Search Results for: Memmos

Notes

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)

Notes

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)

Notes

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.”)

Notes

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: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/18/magazine/18onlanguage-anniversary.html?_r=0

(Memmos; Aug. 11, 2015)

Notes

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 FactCheck.org 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)

Notes

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)

Notes

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 NPR.org, 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.

Related:

– 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)

Notes

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 NPR.org 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)

Notes

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)

Notes

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)

Notes

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 Newsdesk-Eds@npr.org, 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)

Notes

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)

Notes

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)

 

 

 

Notes

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)

Notes

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)

Notes

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)

Notes

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’ NPR.org 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)

Notes

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)

Notes

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 Corrections@npr.org.”

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)

Notes

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)

Notes

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)

Notes

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)

 

Notes

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)

Notes

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)

Notes

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?”

LABELS AND WHY IT’S WISE TO AVOID THEM

– 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)

Notes

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: http://www.vox.com/2015/2/18/8055691/transgender-transgendered-tnr

(Memmos; April 23, 2015)

Notes

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)

Notes

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 AnyWho.com 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)

 

Notes

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.

Still:

– 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)

Notes

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)

Notes

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)

Notes

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)

Notes

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)

Notes

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)

Notes

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.

Labels.

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)

Notes

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)

Notes

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)

Notes

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: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1680218-spanish-minor-release.html

As we noted last summer, the English-language version is here: http://apps.npr.org/documents/document.html?id=1263794-minorconsent

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)

Notes

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)

Notes

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

At the end of a mildly amusing story about renovations at Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, The New York Times writes this:

“A second person who checked out the women’s restroom — and who asked not to be identified because she has always wanted to be an anonymous source — reported her findings by email: ‘Black shiny granite-y sink. Arched faucets by Sloan. Tasteful slate gray and powder gray tiles.’ “

Is “always wanted to be an anonymous source” a valid reason to grant anonymity? No, Korva. But was it OK this time? Speaking anonymously because he doesn’t want to be drummed out of the Noodge Union, an NPR editor said it felt fine, given the spirit of the story. “Always wanted to be an anonymous source” seems like a parody of the many questionable reasons the Times and other news outlets have granted anonymity in serious stories.  There’s a case to be made it worked in this rather cheeky report.

Now, will Times‘ public editor Margaret Sullivan give this line a special place in her “AnonyWatch” series?

For more about NPR’s position on anonymity and related issues, see this post from last August:

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

(H/T Evie Stone.)

(Memmos; Feb. 25, 2015)

Notes

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

As other news outlets shift into scare-the-pants-off-’em mode, something NPR often does very well is put things into perspective.

Jon Hamilton does that on the Shots blog with this post:

Why California’s Superbug Outbreak Isn’t As Scary As It Seems

It’s a nice example of how we can help the audience make sense of what seems like alarming news. Southern California Public Radio does a good job as well with this report:

‘Superbug’ outbreak not a threat to Los Angeles County public health

(Memmos; Feb. 20, 2015)

Notes

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

On page 33 of Jonathan Kern’s Sound Recording there’s an entry titled: “Avoid Meaningless Attributions.”

“Beware of the overused terms ‘officials,’ ‘analysts,’ ‘critics’ and ‘experts,’ ” Jonathan writes. His message: Obviously, we should push to use actual names as often as possible. But when we can’t do that, it’s often the case that other words can be found that are precise and offer relief from repetitive references to “officials say” this and “experts say” that.

The ubiquitous “experts,” for example, might be “biologists,” “historians” or “numismatists,” depending on their specialties. (Yes, Korva, we want you to use “numismatists” on the air some day.)

In some cases “officials” can just disappear from a line altogether. Jonathan’s example: Instead of writing “Ford officials say they’re coming out with a new hybrid car,” say “Ford is coming out with a new hybrid car.”

We bring this up because a look back over the past year indicates we’re not heeding his advice.

– “Officials” was heard 2,022 times.
– “Critics” was heard 1,055 times.
– “Experts” was heard 636 times.
– “Analysts” was heard 351 times.

Our guests were certainly responsible for many of the times those words were used. But NPR officials would have to concede that critics, experts and analysts are correct when they say that we’ve contributed more than our fair share. Robert Siegel can testify to that. He says in Sound Reporting that he has spent “a lifetime trying to pull ‘officials’ out of All Things Considered.”

But, But, But …

By now, every member of the Washington desk is poised to send an email that points out they often have to say “administration officials” or “White House officials” or “Justice Department officials” or some variation of those words that their sources insist on. We understand. All we ask is that alternatives be kept in the mix: “Top advisers,” “close aides” and others.

Emails are probably being drafted by the business desk (which has to deal with “analysts”), the science desk (“experts”) and others.

Dave Mattingly is surely wondering what he’s supposed to do when he doesn’t have time for even just a few more words.

Again, the guidance is to look for alternatives. After all, not only are the words overused, they can be problematic. “Experts,” for instance, is both vague and often too-readily bestowed. “Critics” can be a backdoor way of getting in the “other side” without identifying them.

Related Posts:

– Precision Writing & Editing: 5 Timeless Tips

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

(Memmos; Feb. 19, 2015)

Notes

They’re ‘Separatist Fighters And Their Russian Allies’ #

From Chuck Holmes:

Please use “separatist fighters and their Russian allies” to describe the anti-government forces in eastern Ukraine. Using “separatist fighters” alone could suggest that only locals are involved.

Kevin Beesley and Corey Flintoff offer the following guidance:

“Pro-Russian Separatists” could mislead our audience into thinking that most of the fighting is being done by local fighters. There is a lot of evidence that most, though not all, of the anti-government forces involved are Russian citizens – although Russia denies its military is directly involved.

So we’ve come up with another construction that we think more accurately reflects the situation on the ground:

“Separatist fighters and their Russian allies.”

As in:

“After weeks of heavy fighting, a strategic town in eastern Ukraine has fallen to separatist fighters and their Russian allies.”

(Memmos; Feb. 18, 2015)

Notes

‘Temporary Protective Status,’ Not ‘Temporary Legal Status’ #

From Chuck Holmes:

Please use the phrase “temporary protective status,” not “temporary legal status,” when referring to the provisions of DACA and DAPA.

Denice Rios advises that:

“The term ‘temporary legal status’ when it comes to DACA (Deferred Action for childhood Arrivals) … keeps popping up and it isn’t accurate. … We all look for easy ways to describe complicated bureaucracy. But using the word ‘legal’ even when preceded by ‘temporary’ is problematic. DACA offers some benefits, like a work permit or a reprieve from deportation, but it doesn’t offer all the benefits one would receive if one were here legally. That’s why ‘temporary protective status’ or simply offering an example or two of what the actions offer are better ways to explain DACA and DAPA (Deferred Action for Parental Accountability).”

(Memmos; Feb. 18, 2015)

Notes

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

The question comes up about once a week: “Should we say ‘Islamic’ or ‘Islamist’ when referring to fighters from such groups as Boko Haram and the self-proclaimed Islamic State?”

NPR uses “Islamist.” The dictionary is our guide.

“Islamist” is a noun meaning “an advocate or supporter of Islamism” — which in turn is defined as “a movement advocating the social and political establishment of Islamic fundamentalism.”

Compound nouns such as “Islamist fighters” or “Islamist militants” describe who we are reporting about because they make the connection to the fundamentalist movement.

“Islamic” is too general. It’s just the adjective formed from the noun “Islam.”

Note: The Associated Press disagrees with us on this.

(Memmos; Feb. 18, 2015)

Notes

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

If a word needs to be bleeped, no part of it should be heard. We don’t try to give listeners a hint by including a bit of the word’s start or end.

What language is offensive?

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

– A discussion of NPR’s guidelines on the subject is here.

Two related notes:

– The rules apply to foreign languages as well.

– Don’t forget that “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.”

(Memmos; Feb. 13, 2015)

Notes

No Change In The Way We Introduce The Islamic State #

(Note on Aug. 19, 2015: This guidance has been mostly superseded. Go here to see our new guidance.)

Five months after we issued guidance on how to refer to the group known as the Islamic State, is it time to do away with the rule that listeners and readers be reminded that it is “self-declared,” “self-proclaimed,” “self-styled” or “known as?”

The consensus from the foreign desk editors is that it is not time to do that.

The reasoning remains the same:

– The words help distinguish the Islamic State from nations, such as the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

– Not adding the words implies that the organization is a “state,” when in fact it is not an “independent government … within defined borders.” Those are key parts of the word’s definition.

There is one tweak to the guidance. “So-called” is not one of the phrases we should rely on. It doesn’t convey as much information as “self-declared” or “self-proclaimed,” which make clear to listeners and readers where the name came from.

Related note: “ISIS” remains our style on second reference. If someone we speak with uses ISIL or Daesh, we can again remind the audience that the group is also known by those names. Also, if a show has already introduced the Islamic State in one segment, there’s probably no need to go through the “self-proclaimed/self-declared/etc.” steps again in a subsequent segment.

(Memmos; Feb. 12, 2015)

Notes

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

It’s tempting to say that we’ve used one word a countless number of times.

But that would be wrong, because we can quantify it:

– “Countless” showed up 255 times in the past year on NPR.org.

– The word is in 112 broadcast transcripts from that same period.

There are two points to make about this:

– We (and our guests) use the word too much. We cannot have found that many things that qualify as countless.

– We (and our guests) often misuse the word, either because what we’re talking about can be counted or because a better word would paint a clearer picture. “Countless” just ends up sounding like a throwaway word that conveys little information.

This is the point in this post where we should go the dictionary. The adjective “countless” is defined as “too many to count; innumerable; myriad.” If you want to make the case that you’re using it as a synonym for “myriad,” please be prepared to prove that you’re speaking of an “indefinitely large number.”

A pretty good use of the word was a reference we made to the “countless other people around the world” who showed support for the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. That group could be considered an “indefinitely large number.” (Might “millions” have been a better word? There’s a case to be made that the answer is yes.)

A poor use of the word was this headline: “The Countless Lives Of Lauren Bacall.” The appreciation of her life that ran with the headline details about a dozen times she “reinvented herself.” That’s not indefinitely large.

What to say instead? A look through our reports shows that, depending on the context, more precise words would have included:

– Many
– Dozens
– Hundreds
– Thousands
– Millions
– Billions

By the way, it is not a job requirement that reporters covering the 2016 campaign always put “countless” before the words “handshakes,” “pork chops,” “county fairs,” “town halls” and “stump speeches.”

(Memmos; Feb. 10, 2015)

Notes

Guidance On The Name Of Argentina’s President #

She is:

–  “President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner” on first reference. We are aware that AP has been saying “President Cristina Fernandez.” Our guidance is based on input from the foreign desk, the way the president’s name is written on her Facebook, Twitter and Web pages and a conversation with the press office at the Argentine embassy.

“Kirchner” on subsequent references. Yes, AP is going with “Fernandez.” We’re not. That may mean some people we speak with will refer to her as “Fernandez.” We’ll just have to address that when it happens. You can, obviously, also refer to her as “the president.”

While we’re talking about Argentina:

We’ve adjusted the pronunciation on the Wiki for the word “Argentine.”

It’s “AHR-jen-tyne.” Not “teen.”

(Memmos; Feb. 4, 2015)

Notes

Reminder: References To War Camps Must Be Precise #

To avoid any mistaken impressions about who was in charge, geographic and historic references to prisoner of war camps, concentration camps and death camps must be carefully worded. For instance, during WWII, the Japanese military held prisoners in the Philippines. Do not simply say they were “Philippine prisoner of war camps.” They were “Japanese-run prisoner of war camps in the Philippines.” Likewise, Auschwitz was not a “Polish death camp.” It was a “Nazi- (or German) death camp in Poland.” Sobibor was a “Nazi … death camp in German-occupied Poland.”

In 2011, Edward Schumacher-Matos posted about the sensitive nature of such references.  Respect and sensitivity are among our core principles.  So too, of course, is accuracy.  Both principles are involved.

(Memmos; Feb. 3, 2015)

Notes

The NPR Accuracy Checklist #

Mistakes happen, but lately we’ve been making too many. See for yourself on our corrections page: http://www.npr.org/corrections

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.

–  NAMES of BUSINESSES, SCHOOLS and INSTITUTIONS.

–  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?

–  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.”

