Search Results for: Memmos
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)
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)
– 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:
(Memmos; Dec. 17, 2014)
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)
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.
– 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)
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)
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.”
(Memmos; Dec. 8, 2014)
“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.’ “
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:
– Going forward
– Ubiquitous [Which I originally misspelled as ubitquitous!]
– 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)
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)
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,
(Memmos; Nov. 20, 2014)
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 …?”
– “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)
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.
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)
“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)
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.
(Memmos; Nov. 20, 2014)
The midterm elections are over, which means it’s time to start focusing on the 2016 presidential race!
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:
– 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)
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)
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)
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)
We’ve previously discussed how we:
– Wave a lot.
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)
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)
“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 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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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:
(Memmos; Sept. 30, 2014)
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)
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)
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.”
(Memmos; Sept. 24, 2014)
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)
There are several reasons to read this New York Times Magazine piece:
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”).
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)
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.
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)
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:
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)
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)
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)
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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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)
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.
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.
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.
“So, tell us exactly what you saw.”
“Tell us what you saw.”
Or instead of:
“So, here’s how the incubator works.”
“Here’s how the incubator works.”
And so on.
(Memmos, Sept. 2, 2014)
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.’ “
“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)
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 nudge. 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)
Labor Day Weekend means summer is almost over and that the 2014 campaign is about to really get going. So it’s time to remind everyone (and make sure new folks are aware) that as the Ethics Handbook says:
“We’re not advocates. We may not run for office, endorse candidates or otherwise engage in politics in a participatory or activist manner. … We should not sign petitions or otherwise contribute support or money to political causes or public campaigns. Also: we don’t put political signs in our yards or bumper stickers on our cars.”
And remember, there is no privacy on the Web. Posting on Facebook or Twitter or another social media site that you support a political cause or a political candidate is the virtual equivalent of putting a sign in your front yard.
On a related note, there’s also a lot happening (as there often is) on the National Mall and other places around the nation. So here’s another reminder:
“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.”
There’s more in the handbook, including a discussion of “the evolution of our guidance on marches, rallies and public events.”
(Memmos; Aug. 25, 2014)
Several listeners and readers have told us it’s wrong to say that James Foley was “executed” or to use the word “execution” when reporting about his death.
They have a point.
According to Webster’s, someone is executed if they are “put to death as in accordance with a legally imposed sentence.” An execution is the putting to death of someone “in accordance with a legally imposed sentence.”
The AP advises that “to execute a person is to kill him in compliance with a military order or judicial decision.”
Saying Foley was executed, by definition, would mean his death was “in compliance” or “in accordance” with orders from a recognized court, government or military. Saying Foley was executed would imply that the Islamic State (or ISIS) is an entity that can legally carry out such sentences.
In this case, it’s better to say Foley was “killed” or “beheaded” or “murdered” (“the unlawful and malicious or premeditated killing of one human being by another”).
Note I: Yes, the AP seems not to have followed its own guidance on this issue. And yes, “murdered” is a powerful word that should be used judiciously. In this case, though, the video evidence supports use of the word.
Note II: Another word to think about when discussing the Foley case is “captured.” When an Israeli soldier was missing recently, we discussed why it was wrong to say he had been “kidnapped” (a word that applies to civilians and to crimes) and was better to say he had been “captured” (a word that applies to combatants on a battlefield). In Foley’s case, the opposite is true. He was not a combatant. It’s not a major problem to say Foley was “captured,” but it’s better to say something like he was “taken hostage” or “kidnapped.”
(Memmos; Aug. 22, 2014)
Webster’s New World College Dictionary is clear: “teenager … a person in his or her teens.”
But check out this headline: “AP Decides Not to Refer to Brown, 18, as ‘Teenager.’ ” (Richard Prince’s Journal-isms)
“Many outlets continue to refer to [Michael Brown] as a teen or teenager. Now that we know his age, let’s be specific without using a term that can be left up to interpretation.” (AP Managing Editor Lou Ferrara)
Basically, the wire service says that once you’ve reached 18, you’re an adult and that to most people a “teenager” implies someone younger than 18.
We’ve used the words “teen” and “teenager” often when referring to Brown.
After conversations with a dozen or so editors on various parts of the 3rd floor, it’s clear there are two basic views. There’s a slight majority in favor of No. 2:
1. By definition, Brown was a teenager. So the word applies. He was 18 at the time of his death and it’s just a fact that he was a teen. We can use the words “teen” and “teenager.”
2. But words come with connotations. For many listeners and readers, a “teen” is a youngster or a kid. We could be influencing the way they view the story by introducing that word. We should avoid it.
By now, you may be asking: “What’s the alternative?”
The most common suggestion is “young man.” That also comes with connotations — though they seem to be more appropriate ones in this case. Brown was old enough to vote. He had graduated from high school. He could have gone into the military. As AP might say, he had entered adulthood.
Would we refer to an 18-year-old soldier killed in Afghanistan as a “teen” or “teenager?” Probably not unless we were doing a profile and it felt right to say he was “still in his teens.” But I suspect we’d be more likely to use the phrase “young man.”
The best guidance in this case and others like it that may come along seems to (as it has in other situations) come back to avoiding labels.
So, perhaps we should say and write that Brown was “the 18-year-old shot and killed by a police officer.” Or, that protests continued over the “shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.”
Are we banning the words “teen” and “teenager” for 18- and 19-year-olds? No.
Might we decide sometime that a 17-year-old should be described as a “young woman” or “young man?” Yes.
But is it best to avoid labels and to consider them carefully before using them? Yes.
(H/T to Hansi Lo Wang.)
(Memmos; Aug. 21, 2014)
We report about polls all the time. We dig into them in various ways. On Morning Edition and in the Ed blog today, Cory Turner highlighted the importance of examining not only the results, but how the questions were asked.
The two surveys he dissected reached different conclusions about the level of support for Common Core.
Cory made a convincing case that it was the way the questions were asked that created the differences.
“Can a majority of Americans oppose and support the Common Core?” he concluded. “In a word: yes. Because, when it comes to polling, a word can make all the difference.”
Read or listen to his report to see how he told the “tale of two polls.”
The piece is a reminder to all of us, especially as the 2016 presidential campaign draws near, about how important it is to go beyond the results when it comes to reporting about polls. Among the tools out there that are worth consulting is the National Council on Public Polls’ “20 Questions A Journalist Should Ask About Poll Results.”
Other valuable materials online include: Poynter’s “Resources for Covering Political Polls.”
One related thought from this former economics editor who has a pet peeve: Don’t fall into the trap of confusing percent and percentage points. Click here for more on that.
(Memmos; Aug. 20, 2014)
Digital strategist and social media team member Mel Kramer writes:
“It’s really good to be able to contact companies on Twitter if, for instance, you need to change a flight or are having an issue with your electrical bill. You should do this! (It’s much easier than contacting customer service almost all of the time.)
“Remember, though, that your messages are public. So, since we cover such companies, it’s important to make sure your posts on their social media accounts are as polite and respectful as you would be if you were addressing them on the air. You don’t want to be open to accusations of bias later on.
“I’ve recently seen several journalists from other news organizations publicly berate companies on Twitter — and just wanted to send out this reminder that we can correspond, but not berate.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the social media universe, there’s the question of whether we can post on our personal (but still public!) pages about the things we “like” or the good deeds we’re doing for charities.
The short answer is yes.
The longer answer, of course, comes with a “but.”
For instance, are you going to be in a charity run that raises money for cancer research? Of course you can tell folks about that on Twitter, Facebook or other sites.
But it’s wise to make clear that it’s you — not NPR — that’s doing the good deed. NPR can’t be seen as endorsing one worthy cause over others.
And if your job involves covering the cause or issue that the fundraiser is about, it’s best to steer clear of public pronouncements — and actions — that imply you’ve chosen one organization over another.
There’s lots of grey area here. The handbook has guidance about “whom to turn to” when questions arise.
In particular, it suggests “for advice specific to social media environments, email SocialMediaTeam@npr.org. … Of course, you can always … actually talk” to the social media team as well.
(Memmos; Aug. 19, 2014)
This line in a Newscast spot today …
“An investigation continues into the bizarre accident that claimed the life of 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. at a dirt track in western New York.”
