fired, bystanders could have been hit.
– People could have been injured during evacuations or as police responded to the scene.

At the very least, as happened, streets would be closed and traffic tied up for blocks around.

The Times‘ reporter on the story tells The Washington Post that the news outlet “spent hours and hours talking about the ethics of this,” and decided there was no need to tell authorities well before Hughes’ planned launch. The Times ended up calling the Secret Service while Hughes was in the air, less than a half hour before he landed.

Media ethicists, as the Post notes, disagree: “ ‘A news organization should be extremely knowledgeable of the potential harm’ a stunt like this could cause, said Edward Wasserman, dean of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. ‘I really question their judgment.’ ”

News outlets don’t want sources to think reporters will run to the police about just anything potentially illegal that they’re told about.

But how about this? Apply common sense and weigh the value of the story against the potential harm to the public. That will continue to be our standard.

(Memmos; April 16, 2015)


Resource: Guidelines About The ‘Morning Edition’ Book Club, Fundraising & The Firewall Between Them #

Because it is “essential to avoid even the appearance that fundraising in support of the Morning Edition Book Club has influenced the editorial decision-making involved in conducting the book club,” guidelines have been issued that aim to put a “strict firewall between the two activities.”

In the interest of transparency, they have been posted here.

The guidelines also been put online because they could prove useful if similar projects are launched.

(Memmos; April 14, 2015)


Let’s Toss ‘Hat In The Ring’ Into The Cliché Round File #

Unless Sen. Marco Rubio doffs a fedora and flings it into flag-festooned circle of red, white and blue balloons as fireworks go off and a band plays the national anthem, there is no need today to say he “tossed his hat into the ring.”

In fact, how about if we try to make it through the next few weeks or months without saying anyone tossed their hat into anything? (Unless, that is, we’re reporting about boxing — where the phrase originated.)

Editors have said until they’re blue in the face that clichés are a symptom of weak reporting and writing.

Along with “hat in the ring,” here are some  other overused campaign clichés that the AP has singled out for elimination:

ahead of – before

rainbow colors – avoid red, blue or purple for the political leanings of states. Use Democratic-leaning, Republican-tilting or swing-voting, etc.

barnstormed – traveled across a state campaigning or campaigned across XYZ.

hand-to-hand campaigning – seeking support in face-to-face meetings with voters.

horse race – closely contested political contest.

laundry list – the candidate has ideas, proposals, etc.

messaging – the candidate’s pitch to voters.

pressing the flesh – shaking hands is preferred.

rope line – the physical barrier that separates a candidate from the audience. Instead, the candidate shook hands and posed for photographs with the audience.

state nicknames – avoid them in favor of the state name.

stump speech – campaign speech at a routine appearance (or standard or regular campaign speech)

testing the waters – considered entering the race or considered running for XYZ.

took his/her campaign to – specify what the candidate did.

veepstakes – the competition to be a candidate’s running mate.

war lingo – use criticized instead of attacked, or choose a better verb to describe what the candidate is doing, i.e., challenging, doubting, etc. Also avoidable: launch an assault, take aim, open fire, bombard.

war chest – use campaign bank account or stockpile of money.

white paper – a document of policy positions distributed by a campaign.

Related: Poynter’s “15 political clichés journalists should avoid.”

(Memmos; April 13, 2015)


Please Read The ‘CJR’ Report About ‘Rolling Stone’ #

“The particulars of Rolling Stone’s failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail.”

That line from the Columbia Journalism Review‘s dissection of Rolling Stone‘s infamous investigation of an alleged gang rape underscores why the CJR report is highly recommended reading. It reminds us that the basics matter — a lot.

CJR concludes that “better and clearer policies about reporting practices, pseudonyms and attribution might well have prevented the magazine’s errors. … Stronger policy and clearer staff understanding in at least three areas might have changed the final outcome.” From the report:

– “Pseudonyms. [Editors] said using pseudonyms at Rolling Stone is a ‘case by case’ issue that requires no special convening or review. Pseudonyms are inherently undesirable in journalism. They introduce fiction and ask readers to trust that this is the only instance in which a publication is inventing details at its discretion. Their use in this case was a crutch — it allowed the magazine to evade coming to terms with reporting gaps. Rolling Stone should consider banning them. If its editors believe pseudonyms are an indispensable tool for its forms of narrative writing, the magazine should consider using them much more rarely and only after robust discussion about alternatives, with dissent encouraged.”