NPR EDITORS

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

–  Will still check: The accuracy of the reporting.

WHEN MISTAKES ARE MADE

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

–  We correct them.

THE LIST:

  • – SUPERLATIVES
  • – NAMES
  • – AGES
  • – TITLES
  • – INSTITUTIONS
  • – DAYS and DATES
  • – HISTORICAL “FACTS”
  • – LOCATIONS
  • – NUMBERS and CALCULATIONS
  • – QUOTES
  • – WEB ADDRESSES/PHONE NUMBERS
  • – GRAMMAR and SPELLING

(Memmos; Jan. 29, 2015)

Notes

Encore! Encore! That’s The Way To Do It! #

The best intros to encore reports quickly accomplish a few things. They:

– Let listeners know they’re about to hear something that’s been on the air before.

– Tell listeners why we think the report is worth repeating.

– Give listeners at least a sense of when the piece was first broadcast.

Morning Edition hit all three of those out of the park on Monday before the rebroadcast of a 2009 interview with Ernie Banks, the Chicago Cubs hall of famer who died last week.

Here is how the encore was introduced:

Steve Inskeep: “Now, let’s listen to a man who always conserved hope — Ernie Banks died last week at 83. He was a great player on a losing baseball team, the Chicago Cubs.”

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

Ernie Banks: “Every year I always looked at spring training as a brand-new year.”

Inskeep: “Banks was famous for saying let’s play two, so it’s fitting we will now play our talk with Ernie Banks a second time. In 2009, we met Banks in a hotel and brought an old recording of a baseball game. …”

The 2009 interview ended with Banks speaking about how as a young man he hoped to some day win the Nobel Peace Prize. Morning Edition then brought listeners back to the present with a bit of music and Steve closed with this:

“Ernie Banks in 2009. He died Friday without that Nobel Prize, but did receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. It’s Morning Edition from NPR News.”

Bravo.

(Memmos; Jan. 27, 2015)

Notes

Serious Mistakes Need To Be Flagged Immediately #

If a significant mistake is made on the air or online, these individuals need to know about it as soon as possible:

– Senior vice president for news (Chris Turpin, acting)

– Executive editor (Madhulika Sikka)

– Managing editor, digital news (Scott Montgomery)

– Deputy managing editors (Chuck Holmes; Gerry Holmes)

– Standards and practices (Mark Memmott)

– Legal (Ashley Messenger)

– Member partnership (Gemma Hooley)

– Media relations (Isabel Lara)

Use emails, phone calls, shouts across the newsroom — whatever it takes — to get word to one or more of them. They pledge to respond quickly and to take over the task of reaching others in that group if you haven’t already.

What is a serious or significant mistake? There’s no simple definition. But we all know one when we see or hear it. Examples include:

– An obscenity getting on the air (unless it was vetted and OK’d by senior editors beforehand).

– An offensive or disturbing image being posted online.

– A high-profile “scoop” turning out to be wrong.

(Memmos; Jan. 26, 2015)

Notes

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

Reporters have always been told to never put anything in a story draft that they wouldn’t want to see in print. No jokes. No obscenities. No snotty comments. No half-formed theories. No “facts” that haven’t been double-checked.

If they need to create a file into which a story can later be pasted, that’s what “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” and “lorem ipsum” are for. (Look them up if you don’t know what I’m referring to or how they’re used.)

Sometimes things slip through. Romenesko tracks such mishaps.

Broadcast journalists know every mic may be live and that they shouldn’t say something they wouldn’t want to be recorded and replayed. This note is meant to draw a parallel.

The information that goes into 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.

No, our drafts and DACS are not full of naughty words, snide remarks and errors. But what goes into them matters and may find its way into places you did not expect. It’s best to treat them accordingly. Your keyboard is something of a live mic.

(Memmos; Jan. 22, 2015)

Notes

Mistakes: We’re Making More Than A Few #

There is a reason baseball players go to spring training.

There is a reason musicians practice scales.

There is a reason experienced pilots use checklists before takeoff.

To avoid making mistakes, skills must be honed and seemingly routine steps must be repeated over and over again.

It’s the same for us.

If your report contains a name, a number, a location, a date, an age, a historical reference — basically anything that “walks or talks or acts like a fact,” as Margaret Low Smith would say — it must be checked and double-checked before being broadcast or published.

We went over this last November in a note headlined “We Get So Many Things Right; Why Do We Get Some Things Wrong?

But a flurry of errors this month, which you can read about on the corrections page, means it’s time for a reminder:

Double-down on fact-checking. We’ve gotten names, dates, numbers, historical “facts,” locations and other basic details wrong in recent days. For the most part, the errors were not made during live broadcasts. They came during pieces and posts that weren’t done on deadline. There was time for fact-checking.

Use a checklist. It’s a valuable tool. There is a classic one for reporters and editors here.

NPR has broadcast and posted some great stories so far this month. We all make mistakes. Let’s do what we can to limit them so that the wonderful work isn’t diminished.

(Memmos; Jan. 14, 2015)

Notes

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

The attack on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and the murders of its cartoonists meant editors at NPR and other news organizations needed to decide which, if any, of the magazine’s cartoons they should publish.

In a Two-Way blog post and during a conversation on Weekend Edition Saturday, NPR’s thinking was discussed. The key points behind the decision not to post the magazine’s most controversial, and potentially most offensive, cartoons included:

– “Photos showing just a few of the magazine’s covers could lead viewers to mistakenly conclude that Charlie Hebdo is only a bit edgier than other satirical publications. But a comprehensive display of Charlie Hebdo‘s work would require posting images that go well beyond most news organizations’ standards regarding offensive material. At NPR, the policy on ‘potentially offensive language’ applies to the images posted online as well. It begins by stating that ‘as a responsible broadcaster, NPR has always set a high bar on use of language that may be offensive to our audience.’ ”

– “No news organization could seriously say that it doesn’t think about the safety of its journalists, when these cartoons might have been the cause for the firebombing of Charlie Hebdo‘s offices a few years back and the murder of its staff this week. But, we’re journalists. We’re willing to take risks. We know that sometimes we’ll have to. Editorially, we just didn’t think that we could post enough of the images to give you a sense of what the magazine was really like. If you only put a few, it might look like it was just little bit edgier than MAD magazine, and that’s just not the case.”

(Memmos; Jan. 12, 2015)

Notes

Do You Suffer From RAS Syndrome? #

At her favorite gourmet market last week, Korva went to the ATM machine, inserted her card, squinted at the LCD display, entered her PIN number and withdrew cash to pay for her RAS Syndrome therapy.

We’ll stop there.

“Redundant acronym syndrome” isn’t our most serious problem. There’s even a case to be made that saying something like “START treaty” instead of just “START” (the acronym for “Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty”) may be a helpful error on the radio (though never online). If there was a sense that adding the word “treaty” helped the listener understand what you were talking about, the redundancy would be a relatively minor mistake.

But, listeners notice when we insert redundant words. They point out that we would not say “automated teller machine machine” or “liquid crystal display display” or “personal identification number number” or “redundant acronym syndrome syndrome.”

For those listeners, redundancies are nicks in otherwise spotless stories. As Oxford Dictionaries notes in its guidance on “avoiding redundant expressions,” repetition can “give the impression that you don’t really understand the meaning of the words you’re using.”

It’s also worth noting that we benefit if we eliminate unnecessary words. Doing that makes room for other information and when you’re squeezing everything you can into a tight space, each word counts. “Precision writing and editing,” as we’ve said before, are important tools of our trade.

There are many lists online of redundancies, including those at:

The Redundant Acronym Phrase project. (Where “NPR radio” is among those listed.)
Grammar.About.com.
Fun-With-Words.com.

(Memmos; Jan. 6, 2015)

Notes

What Did We Say About That? A Guide To The 2014 ‘Memmos’ #

What did Mark annoy us about in 2014? Here are the year’s “Memmos” divided into categories:

ATTENDING RALLIES AND POLITICKING

“Don’t sign, don’t advocate, don’t donate.”

“We don’t participate.”

CORRECTIONS

How we make them and display them, Part I.

How we make them and display them, Part II.

Poynter’s “most notable errors.”

They’re at the bottom of our pages.

“Why do we get some things wrong?” Our most common errors.

GOOD WORK

A well-done poll.

John Burnett’s completeness.

David Folkenflik’s transparency.

Panda triplets!

The Bill Cosby interview.

The Eric Holder scoop.

The 16-year-old in a diaper and why the photo of him was so important.

LABELS AND WHY IT’S WISE TO AVOID THEM

Immigrants.

Medical conditions.

Teenager.

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

LANGUAGE TO USE AND LANGUAGE NOT TO USE

Adjectives and why we kill them.

“Alleged,” “accused” and “suspected.”

“Ambush” and “assassinate.”

“Begs the question.”

Being conversational.

Cliches in general.

“Crash.”

Ebola; infectious or contagious?

“Execute.”

“Farther” and “further.” There’s a difference.

“Garnish” vs. “garnishee.”

Holiday cliches.

“Imagined Elegance.”

– “Immigration” (and related terms).

“Islamic State,” then ISIS.

ISIS and al-Qaida; how to refer to their links.

“Kurdistan.”

“Lay” vs. “lie.”

“Persian Gulf.”

“Reticent,” “reluctant” and other words we abuse.

“So.”

“Taps” and why not to talk over it.

Teenager, I.

Teenager II.

Torture I.

Torture II.

Torture III.

“The” vs. “thee.”

The word “war.”

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

Washington’s football team.

OFFENSIVE LANGUAGE

It’s not an English-only thing.

Latest “NPR policy on use of potentially offensive language.”

SOCIAL MEDIA

AP goes short.

AP’s unfortunate “crash lands” tweet.

Guidance for Election Day.

There is no privacy on the Web and retweets may be endorsements.

When you can and can’t tweet about customer service.

STYLE & STANDARDS

Anonymity and why “first-name-only” must be discussed and explained.

First names on second reference.

More on first names on second reference.

Why we didn’t name the Ebola patient.

Pronunciations.

Elvis.

‘TAKING DOWN’ STORIES

Advice on how to fully inform people before we interview them.

How to explain why we don’t do that.

THINGS THAT SHOULD NOT BE FORGOTTEN

Attribution I.

Attribution II.

An “abundance of caution” can save us sometimes.

Call “the other side” of the story.

Check things out, even our own reporting.

#Ethicsschmetics.

“For Peat’s sake,” check back with key characters before broadcast.

Get names (why we don’t put random voices on the air).

Good grammar.

It’s “Daylight Saving,” Not “Daylight Savings.”

Minor consent (and the form that needs to be signed).

Naming minors.

Never assume.

Never show stories to sources.

Online credits.

Objectivity.

Plagiarism is “the offense that keeps on repeating.”

Precision writing and editing.

You can’t always believe what you remember.

We work in plain sight.

We’re cynical, not skeptical.

WHERE TO FIND GUIDANCE

We’ve got your guidance right here.

(Memmos; Dec. 29, 2014)

Notes

Guidance On The Words ‘Ambush’ And ‘Assassinate’ #

When reporting about the shooting deaths of New York City police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, the word “ambush” does not apply according to the accounts we’ve seen so far. By definition, an ambush is an attack from a place of hiding. From what’s been reported, it appears the officers were shot and killed without warning. But it seems that the attacker did not fire from a place of hiding.

The words “assassin,” “assassination” and “assassinated” also do not quite fit. Drawing from dictionary definitions, The Associated Press advises that the term assassination is to be used “only if it involves the murder of a politically important or prominent individual by surprise attack.” An assassin, meanwhile, is “one who kills a politically important or prominent person.”

These were “killings.” The officers were “attacked.” They were “shot dead.” Words such as those describe what happened. We do not need to give this gunman the additional notoriety of being an “assassin.” He was a “killer.”

Newsmakers and guests will likely continue to use the words “ambush” and “assassinated,” of course.

(Memmos; Dec. 22, 2014)

Notes

Reminder: Attribute And Qualify The News About Sony And North Korea #

When reporting about the Sony hacking and North Korea’s possible involvement, attribution is important. We should also be careful about how we characterize the connection.

Lakshmi Singh began her noon newscast by saying “the FBI is now formally accusing North Korea of the cyber attack on Sony Pictures, saying it now has enough information to conclude that Pyongyang is responsible.” She went on to talk about what evidence the FBI says it has.