… led to a discussion in the newsroom about the advice (from Strunk & White and others) to write with nouns and verbs, not adverbs and adjectives.
The adjective that drew our attention was “bizarre.”
First, we agreed it wasn’t the right word to use. As NPR and other news outlets have reported, it’s not unusual for stock car and dirt track drivers to confront each other. Sometimes it happens on the track. The result in this case was tragic, but the events that led up to it were not unusual. So “bizarre” had to go.
Then Kathy Rushlow said that “verbs, not adjectives,” is a good rule to keep in mind. Her comment reminded me of what one of my first editors did 30 or so years ago as he
butchered improved my copy. He hated adverbs that ended in “ly” and killed every one. My stories never seemed to suffer.
But it’s worth noting that there’s been some pushback from grammarians in recent years.
Linguist Geoffry Pullman called Strunk & White’s advice about avoiding adjectives and adverbs a “mysterious decree.”
He’s pointed out that Strunk & White even violated their own rule:
” ‘Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs,’ they insist. … And then, in the very next sentence, comes a negative passive clause containing three adjectives: ‘The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.’ “
On the Grammar Underground blog, writer June Casagrande suggested that there are “adjectives and manner adverbs that are worth keeping.” They are, “the ones that add new information.”
“The ones that should go are usually the ones that contain value judgments,” she adds. “They tell readers how to feel about something rather than giving them the facts and letting them decide for themselves.”
So: “Mark wears an obnoxiously loud shirt when he bikes.”
Might be better this way: “Mark wears a bright white shirt decorated with Grateful Dead logos when he bikes.”
(Memmos; Aug. 14, 2014)
If you didn’t catch it on the air, take a moment to listen to the introduction on Morning Edition today to a report about panda triplets born in China:
Steve Inskeep: “This is the introduction of a news report, in which part of our job is to interest you in the story that follows.
“In this case, we got one word for ‘ya.
David Greene: “Better still; two words.
“Weeks after birth, they’re still alive. NPR’s Frank Langfitt reports from China.”
In Sound Reporting, Jonathan Kern writes that:
“The host intro is one of the most important — if not the most important — parts of a radio story. It is the equivalent of a newspaper headline and lead paragraph rolled into one — the ‘hook’ that is going to grab the listener’s attention. …
“Because the intro is so important, the writing should shine — it should give the host an opportunity to connect with the audience and sell the reporter’s story. As [former] NPR Senior Vice President Jay Kernis puts it, ‘During a lead is when hosts become hosts. … Let them have their moment on the stage, in the best possible light, in front of the most captivating set.’ “
Based on Jonathan’s guidance, there are two words for that intro: well done.
(Memmos, Aug. 13, 2014)
A search today for NPR’s latest guidance on the use of potentially offensive language revealed that we hadn’t posted the most recent version.
So, here’s a link to where our latest language about such language can be found. It was written earlier this year:
The biggest change from the previous document is the addition of a lengthy section on “Entertainment and Music Programming.”
Fair warning: As we might say on the air and online, “some of the language in the document will be offensive to many readers.”
The section of the Ethics Handbook that deals with “using potentially offensive language” has been updated with the new link.
This is a good time for a reminder, because one slipped through the cracks on us last week: 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.
Clarification: No offensive words were heard in the piece referred to above. The words were bleeped.
(Memmos; Aug. 11, 2014)
As you may have heard, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet wrote Thursday that “from now on, The Times will use the word ‘torture’ to describe incidents in which we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information.”
His post about the Times‘ position on use of that word is here. It came a week after President Obama’s “we tortured some folks” comment.
This is a good time to refresh our memory on NPR’s position. As with many such guidelines, it’s on our internal Wiki.
Here’s what Ellen Weiss wrote on Nov. 13, 2009. I’ve added some bold for emphasis:
“Contrary to some commentaries, NPR did not ban the word ‘torture.’ Rather, we gave our journalists guidance about how to avoid loaded language about interrogation techniques, realizing that no matter what words are chosen, we risk the appearance of taking one side or another. We asked our staff to avoid using imprecise descriptions that lump all techniques together, and to evaluate the use of the following descriptions, depending on context, including: ‘harsh’ or ‘extreme’ techniques; ‘enhanced interrogation techniques;’ and specific descriptions, such as ‘controlled drowning.’ We specifically advised them that they may use the word ‘torture’ when it makes sense in the context of the piece.“
In the years since Ellen’s note, debate over the word has continued and we’ve applied the guidance. For example, here’s Robert Siegel this past April:
“Today, the Senate Intelligence Committee moved a step closer to publishing parts of a report about the torture of terrorism suspects after 9/11. Lawmakers voted to send the report on to the White House and to CIA. The CIA will determine how much of the five-year-long study can be declassified. And President Obama could be called upon to referee any dispute of how much of the report sees the light of day.”
Here’s Tom Gjelten in May 2013:
“[President] Obama banned those interrogation techniques on his second day in office. But he has largely avoided the debate over whether torture in some cases has produced valuable information. … The program did not ‘work,’ the [Senate] committee said, in the sense that the ‘brutal’ interrogations — the torture — produced no information, no leads, of any use in tracking down terrorists.”
We’re constantly discussing and reviewing the language we use. Our guidance on use of the word “torture” comes down to the issue of whether it “makes sense in the context of the piece.” The Times says the test is whether “we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information.” I would think that if NPR is confident interrogators “inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information” that is the sort of context our guideline suggests is relevant.
(Memmos; Aug. 8, 2014)
Click here to see (and print if you need to) a copy of the latest form for obtaining “consent, authorization, release and waiver” before interviewing minors. We’ll be placing it on the Wiki too.
Here’s a reminder, from the 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).”
(Memmos, Aug. 7, 2014)
The note about “How To Explain Why We Won’t ‘Take Down’ A Story” prompted several emails suggesting it would be helpful to offer guidance on what to say to people — before we interview them — about the fact that our stories go on the Web as well as the radio.
There’s a case to be made that some people who have come to regret speaking to news outlets did not fully understand that what they said will live on indefinitely thanks to the Web. Perhaps if that had been made clear to them they would have declined to be interviewed, been more careful about what they said or at the very least would have had no reason to object later.
After sampling opinions from various parts of the newsroom, it’s obvious there is no magical sentence that works in all situations and it’s clear that long explanations are not always necessary, possible or helpful.
This note is not intended to cover reporting done in war zones or situations when stopping to have a long conversation about the long tail of the Web isn’t safe or practical. Getting the permission of parents or guardians to interview minors is also a separate subject (and we make it clear when we get such consent that the material will be on the Web).
With those caveats in mind, we obviously start conversations that hopefully will turn into interviews by identifying ourselves. As the handbook says, “journalism should be done in plain sight.”
But as for what to say after we introduce ourselves, rather than try to come up with a one-size-fits-all approach, here are some thoughts.
– Nell Greenfieldboyce comes at the issue as someone who reports about complicated and often sensitive subjects. “If the person is talking to me about, say, their child’s health, I really caution them,” she writes. “I point out that years in the future, someone could search on their child’s name and read this story. Are they really OK with that?
She suggests that in sensitive situations it may be wise to say something like this:
“Before we start, I have to ask you: you know you are being recorded, right? And that I am a radio reporter and the reason I am recording is that I may use part of this tape in my broadcast radio story, just like a newspaper reporter uses a quote? And you should know that we also put our stories up on our website, so this isn’t just for radio, but the audio will go online and there will be a story with it, and you may be quoted by name and your voice may be used. Are you OK with all that?”
Nell adds that she knows “there is a concern that if we fully inform people, they will not want to talk to us. I find it’s just the opposite, that the more I try to talk to sources about the effect on them, the more firm they are in their conviction that they want to talk and the more they trust me.”
– Jon Hamilton also deals with sensitive subjects. He writes that:
“In 2012 I did a story about a guy named Christopher Stephens, who had taken part in an NIH trial of a drug called ketamine for severe depression. We talked about the implications of his story (and photo) being on the Web forever and, after pondering it, he agreed to use his name. The interesting twist came when I did another ketamine story later that year. The website wanted to run one of the photos of him that we already had on file. Legally, we could have. But I tracked him down and got his approval anyway. I wanted to know whether his mental health status had changed and whether he wanted another web reference that would never go away. He gave his permission to use the photo.”