– “Checking Derogatory Information. [The reporter and her editor] made the fateful agreement not to check [a key part of the accuser's story that put three people in an unfavorable light] with the three friends. If the fact-checking department had understood that such a practice was unacceptable, the outcome would almost certainly have changed.”

– “Confronting Subjects With Details. When [the reporter] sought ‘comment,’ she missed the opportunity to hear challenging, detailed rebuttals from [the fraternity] before publication. The fact-checker relied only on [the reporter's] communications with the fraternity and did not independently confirm with Phi Kappa Psi the account Rolling Stone intended to publish. … If both the reporter and checker had understood that by policy they should routinely share specific, derogatory details with the subjects of their reporting, Rolling Stone might have veered in a different direction.”

Our Ethics Handbook deals with those points. Here is where NPR stands:

– “Don’t Create Pseudonyms For Sources Whose Names We Withhold.  When we decide to withhold a source’s name from a story, we don’t invent a pseudonym for that source. Again, our job is to present factual – not fabricated – information. Instead, we use pronouns and descriptions to make clear who is speaking or whom we’re referring to. (Or we may refer to him or her without using a last name, if the source is comfortable with that degree of anonymity, and the situation meets our standards for granting anonymity. … )”

– “No Attacks. In our coverage, anonymous or unnamed sources generally cannot make pejorative comments about the character, reputation, or personal qualities of another individual, or derogatory statements about an institution. … [Exceptions are made only after] careful deliberation with senior news managers.”

– “Give Sources Time To Respond. If our audience wonders what someone we report about had to say in his or her defense, and we haven’t provided that information or explained our efforts to get it, we have failed.”

Give Subjects Enough Information To Be Able To Respond Effectively. “In 2005, NPR aired a story about the new editor of the Paris Review. Former staffers of the magazine — some of whom had been let go — were heard saying that the new leader was ‘betraying the vision’ of the Review’s founder, George Plimpton. What was the editor’s response to that charge? He didn’t get the chance to say. Our interview with him was done before the critics were contacted, and the editor wasn’t contacted again. NPR subsequently apologized on the air for not giving the editor the chance to answer his critics. As Bill Marimow, then-NPR vice president for news, said: ‘If the subject of the story doesn’t know what you’re going to report, how can we be fair to them?’ “

CJR‘s analysis makes clear that several people are to blame for Rolling Stone‘s failures, starting with the reporter and extending to her editors. So here’s another reminder from our handbook:

Edit Like A Prosecutor.

“Great journalism comes in part from the collaborative efforts of reporters, editors and producers, who all play a key role in ensuring accuracy. We believe in teamwork. But good editors are also good prosecutors. They test, probe and challenge reporters, always with the goal of making NPR’s stories as good (and therefore as accurate) as possible.”

(Memmos; April 7, 2015)


For Comparison Purposes: The BBC’s Updated Guidance On Social Media #

Because it never hurts to see what others are thinking, here’s a link to the BBC’s just-updated “Social Media Guidance For Staff.” 

There’s also a short story about it by BBC News social media editor Chris Hamilton.

You’ll find much in common with NPR’s guidance and with things discussed in previous “Memmos”:

– “Reminder: There Is No Privacy On The Web, And ‘Personal’ Pages Are Not Safe Zones.”

– “Can I Tweet That? Or Facebook It? Or Post It? Some More Social Media Guidance.”

– “Some Guidance About Social Media On Election Day.”

I can hear Stu Seidel echoing this line from the BBC: “A useful summary has always been and remains: ‘Don’t do anything stupid.’ ”

As always, Wright Bryan and the rest of NPR’s social media team are available for guidance, advice and tips. Be sure to follow their posts on the Social Media Desk Tumblr — a.k.a. the Social Sandbox.

(“Memmos;” April 3, 2015)


On The Word ‘Suicide’ #

We are being careful about the word “suicide” when reporting about the actions of the Germanwings co-pilot. There are at least two reasons not to use it at this time:

– His motivation and state of mind aren’t known (and may never be).

– The investigation into what happened is still in the early stages.