In six words — “the FBI is now formally accusing” — she attributed the news (to the FBI) and established that it’s an accusation, not a fact.

Contrast that with language we used on Thursday: “NPR has learned from U.S. intelligence officials that North Korea was centrally involved … .”

There’s attribution (to intelligence officials) but “was centrally involved” isn’t qualified. It is stated as fact.

But, again, the connection to North Korea is an accusation being made by U.S. authorities – not a fact.

(Memmos; Dec. 19, 2014)

Notes

Recommended Reading: Poynter’s Roundup Of 2014′s Most Notable Errors And Corrections #

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that Poynter’s Craig Silverman has put Rolling Stone ’s “campus rape” report atop his list of 2014′s biggest mistakes by the media.

“It should go down as one of the most cautionary tales of confirmation bias in journalism,” he writes of the magazine’s “campus rape” report.

Silverman details how Rolling Stone compounded the problem:

“Managing editor Will Dana published ‘A Note to Our Readers’ that acknowledged there were now ‘discrepancies’ in the account of Jackie, the woman who was allegedly assaulted. The first version of that letter also blamed her, saying that the magazine now realized its trust in her had been ‘misplaced.’ After objections, the magazine removed that line — and didn’t acknowledge the after-the-fact scrubbing. It also has not offered any real information about how the story was fact checked, where mistakes were made, and what it plans to do about it. It hunkered down and kept silent. Shameful.”

NPR’s position on errors and corrections: “We have a simple standard: Errors of fact do not stand uncorrected. If we get it wrong, we’ll admit it.”

The “How We Make Corrections” memo, which everyone has surely bookmarked, is here.

If you want to reread the note on “A Common Corrections Scenario,” it’s here.

Also, go here to see all our corrections. It pays to read through them once in a while, to learn from our mistakes and to see the way we craft our corrections.

For even more on the errors we make, see this note from last month: “We Get So Many Things Right; Why Do We Get Some Things Wrong?

Back to Poynter’s list. We’re on it.

Thankfully, NPR shows up because of one of our more amusing corrections in 2014:

“An earlier version of this story said that the methane emissions associated with livestock come from their farts. In fact, most of those methane emissions come from belches.”

With that, I’ll stop gassing on about corrections.

(Memmos; Dec. 18, 2014)

Notes

Three Thoughts About When It’s OK And Not OK To Use First Names On Second Reference #

Highlights:

– NPR’s standard style is to use family names on second reference.
– There are some types of stories and projects in which exceptions can be made.
– Minors (15 or younger) are usually referred to by their first names on second reference.

On second reference, NPR’s standard style is to refer to someone by his or her family name. There have been several pieces in recent weeks, though, where we used first names on second reference. This is a good time to round up our guidance.

– First, the traditional position. The default setting for any of our news reports is simple: We use family names on second reference. That promotes clarity and helps us maintain an objective distance from those we report about.

We’ve previously discussed why one likely 2016 presidential contender is “Clinton,” not “Hillary” on second reference.  The reasons in that case apply to most newsmakers: “There’s the matter of respect … and we don’t want to be perceived as being either for or against someone because of the way we refer to him or her. Everyone is treated the same.”

– But, back in July we looked at the types of stories that seem to lend themselves to first-name-on-second-reference treatment.  They’re personal pieces in which someone is the emotional center of the story. This week, for instance, Carrie Johnson reported about Stephanie George — a nonviolent drug offender who was “coming home to a different life.”  Calling her Stephanie on second reference felt natural. (There was also the issue of the woman’s last name, which could have led some listeners to wonder “who’s George?” In addition, the others heard in the piece referred to her as “Stephanie.” There might have been confusion if Carrie had said “George.”)

As we also said in July, some platforms and projects that focus on being conversational have room to use first names on second reference — on their blogs, podcasts and NPR’s airwaves. Planet Money is an example. (The award-winning “Planet Money Makes A T-shirt” project, it should be noted, employed a few different ways to refer to people on second reference — by family names, by full names and by first names. The references sound right to this ear.)

Something to keep in mind: Using a first name might give the mistaken impression that the reporter has developed a bias, liking or sympathy for the subject. That could be a reason to use the family name instead. Editors and producers should consider that issue and discuss it with the deputy managing editors, their designated replacements or the Standards & Practices editor ahead of time if they have any doubts.

Then there are minors. The AP’s style is to “generally refer to them on second reference by surname if they are 16 or older and by first name if they are 15 or younger. Exceptions would be if they are involved in serious crimes or are athletes or entertainers.”

That guidance applied when Malala Yousafzai was shot in 2012.  She was 15 at the time and was “Malala” on second reference.

Two years later, should we still refer to her as “Malala?” That’s under discussion. For now, “Malala” remains OK even though that goes against the AP’s guidance (which the wire service isn’t following, by the way; it continues to call her “Malala”). One major reason not to change yet is that she’s known as “Malala” around the world.

Update: Of course, if your piece has several family  members in it, there’s probably not going to be any way around referring to them by their first names on second reference. Check out how Nina Totenberg handled one such story:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5236837

(Memmos; Dec. 17, 2014)

Notes

When It Comes To Being Offensive, English Isn’t The Only Language We Need To Worry About #

Everyone should be familiar with the “NPR Policy On Use Of Potentially Offensive Language.” If you need a refresher, it is posted here: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1273045-potentially-offensive-language-guidance.html

There are a few things to note:

– This isn’t an “English-only” issue. The FCC’s policies and our guidance apply to offensive words or phrases in any language.

– As the NPR policy states, “there is no room for guessing. If program material depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities or organs or other potentially objectionable language, the producer must seek guidance as to its suitability. If the matter is urgent, please contact the News Duty Manager …who is available 24/7 [if you don't know the phone number, ask Chuck or Gerry]. He/she will consult with the Office of the General Counsel (OGC) and/or escalate as appropriate. In all other non-urgent instances, please work through the normal editorial process, which for these matters, should involve consultation with OGC. While all decisions on content are ultimately reserved to the editorial decision making process in the News and Programming Divisions, it would be the extremely rare case that NPR journalists would not abide by the advice of NPR legal counsel as to the use of language that may be regarded as indecent or profane.”

As we’ve said 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 [as soon as possible] in the DACS line. Listeners and readers online deserve to be warned as well, of course.”

(Memmos; Dec. 12, 2014)

Notes

More ‘Torture’ Guidance #

Do not refer to what was done as “enhanced interrogation techniques” unless you’re explaining that is the term the CIA uses for the practices it believes were legal.

Instead, use such words and phrases as:

– “Interrogation techniques.”

– “Interrogations,” as Steve Inskeep did this morning when he introduced a report by simply saying “we’re going to sort out some of the facts behind a polarizing debate. It’s the debate over U.S. interrogations after nine-eleven.”

–  ”Brutal interrogation techniques / brutal interrogations.”

On “torture”: Once again, the word can be used.

Suggestions:

– As Robert Siegel did last April when he said there was “torture of terrorism suspects after 9/11.”

– Or by saying that “torture and other harsh [or brutal] methods” were used.

– Or by saying that detainees were “in some cases tortured.”

– Or as Steve did this morning when he said, “this week’s Senate report on U.S. interrogations is the latest stage in a decade-long debate. Americans have talked about torture in different ways, including debating whether to call it torture at all.”

– Or by introducing the fact that some of the practices were acts the U.S. has called torture when they were done by other nations.

Reminder: Though there are those who argue that the techniques were not torture in the legal sense of that word, Merriam-Webster defines torture as “the act of causing severe physical pain as a form of punishment or as a way to force someone to do or say something.”

(Memmos; Dec. 11, 2014)

Notes

Guidance: Effective References To ‘Torture’ #

Here are some examples of how our guidance on use of the word “torture” has been implemented in the past 24 hours. They may be helpful.

Key takeaway: A thread that connects them is that we establish that the report details instances of torture, cite examples and then get on with the news or conversations.

In a Newscast spot:

“A report released today by the Senate Intelligence Committee charges the CIA lied to lawmakers and the public about interrogation techniques it used on terrorism suspects after 9-11.  The report is based on some 6 million CIA documents. NPR’s Brian Naylor says the report concluded no useful information was obtained through the methods.

[Brian:] “The so-called ‘torture report’ says interrogators water-boarded suspects, forced detainees who had broken legs to stand for hours and employed quote rectal feeding un quote. …”

On Morning Edition:

“This is Morning Edition from NPR news. I’m Steve Inskeep.

“I’m Renee Montagne.

“What’s come to be known as the ‘torture report’ by Senate investigators … broke more new ground than expected.

“Lawmakers examined interrogations of terror suspects after nine-eleven.

[Steve:] “It was already known that interrogators used waterboarding, sleep deprivation and more.

“Senate investigators have now added to that story.

“The report, released by Democrats, contends the tactics failed to produce useful information.

[Renee:] “It says the CIA failed to tell lawmakers everything it was doing.

“And the report says interrogation practices were even more brutal than previously known.

“NPR’s National Security Correspondent Dina Temple-Raston reports on just what was more brutal.”

Also on Morning Edition, during a Two-Way with former CIA lawyer John Rizzo:

Renee: “I should warn our audience that there’s a difficult couple of techniques that I’m just going to describe in a line. One, putting a drill to a detainee’s head. Another, threatening sodomy with a broom handle. These were techniques that this report found were used. Do they constitute torture?”

Rizzo: “Well, they certainly were not authorized and they are indefensible. So, sure. I mean if those Justice Department legal opinions established the legal lines and legal limits … anything that went beyond those techniques, especially the gruesome ones that you described there, sure they would probably constitute torture.”

On All Things Considered:

Audie Cornish, to former CIA acting director John McLaughlin: “You had Senator John McCain on the Senate floor today saying torture produces more misleading information than actionable intelligence. And that is one major argument throughout this report – that there’s intelligence there that could have been yielded through other means – that some of the intelligence, using brutal techniques, was fabricated or not useful.”

Reminder: Other examples of how the word has been used include the way Robert Siegel said in April that the Senate report would address “the torture of terrorism suspects after 9/11.” Though there are those who argue that the techniques were not torture in the legal sense of that word, Merriam-Webster defines torture as “the act of causing severe physical pain as a form of punishment or as a way to force someone to do or say something.”

(Memmos; Dec. 10, 2014)

Notes

Reminder: We Can Observe, But We Don’t Participate In Rallies #

Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network plans to hold a civil rights march in Washington, D.C., on Saturday. The National March Against Police Violence is expected to draw a large crowd.

It’s been a few years since we issued guidance “on attending marches, rallies and other public events” and there are more than a few folks who have joined NPR since then. So this is a good time to post the guidance again.

Basically, we believe journalists can go see such events, even if they’re not assigned to cover them, so long as they don’t “participate”:

“There is real journalistic value in being an observer at public events such as a march or rally, even without a reporting assignment. But while we may observe, we refrain from actively participating in marches, rallies or public events involving political issues or partisan causes that our organization covers or may cover. Of course, the distinction between being a participant and being an observer can be subtle. But waving a picket sign or joining along in a cheer would be inappropriate. Again, we rely on your good judgment.

“Since the nature of each event differs, it’s wise to discuss these matters ahead of time with supervisors to figure out where ethical pressure points may exist or emerge. If attending such an event as an observer, take care in behavior, comments, attire and physical location not to reflect a participatory role.

“When we cover political or partisan marches, rallies or public events, we should be clearly distinguished as working in a journalistic role – identifying ourselves as NPR journalists to the people we speak with, with our NPR identification on display.”

The question will be asked: “If my job does not touch on NPR’s journalism, can I attend and participate in this or any other ‘political’ march?”

We can’t give an answer that would cover everyone and every eventuality. The best advice is to discuss it beforehand with your supervisor.

We can say that those who are in “outward-facing” positions — jobs that sometimes put them in the position of representing NPR to the outside world — should adhere to the same guidelines that our journalists follow.

Another question sure to come up is about social media. The same guidelines we spelled out before Election Day apply to marches and rallies:

“Keep in mind that what you tweet or post is going to be perceived as coming ‘from’ NPR. … Tweet and retweet [and post] as if what you’re saying or passing along is information that you would put on the air or in a ‘traditional’ NPR.org news story. If it needs context, attribution, clarification or ‘knocking down,’ provide it.”