(The BBC devotes a section of its editorial guidelines to the issue of using “archive material involving illness, death, emotional trauma or intimate personal revelation” and the need to “minimise possible distress to surviving contributors, victims and relatives.”)
– Pam Fessler’s reporting on poverty takes her into some very personal places. “I’m often profiling fairly vulnerable people who laying out a lot of personal stuff,” she writes. Pam makes it clear that her report will be on both the radio and the Web — “and that it could expose them to lots of uncomplimentary on-line comments.”
– The Web needs photos. 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.’ ”
Now we come to the situations in which long explanations aren’t needed or might be counterproductive.
Are you trying to book a conversation with a senator? Her press secretary should already know that the interview will be on the radio and the Web. Many people we speak with, in fact, probably only need to be told that the story will be on the Web as well as on the air and that we’ll be glad to send them a link. If it seems to surprise them that we put stories on the Web, the conversation may need to be extended. But otherwise, if the subject isn’t sensitive, they’ve been informed.
Then there are the situations where it’s obvious what reporters are doing and where the people they’re talking to are very familiar with what’s going to be done with what they say. Don Gonyea’s been in a lot of coffee shops. The folks in Iowa, for example, know that if it’s caucus time the guy with the microphone who has come to their table wants to talk politics. Don tells them who he is, who he works for and asks if he can speak with them for a report he’s doing. If the answer is yes, he gets their names first and then starts asking questions. He’s not hiding anything, Don says, but he suspects that a long windup about how names and voices may be on the Web for the foreseeable future could just get in the way of the conversation and wouldn’t be news to media-savvy (and media-weary) Iowans.
So, there’s no “you must say this” dictum. Just be aware that some situations and some people require longer conversations about the potential lingering effects from the reports we do. It comes down to respect, and as the handbook says:
“Everyone affected by our journalism deserves to be treated with decency and compassion. We are civil in our actions and words, avoiding arrogance and hubris. We listen to others. When we ask tough questions, we do so to seek answers — not confrontations. We are sensitive to differences in attitudes and culture. We minimize undue harm and take special care with those who are vulnerable or suffering. And with all subjects of our coverage, we are mindful of their privacy as we fulfill our journalistic obligations.”
(Memmos; Aug. 6, 2014)
This is now one of the most common messages received by newsrooms:
”I’m mentioned in a story on your website. Please remove it or remove any mentions of me from it.”
The reasons tend to be:
”I’m no longer the same person.”
“I don’t want future employers to see it.”
“I didn’t know it would follow me forever.”
The Standards & Practices editor stands ready to field such inquiries (and to coordinate with our legal counsel if necessary). Here’s how we’ll generally respond. The guidance may prove helpful if you’re ever button-holed by a former source. The wording is based on language suggested by the Associated Press Media Editors:
“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.”
(Memmos; Aug. 4, 2014)
We’re going to be doing more reporting in coming weeks and months about sexual assaults on campuses, the way the cases are handled by universities and legislation that’s working its way through Congress.
There will probably be several words or phrases that we have to consider carefully as the stories develop.
This came up this morning: “Rape victim” or “rape survivor?”
Here’s how we approached the question. The process may provide guidance not only on this particular issue, but on how to think about others that come up.
– First, we have to be careful about referring to someone as a victim or survivor before there’s evidence (police reports, medical reports, etc.) about what happened. Bear in mind that if there’s a victim/survivor, that means we’re telling our audience that there’s an attacker or attackers. We don’t want to be prejudging. When such stories begin, we’re typically dealing with allegations, not verdicts.
– Second, as we’ve said in other cases (immigration, for example), it’s best not to put labels on people. It is better to focus on acts. So, rather than declare that someone is a survivor or a victim, we should describe what happened or what has been alleged. That simplifies the issue. She’s not a “rape survivor” or “rape victim.” She is a young woman “who was raped” or whom “police say was sexually assaulted in her dorm room.” Again, though, be careful not to prejudge.
– But, if there’s a need to choose, we look at the definitions of the words. According to our go-to dictionary, (Webster’s New World College Dictionary), in this case both words apply:
Survivor: “person or thing that survives; specif., a person who has survived an ordeal or great misfortune.”
Victim: “someone or something killed, destroyed, injured, or otherwise harmed by, or suffering from, some act, condition, or circumstance.”
– We could stop there and use either. However, one of our core values involves “respect in sensitive circumstances”:
“NPR journalists show sensitivity when seeking or using interviews of those affected by tragedy or grief.”
That doesn’t mean we automatically refer to people by the terms or words that they want to be called. On matters that are politically charged, we do not adopt the language of one side over the other’s. But we are sensitive to those who have been seriously injured. And if either word is correct, the sensitive choice is the one that respects their feelings. Many of those who have been sexually assaulted make a forceful case that they are not just victims, they are survivors.
So, on this issue, the guidance would be: a) try not to “label; b) either word is correct; but c) “survivor” is more sensitive to those we are reporting about.
(Memmos; July 31, 2014)
Morning Edition asked today for “a review of CONTAGIOUS versus INFECTIOUS. … The wires are not consistent; a rule would help.”
The issue arises because of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
In the case of this disease, and especially this outbreak of it, both words apply.
There’s some background in this CDC news briefing from earlier this week. It’s worth noting that the CDC says Ebola does not become contagious (“very communicable”) until symptoms appear in those who are infected. That point has clearly been reached. The World Health Organization, meanwhile, refers to Ebola as “a serious, acute and extremely contagious disease.”
The CDC also has definitions of the differences between “infectious,” “communicable” and “contagious” posted here, which should be helpful when it comes time to cover other diseases.
As always, the Science Desk is available to consult on such issues. (Thanks, Joe Neel, for your help today.)
(Memmos, July 30, 2014)
Every day there’s an unexpected question or two. Today it was whether it sounds right to say something happened “half a decade” ago or that someone spent “half a decade” in a job, rather than simply “five years.”
“Half a decade” doesn’t sound right to these ears. It’s just not conversational. (Before someone asks: no, I don’t think I would have tried to edit out “four score and seven years ago.”)
As the headline on this note suggests, The Two-Way launched in 2009. I can’t imagine telling someone that the blog’s been around half a decade. When it hits 10 years? Maybe then it will feel right to say the Two-Way’s a decade old.
Now, this isn’t a note about banning “half a decade” (which a search shows we’ve said or written more than 50 times). It’s also not about what seems to be an NPR habit of measuring things in decades, rather than years.
This is just a reminder that, as Jonathan Kern suggested in Sound Reporting, we should sound (and read) conversational. “You are not giving a lecture; in fact, as far as that listener is concerned, you’re not even reading a script,” Jonathan wrote. “You’re just talking.”
We do this well every day, of course.
Many here are thinking of Margot Adler. Last night on All Things Considered, Robert Siegel said this about her style:
“She could do a story about nature walks through Central Park that so many other reporters – if they did it – they would skirt at the edge of cliche at every turn. … When she did it, it was fresh, and it was honest, and it was insightful. And the people were wonderfully real. She had a terrific feel for the place she came from.”
It’s easy to find examples of Margot’s work that reinforce Robert’s and Jonathan’s points about being conversational. Take this excerpt from an August 2013 piece she did on the New York Botanical Garden:
ADLER: You enter the garden through a gate with rules etched in stone. In Padua, they are in Latin. Here, they’re in English, like don’t pick the flowers, don’t stray from the path. Inside, there’s Pacific yew, where taxol, used in chemo treatments for cancer originally comes from. There’s aloe and foxglove. And looking at some of the maps of the larger exhibit, I notice a place for marijuana. Do you have any here, I ask Long?
LONG: The state of New York didn’t mind too much. They thought it was probably be all right, but I think it would have been illegal in the eyes of the federal government. So we didn’t want to put our staff in that position.
ADLER: So you can read about it in the wild plants exhibit, but there’s none to look at. Visitors to the garden are looking and smelling. Gregory Long asks me to smell some valerian, which was often used as a sedative and sleep aid.
LONG: Have a whiff of that.
LONG: It’s marvelous.
ADLER: Oh, it’s very subtle, actually. Mm.
(H/T to Michael Cullen for his question today.)