There’s also a case to be made that the word isn’t adequate. As Lufthansa’s chief said, if the co-pilot’s actions were deliberate, “it is more than suicide.”

Regarding what to say instead, previous guidance about avoiding labels makes sense in this case as well.

On Morning Edition, Eleanor Beardsley simply used other action words:

– “Investigators are looking at … clues as to why [Andreas Lubitz] would take 149 people on board to their deaths with him.”

– Investigators told the co-pilot’s family “that their son had deliberately steered his passengers and crew to their deaths.”

In a Newscast, Dave Mattingly put it this way:

– “Investigators say [Andreas] Lubitz deliberately crashed a Germanwings Airbus into the French Alps. … They don’t know why.”

Related notes:

– “Suicide bomber” is a phrase that’s become common usage. But keep in mind that the person with the bomb may have been forced or tricked into carrying out the act. If that appears to have been the case, “suicide bomber” is not accurate. Again, the better course is to simply describe what happened.

– “Committed suicide” is a sensitive phrase that some believe stigmatizes people. They make the case that you “commit” a crime or may be “committed” to an institution, but you do not commit suicide. “Killed himself” and “took her life” are among the alternatives.

(Memmos; March 27, 2015)


In The ‘Vast Majority’ Of Cases, Are We Sure We Should Use Those Words? #

What do you think when you hear the phrase “vast majority?”

Here are some of the answers I got today from 15 correspondents, hosts and editors on the third and fourth floors:

– “More than two-thirds.”

– “At least three-quarters.”

– “Above 90 percent.”

– “Nearly all.”

– “A lot.”

– “A @#$%load.”

– “A boatload.”

– “A phrase that shouldn’t be heard.”

– “An amorphous phrase that means ‘we don’t know how many for sure, but we think it’s a lot.’ ”

The Urban Dictionary, meanwhile, offers a definition that begins with this: “Possibly the most over-used, tired and tautological phrase ever to have survived in the English language.”

Thankfully, a search indicates that the phrase “vast majority” doesn’t make it into our stories every day.

But it was still heard 202 times in the past year. The odds are a bit better than 50-50 that it will be said in the next 24 hours.

That’s a problem.

After all, since we can’t seem to agree on what the words mean or when they should be put together, it seems reasonable to conclude that listeners aren’t sure either. What’s more, attaching the word “vast” to “majority” is a judgment call. Who’s saying it’s a “vast majority?” What’s the proof? Maybe it’s just a “significant” majority. Or a “sizeable” one. Or just a majority.

When possible, the best course is to use facts rather than just the “vast majority” label. Establish, for example, that
“92 percent of those surveyed agreed” and then, perhaps, talk about what such a “vast majority” means.

This brings to mind other guidance about:

Avoiding clichés.


Killing adjectives.

Precision writing and editing.

Words that get abused.

Note: My thanks to listener/reader Anne Sovik for suggesting we look into “vast majority.”

(Memmos; March 18, 2015)


Guidance: On Station Reporters & News About Their Universities Or Institutions #

When there is news involving the university or institution that holds an NPR member station’s license, conflicts of interest – perceived and actual – must be considered. So NPR editors ask questions:

– Is it a breaking news situation in which a station reporter could be our eyes on the ground and voice from the scene? Also is it a story that is about an event more than the institution? In recent years, this has happened most often when an institution is on lock-down because of a shooting or reports of a shooter. We would likely want to hear from a station reporter in our Newscasts and on our news magazines about what is happening.

– Is it a story that involves the institution but is not really about the institution? A recent example was the death of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith. We felt it would not be a problem for a station reporter to file an obit-type report for us. Yes, Smith was a towering figure at the university. But he was not controversial in the way that Joe Paterno, for example, became at Penn State. There wasn’t anything about his time at UNC that we felt would give the appearance of a conflict if a station reporter was on our air. Bottom line: the news was about Smith, not the school.

– Is it a story about that institution? In such cases, we consider very carefully whether it would look like there was a conflict of interest if a station reporter files for us. We err on the side of caution. We know that listeners/readers may rightfully question whether a reporter who is paid by an institution should report about it. For example, if a school’s football coach was under fire for putting a football player back on the field too soon after a concussion — leading to calls for the coach’s firing and questions about the university’s response — that is a story we would not want to take from a station reporter at the school. The Penn State/Jerry Sandusky story was another that we felt should not be covered, on our airwaves, by a reporter from the school’s station.