Related:The evolution of our guidance on marches, rallies and public events.”

(Memmos; Dec. 8, 2014)

Notes

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

“Will someone please tell me what is wrong with the word ‘happened?’ ‘Transpired, transpired, transpired.’ It’s far more irritating than ‘begs the question’ and that’s saying a lot.”

After getting that email, I opened Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. There’s a wonderful phrase in the book’s entry about “transpire”:

“Not to be used in the sense of ‘happen,’ ‘come to pass.’ Many writers so use it (usually when groping toward imagined elegance), but their usage finds little support in the Latin ‘breathe across or through.’ “

“Imagined elegance.”

Or, choosing a highfalutin word and sounding stuffy.

Or, as Mark Twain put it, using “a $5 word when a 50-cent word will do.”

We’ve heard from emailers about many other words and phrases that can take you down the path to imagined elegance. They include:

– Incentivize
– Esoteric
– Going forward
– Ubiquitous [Which I originally misspelled as ubitquitous!]
– Epicenter
– Comes amid

You can surely  think of others.

There are times to use $5 words. Linton Weeks is a clear, concise writer. But he slips one or two $5 choices into many of his pieces. In writing about “when Thanksgiving was weird,” he described the costumes that Americans once put on while celebrating that holiday:

“Some Americans wore masks that made fun of people of other nations. … More refined revelers donned soft, ghostly, painted veils made of gauzy mesh that both disguised, and improved … a person’s appearance.”

“Donned” is the perfect word. In a post about the past, it feels just right.

But there is a real — not imagined — elegance to clear, simple story-telling.

Some recent examples:

– Howard Berkes’ “Delinquent Mines” reports.

– Ailsa Chang’s pre-election piece, “Sen. Mitch McConnell Has More Than Most Riding On Midterm Elections.”

– Dan Charles’ “Of Carrots And Kids: Healthy School Lunches That Don’t Get Tossed.”

– Linda Holmes’ “ ‘Grape Salad’ Is Not Minnesotan, And Other Lessons In Cultural Mapmaking.”

– Joe Shapiro’s “Guilty And Charged” series.

– Laura Sullivan’s “Red Cross” reports.

– Gregory Warner’s “Guarding The Ebola Border” story.

Every Newscast has a strong example as well. Jennifer Ludden’s report this week on a San Francisco law that mandates predictable work schedules is one. She packed a lot of information into a tight spot:

“Under the new law, companies must post schedules two weeks in advance … pay a penalty for changes made after that … and they must give part-time workers more hours before hiring someone else. Studies show the number of part-timers who would rather be full time has doubled since 2008. Chaotic schedules make it hard to arrange child-care, take classes, or hold a second job. A co-sponsor of San Francisco’s legislation is now in the state assembly and plans to propose a bill there. Advocates are also pushing for predictable scheduling laws in other cities.”

We can question some words in the pieces cited above. But the stories are mostly carried along by short, punchy sentences and good reporting. As you listen or read, you don’t stop to wonder what something means or to sigh at a malapropism (now there’s a $5 word!). The elegance of the stories is not imaginary.

Related:Precision Writing & Editing: 5 Timeless Tips.”

(Memmos; Dec. 2, 2014)

Notes

As News From Ferguson Continues To Come, A Couple Reminders On Language #

1. The word  ”teenager” is not banned but is to be avoided. Michael Brown was 18 and that’s the age when you’re considered an adult. “Teenager” means a younger person in many people’s minds.

Newscast skillfully dealt with the issue this way earlier this evening:

“THE GRAND JURY HAS REACHED A DECISION ON WHETHER TO INDICT A WHITE POLICE OFFICER WHO SHOT AND KILLED AN UNARMED BLACK 18 YEAR OLD IN A CASE THAT TOUCHED OFF VIOLENT PROTESTS IN FERGUSON-MISSOURI AND ELSEWHERE.”

2. On the black-and-white issue: Race is not an important matter in most crime stories.

But at the risk of being obvious, the races of the officer and Michael Brown are relevant because of the tensions they exposed and the protests that followed the killing. That context is important. Shereen Marisol Meraji wove that into her report on ATC as she told the story of one mother who is proud of her daughter for protesting. The woman feels “joy” because “her neighbors and her daughter are still out protesting and asking for changes to the way law enforcement treats young black people.” She feels “sadness because an 18 year old had to lose his life to spark that.”

Carrie Johnson folded in this context for Newscast: “Protesters say they’ll keep talking about issues of police bias and militarization no matter what the jurors decide.”

Newscast handled the issue this way:

“PROTESTERS HAVE GATHERED OUTSIDE THE POLICE STATION IN FERGUSON, MISSOURI IN ADVANCE OF AN ANNOUNCEMENT LATER THIS EVENING OF THE GRAND JURY’S DECISION ON WHETHER TO INDICT A POLICE OFFICER IN THE SHOOTING DEATH OF 18 YEAR OLD MICHAEL BROWN. THE UNARMED AFRICAN AMERICAN WAS KILLED FOLLOWING A CONFRONTATION WITH THE  WHITE OFFICER.”

(Memmos; Nov. 24, 2014)

Notes

No, It Tisn’t The Season #

You know you’re going to want to do it. The temptation will be enormous.

With Thanksgiving coming up it’s time to remind everyone: Please go easy on the holiday clichés. They tend to build up like the snowdrifts in Buffalo, and we don’t want that.

– “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.

Can you play around with these holiday evergreens? Stand one on its head, as goes another cliché? Maybe. Tis the season for miracles, after all.

But let’s see if we can make these holidays mostly cliché-free.

Ho, ho, ho,

Scrooge McMemmott

(Memmos; Nov. 20, 2014)

 

Notes

Please Save This Reminder: Guidance May Be Just A Couple Clicks Away #

When stories that were hot a few weeks or months ago pop back onto our agenda, one question always comes up.

It begins like this: “What’s our policy on …?”

Variations include:

– “Do we still …?”
– “Didn’t you say something about …?”
– “Do I have to …?”

It’s good to ask if you’re not sure. Either Gerry, Chuck or I are usually available. But remember, you also may be able to find the latest guidance right from your own desk. Not every question can be answered by consulting our online resources, but many can. Here’s where to go:

– Wiki. If you’re inside the firewall, our Wiki has style guides that cover a lot of territory — from the language we use when reporting about abortion to the words that make up the acronym ZIP. There are links there to AP’s Style Book as well. It’s a good resource on topics that our guides don’t cover. If you’re inside the firewall, click here to go to the Wiki.

Note: We’re working on moving the style guides to public pages. Member stations have been asking for that.

– Ethics Handbook. You don’t need to be inside the firewall to get to our Ethics Handbook. It’s the go-to place for guidance on our values and for some case studies and it’s public. Click here to go to ethics.npr.org.

– Memmos. These notes are also public. Click here to go to them. Here’s a tip: Use the “find” box in the upper right hand corner to search them.

For instance, if you vaguely remember that there was a memmo about when NOT to use the word “teenager,” search on that word. The result? “Something To Think About: Was Michael Brown A ‘Teenager?’ Yes, But …

Or maybe you’re trying to remember how we refer to the group that’s trying to take over much of Iraq and Syria. Search “ISIS” and you’ll be led to several posts, including: “Islamic State? ISIS? ISIL? Here’s Another Reminder About NPR’s Guidance.”

Not sure if you need to get a consent form signed by a minor’s parents? Search on “consent form” and you’re taken to: “Here’s Where To Find The Latest Version Of Our ‘Minor Consent Form.’ ” The post has guidance and a link to where we’ve posted a printable form.

Wondering how many times the memmos have referred to Korva? A search shows this is the third one to do that.

Speaking of Korva, right behind the work station she uses on the Newscast desk is a white wall. If you’re the old-fashioned sort who likes it when newsrooms put spellings, key facts and other important matters up on a board for all to see, swing by. Your question may be answered right there.

(Memmos; Nov. 19, 2014)

Notes

Peruse Or Peruse? You Can Read These Notes Both Ways #

We’ve asked listeners, NPR.org users and the Twitter crowd (#wordmatters) to tell us about the grammar mistakes, mispronunciations and misuses of words and phrases that bother them.

They’ve given us an earful (about clichés as well). I’ll pass some along occasionally. For instance:

“@MarkMemmottNPR @MorningEdition peruse is misused often. Many think it’s synonymous with skim.”

The word’s original meaning is to read “in a thorough or careful way.” Also, to “examine carefully or at length.” (Oxford Online) British dictionaries have not wavered from those definitions.

American dictionaries, such as Webster’s, have added this in recent years: “loosely, to read in a casual or leisurely way.” That sure seems like the opposite of the word’s original meaning.

A word with meanings that seem to be in conflict; just what we need.

What to do? We know that definitions can change over time and we do want to sound conversational. But we also don’t want anyone to wonder about what we’re saying. In this case and others involving words that run the risk of causing confusion here’s some guidance: Substitute a word that’s more precise.

For example, if you mean that someone has “studied” some records, use the word studied. If you mean they’ve just given the records a “cursory” look, say that.

As always, feel free to peruse* the Ethics Handbook and  other “memmos” for additional guidance on language.

Related note: Most of the #wordmatters comments we’re getting are not complaints about what people have heard on NPR or read on NPR.org. The majority of the messages are about things people hear in daily conversations and read on all types of media.

One phrase that’s been brought up quite often is “could care less.” Many people say that when what they really mean is that they couldn’t care less.

A search by the Library staff indicates that NPR hosts and correspondents have only gotten that phrase wrong twice in the past year. We do care about about getting things right and it shows.

*Original meaning, of course.

(Memmos; Nov. 18, 2014)

Notes

Asking Difficult Questions: Scott Simon’s Conversation With Bill Cosby #

“I just did what I should.”

Late last night, Scott Simon tweeted that thought about the questions he posed to Bill Cosby during a conversation that aired Saturday on Weekend Edition.

This post is meant to preserve for future reference and guidance what happened and how Weekend Edition handled the situation.

Scott gave the comedian a chance to respond to accusations involving alleged sexual assaults.  Though some of the allegations go back a decade or more, they have been in the news in recent weeks. Eric Deggans reminded us today that Cosby has not directly addressed them. Cosby’s representatives have said the accusations are either not true or are due to misunderstandings.

NPR journalists believe that “to secure the public’s trust, we must make it clear that our primary allegiance is to the public.”  As we do that, we treat those we encounter with respect. If we “ask tough questions, we do so to seek answers — not confrontations.”

Here’s how Scott and the show balanced those responsibilities. The audio and full transcript of the interview are here. This part of the conversation came at the end of the interview:

SIMON: “This question gives me no pleasure, Mr. Cosby, but there have been serious allegations raised about you in recent days. [Two seconds of silence.] You’re shaking your head no. [Two seconds of silence.] I’m in the news business. I have to ask the question — do you have any response to those charges? [Two seconds of silence.] Shaking your head no. [Two seconds of silence.] There are people who love you who might like to hear from you about this. I want to give you the chance. [Five seconds of silence.]

“All right. Camille and Bill Cosby — they have lent 62 pieces from their collection of African and African-American artists to create an exhibit called ‘Conversations: African and African-American Artworks In Dialogue.’ It’s now on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art through early 2016. Thank you both for joining us.”

CAMILLE COSBY: “Thank you. Thank you.”

It is also worth noting that listeners were given a heads up about the way the conversation would conclude. In the introduction, Scott said:

“Bill and Camille Cosby have loaned 62 pieces from their extraordinary art collection to the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., for a show called ‘Conversations: African and African-American Artworks In Dialogue.’ Much of their art has never been shown in public. We spoke with the Cosbys at the museum last week, as Bill Cosby’s name was in the news for a different reason — allegations of rape and sexual assault have resurfaced against him. Mr. Cosby settled out of court in a lawsuit for sexual assault back in 2006. Several women supplied affidavits in the suit, which was settled for an undisclosed amount of money. You will hear Mr. Cosby’s response to our questions about the allegations during this interview. We sat down to speak with Bill and Camille Cosby at the Smithsonian in the midst of their art.”

 (Memmos; Nov. 17, 2014)

Notes

We Get So Many Things Right; Why Do We Get Some Things Wrong? #

More than 13,000 words were heard during All Things Considered‘s broadcast on Friday.

As of 1 p.m. this afternoon, The Two-Way blog had published nearly 3,300 words today.