(Memmos; July 29, 2014)
It felt more natural, editor Joe Neel says, to refer to Lissette Encarnacion as “Lissette” on second reference, not “Encarnacion,” in the broadcast version of Monday’s Morning Edition report about the debate in New York State over whether “housing counts as health care.”
Encarnacion was the emotional center of the piece. Her story — of suffering a traumatic brain injury and a decade of homelessness that followed — was used to spotlight how providing a home for some Medicaid recepients may in the end save states money.
Reporter Amanda Aronczyk, from WNYC, says there was discussion during the editing and that “because Lissette Encarnacion was telling a personal story, using her first name seemed appropriate.”
Though the broadcast version of the story used Encarnacion’s first name after she was introduced to listeners,
NPR.org’s editors changed the references in Aronczyk’s script from “Lissette” to “Encarnacion” before publishing the story in the Shots blog.
The NPR.org team was following NPR’s style. Like The Associated Press, we generally use last names on second reference. The typical exception comes when the subject is a juvenile.
So, for example, Trayvon Martin was “Trayvon” on second reference, while George Zimmerman was “Zimmerman.”
It’s our style, that is, except when it isn’t. Planet Money, in its conversational way, often uses first names on second reference.
Linton Week’s The Protojounalist blog has adopted first-names-on-second-reference as its style.
The Two-Way typically uses first names on second reference when it’s talking about NPR correspondents. We had a sad reminder of that today.
Those are platforms and projects with unique styles that are doing some experimenting and focus on being conversational.
Let’s get back to today’s case — a news report that opens with a human story. Referring to her as “Lissette” rather than “Encarnacion” did sound natural. And when the story is about someone who has suffered a traumatic injury, been homeless for a decade and still faces many struggles, the formality of the last name might seem harsh.
Aronczyk (or should I say Amanda?) adds that “while there is a larger debate to be had about who should be eligible for subsidized supportive housing, that was not the focus of this story and Lissette Encarnacion’s story was not intended to sway the listener on whether or not she was a worthy recipient.”
But — and there’s always a but, isn’t there? — might the way we referred to Encarnacion also add to the empathy listeners have for her? Also, couldn’t using her first name leave the impression that the reporter has developed a liking or sympathy for the subject? Are those impressions we want to give, even inadvertently, in this case? The state’s decision to spend Medicaid dollars on housing is not without its critics, as we report.
You may have figured out by now that this note isn’t going to end with a “thou shall never use first names on second reference” declaration. And I’m not saying that it was clearly wrong to refer to Encarnacion as Lissette.
The guidance is more like “thou shouldn’t … except after some discussion.” The exceptions should be rare. We do not need to add to our procedures, but it never hurts to talk first with Chuck, Gerry, their designated replacements or the Standards & Practices nudge.
(Memmos; July 28, 2014)
It seemed like an innocently sweet, feel-good story:
Weekend All Things Considered talked with Lauren Arrington and her dad about the girl’s science project. She studied lionfish and their ability to survive in water with low salinity. The experiment had attracted attention in the scientific community that studies lionfish and other invasive predators from the sea.
NPR wasn’t the first news outlet to report that Lauren had added to what’s known about lionfish. But our headline, the tone of our report and the way we characterized her accomplishment added to the buzz about her work.
Then a scientist from Florida went on Facebook to say that his name and his work on lionfish had been “intentionally left out of the stories.” Zack Jud said he didn’t want to “disparage the little girl,” but that he felt he deserved more credit for discovering that lionfish can live in estuaries.
We started getting emails and comments raising questions about whether Lauren’s work was original. It seems that hundreds of people, or more, saw Jud’s Facebook post and jumped to the conclusion that he had been wronged.
We put our own Alan Greenblatt on the case. His reporting, which included discussions with a spokeswoman for the university where Jud is a marine scientist (Jud is referring media inquiries to the school), Lauren’s father and considerable research into the research that’s been done on lionfish, leads us to the conclusion that Lauren’s work was original. What’s more, her project credited Jud for his work.
Jud was a student in Professor Craig Layman’s lab at Florida International University.
Layman, who is now at North Carolina State, has written papers with Jud. The professor lays out the timetable of Jud’s work and Lauren’s project in a blog post here.
The professor’s conclusion: “Lauren had made a contribution to science. One can argue the magnitude of this finding, but a contribution regardless.”
Layman has critical words for those of us in the media, though: “It is my opinion that this story has been blown out of proportion. ‘Ground breaking research’ is a bit of a stretch. Did it ‘shock ecologists?’ Not really.”
Layman’s criticism leads naturally to our role in all this. We take readers’ concerns about our reports seriously. When questions are raised about the accuracy or tone of our stories, we take a look at what we’ve done. And as the Ethics Handbook says:
So, the headline on our story has been changed to “Sixth-Grader’s Science Project Catches Ecologists’ Attention.” We’ve also removed one sentence: “But no one knew that they [lionfish] could live in water salinity below that.” And we’ve added an editor’s note to explain what we’ve done.
As you know, transparency is also one of our our core principles.
(Memmos; July 24, 2014)
9:50 a.m. ET. AP moves this BULLETIN and tweets it as well:
“Dutch military plane carrying bodies from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash lands in Eindhoven.”
The key words: “crash lands.”
9:53 a.m. ET. WTOP cuts and pastes that into its own tweet:
“ALERT: Dutch military plane carrying bodies from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash lands in Eindhoven.”
The station also reads that on the air.
9:59 a.m. ET. AP sends out a fix:
“CLARIFIES: Dutch military plane carrying Malaysia Airlines bodies lands in Eindhoven.”
WTOP also “clarifies” online and on the air.
We should always remember that “there but for the grace of God go we.”
We do and will make mistakes. But this is yet another reminder of why it can be so important sometimes to pause — not just before reporting, but also before tweeting and retweeting. (And, in this case, the importance perhaps of looking up at the TV and the live broadcasts of the plane landing?)
Politico’s Dylan Byers calls AP’s bulletin “the most poorly written news alert ever.”
The comments below AP’s original tweet, as you might imagine, include some rather critical remarks.
(Memmos; July 23, 2014)
We’ve had several emails from listeners who believe they heard us refer to what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 as only a “crash.”
“I feel that the use of the word crash in this case is ambiguous at best and in my mind relaxes and deflects responsibility,” one person writes.
“I am dismayed and disturbed by the way that this disaster is referred to as a ‘crash,’ ” says another. “The passengers were murdered, not merely killed. Call it what it is.”
The emailers’ basic point: The word “crash” applies when a plane comes down because of bad weather, mechanical failure or perhaps pilot error — not when it is shot out of the sky.
After looking through scripts from Newscast and the shows, it would seem that some listeners who were offended didn’t hear the words that quickly followed about what brought the plane down. But in at least one case, it wasn’t until half-way into a nearly 4-minute long conversation that we mentioned what caused the “crash” we had referred to in the introduction.
The long gap between the reference to a “crash” and the mention of what caused it makes the listeners’ concerns understandable.
Here’s some guidance, based on conversations involving several editors and a look through various approaches:
As we’ve said in other instances, it’s usually best to convey actions. So, instead of simply calling it a “crash,” describe what happened.
Dave Mattingly began a Newscast spot today this way: “FIVE DAYS AFTER THE SHOOT-DOWN OF MALAYSIA AIRLINES’ FLIGHT 17 OVER EASTERN UKRAINE …”
On Morning Edition, Steve Inskeep introduced a piece with these words: “A train arrived [today] in Ukraine’s second largest city. Its cargo was the remains of hundreds of people. They were killed when a Malaysian passenger jet was shot down last week.”
On The Two-Way, Eyder Peralta referred at the top of his post to “the downed Malaysia Airlines plane”
So, does the word “crash” have a place in this story? “Crash site” is being commonly used to describe the scene. Listeners and readers would certainly understand what we mean when we say that. But Didi Schanche offers this thought: “Wreckage field” or “debris field” are more accurate since it appears the plane did not crash in one piece — but, rather, broke up in midair.
(Memmos; July 22, 2014)
There have been a couple instances in recent days when we reported something that one person said about another person or organization — and they weren’t words of praise — without even telling listeners or readers whether we had checked with the “other side” and given them the chance to respond. The critical words went unchallenged. (These were not reports from any war zone, by the way; the stories were “domestic.”)