– Has the nature of a story shifted? Here’s an example: While a station reporter is likely the logical person to use in the first hours after a campus shooting, that reporter and his/her station probably are not the right person or place to turn if questions start to come up about the university’s response to the incident.

We can’t anticipate every possibility. The discussion above is designed to offer general guidelines and recent examples of how things have been handled. Situations will be considered case-by-case.

These things don’t change from story to story: We value and need the solid reporting that member stations provide. We start with the assumption that we want to use their reports. Sometimes we may need to say “no.” But at all times we want to talk through the issues.

We have worked with some station-based news directors and PRNDI on the guidelines above; we welcome more feedback about our thinking and this guidance.

(Memmos; March 16, 2015)


Watch What You Say: It’s National Grammar Day #

Prescriptivists, this is your holiday.

To mark the occasion, here are some relevant links and tools we all may (or might?) want to bookmark:

– The American Copy Editors Society’s website.

– The Common Errors in English Usage website.

– A Poynter post on “grammar pet peeves.”

– Grammar Girl’s “Editing Checklist.”

“The NPR Accuracy Checklist.”

– William Safire’s appearance on “Not My Job.” (He wasn’t asked about language issues, but it never hurts to have a laugh.)

Related: From 4 to 5 p.m. ET, Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper will be on Twitter for a #GrammarDay #ACESchat.

(Memmos; March 4, 2015)


NPR’s ‘Minor Consent Form’: Spanish Version #

A Spanish-language version of the “consent, authorization, release and waiver” form that needs to be signed by a parent or guardian before many interviews of minors is available to download and print here:

As we noted last summer, the English-language version is here:

Meanwhile here’s a reminder, from the Ethics Handbook:

“Be sure to consider legal issues when dealing with minors (generally defined as anyone under the age of 18). An interview of a minor about a sensitive subject requires us to secure permission from at least one of the minor’s parents (preferably both) or a legal guardian. Examples of sensitive subjects include cheating, sexual activity, involvement in gangs or crime, difficult family relationships, probation violation, out-of-wedlock pregnancy or parenthood, victims’ sexual abuse and similar topics that could have legal ramifications or lead to embarrassment. An interview of a minor in a special custodial situation, such as foster care, juvenile detention, or holding facilities for illegal immigrants, requires the consent of the person who has custody of the minor. Utah also requires the consent of both the custodian of the juvenile facility and the minor’s parent.

“An interview on a non-sensitive topic (normal childhood activities, sports, book, movies, trips to the zoo, baseball and the like) does not require consent. Generally however, any interview on school premises will require the permission of the school authorities.

“In cases where there is even a hint of doubt about whether to get consent, contact our legal team (look for LegalAlert in the NPR internal email address book).”

(H/T Mandalit Del Barco)

(Memmos; March 4, 2015)


Some So-called Guidance #

“So-called” is a useful combination of two words. Properly used, so-called signals to listeners that the word or phrase that follows is becoming (or has become) popular or common, but is not official.

But when you’re about to say or write it, please keep some things in mind:

– Webster’s first definition of so-called is “popularly known or called by this term.”

– The second definition is “inaccurately or questionably designated as such.”

– That second definition is important. Depending on the context and tone, so-called may give the impression that we have formed a judgment about the term or words that follow. As Fowler’s Modern English Usage puts it, “so-called is traditionally used before a name or description to signal doubt about relevance or entitlement, as in ‘this so-called work of art.’ ” Cambridge Dictionaries says so-called shows “you think a word that is used to describe someone or something is not suitable or not correct.”

– Alternatives may sound more neutral. “Known as,” is one possible substitute. “Called the” is another. There are cases where a “supporters/opponents call it the …” may be appropriate.

– Alternatives may give the audience more information. That’s why “self-declared Islamic State” is better than “so-called Islamic State.”

– Alternatives will also help us with a repetition situation. We say “so-called” on the air about twice a day on average; and that’s not counting Newscasts.

– So-called should not be used before the actual name of something or a name that has moved into the history books. It’s not the “so-called Gettysburg Address,” for instance.

– Online, the word or term that follows so-called should not be put in quotes. Subsequent references also should not be put in quotes.

(Memmos; Feb. 26, 2015)