Monday’s 9 a.m. newscast — one of 37 produced each day — clocked in at more than 1,000 words.

Those are three slices. Just think about all the information coming each day from Morning Edition, Here & Now, Monkey See, Shots, Goats and Soda, NPR Music, NPR Books, the various digital teams and other parts of this operation. Pick your cliche: mountain, tsunami, avalanche, etc.

Then consider that over the past month we’ve posted about 2 corrections a day. Compare that to the amount of reporting we did.
Pick your cliche: trickle, pint-sized, wee, etc.

Of course, as another cliche goes, one mistake is one too many. A way to avoid them is to study those we’ve made. A run through the corrections page reveals some common mistakes:

– Names. In the past month we posted 7 corrections about names. A couple were misspelled, one was mispronounced, some were just wrong. It always pays to get the person you’re interviewing to say and spell his name. In other cases, it’s wise to check public records. It’s always a good idea to give a script or Web story an extra read with particular attention to the subjects’ names.

– Assumptions. We think we know something, but we don’t. It was IBM’s Watson computer that defeated a world chess champion, right? Wrong. Remember what assuming can make you.

– Locations. This is a cousin of “names” and “assumptions.” Minneapolis and Milwaukee — we confuse them. We recently mixed up Maine and Minnesota. The same goes for Albany, N.Y., and Albany, Ore. Ask yourself: Do I have the right place?

– Numbers. Million, billion, trillion –if a word has “illion” in it, triple-check the first letter. Using the word “percent?” Please be sure you shouldn’t be saying “percentage point.” If there’s a decimal point in that figure, be sure it’s in the right place. In other words, do your math and then do it again.

– Dates. A subset of “numbers” and a close kin of “assumptions.” When was the movie Around the World in 80 Days released? It was 1956, not 1965. (Side note: Data are plural.)

– Ages. Get a person’s birth date and do the math. You may be surprised to find that someone’s miscalcuated their own age.

You’ll discover other common errors if you look through the corrections pages. The point of the exercise isn’t to make the case that we should expect to be perfect. The point is that we get so much so right every day, that it’s a shame for great stories to be tagged with corrections — especially for mistakes that we likely could catch with one more read or one more double-check.

Related:

– “Consider using an accuracy checklist.”

– “How We Make Corrections.”

(Memmos; Nov. 20, 2014)

Notes

It’s OK For Elvis, But Otherwise We Use Surnames On Second Reference #

The midterm elections are over, which means it’s time to start focusing on the 2016 presidential race!

I’m kidding.

I hope.

But you know there are stories to do about the potential contenders. You also know there will be the temptation to refer to at least one of them, on second reference, by her first name. It has happened a couple times in recent weeks.

We should not do that.

There’s the matter of respect. There’s the issue of whether it’s sexist. And we don’t want to be perceived as being either for or against someone because of the way we refer to him or her. Everyone is treated the same.

The acceptable second-reference alternatives include:

– Clinton.

– Secretary Clinton.

– The former senator.

– The former first lady.

– Mrs. Clinton.

Note: Yes, minors can be referred to by their first names on second reference. And then there’s Elvis, of course.

(Memmos; Nov. 6, 2014)

Notes

Precision Writing & Editing: 5 Timeless Tips #

Last week, a friend who’s been reading these “memmos” sent me an email that he’s held on to for 13 years. The message was written by Hal Ritter, a former managing editor of the Money and News sections at USA Today and until earlier this year the business editor at The Associated Press.

The topic: “precision editing.”

I called Hal to get his OK to share some excerpts. There are lessons here for reporters, producers and editors — whether they’re working on pieces for the Web or the radio. Just substitute some words — “listeners” for “readers;” “correspondents” for “reporters;” “pieces” for “stories” and his advice works well. It could easily be a note about “precision writing”:

“1. First, precision editing means getting it correct. Grammar, punctuation, usage and syntax are perfect. No rule is broken — or even bent. … Every day, I see verbs that don’t agree with their subjects, pronouns that disagree with their antecedents. … I see words that are misspelled. … I see prepositions used as conjunctions. And on and on and on. …

“2. Second, precision editing means squeezing every unnecessary word out of a story. I swear I can delete 15% of the words in some stories and not lose a thing. Word editing means when you see ‘away from,’ you delete ‘away.’ ‘Gathered together,’ delete ‘together.’ ‘Fell down,’ delete ‘down.’ ‘Burned up,’ delete ‘up.’ ‘In order to,’ ‘in order for,’ delete ‘in order.’ And many words, like ‘new,’ you can delete almost every time you see them. You can’t build an ‘old’ building. If you go through a story before sending it to the copy desk and challenge every word, you’ll be amazed how many you can delete. And how much crisper the writing is when you’re finished.

“3. Third, precision editing means writing for readers, not for sources. And that means getting rid of jargon or insider expressions. Language from Wall Street or Capitol Hill or Hollywood or the locker room that our readers won’t understand. Or retaining the jargon and explaining it. Completely and conversationally. Readers will thank you for doing that. Sadly, I’ve heard some reporters say that their sources will make fun of them if the reporters don’t write the way the sources talk. I say to hell with sources. Readers are the only people who matter at USA TODAY. Plus, those sources are wrong. The newspaper that does the best job of explaining jargon, completely and conversationally, is The Wall Street Journal. And The Journal‘s readers are likely to be well-versed in the jargon to begin with. A seventh-grader can read business and financial stories in The Journal and understand them.

“4. Fourth, precision editing means eliminating clichés and hackneyed expressions. Most of the time. I added that qualifier after rereading this week three wonderful pages that [Theodore M. Bernstein, long-time assistant managing editor of The New York Times] devotes to clichés [in The Careful Writer - A Modern Guide to English Usage]. Bernstein’s last sentence on clichés is this: ‘The important thing, however, as must be clear by now, is not to avoid the cliché, but rather to use it only with discrimination and sophistication, and to shun it when it is a substitute for precise thinking.’

“5. Finally, precision editing means careful attention to sentence structure. I believe that clear writing is 90% about sentence structure. What’s the best sentence structure? Simple. Subject, verb, object. One independent clause. An active verb. Little or no punctuation. The worst sentence structure? Complex. 40, 50 or even 60 words. Several dependent clauses. Lots of punctuation.”

My thanks to Hal for permission to share all that.

Someone may be about to suggest that the rules are different for radio. I would suggest that’s wrong. For one thing, USA Today‘s best stories at the time of Hal’s note were much like NPR’s and about the same length. The writing was tight and conversational. USA Today writers and editors would sweat over how many characters — not just words — they could fit on a line. Think about how much effort goes into shaving seconds off some of the pieces that NPR produces.

Also, a reading of Jonathan Kern’s Sound Reporting supports my case. Here’s some of what Jonathan says about “how to sound like a real person”:

– “First and foremost, say your sentences before you write them down; or at the very least, say them out loud after you’ve written them.”

– “Don’t use words on the radio you wouldn’t say at other times.”

– “Don’t use syntax that does not occur naturally.”

– “Use present participles — the ‘present progressive’ tense — to describe things that are going on at the moment.”

– “Don’t paraphrase actualities as if you were reading a quote from the newspaper.”

– Keep your sentence structure simple.”

– “Watch out for grammatical errors.”

– “Recognize clichés and look for alternatives.”

– “Avoid unnecessary jargon, acronyms and initialisms.”

– “Check for typos, missing words and other clerical errors.”

For those who want to read even more about proper usage, The New Yorker this week offers a piece on “Steven Pinker’s Bad Grammar.”

(Memmos; Nov. 4, 2014)

Notes

Some Guidance About Social Media On Election Day #

As news about the midterm elections comes in Tuesday, many of us are going to be using social media to share updates and pass along interesting bits of information. It’s going to be particularly tempting to post about turnout, about what other news outlets report from exit polls and about the results of key races as they’re “called” by one media outlet or another.

That’s all fine. But please keep in mind that what you tweet or post is going to be perceived as coming “from” NPR.

The first rule of the day is simple. Just as “there’s no cheering in the press box,” it’s not appropriate to cheer (or boo) about election results on social media.

After that, this previously issued guidance applies:

“Tweet and retweet [and post] as if what you’re saying or passing along is information that you would put on the air or in a ‘traditional’ NPR.org news story. If it needs context, attribution, clarification or ‘knocking down,’ provide it.”

The important context includes making clear what information is coming from NPR and what is from other credible news outlets.

Throughout the evening, our Elections Desk will be following the AP’s lead as races are called — though there may be moments when the desk decides to issue a “stop” order and not follow AP’s decision to declare a winner. Along with NPR.org, of course, the places where NPR-produced reporting will show up include @nprpolitics on Twitter and the NPR Facebook page.

(Memmos; Nov. 3, 2014)

Notes

Timely Reminder: It’s ‘Daylight Saving’ That’s Ending, Not ‘Daylight Savings’ #

This is a preemptive strike:

When we remind (most*) Americans that they should set their clocks back an hour before going to bed Saturday night, can we make sure to write and say it’s “daylight saving” time that’s ending, not “daylight savings?”

That extra “s” drives some folks nuts when it’s mistakenly added (as often happens).

Meanwhile, many thanks to those who have emailed about words or phrases that we get wrong or overuse. More suggestions are welcome. We’ll keep collecting and report back. Here’s a sampling of what’s been sent in so far:

– “We reached out to.” How about “we called” or “we spoke with?”
– It was a “brutal murder.” That’s likely to be redundant. (It’s often seen with the overused “pool of blood.”)
– “The (fill in the blank) community.” Is that really the way people talk?

Watch for more.

*Yes, Korva, we know that 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.” NationalGeographic.com

(Memmos; Oct. 29, 2014)

Notes

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

We’ve previously discussed how we:

Wave a lot.

Go further when we should go farther.

Can’t stop begging the question.

Lay around when we’re really lying.

Are a bunch of so-and-sos.

Each of those “memmos” has prompted emails from reporters and editors who have their own pet peeves about words or phrases that we mess up or use too often. Among the things that really bother some folks:

– “In the wake of.” How about “after” or “following?”

– “Ordinary people” and “real people.” As opposed to what?

– “Dude.” There’s really only one.

– “Translator” when we should say “interpreter.” (This is actually more of a pet peeve among some in our audience. We get an email or two a week about it. If there’s a person standing beside you who’s telling you what someone else is saying, call that person an interpreter.)

– “Reticent.” It means “habitually silent or uncommunicative; disinclined to speak readily; reserved; taciturn” and “having a restrained, quiet, or understated quality.” (Webster’s) That’s not the same as being “reluctant,” but in the vast majority of cases we seem to think the words are interchangeable.

– “Confined to a wheelchair” and other phrases that imply a judgment about someone’s condition. A simple substitute: “Uses a wheelchair.”

Words and phrases matter, of course, because we’re in the business of writing and telling stories that are compelling and clear. Getting them wrong and relying on “cliches and shopworn phrases,” as Jonathan Kern has written, just get in the way of our mission.

Feel free to send along your pet peeves. We can highlight them in upcoming notes.

(Memmos; Oct. 28, 2014)

Notes

We Wave A Lot; Perhaps We Should Stem The Tide #

Do a search and you’ll see that we’ve recently talked or written about:

– “A wave of” foreigners joining the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

– “A wave of” new voter ID laws.

– “A wave of” protests across the nation following the death of Michael Brown.

Those examples are from the last few weeks. In the past year, according to the Library, we’ve ridden the “wave” phrase at least 71 times on the air. To be sure, there have been many times we’ve talked about “a wave of” your smartphone or “a wave of” water. But there have also been waves of attacks, of violence and of refugees, to cite a few. A search of the phrase “a wave of” on NPR.org, which brings in blog posts , other Web text and guests’ language, produces 154 results from the past year.

A crusty editor who hates clichés once told me that they do occasionally have their place if there’s just no better word or phrase to use. But as Oxford Dictionaries warns, clichés “tend to annoy people, especially if they’re overused.”

Chip Scanlan, then with Poynter, is among many who have wryly observed it’s wise to “avoid clichés like the plague.”

Former Detroit Free Press development editor Joe Grimm has suggested they be used sparingly and only “when they fit the story precisely.”

What should you do if you feel a wave (or some other cliché) coming on? First, stop and ask if it’s really a phrase that applies to the situation. Then, as with our guidance about avoiding labels, consider substituting a fact. How many foreigners have joined ISIS? How many refugees have crossed the border? How many bombings have there been?