Please keep an eye on that. As we remind everyone in the Ethics Handbook:
“To tell the truest story possible, it is essential that we treat those we interview and report on with scrupulous fairness, guided by a spirit of professionalism. We make every effort to gather responses from those who are the subjects of criticism, unfavorable allegations or other negative assertions in our stories.”
For a look at how we deftly handled a case where the organization under scrutiny did not respond to repeated requests for comment, check this earlier note:
(Memmos; July 16, 2014)
If you haven’t had a chance yet, consider taking the time to read Thursday’s post in the Shots blog that’s headlined “Why We Published A Photo Of A 16-Year-Old In A Diaper.”
And be sure to read down into the comments thread. This is a case when the comments are an important part of the story — not because many of them contain words of praise for NPR, but because there are powerful stories there. The thread is also a wonderful example of what can happen when we respond to the things readers and listeners are saying about our work (in this case, some were critical of our decision to post the photo) and go on to explain our thinking. We brought out emotions and stories that otherwise might have been missed.
Shots co-host Nancy Shute sends along some background:
“Over the Fourth of July holiday, NPR ran a series on caregiving that originated with Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. The Shots posts generated a huge reader response, with tens of thousands of comments and likes on Facebook and NPR.org.
“Weekend associate producer Camila Domonoske noticed that one photo, of 16-year-old Justin Lee being carried by his father to the shower, was sparking passionate debate. Justin was wearing a diaper. Some readers said the photo deprived him of his dignity. Others said it captured the burden of caregiving and a father’s love for his son.
“ ‘If the CPR photographer, Andrew Nixon, were interested in talking about his experience working with the family, or if anybody on our end wanted to write about photo selection and disabled subjects more broadly, I think it could make for a great blog post,’ Camila wrote in an email to Shots.
“Great indeed. Meredith Rizzo, who edited the photos, interviewed Andrew and wrote a Q&A of their conversation for Shots.
“We thought long and hard about the headline, discussing it among editors on the science desk, with the home page editors and with Mark. In the end we decided it was best to be straight up with readers about the controversy. So, we settled on ‘Why We Published A Photo Of A 16-Year-Old In A Diaper.’
“The post sparked a big reader response. But what was most notable was the high quality of the comments. No trolls here. The first comment, a candid description of what life is like for parent caregivers from someone with a 49-year-old brother who is a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy, had 1,011 ‘likes’ as of Friday morning.
“The lesson I learned from this is that if we open the door to readers and are transparent with them about our journalistic practices, they will respond. Respect engenders respect.”
Thank you, Camila, Meredith and Nancy.
This sort of response to the audience and our followup clearly touch on several different principles discussed in the Ethics Handbook:
(Memmos, July 11, 2014)
“If you wouldn’t say it on the air, don’t say it on the Web.”
That’s been the basic guidance for quite a few years.
In reality, Twitter and other social media sites allow us to show more of our personalities than we might on the air or in a blog post.
BUT, though the words may be on “personal” Twitter or Facebook accounts, what we say can reflect on NPR and raise questions about our ability to be objective.
Matt Thompson offers a test. Before posting something about your work or a news event or an issue, even if you’re putting it on what you think of as a personal page, ask this question: “Is it helping my journalism, or is it hurting my journalism?”
“We acknowledge that nothing on the Web is truly private. Even on purely recreational or cultural sites and even if what we’re doing is personal and not identified as coming from someone at NPR, we understand that what we say and do could still reflect on NPR. So we do nothing that could undermine our credibility with the public, damage NPR’s standing as an impartial source of news, or otherwise jeopardize NPR’s reputation. In other words, we don’t behave any differently than we would in any public setting or on an NPR broadcast.”
Also, despite what many say, retweets should be viewed AS endorsements. Again, from the handbook:
“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.”
(Memmos, July 8, 2014)
Here’s something (subjectively) seems well worth reading:
“Impartial journalism,” AP standards editor Tom Kent writes, “is a profession. That means exercising a skill that’s separate from personal beliefs. Doctors may not like their patients’ politics, but they don’t kill them in the operating room. Lawyers eloquently defend even the sleaziest clients. Journalists who seek to be impartial should be able to cover people and events irrespective of personal feelings.”
“Clearly,” Tom adds, “journalists with personal beliefs that are truly going to affect their stories or photos should disclose them.”
But to those who argue that reporters need to disclose all their opinions and every detail about their lives, Tom says: “Ultimately a journalist’s credibility rests not on what he says about his beliefs or his past, but on the correctness over time of what he reports.”
Here’s his conclusion:
“There’s room out there both for defenders of impartial journalism and those who continue to insist it should be replaced by opinion-with-transparency. In a world that already has enough intolerance and polarization, we should keep testing and improving all approaches to journalism instead of slamming the door on techniques that retain significant value.”
(Memmos, July 7, 2014)
Reuters moves an alert — “Defense official: senior Taliban official killed in drone strike.”
The Associated Press says — “Pentagon official: Taliban official killed by drone strike in Pakistan.”
CBS pushes out a short story — “Top Taliban leader dies in Pakistani drone strike.”
The question arises in our newsroom.
“It’s on both wires and CBS, can we go with it?”
No. At least not based on the information we have so far. What we’re looking at, in this not unusual scenario, is likely one source who has spoken to different news outlets.
What we want, ideally, is our own on-the-record confirmation — and not from that same person who has spoken to the wires, but from others who are in a position to know.
If that’s not possible yet and the news is of such importance that we decide it needs to be reported, we still want to see multiple news reports that are based on multiple sources who are in a position to know.
Then, we “attribute, attribute and attribute some more.”
Can you come up with a scenario in which we report something that’s coming from just one source or one news outlet? I suppose. But it has to be really important news. And we don’t do that without considerable discussion involving the executive editor, the deputy managing editors, the standards & practices editor and others.
Might The Two-Way post about the report or reports before we air something? Yes. But, again, that would only happen after discussion among the top editors. And the blog would make clear to readers what we know, what we don’t know, where the information is coming from, what we’re doing to confirm it — and that if the story changes, we will update immediately. The blog has the space to do and say things that Newscast, for instance, doesn’t.
(Memmos, June 18, 2014)
(2:36 p.m. ET) After further discussion and very welcome feedback:
“Splinter” isn’t working for us either. AQ is claiming that ISIS never was one its affiliates. So it’s problematic to say that ISIS has split from AQ.
If we don’t like “inspired” and we don’t like “splinter,” what do we do?
First, consider whether there’s even any need to mention AQ. It’s very possible no reference is necessary.
Second, if AQ needs to be mentioned it’s likely going to be about how AQ has denied any ties to ISIS or to say that both organizations are on the State Department’s list of “foreign terrorist organizations.”
Third, simply describe ISIS for what it said to be: a group of Sunni “militants” or “extremists” or “radicals” or “fighters” that wants to create “an Islamic empire, or caliphate, across the Middle East.”
(12:56 p.m. ET) After discussion with the foreign desk:
Please don’t refer to ISIS as an “al-Qaida inspired” group. That makes it sound to many of us as if ISIS and al-Qaida are still connected.
If you feel you need to mention them together, a better way to refer to ISIS may be as “an al-Qaida splinter group.” That gets at the notion that they once were linked or at least in agreement, but are no longer.
Suggestions for even better alternatives are welcome.
(Memmos, June 18, 2014)
This note is NOT a directive to change the way you say “the” (unless you want to after reading on).
It’s JUST a reminder about the close attention some listeners pay to what they hear.
An email came in today that reads, in part: “I have noticed that a lot of the younger generation tends to pronounce ‘the’ the same way always. … [But] it is customary, and so much more pleasant sounding, to pronounce ‘the’ when followed by a word beginning with a vowel sound, as ‘thee.’”
Apparently, this listener heard us say “the” on the air when she thinks it should have been “thee.”
She would say, for example, it’s “thee apple fell from the tree,” not “the apple fell from the tree.”
I don’t remember being told about this in elementary school, but others here do. Our preferred dictionary backs up the emailer:
“the: before consonants usually thə, before vowels usually thē.”
NPR hosts and correspondents try hard to say words correctly and we give all sorts of guidance about pronunciations.
Still, a “thou must say thee” prime directive seems like overkill. As Jonathan Kern’s Sound Reporting says, radio reporters “need to be themselves, and to read with the same intensity and cadence and music in their voices that they exhibit outside the studio.” Thinking too much about the way to say “the” might mess things up.
But the email underscores how even the littlest of things matter to listeners and readers. The big things, of course, matter a lot.
Now, about “nil” vs. “zero.” …
Maybe we won’t go there.
(Memmos, June 16, 2014)
Two questions came up over the weekend because of news events.
- What do we call that body of water between Iran and Saudi Arabia?
- What is Kurdistan?
I don’t see any indication that we’ve issued any rulings of our own. So after a quick consult with the Hub, AP’s guidance applies:
“Persian Gulf – Use this long-established name for the body of water off the southern coast of Iran.
“Some Arab nations call it the Arabian Gulf. Use Arabian Gulf only in direct quotations and explain in the text that the body of water is more commonly known as the Persian Gulf.”
Kurdistan – (Source: Webster’s New World College Dictionary: kʉr ´ di stan , stän place region in SW Asia inhabited chiefly by Kurds, occupying SE Turkey, N Iraq, & NW Iran.”
(Memmos, June 16, 2014)
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat in Tuesday’s primary has brought the immigration issue into the news again because of the role it played in the outcome of that race. His opponent accused Cantor of supporting “amnesty” (which Cantor denied). Pundits say Cantor’s defeat means there’s no chance Congress will take up immigration legislation this year.
As we discussed the news today, it became apparent that our guidance on the use of terms such as “illegal immigration,” “illegal immigrants” and “undocumented immigrants” has not been consistent.
Here’s some new guidance for both on-air and online references.
In other words, if we’re referring to a general class of actions that include entering the country without going through Customs or staying in the country past a visa’s expiration — the types of things at the core of the debate over immigration policies — “illegal immigration” can be used when discussing the issue.
But we avoid phrases such as “illegal immigrant[s]” and “undocumented immigrant[s].”
First, we can’t always determine if a specific person or even a group is or is not in the country legally or without documents. So the first words in those phrases — “illegal” and “undocumented” — are assumptions that may not be accurate when used that way.
Second, the words “illegal” and “undocumented” are labels that are being applied by those on both sides of the debate. It is generally best to avoid labeling people, especially with terms that partisans have chosen. We determine what words we use, not those who have agendas.
The better approach takes a few more words. Instead of simply saying these are illegal immigrants, we should describe the kinds of things they’ve done — “overstayed visas,” “scaled fences at the border to get into the U.S.,” “paid a smuggler to be driven here in the back of a produce truck,” or perhaps simply “people who are believed to have entered the country illegally.”
What about “undocumented?” It’s the word that some advocates favor. But as the AP notes, “it has a flavor of euphemism.” It’s not always accurate either. Many of those who are in the country illegally have some sort of documentation — passports, expired visas, drivers’ licenses, Social Security cards, school IDs, etc.
Another word to avoid: “aliens.” The Times calls it “sinister-sounding.” Websters suggests that in this context an alien is someone who “bears political allegiance” to another country — which in many cases would just be wrong when describing this group of people.
Finally, we do not refer to the group of people as “illegals.” Again, that’s labeling without giving context.
– “Illegal immigration” is acceptable when discussing the issue.
– “Illegal immigrant” and “illegal immigrants” are to be avoided.
– “Undocumented immigrants” is to be avoided.
– “Illegals” is not acceptable.
– “Aliens” is not acceptable.
How this guidance could be applied:
On the air today we said: Immigration “was a big issue in the race. Conservatives simply didn’t believe Cantor’s claims that he opposed amnesty for illegal immigrants.”
Another way of saying that: Immigration “was a big issue in the race. Conservatives simply didn’t believe Cantor’s claims that he opposed amnesty for anyone who may be here illegally.”
Yes, we are making things a bit more difficult and it might seem like we’re parsing words too carefully. Suggestions of better alternatives are always welcome.
Related note: We realize our headline writers face a particularly tough challenge when dealing with stories about this issue. The key may be to focus on the issue, not the individuals, when crafting headlines.
Newscast asked for “wrong way, right way” scripts. Here we go:
Immigration policy is on center stage again after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat Tuesday in his Republican primary. NPR’s Mark Memmott explains why the Virginia congressman’s surprising loss has put the issue back in the political spotlight:
College professor Dave Brat accused Cantor of favoring amnesty for most illegal immigrants. Cantor said he DOESN’T support forgiveness for illegals. But Brat’s charge stuck — he beat Cantor by more than 20 percentage points. Analysts say it was the illegal aliens issue that sank Cantor.
Now, House Republicans are expected to put legislation aimed at overhauling immigration policy on the backburner, says Republican pollster Frank Luntz:
“The GOP is going to hit ‘pause.’ ”
But Democrats may seize on any GOP reluctance to take up the issue, says Democratic pollster Mark Mehlman:
“Any delay is not going to please Hispanic voters.”
According to the Department of Homeland Security, there are about 11 million illegal immigrants in the nation.
Mark Memmott, NPR News
Immigration policy is on center stage again after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat Tuesday in his Republican primary. NPR’s Korva Coleman explains why the Virginia congressman’s surprising loss has put the issue back in the political spotlight:
College professor Dave Brat accused Cantor of favoring amnesty for some who are in the U.S. illegally. Cantor said he DOESN’T support that. But Brat’s charge stuck — he beat Cantor by more than 20 percentage points. Analysts say it was the amnesty accusation that sank Cantor.
Now, House Republicans are expected to put legislation aimed at overhauling immigration policy on the backburner, says Republican pollster Frank Luntz:
“The GOP is going to hit ‘pause.’ ”
But Democrats may seize on any GOP reluctance to take up the issue, says Democratic pollster Mark Mehlman:
“Any delay is not going to please Hispanic voters.”
According to the Department of Homeland Security, about 11 million people are in the U.S. illegally.
Korva Coleman, NPR News
(Memmos, June 12, 2014)
Everyone’s thoughts would be appreciated on this:
Over the weekend a piece on WESAT had, in the show’s first feed, a brief bit of “Taps” playing underneath while the NPR correspondent described the scene in Normandy.
A producer thought there might be a problem, and our “Style, Grammar & Usage” Wiki confirmed there was:
“TAPS music: Do not talk over ‘Taps.’ If you use the beginning bars, please fade down and out. You may start speaking on the fade but do not allow it to stay under you as you read your lines. If you use the final bars of taps, please be sure to end speaking before you bring them up. Do not use as a bed under your read. (Dave Pignanelli, 11/11/11)”
We devote a section of our Ethics Handbook to “Respect.” The guidance on “Taps,” which came after listener input, is in line with our concern about showing proper respect. Military personnel know that when “Taps” is played, they are to “render a salute from the beginning until the conclusion of the song. Civilians should place their right hand over their heart during this time.” Silence is expected.
The question is, are their other types of occasions or ceremonies that might lead us to refrain from talking over the sound?
– The reading of names on 9/11? We have talked over them.
– The choir at a service for victims of the Boston bombings? We’ve talked over them too.
I’m not suggesting we need a list or some sort of rule. But as I said at the top, thoughts would be welcome.
(Memmos, June 11, 2014)
If you haven’t a chance yet, it’s worth taking the time to listen to and read about Somaly Mam and the “slippery truth” beneath her story.
As he reported, Mam “is one of the world’s most compelling activists, brave and beautiful, and her list of supporters is long and formidable.” She fights against sex trafficking in Cambodia and has won praise from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “and actresses Meg Ryan, Susan Sarandon and Shay Mitchell, as well as New York Times Pulitzer-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof.”
But it also appears, Marks reported, that “key parts of her story aren’t true.” That, in turn, has raised questions about the pieces done by Kristof and other journalists — who reported as fact the tales Mam told of being forced into prostitution and the accounts from some of the young women she claimed to have saved.
Margaret Sullivan, the Times‘ public editor, wrote this week that Kristof “owes it to his readers to explain, to the best of his ability and at length, what happened and why.”
Kristof has said he is “reluctant to be an arbiter of her back story when I just don’t know what is true and false among the conflicting statements. I am continuing to poke around.”