Now that I’ve opened this can of worms, I’ll stop fanning the flames, give it a rest and call it a day.

(Memmos; Oct. 22, 2014)

Notes

Wondering How To Say That Name? Remember, Help Is Near #

“Dee-law-REN-ta,” “day-lah-REN-ta” or “deh-lah-REN-ta?” (for de la Renta)

“Nuh–WEE-ehn,” “nuh-wihn” or “wihn?” (for Nguyen)

“OH-feh-bee-a,” “oh-FEH-bee-a” or “off-EH-bee-a?” (for Ofeibea)

There’s one question that comes up nearly every day: “How do we say so-and-so’s name?” The frequency means it makes sense to remind everyone about the resources available to find the answer if an in-house expert from the appropriate desk isn’t immediately available.

Our internal Wiki is a good place to start. (Sorry, readers outside our firewall, that link won’t work for you.) Right on its landing page there’s a link to our own “Pronunciation Guide.” Maintained by the librarians, it has the latest NPR-approved pronunciations.

But it doesn’t have every possible pronunciation. Mr. de la Renta, for example, wasn’t there.

The AP’s guide is a good place to check next. (Again, sorry to our outside readers who can’t get to that page without their own subscription.)

Still stumped? Consider trying:

– The “Say How?” website maintained by the Library of Congress.
– Voice of America’s “Pro-nounce” website.

The Library has other links and tips on the Wiki. The librarians are ready to help figure out the difficult cases that don’t show up on any of the lists.

Of course, it also pays to check whether we’ve ever recorded the person saying his or her own name. As the Library says, “individuals are the primary authority for the pronunciation of their own names.” In the case of someone’s death, a family member, agent or close friend could be a solid substitute. Embassies and international news sources may also be of assistance when the subject is an international figure.

A little reporting can help as well. We figured out that Broadway star Marian Seldes was a “SEL-dess,” not a “SEL-deez” after research turned up a New York Times story in which she “was quick to point out” the correct pronunciation.

Note: The bold typeface above tells you which pronunciation is correct for those three examples.

Related: Wondering how to say the name of that city, river, mountain range, etc.? The same resources can help.

(Memmos; Oct. 21, 2014)

Notes

Reminder: It’s Best To Avoid Labeling People Who Have Medical Conditions #

I’ll say it before others do: Sometimes, in the tight confines of a headline or in a Newscast spot, it’s almost impossible to fit in any extra words and not rely on “labels.”

But as we’ve discussed before, it is best to avoid them — especially when dealing with medical conditions.

For example, 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.”

Why do such small differences in wording matter? The Science Desk has been careful about such usages for years. But as we hear from listeners and readers each week about stories from other desks, people feel as if we’re reducing someone to a word when we label him or her. Since one of our core values is respect, we should be sensitive to those concerns.

We’re also committed to accuracy, of course. We don’t want to unintentionally give the impression that someone is “only” defined by a medical condition.

Related notes: As The Associated Press says, it’s a good idea to “avoid using mental health terms to describe non-health issues.” For one thing, those terms can be clichés: To say one thing is “a cancer on” something else, for example, is a rather tired expression. The AP also reminds us that it’s best to “avoid descriptions that connote pity, such as ‘afflicted with, suffers from or victim of.’ ”

As always, it’s best just to say what someone has.

(Memmos; Oct. 16, 2014)

Notes

A Word About The Name Of Washington’s Football Team #

We have not changed it significantly, but we have added to our guidance on the name of Washington’s NFL team.  Here’s an update:

NPR News does not plan to prohibit the use of the full team name. The team’s name is the name and our job is to report on the world as it is, not to take a position or become part of the story.

But, our policy on potentially offensive language states that “as a responsible broadcaster, NPR has always set a high bar on use of language that may be offensive to our audience. Use of such language on the air [and online] has been strictly limited to situations where it is absolutely integral to the meaning and spirit of the story being told.”

That guidance should be kept in mind. Here’s how:

As a network, we do not have much occasion to report on this club. When we do, we can usually refer to it simply as “Washington” or “the team” once we’ve established that we’re talking about the city’s NFL franchise. This line, for example, was on our air after the firing of Washington’s coach: “Last year the Redskins made the playoffs, this year they were only 3-13, Mike Shanahan was held to account.” We could have said: “Last year Washington made the playoffs, this year the team was only 3-13, Mike Shanahan was held to account.”

Headlines about the team (on the few stories we might post about the club that aren’t about the name controversy) can be a difficult issue. “Seahawks Crush Redskins” can be changed to “Seattle Crushes Washington.” But “Giants Crush Redskins” can’t become “New York Crushes Washington” because a reader wouldn’t know if we’re referring to the Giants or the Jets.

Again, we are not prohibiting the use of the full team name. At times, it will have to be used – particularly when reporting about the controversy. At times, it may sound awkward to refer to the club as “Washington” or “the team.” Clarity in our reporting is vital. In some cases, achieving that clarity will require using the team’s name (for instance, to distinguish the club from Washington’s other sports teams). Guests will surely use the word Redskins during interviews.

But we can also be sensitive, avoid overuse of the word and use alternatives – as we would with other potentially offensive language.

(Memmos; Oct. 10, 2014)

Notes

Sometimes ‘Out Of An Abundance Of Caution’ Is Also The Right Way To Report #

Chuck Holmes sent out a guidance note last evening that read, in part:

“Two reports emerged Wednesday, one from Dallas and the other from Los Angeles, of people placed under medical care as a precaution because of possible exposure to Ebola. Neither is a confirmed case of Ebola.

“We can report what we know about these instances, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we should. As the disease spreads and the CDC take precautions like airport screenings, it is likely that more people worried about possible symptoms and concerned about possible contact with the disease will seek diagnosis and medical care. We’re likely to see more of this in the days and weeks to come. …

“These instances bear watching. But until the CDC confirms a case, they do not warrant more than a passing mention in our coverage, as Jeff [Brady] did of the Dallas deputy in his ATC piece tonight. And Eyder [Peralta] may mention the cases in a Two-Way blog post he’s working on the very phenomenon of the spreading public concern over Ebola.”

That’s a way of thinking about how to approach coverage that we can copy and paste into our planning in other situations. What Chuck was saying, in essence, was that developments need to be put into context — and sometimes that context will lead to a decision by NPR not to turn something into “breaking news” even if some of our competitors are.

We’re likely to hear again, it appears, that “out of an abundance of caution” somewhere in the U.S. someone is being tested for Ebola. Hopefully, there will be few if any cases confirmed. Treating each report of someone being tested as significant news could make listeners and readers feel as if the disease is sweeping the nation when in fact that’s not the case.

The teams that have been covering the Ebola news have been layering context and perspective throughout their reports. They’ve applied NPR’s standards and practices to a complicated and difficult story. Thanks.

(Memmos; Oct. 9, 2014)

Notes

On Why We Didn’t Join The Rush To Name The Ebola Patient #

Just before 1 p.m. ET today, NPR confirmed the name of the man being treated for Ebola at a Dallas hospital. This post is about why we didn’t cite news reports of his name last night or for much of this morning.

It was 9 a.m. ET this morning — more than 15 hours after other news organizations began reporting the news — when NPR determined it could tell its audience the name of the Ebola patient being treated at a Dallas hospital.

Here’s what Chuck Holmes said in a note to editors:

“The name of the patient in Dallas — Thomas Eric Duncan — has been widely reported. NPR has not confirmed the identity, but we now feel confident enough in the reporting of others, including the AP and The New York Times, to allow mention of the name on our air and online with attribution.

“We should attribute to media reports when using his name. And when possible, we should cite the sourcing in those reports – Liberian government officials and members of the patient’s family, including his sister who was quoted by the AP.”

Other organizations made a different decision. In the first minutes after the news broke, many worked fast to craft stories that revealed the man’s name, citing the AP and Times reports.

Online and on the air we often quickly report about other news organizations’ scoops — after weighing the credibility of the outlets and the importance of the information.

As NPR correspondents tried to get independent confirmation, why did we hesitate to say what others were reporting and why did it feel to editors like that was the right call? The main reasons should help guide our thinking in other situations.

1. We never want to get anything wrong. But there are some things we really, Really, REALLY don’t want to get wrong. Naming the first person to have “brought” Ebola to the U.S. is certainly among them. That individual is going to have this news follow him the rest of his life. His family and friends will be affected as well. Yes, citing other organizations is not quite the same as saying we’re reporting something ourselves. But it’s pretty darn close.

2. Someone’s health is highly personal information. We were concerned about whether the man’s sister had his permission to release his name.

3. Names are basic facts that belong in stories. The audience expects to hear and read them. But, it’s also true in this case that the man’s name wasn’t going to mean much, if anything, to a national audience at this point of the story. Of much more interest: why was he in Liberia; what did he do while he was there; what route did he take when flying to the U.S.; whom did he come in contact with after falling ill? We could start to relay information about him, and get important details to our audience, without stating his name.

4. It did not appear, based on what officials were saying, that there was an immediate need for the public to know the man’s name so that those whom he encountered could be alerted. Officials said he would not have communicated the disease to anyone while he was traveling. They said they had identified the people he had been with since arriving in Dallas.

What led to the decision that we could mention the news?

1. As Chuck wrote, the patient’s name was being widely reported. Basically, not acknowledging the news had become pointless.

2. News organizations, including NPR, had been pressing officials. Those officials had not disputed the reports.

Recap: What types of questions did we ask in the first minutes and hours after the news broke?

1. How important to our audience is this man’s name at this moment in the story?

2. Can we confirm the news ourselves?

3. If we can’t confirm it, how confident are we in the reporting done by others?

4. How much more serious are the potential consequences from being wrong than the potential benefits from being right?

(Memmos; Oct. 2, 2014)

Notes

Without Further Ado, Here’s A Reminder About When To Use ‘Farther’ #

Did the “White House intruder” make it further or farther than was first thought?

Despite what we’re hearing members of Congress say this morning or what has been said on our airwaves a couple times, the intruder made it farther than was first reported — not further.

Think of it this way:

If it’s clear you’re talking about distance, you’re focusing on how far someone or something has gone. Some grammarians say either word can be used, but the trend in recent decades has been to suggest that farther is the better word in such cases.

Further is the right word when you’re not discussing distance. For example: “Memmott always takes these grammar discussions further than he should.”

There are all sorts of situations where things aren’t so obvious. If you’ve read 25 more pages of a book than your partner, are you farther or further along? There’s a measurement involved, but it’s not a distance. The guidance in that case is to use further.

Listeners raised the further/farther issue. As some of our other recent notes about language underscore, some in the audience listen very carefully. We usually find they’re right to have been concerned:

– Listeners Are Begging Us To Bag ‘Begs The Question’

– Garnish? Garnishee? Garnisheed? We’re Not Buying Into This Parsleying Of Our Words

– I Won’t Lie To You, We Get Lay Wrong A Lot

– If You See An Adjective, Kill It — Or At Least Ask Whether It Should Be Allowed To Live

– The? Thee? Who Knew? A Listener, That’s Who

(Memmos; Sept. 30, 2014)

Notes

More About Corrections, How We Make Them And How We Display Them #

Earlier this year, we made “bottom of the page” our standard home for story corrections. Having them at the top wasn’t feeling right, as we said, because “most of our errors, thankfully, are of the variety that do not significantly detract from the meaning of our reports.”

But, we do not want to hide our mistakes. We’ve been doing more of them on the air and have been more consistent about telling listeners where corrections can be found on our website.

We’ve added a “corrections” link to the topics list on the front of NPR.org. This month, we also put “corrections” links at the top of the show pages for All Things Considered (including WATC), Morning Edition, Weekend Edition Saturday and Weekend Edition Sunday.

But wait, there’s more.

Click on those “corrections” links and you’re taken to another new feature: The main corrections page can now be sorted by “all stories” or by show title. It’s an added level of transparency.

This is a good moment to point to our earlier guidance about how we handle corrections. Click here to read it.

Also worth flagging:

– The “how we make corrections” memo.

– The “common corrections scenario” primer.

Finally, I’d like to suggest it’s worth taking time once in a while to read through our corrections.