The subject line on this note contrasts being cynical with being skeptical. Editors have said for years that journalists should not be cynics — distrustful, sarcastic or mocking. But journalists should be skeptics — doubters who check things out, ask more questions and try to poke holes in stories.
Or, as our guidelines suggest, we do not “just spread information.” We are “careful and skeptical.”
(Memmos, June 6, 2014)
The switch was thrown this morning and corrections are now appearing at the end of our stories and posts. All of those from the past have been moved as well.
A couple things from last month’s email about this change are worth repeating:
– This isn’t happening because we think mistakes are minor matters. But experience has shown that most of our errors, thankfully, are of the variety that do not significantly detract from the meaning of our reports.
– Major mistakes (in the judgment of editors) will be flagged with an editor’s note at the top of a page.
– We may also experiment with adding a short note near or at the top of posts and pages to say something like “this story has been updated.”
– This doesn’t change the process of identifying mistakes and making corrections. The memo that Chuck sent around earlier this year — “How We Make Corrections” — still applies.
(Memmos, June 4, 1014)
The case of the two Wisconsin girls who are accused of stabbing another 12-year-old has again raised the issue of whether to name minors accused of such crimes.
We agree with AP’s thinking:
“AP does not name juveniles accused of crimes unless there are overriding needs, such as warning the public about dangerous situations, e.g., a manhunt. In exceptional cases, juveniles charged as adults for particularly serious crimes may be named in news stories, but only after clearance by senior AP editors.”
In the Wisconsin case, the girls have been charged as adults and their names have been reported. But it seems clear their attorneys will push to have the case moved to juvenile court. This is an instance where we conclude that they’re too young to automatically start naming them just because they’ve been charged as adults. Also, we don’t believe a national audience is necessarily interested in the names of these girls.
The key words in the guidance are that such juveniles ‘may’ be named, but ‘only after’ consultation with senior editors.
In a post or story, please add language to the effect that “though the girls have been named in some news reports, NPR is not doing so because of their ages.” You might also say something like “NPR only reports the names of minors charged with crimes after careful consideration of the information’s news value.”
(Memmos, June 4, 1014)
In Part One of his reports on “turmoil at the Times,” David Folkenflik said this on the air today:
“Jill Abramson would not comment for this story — but she told several associates that her rapport with Sulzberger was fraying. In recent performance reviews he had given her poor marks for alienating other senior editors.
“This story relies on interviews with two dozen current and former colleagues and associates of Abramson and Baquet. Those interviews yield a portrait of Abramson as a brilliant, brusque and occasionally brutal news executive.”
Online, David reveals more about the reporting process:
“Through an associate, Abramson declined to comment for this story, which relies on interviews with two dozen current and former colleagues and associates of Abramson and Baquet. Almost none were willing to speak on the record, as they either still work at the newspaper or still have professional ties to one or more of the figures at the heart of the controversy. In addition, Sulzberger asked senior editors not to speak about what happened — even with their staffs — and told journalists there not to go looking for answers, though his paper has provided some coverage.
“Nonetheless, those interviews yield a complex portrait of Abramson as a brilliant, brusque and occasionally brutal news executive.”
A case can be made that it would have been good to include some of this line — “almost none were willing to speak on the record, as they either still work at the newspaper or still have professional ties to one or more of the figures at the heart of the controversy” — in the on-air report. But the Morning Edition audience certainly got the message: David spoke to many different individuals who were in a position to know about Abramson and did his best to get her to talk as well.
The language both on-air and online delivers on one of the goals outlined in our guidelines:
“Describe anonymous sources as clearly as you can without identifying them.”
The language also delivers when it comes to our goals regarding transparency.
“We reveal as much as we practically can about how we discover and verify the facts we present.”
Part Two of the reports is due on All Things Considered later today.
For another look at transparency when it comes to why we felt we had to grant some anonymity, see Ari Shapiro’s recent Morning Edition piece “Corruption In Ukraine Robs HIV Patients Of Crucial Medicine.” He introduced listeners to “a pale middle-aged man with blue-gray eyes. The man asks us not to use his name. He was already fired from one job when his boss learned that he has HIV.”
None of this means that it’s open season and anonymous sources should suddenly start popping up all over. Click here for our guidelines on their use.
(Memmos, May 30, 2014)
Some news outlets put unidentified folks on the air or in their stories saying things like “that tornado sounded like a freight train” or “them politicians are all alike” or “reading Memmott’s notes is worse than going to the dentist.”
NPR doesn’t do that (mostly). If we talk to people for a piece that will be broadcast and/or put on the Web, we get their names, ages, occupations, hometowns, etc. If there’s a strong reason for giving anonymity, we have guidelines to follow and we have discussions before doing so.
The same guidelines should apply when it comes to using comments we see on social media.
A Newscast spot Wednesday about the death of Maya Angelou included quotes from two tweets by individuals we didn’t try to identify.
Now, this wasn’t the worst infraction in the world. They were words of praise. The messages were in line with many others posted on Twitter.
But, there really is no difference between the unnamed person in the street and the unnamed person on Twitter or other social media. We don’t know anything about the tweeters. We don’t know if they really believe what they wrote. We don’t know their ages. We were basically putting information from random, anonymous individuals on the air.
Using tweets or other things we find on social media that way puts us on the old slippery slope:
If we quote an anonymous tweet in a spot, why not use an anonymous voice? If we can do this when they’re words of praise, why not when the tweets are attacks?
It’s worth noting, as well, that in the Angelou spot we probably could have characterized the tone of the Twitter conversations and cited some tweets or comments posted by people whose identities we could report because they have been verified.
Which leads me to three pieces of hopefully helpful information.
– First, check out the Verification Handbook. It’s a relatively new site edited by Craig Silverman of the Poynter Institute. There are tips and links to tools for verifying “user-generated content” such as Tweets and emails, and for verifying images and videos.
– Third, Pam Fessler offers some advice about things she does to check the stories and people she encounters when reporting about poverty:
“It’s something I worry about a lot because I use so many personal stories in my poverty reporting. … So I try to make sure that most of the people I profile have been referred to me by someone else who I trust for one reason or another (caseworkers, etc.).
“I also find it helps to talk to people several times — and for long interviews, in their homes if possible — because I’ve learned on this beat stories change the longer you talk with someone. This gives me a better idea what to believe or not to believe.
“But it’s certainly not foolproof. So I almost always Google the names of people I profile and then create a Google alert for that name while I’m writing and producing the story, just in case there’s some last-minute development (like an arrest).”
(Memmos, May 29, 2014)
The murders Friday night in Santa Barbara have once again raised questions about whether we need to keep using words such as “alleged” or “suspected” when reporting about a now-deceased person who has been identified by authorities as the killer.
Here’s my take:
At some point — and we reached that fairly quickly in this instance — it just makes common sense to stop inserting those words.
And as long as we properly attribute what we’re reporting, in a case such as this we don’t need to keep saying and writing things such as “alleged.”
Several constructions could be used, including:
– “The young man who went on a killing spree in Santa Barbara, identified by authorities as Elliot Rodger … ”
– “Elliot Rodger, who police say killed six people before taking his own life …”
– “The young man who investigators say murdered six people Friday in California before killing himself …”
Some questions to ask before any shift in language:
– Has the person been positively and publicly identified as the killer by proper authorities?
– Have authorities ruled out the possibility of someone else being involved?
– Were there many witnesses? (In other words, did dozens or more see this unfold?)
– Is there considerable video evidence? And, as in this case, a long manifesto?
– Has the inevitable confusion that comes when such events happen been resolved? Often, for example, witnesses and authorities initially get things wrong — including the name of the person responsible.
This is not to say that it necessarily hurts to be cautious and slip in an “alleged” or “suspected.” But as we’ve discovered now several times, at some point it begins to raise more questions in listeners’ and readers’ minds if we keep using such words when it’s become obvious that the person responsible has been identified and is dead. A reasonable consumer of our news might wonder if we’re implying he didn’t do it.
What about a person who’s still alive, such as the young man who will be tried for the Boston bombings? He has not been convicted. Obviously, we can’t declare he’s guilty. That’s for a jury to do. We can keep referring to him as a suspect and report about what he’s alleged to have done. But common sense applies there as well. We might say, for example:
– “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who goes on trial today for the Boston bombings …”
– “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who federal prosecutors say conspired with his brother to …”
– “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who could receive the death penalty if he’s convicted of …”
– “Prosecutors say Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother …”
A related note: It isn’t accurate to refer to Elliot Rodger only as a “shooter.” Police say his first three victims were stabbed to death.
But editors here have also been discussing whether “shooter” is even the right word to use about those responsible for mass murders involving guns. I’d like to hear whether you think it can sometimes sound like too “light” a description for such a person or whether it’s one of several words — including “gunman,” “attacker,” and “killer” — that can work interchangeably.
(Memmos, May 27, 2014)
In at least one way, NPR’s sort-of been blogging since before the Internet was created. After all, isn’t a two-way with an author or a reporter or a government official something of an audio blog post?
When we begin and end those conversations, we tell listeners about the person we’re interviewing. Here’s how Audie Cornish did it Wednesday during a two-way about tensions between the U.S. and Russian space programs:
At the top: “For more on what this means, we turn to John Logsdon. He’s the founder of and professor emeritus at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.”
At the end: “That’s John Logsdon. He’s founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. Thank you so much for coming in to speak with us.”
I bring this up because we need to make sure we tell our online audience who is writing for us.
Staff bylines should automatically link to their NPR.org bios (bugs in our system may prevent that from happening in some cases, we’re going to work on that).
But NPR staffers who don’t have online bios and any outside contributors need to be described on the page or post where their work appears. In most cases, the best way to handle it will be a note at the end of the page.
Here’s an example of what to write, from a recent Code Switch post:
Camila Domonoske is an editor and producer at NPR. Her writing on literature, culture, politics and history has appeared on NPR, The Washington Independent Review of Books, The New Republic and The Nation. You can find her thoughts about poetry, bikes, baking and cat videos on twitter (@camilareads) and tumblr (camilashares).
Wright Bryan suggests putting a horizontal rule between the text and bio, as in this 13.7 post:
In cases where someone becomes a regular contributor, the way to go would seem to be to create an online bio (as we’ve done for regular on-air contributors) and link the byline to it. Otherwise, just be sure to paste that person’s description at the bottom of each page.
We can experiment, of course, with putting the bios higher up.
If any questions come up about how a contributor should be described, especially if that person has some concerns about how much should be said, please see Chuck Holmes, Gerry Holmes, Scott Montgomery or me.
(Memmos, May 22, 2014)
Saying it has “discovered multiple instances of plagiarism by Marie-Louise Gumuchian, a former CNN news editor,” the cable news network said today that it has terminated her employment.
Poynter has done some digging and reports that most of the material Gumuchian allegedly lifted came from Reuters, where she previously worked.
What do we say about plagiarism? Let’s go to the handbook:
“Plagiarism – taking someone else’s work and intentionally presenting it as if it is your own – is theft. … Our standard is to make clear to our audience where the information we bring them comes from.
“That means no material from another source should ever be included verbatim, or substantially so, without attribution. This includes material from Associated Press reports. We do not, for example, produce news ‘spots’ or other pieces that closely resemble wire service stories. NPR’s standard is that our writing should be our own. There is no excuse for writing that repeats the wire stories that we use word-for-word, or nearly so.
“It also means that whenever we present someone’s words verbatim in text, we encase them within quotes or, in an audio report, make it clear that we are using the source’s wording. If we paraphrase for space or clarity, we transparently credit the source of the ideas. And we don’t lightly edit quotes just to avoid putting them in quotes; we use brackets, ellipses and other signals to make clear we’ve changed what someone said.”
There’s also good material in this Poynter piece: “How to handle plagiarism and fabrication allegations.”
(Memmos, May 16, 2014)
“We do our best to report thoroughly and tell stories comprehensively. We won’t always have enough time or space in one story to say everything we would like or quote everyone we would wish to include. But errors of omission and partial truths can inflict great damage on our credibility, and stories delivered without the context to fully understand them are incomplete. Our journalism includes diverse voices that reflect our society and divergent views that contribute to informed debate. When we find that we can’t deliver all the answers to important questions, we explain what we don’t yet know and work to fill any gaps in our reporting.”
I deliberately bold-faced that last sentence. You’ll see why in a second.
Check out how John Burnett and Morning Edition handled the completeness issue Thursday in this piece: “U.S. Border Patrol’s Response To Violence In Question.”
John was following up on his report from two weeks ago about the U.S. Border Patrol’s use of force along the border with Mexico. The voices we heard from included a lawyer for families who have sued the Border Patrol, an Arizona Republic reporter who has investigated the incidents and an analyst with an immigrant advocacy group.
And what about the Border Patrol? John got to the agency’s former chief of staff, who offered perspective on the “very difficult environment” in which the agents work. Then — and here’s where our guidance on explaining to listeners what we’re doing to get questions answered — he made it clear that we have tried and will continue to try to get the agency to talk to us:
“Customs and Border Protection is considering a standing request by NPR to interview a top agency official regarding use-of-force policy.”
Steve Inskeep then wrapped things up this way:
“As John mentioned, we’re still working to schedule a talk with a top Border Patrol official. Tomorrow, we hear from two border congressmen pushing the agency for greater accountability.”
That strikes me as very simple, direct, helpful language. We told listeners we’re doing what we can to get officials to discuss this with us and that we’re staying on the story. I know we do this kind of thing all the time, but just thought it’s worth reminding ourselves how important such efforts are.
As the headline on this post implies, I’d like to pass along more examples of interesting and effective ways we’ve handled various issues, on-air and online. Send me your thoughts.
(Memmos, May 15, 2014)
Back in the day, if I was speaking to a journalism class I’d start with this:
“I’m from USA Today, so I’ll be brief.”
It always killed. Seriously! Maybe the kids just laughed at how lame that line is.
Such memories may be why my interest was piqued today when Krishnadev Calamur sent along a story headlined “New AP guidelines: Keep it brief.”
The AP’s editors have decided that the news outlets the wire service supplies “do not have the resources to trim the excess to fit shrinking news holes.” So, the AP is telling its correspondents to keep most stories between 300 and 500 words.
There’s also a case to be made, AP’s executive editor Kathleen Carroll tells The Washington Post, that the wire service should be “more disciplined about what needs to be said.”
This does raise the issue of whether some stories might lack some context.
But Poynter is using the news to remind readers about Roy Peter Clark’s book How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times. The introduction is posted here. Clark cites Scott Simon as one champion of tight writing:
“Consider these historical and cultural documents:
The Hippocratic oath
The Twenty-third Psalm
The Lord’s Prayer
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18
The preamble to the Constitution
The Gettysburg Address
The last paragraph of Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech
“I once exchanged messages with NPR’s Scott Simon, who shared this important idea, which he learned from his stepfather: If you add up the words in these documents, the sum will be fewer than a thousand, 996 by my count. Show me any number of pictures as powerful as those seven documents.”
Our Ethics Handbook doesn’t specifically say “keep it short.” It does, though, go on at some length about excellence in storytelling. There’s good advice there from Jonathan Kern, who suggests that since it’s our job “to make the complex clear,” we need to distill information for our audiences.
With that, I’d better stop. I’m at 344 words.
(Memmos, May 13, 2014)
So, I said I’d send out a note every once in a while. And since I’m suffering a bit from blogging withdrawal, here goes. I hope you’ll indulge me for just a minute.
Emailer ‘MGeewax@npr.org’ pointed me to a tweet from Automotive News journalist Nick Bunkley:
#Chrysler has tablet computers set out for all reporters. “The tablet is our gift to you.” #ethicsschmethics
That led me to this post today on Jalopnik:
“Fiat Chrysler Offered Every Journalist A Free Tablet Yesterday”
I recommend reading both the piece and the comments section (yes, comments threads sometimes do add value). In this case, the postings veer into the world of free shrimp. Some are pretty funny. But several also get into some interesting ethical issues.
Skeptics may say this sort of thing happens all the time and that this note is just an excuse to point to our Ethics Handbook and in particular its section on “how to handle gifts, speaking fees and honorariums.” What? Me? Resort to a shameless plug?
But seriously, folks. If you see or hear things you think might be worth sharing, send them along.
Don’t expect to get a free tablet in return, though. (Sorry, Marilyn.)
(Memmos, May 7, 2014)