First, you get a sense of the mistakes we make most often — incorrect titles, incorrect dates and mathematical miscalculations, to name a few. Knowing what may trip you up could help you avoid a fall.

Second, you’ll get a sense of how our corrections are written and how we try to be consistent and transparent in the way we fix mistakes whether they were made on the air or online.

(Memmos; Sept. 29, 2014)

Notes

The Eric Holder Scoop And How It Rolled Out Across Platforms: Something To Emulate #

Carrie Johnson’s scoop this morning on the upcoming resignation of Attorney Gen. Eric Holder played out perfectly on the air and on NPR.org. This isn’t the first time we’ve managed to do that. It won’t be the last. The timeline alone is well worth documenting.

– 10:40 a.m. ET: As Carrie goes on Morning Edition to talk with Steve Inskeep about the news, The Two-Way posts a report she had prepared in advance.  The headline hits NPR.org’s homefront. Tweets pointing to The Two-Way post start to pop up.

– 10:41 a.m. ET: The news is posted on NPR’s Facebook page.

– 10:43 a.m. ET: NPR’s “breaking news” email arrives. The news hits other NPR social media outlets, including Tumblr.

– 11 a.m. ET.: Carrie’s pre-recorded spot leads Newscast.

– 11:10 a.m. ET (approx.): Carrie is back on Morning Edition.

– 12:05 p.m. ET: Carrie is on Here & Now to add more.

Kudos to Carrie for the scoop and to everyone who helped coordinate the roll-out of the story.

(Memmos; Sept. 25, 2014)

Notes

Guidance: The ‘War’ On ISIS #

President Obama calls it a “campaign against extremism.”

NPR, though, does use the word “war” when reporting about the U.S.-led military strikes aimed at the self-proclaimed Islamic State. We’re not alone, as you’ll see in reports from The Associated Press and other news outlets.

The definition of the word guides us: “war — 1. open armed conflict between countries or between factions within the same country; 2. any active hostility, contention, or struggle …” (Webster’s)

Military forces from the U.S. and other nations are now part of an “open armed conflict” between factions within Iraq and Syria, and there is clearly “active hostility” in those countries. The situation differs from what’s happened in other nations where the U.S. has aimed strikes at organizations said to be training terrorists.

Here’s an example of how we’ve used the word, from an introduction heard during All Things Considered:

“We’ve been reporting, today, on the series of airstrikes the U.S. and Arab countries conducted overnight in Syria. After weeks of attacks on the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, in Iraq, these are the first U.S. air attacks on the group in Syria. And it marks a major expansion of the U.S. led war on ISIS.”

The words “on ISIS” are important. They distinguish the current campaign from the earlier war in Iraq. If the al-Qaida offshoot called the Korasan Group is targeted again, that could make it advisable to say “war on militant Islamist fighters in Syria and Iraq” or some variation of that phrasing. But at least for now, most reports will likely focus on ISIS.

Obviously, war isn’t the only word that applies. Other words and phrases can be used: attacks, campaign, military campaign, air strikes, bombing runs, military conflict and so on.

It’s also clear, as Greg Myre explores on the Parallels blog, that there are good reasons to add context:

“With the airstrikes in Syria, the U.S. has now bombed seven Muslim countries since the 9/11 attacks and the lines between a full-fledged war and counterterrorism have been blurred. The current efforts contains elements of both as a broad, open-ended military campaign that also targets a specific terrorist group.”

Related “memmos”:

– Islamic State? ISIS? ISIL? Here’s Another Reminder About NPR’s Guidance

– Guidance On The Word ‘Execute’

(Memmos; Sept. 24, 2014)

Notes

Listeners Are Begging Us To Bag ‘Begs The Question’ #

Every time someone says on NPR that something “begs the question,” we get complaints from listeners.

They point to the phrase’s original meaning — to “pass over or ignore a question by assuming it to be established or settled” (Merriam-Webster).  The LawProse blog notes, for example, that you’ve begged the question if you say a defendant is guilty “because he is charged with a crime.”  That’s ignoring the fact that being charged isn’t the same as being guilty. You’ve engaged in a circular argument — the defendant is guilty because he’s been charged and he’s charged because he’s guilty.

But over time, “begs the question” has been increasingly used when the speaker means to say that a question has been raised. That’s where we and other news outlets go wrong, listeners say.

A typical example (from Time): “All of the hype surrounding the shiny new additions to the Apple product line beg the question: What happened to the hype surrounding the last shiny new iPhones we ran out to purchase a mere 365 days ago …?”

This misuse of the term is by no means a new issue. Check out this New York Times post from 2008: “Begging the Question, Again.”

In the past year, the library’s Candice Kortkamp tells us, “beg” or “begs the question” was heard on NPR 11 times. Correspondents or hosts accounted for five of the instances. Four of those five staff-generated cases were in scripts or recorded conversations, not during a live two-way. Only one person, Massachusetts Attorney Gen. Martha Coakley got the “begs the question” reference right.

It’s worth noting, as we said last week in the semi-controversial “memmo” about garnish vs. garnishee, that English is a living language.

The Grammar Girl points out that “when thousands of people use a word or phrase the ‘wrong’ way, and almost nobody is using it the ‘right’ way, it’s a clear sign that the meaning is changing.”

The case could be made that we could give in to the crowd and go begging, so to speak.

But there’s also a simple solution. Substitute the word “raises” for “begs” and you’ve not only avoided inciting the grammarians, you’ve also used a word that makes the point more effectively.

Plus, while rhetorical flourishes are nice, it is NPR practice to speak and write clearly. Perhaps, you might say, to avoid unnecessary garnishing.

(Memmos; Sept. 22, 2014)

Notes

Don’t Always Believe What You Remember #

There are several reasons to read this New York Times Magazine piece:

How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics

Political junkies will be interested. Journalists will enjoy a look back at a key week in their profession’s recent history. History buffs like “what ifs?” and Matt Bai’s account has them.

What’s also worth noting is how the story reminds us that we shouldn’t necessarily trust our own memories.

For instance, Hart’s famous “follow me around” quote inspired the Miami Herald‘s reporters to stake out his townhouse, right?

Wrong. Bai writes that the quote hadn’t been widely reported yet and that the Herald‘s team hadn’t heard about it when they began watching Hart. Their investigation had been prompted by a tip, not Hart’s supposed “challenge.”

How about the famous “Monkey Business” photo? It finished off Hart’s campaign, right?

Wrong. “The photo didn’t surface until nearly three weeks after Hart suspended his candidacy,” Bai reports. “It was a final indignity, to be sure, but it had nothing to do with his decision to quit.”

An NPR.org search indicates we’ve gotten details of the Hart story wrong a few times — including here (a  slight mix-up on the timing of Hart’s departure from the campaign), here (a photo caption that doesn’t quite get the chain of events right) and here (a line that makes it sound like it was the news media that caught Hart on the “Monkey Business”).

Other news outlets have had miscues as well — including here and here.

If my memory is correct, it was President Reagan who turned a Russian proverb — “trust, but verify” — into a signature phrase of American politics.

But I’m trusting my memory. I should verify as well. The Times Magazine piece is a reminder of that.

(Memmos; Sept. 19, 2014)

Notes

Garnish? Garnishee? Garnisheed? We’re Not Buying Into This Parsleying Of Our Words #

Several things should be said about this week’s reports from Chris Arnold and ProPublica’s Paul Kiel. Their stories about debt collection and the seizure of people’s wages and bank accounts have been illuminating, compelling and at points heart-breaking.

Millions Of Americans’ Wages Seized Over Credit Card And Medical Debt

With Debt Collection, Your Bank Account Could Be At Risk

Some listeners, though, can’t get past the way we sprinkled the word “garnish” into the reports.

“This may be a minor thing, but I am a stickler,” writes one of the dozen or so people we’ve heard from so far. “Basically, [the story's] headline is saying that millions of Americans had parsley (or some other garnish) thrown at them. This has always been a tricky bit of grammar, not many people realize there is a huge difference. Please use ‘garnishee’ or ‘garnisheed’ when speaking of wage garnishment.”

As has been noted before (“I Won’t Lie To You, We Get Lay Wrong A Lot“), “many in NPR’s audience (radio and online) pay very close attention to our grammar.”

But, English is a living language. In this case, the critics are trying to enforce a rule that no longer applies. Our go-to dictionary (Webster’s New World College, fourth edition) says “garnishee” is now rarely used as a transitive verb in the U.S. “Garnish” is the verb to use, Webster’s says.

This note isn’t meant to be a dictum about the use of the word garnish. It is intended to remind us about the close attention listeners and readers pay to the words we use. We may disagree with their opinions, but we can admire their dedication and learn from their messages.

Plus, their emails do add some flavor to our day.

(Memmos; Sept. 16, 2014)

Notes

Islamic State? ISIS? ISIL? Here’s Another Reminder About NPR’s Guidance #

(Note on Aug. 19, 2015: Go here to see our latest guidance on how to refer to ISIS/Islamic State.)

If you need a refresher about what we call the Islamist fighters in Iraq and Syria who are dominating the news these days and why they’re being referred to in different ways, Morning Edition and the Parallels blog have valuable background:

ISIS, ISIL Or Islamic State: What’s In A Name?

The blog adds a line about our foreign desk’s guidance regarding what to say on the air and online:

“NPR’s policy is to initially call the group ‘the self-declared Islamic State’ or some equivalent phrase, use ISIS in later references and, when necessary, explain that ISIL is another widely used acronym.”

That language was based on our internal Wiki entry:

“ISLAMIC STATE OF IRAQ AND SYRIA: On first reference, we refer to the group as the ‘self-proclaimed Islamic State’ or the militants/extremists/fighters ‘who call themselves the Islamic State.’ On second reference, it is acceptable to refer to them as ISIS. If in a report a person is heard referring to them as ISIL, we should note that is also a widely used acronym for the group.”

How does this play out?

Thursday during the 5 p.m. ET Newscast, Juana Summers’ spot from the Capitol was introduced this way:

“When President Obama outlined his strategy for combatting the threat from the so-called Islamic State, he vowed that there would be no U.S. ground troops involved. But as NPR’s Juana Summers reports, many Republicans have criticized the strategy President Obama outlined Wednesday night. They’re calling on him to lay out a more aggressive plan for military action.”

All Things Considered followed the Newscast with this:

“We begin this hour with a closer look at one element of President Obama’s strategy to take on the so-called Islamic State.”

The second ATC piece that hour was related and began like this:

“Secretary of State, John Kerry, is in Saudi Arabia today to drum up support for President Obama’s strategy to against ISIS.”

“Wait a minute,” you say, “that last one didn’t start with ‘so-called’ or ‘self-described’ or some other modifier to the name ‘Islamic State.’ Doesn’t that go against our guidelines?”

Well, there’s a reason we call them guidelines — not rules. We had just told listeners twice that this is the “so-called Islamic State” we’re reporting about. Yes, some listeners didn’t hear those references. But many, if not most, did. There’s room for cutting to the second reference — ISIS — in that case.

There’s something else about that second ATC report that’s worth noting. Jackie Northam smoothly set up listeners for the “ISIL” reference they were about to hear:

“State Department spokesperson Marie Harff says there’s more than just the military component to battling ISIL, the alternative acronym for the militant group.”

As always, we’re open to discussing reasons to adjust our guidance.

(Memmos; Sept. 12, 2014)

Notes

Peat, We Hardly Knew ‘Ye — But We Can Learn From Our Brief Time With The Wee Kitty #

He was the captivating kitten in our story Tuesday about distillery cats. Peat, as we reported from the Glenturret distillery in Scotland, had “the killer reflexes of a champion mouser.” When our microphone came near, he pounced.

Our reporting on Peat and other whisky cats had been done more than three weeks before the broadcast.

Sadly, as we were telling our audience about Peat, he was being mourned by those who knew him. The kitten was struck by a vehicle on Monday. He “passed away [that day] in the arms of distillery manager, Neil Cameron,” according to Aberdeen’s Press and Journal.

We didn’t find out about his death until the distillery announced the news Wednesday.

It would not have occurred to this editor to call up the distillery on Monday or Tuesday to inquire if Peat was still prowling the grounds. But it does seem reasonable to suggest that a call or email to give the distillery a heads up that the piece was going to be broadcast might have led to our hearing of his passing. (It’s also reasonable to suggest that the distillery should have called us.)

Conversations with correspondents this morning confirm that it’s routine, especially when the reporting was done weeks or even months earlier, to check back with key characters before a report is broadcast or posted. Obviously, it could be awkward to ask if someone’s still alive (“hey, has Peat used up any of his nine lives yet?”). A simple, “I wanted to let you know my story’s scheduled to run tomorrow,” could be enough to get the conversation going and alert us to something we need to know.

This note is just a reminder that it’s a good idea to do that — for Peat’s sake.

(Memmos; Sept. 10, 2014)

Notes

Do Not Assume, Because You Know What That Will Make You #

July 29: Sports Illustrated‘s Peter King writes on the MMQB blog that officials from the NFL and the Baltimore Ravens “have seen” the surveillance video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée.

The implication was that those officials had watched the tape and concluded that a two-game suspension was enough punishment for Rice.

Today: King writes that “earlier this summer a source I trusted told me he assumed the NFL had seen the damaging video that was released by TMZ on Monday morning of Rice slugging his then-fiancée. … The source said league officials had to have seen it. This source has been impeccable, and I believed the information. So I wrote that the league had seen the tape. I should have called the NFL for a comment, a lapse in reporting on my part. The league says it has not seen the tape, and I cannot refute that with certainty.” [Bold added.]

As you’ve probably heard, the newly surfaced video has led the Ravens to cut Rice from the team and the NFL to suspend him indefinitely.

King may have been right all along. But he can’t prove that.

Let’s keep this simple. There’s nothing vague about the word “confirm.” It means the person we’ve spoken to knows for a fact that something has happened. There’s no room for “I think so,” or “that’s what I hear,” or “they must have.” In most cases we require more than one such source — independent from the other — to confirm a key fact before we go with it.

We do all this, as you know, because “when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.”

H/T to Brian Naylor.

(Memmos; Sept. 8, 2014)

Notes

Showing Stories To Sources? This Reporter Did. We Don’t. #

The Intercept broke the news this week that on at least two occasions in 2012, when he was with the Los Angeles Times, reporter Ken Dilanian sent drafts of stories he was working on to the CIA’s press office. The Intercept has also posted copies of emails from Dilanian to the CIA press office.

Dilanian (who is now with the AP and worked at USA Today before joining the LA Times), tells The Intercept that sending the drafts to the CIA was a mistake. “I shouldn’t have done it, and I wouldn’t do it now,” he says. “[But] it had no meaningful impact on the outcome of the stories. I probably should’ve been reading them the stuff instead of giving it to them.”

David Lauter, Tribune’s Washington bureau chief and Dilanian’s former boss, says the company’s news outlets “have a very clear rule that has been in place for quite a few years that tells reporters not to share copies of stories outside the newsroom. … I am disappointed that the emails indicate that Ken may have violated that rule.”

The AP says it is “satisfied that pre-publication exchanges Ken Dilanian had with CIA before joining AP [in May] were in pursuit of accuracy in his reporting.”

Here is what NPR’s Ethics Handbook says about sharing with sources:

“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.”

This is just the latest in an occasional note to highlight something from our handbook by discussing a problem encountered by another news outlet.

(Memmos; Sept. 5, 2014)


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A Smokin’ Hot Story (Or, How To Make A Great Introduction; Part II) #

Last month it was Morning Edition‘s “panda triplets” intro that got our attention.

This week it’s the intro to All Things Considered‘s conversation about CVS and the retailer’s new name (CVS Health) that’s worth a second listen.

ATC’s Alison MacAdam sets up the CVS story’s setup:

– While looking for a good person to two-way, the show consulted business editor Neal Carruth.

– Neal passed along word that CVS had put a 30-foot-tall cigarette on display in Manhattan’s Bryant Park.  Then he sent a photo of that big smoke.

– Planet Money producer Phia Bennin was recruited to go gather tape in the park, where CVS was promoting its name change by spotlighting its ban on tobacco sales.

Even though only a few seconds were needed, writes Alison, the sound “went a long way to making this story begin in a FAR more interesting and narrative-driven way than it might have otherwise.” Take a listen.

Also take note of the way the show transitioned from the intro to the conversation by acknowledging the Bryant Park event for what it was — a public relations stunt:

AUDIE CORNISH: “In New York’s Bryant Park today, there was an unusual scene — a huge cigarette, maybe 30 feet high, stamped with the words, ‘cigarettes out, health in’ and some free lollipops.”

NICKO LIBOWITZ: “Hey folks. Did you guys get a lollipop yet?”

CORNISH: “Nicko Libowitz was handing out treats on behalf of CVS.”

LIBOWITZ: “So CVS is quitting cigarettes.”

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you.

LIBOWITZ: “And we’d like you all to celebrate with us.”

CORNISH: “CVS actually decided to stop selling tobacco products earlier this year. The company is marking today as the day that it’s fulfilled that promise. No more cigarettes on the shelves. And today CVS rebranded itself. Its corporate was CVS Caremark, now it’s CVS Health. Bruce Japsen covers health care business for Forbes, and he joins us now. Bruce, welcome.”

BRUCE JAPSEN: “Hey, thanks for having me.”

CORNISH: “So let’s put what’s happening today in context because this is a lot of PR. But what’s the thinking behind it?”

(Memmos; Sept. 4, 2014)

Notes

Corrections: Fresh Guidance About How We Make Them #

Who do I talk to about a correction?*

That question gets asked at least once a week or so. Given that, it seems like a good idea to dust off, freshen and resend the Chuck Holmes/Gerry Holmes memo from earlier this year about “How We Make Corrections.”

As you’ll see, some of the names have changed and some of the steps have been tweaked a bit. But the process remains basically the same.

Click here to see the memo. May I recommend saving a copy to your desktop and perhaps printing it out as well?

Also posted: “A Common Corrections Scenario.” It also might be worthy of saving for future reference.

If you spot any mistakes in those memos (wouldn’t that be ironic?), please let me know.

(Memmos, Sept. 3, 2014)

*Yes, “whom do I talk to …?” or “to whom do I talk …?” would be the grammatical ways to go. They’re not, though, the way the question gets asked.

Notes

So, Can You Guess How Many Times We Started A Sentence This Way In One Week? #

A recovering blogger is not someone who should point fingers when it comes to grammar.

It should also be noted, as Grammarist.com has pointed out, that it’s not necessarily true that it’s wrong to begin a sentence with the word “so” or any other coordinating conjunction.

What’s more, while we do want to speak and write well, we also want to “sound like America.”

But (to use another such conjunction), we do start our sentences with “so” an awful lot.

During the week of Aug. 17-23, NPR reporters, hosts, member station reporters and freelancers began sentences with the word “so” 237 times during broadcasts of Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Weekend All Things Considered.

According to librarian Sarah Knight, who did the research for us, the usage cuts across genders and ages. David Greene believes he may be our most frequent “so” sayer, but he’s certainly not alone.

This isn’t a new thing. Four years ago, The New York Times wrote that during one “dispatch on National Public Radio last month … a quarter of the sentences began with ‘so.’ ”

There’s a case to be made that we’ve been influenced by the people we meet and we’re just reflecting the way Americans speak. Three years ago, University of Delaware English professor Ben Yagoda wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education that, “I’m an NPR power-listener, and so is to NPR interviewees as dude is to fraternity brothers.”

Should we do something about  this?

Fast Company columnist Hunter Thurman recently argued that starting sentences with “so” can undermine your credibility. Thurman made the case that “just like a speaking coach will tell you not to fill empty space with ‘um,’ you should avoid framing your answer as a rehearsed pitch by starting with ‘so.’ ”

Rutgers University communications professor Galina Bolden, however, told Business Insider that a “so” sentence “communicates that the speaker is interested in or concerned about the recipient.”

The bigger issue for us may be the repetition. Perhaps the thing to do is be aware and try this: If you feel the urge to write a “so” into your story or questions for a two-way, resist. Find another way to start that sentence.

Instead of:

“So, tell us exactly what you saw.”

Just say:

“Tell us what you saw.”

Or instead of:

“So, here’s how the incubator works.”

Try:

“Here’s how the incubator works.”

And so on.

(Memmos, Sept. 2, 2014)

Notes

I Won’t Lie To You, We Get Lay Wrong A Lot #

What are the most common emails to our corrections inbox? (Besides those accusing us of favoring one side or the other in whatever is the hot debate of the day.)

They’re the ones that go something like this:

“Thanks for the reporting! Please apprise [insert name of NPR staffer here] of the difference between ‘to lay’ and ‘to lie.’ It should be ‘if everybody is lying low’ not ‘laying low.’ “

Or:

“Thanks for the reporting! Please apprise Mr. Clapton of the difference between ‘lie down’ and ‘lay down.’ It should be ‘lie down Sally’ not ‘lay down Sally.’ “

Many grammarians have posted about lie vs. lay. The University of Kansas has guidance under the headline “You’ll lay an egg if you don’t lie down.”

Arizona State has guidance and a practice exercise here.

The Associated Press begins its style guide entry this way:

“The action word is lay. It takes a direct object. Laid is the form for its past tense and its past participle. Its present participle is laying. Lie indicates a state of reclining along a horizontal plane. It does not take a direct object. Its past tense is lay. Its past participle is lain. Its present participle is lying. When lie means to make an untrue statement, the verb forms are lie, lied, lying.”

I bring this up for two reasons.

1. We get on average several emails a week about it.

2. It underscores something: Many in NPR’s audience (radio and online) pay very close attention to our grammar. While it’s true that we want to sound conversational and that some grammatical rules are being bent all the time across the nation, it does offend some of our most dedicated fans when we get things wrong.

Note: This is a bad thing for a Standards & Practices editor to admit — I’m not a grammarian. I’m in the camp that needs to look some words up every time I use them (principal? or principle?). Or, I turn to some of the better linguists in the room. There’s somebody who can help on each desk, show and online team. The librarians are here for us too.

There, I’ve put  my cards on the table. (Notice how I avoided the whole lay vs. lie issue there.)

(Memmos; Aug. 29, 2014)

Notes

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

There’s been a flurry of appeals to the Standards & Practices editor and the DMEs in recent weeks about identifying someone we’ve spoken to by a first name only.

At least once, a first-name-only got on the air without being discussed with either the DMEs or that S&P scold.

There’s not really a distinction between a first-name-only and anonymity. So this passage from our guidelines applies:

“If a reporter and editor know ahead of time that a key interview can only be done if the source is granted anonymity, they must have a conversation in advance with a senior editor and make the case for granting it.”

Senior editor = a supervising senior editor, a DME or the Standards & Practices noodge. Senior supervising editors  can weigh the issues and make the call on this. They should then flag the decision to the DMEs and the S&P. That way the DMEs and S&P can raise concerns if needed, but just as importantly can keep a handle on how often this is  happening across the desks and shows.

Another important set of words in that passage: “key interview.” (Note: We realize that sometimes it isn’t known ahead of time that a person won’t want us to use a full name. In that case, the discussion about whether to use information from that interview will obviously happen afterward.)

We should be very sparing in our granting of such status and the appearance of first-name-onlys in our reports. Listeners and readers expect us to identify the people we interview. Among the questions to consider:

– Is the person going to be in danger if we use a full name?

– Is the subject sensitive and among those that could come back to haunt the person because the story will live on the Web forever?

– How hard have we tried to get others with equally good stories who have no problem with the use of their full names?

If after a discussion it’s decided that we should grant first-name-only (or anonymous) status, then we have to agree on the language that tells listeners and readers why we’re doing that. We should always explain why someone isn’t being fully identified. It might be because:

– She fears retribution from police.

– He’s concerned his chronic condition could make employers wary of hiring him.

– Her family doesn’t know about what happened.

– He would only discuss his medical condition if his full name was withheld.

You get the idea. It’s also the case that:

“NPR does not name individuals who are the alleged victims of sexual assaults. There are exceptions at times – such as certain instances when such an individual goes public with his/her identity – and NPR editors will judge these instances on a case-by-case basis.”

Related reminders from the handbook:

No offers. “Occasionally in the course of our reporting, a source will agree to share information only if it’s not attributed to him or her. Journalists should use their good judgment to determine whether the information merits such a decision. However, we do not begin our quest for interviews by promising to keep a source anonymous or off the record. Our goal is to get as much information as possible on the record.”

No pseudonyms. “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.”

(Memmos; Aug. 28, 2014)