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Guidance

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NPR’s Ethics Handbook is organized around 10 sections that focus on the core principles that drive our journalism. There are discussions and guidance about the role and proper use of social media throughout.

This special section collects the discussions and guidance about social media. It begins with a general discussion about excellence in social media practices, and moves on through important topics such as respect, honesty and accuracy. There is some overlap between sections, which should not be surprising given the way social media have spread through our culture.

INTRODUCTION: The more things change …

In 2012, when the Handbook was published and the special section was created, the rewards and risks associated with social media were called “new and unfamiliar.”

Five years later, NPR journalists are active on social media and those rewards and risks aren’t new or unfamiliar any more. In fact, one unpleasant aspect has become all too familiar: While NPR journalists generally enjoy their interactions with the public on social media, they have also been the targets of abuse on Twitter and other platforms. We’ve added new guidance on how to handle such situations.

But even as new social media tools and challenges pop up, and as old ones evolve, our core principles still drive the way we should conduct ourselves in the digital world.

That’s why we continue to say:

“Conduct yourself online just as you would in any other public circumstances as an NPR journalist. Treat those you encounter online with fairness, honesty and respect, just as you would offline. Verify information before passing it along. Be honest about your intent when reporting. Avoid actions that might discredit your professional impartiality. And always remember, you represent NPR.”

Though the core principles haven’t changed, we’ve gone through the entries about social media and updated them where we felt it was necessary. For comparison purposes, the 2012 versions are here.    

Because the social media landscape is constantly changing, there will surely be more updates in coming years. We’ll also continue to post guidance in the “Memmos” that are attached to the Ethics Handbook. The posts already there include:

-        “Social Media Rules Of The Road On Election Day

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

-        “Reminder: There Is No Privacy On The Web, And ‘Personal’ Pages Are Not Safety Zones

The Ethics Handbook and the social media guidance in it are living documents. We invite suggestions and welcome feedback.

Mark Memmott, Wright Bryan, Lori Todd

EXCELLENCE

Social media platforms are great tools when handled correctly. 

Social networking sites, such as FacebookTwitter and Slack have become an integral part of everyday life for people around the world. As NPR grows to serve an audience that extends well beyond radio listeners, social media are an increasingly important way of connecting with our audiences. Properly used, social networking sites can be valuable parts of our newsgathering and reporting kits because they can speed research and quickly extend a reporter’s contacts. They are also useful transparency tools — allowing us to open up our reporting and editing processes when appropriate. We encourage our journalists to take advantage of them.

But reporting in social media spaces requires the same diligence we exercise when reporting in other environments. When NPR bloggers post about breaking news, they do not cite anonymous posts on social media sites — though they may use information they find there to guide their reporting. They carefully attribute the information they cite and are clear about what NPR has and has not been able to confirm.

When NPR correspondents go on the air they may mention discussions they’ve seen on social media sites as reflecting in part the tone or mood or general reaction to an event. But they realize that is not the same as a scientific survey of public opinion or a substitute for the kind of in-depth reporting that leads to a deep understanding of a subject.

And all NPR journalists understand that to get the most out of social media we need to understand those communities. So we respect their cultures and treat those we encounter online with the same courtesy and understanding as anyone we deal with in the offline world. We do not impose ourselves on such sites. We are guests and behave as such.

RESPECT

Words matter. Try to strike the right tone.

NPR has always tried to be engaging, entertaining and informative – while being civil. We’ve never shouted at our guests. We seek answers, not confrontations, when we conduct interviews. We are firm when we need to be, but never mean.

We take the same attitude to social media. We shouldn’t SHOUT IN ALL CAPS when we’re angry. We shouldn’t take the bait from trolls and sink to their level. We don’t use foul language. We pause to re-read our responses before hitting “reply.”

As we’ve said before:

“We’re professional communicators at a major news organization. What we say and write in public reflects on NPR. No matter what platform we’re using or where we’re appearing, we should live up to our own standards.”

Except …

There is room to be a little looser with our language on social media. There are words and phrases that, if written with the right tone, are OK. Take “badass,” for example. Used as a compliment, it’s a wonderful word.

Tone and intent are critical. Words that cut when used in anger may spark laughs in other contexts – especially when poking fun at ourselves.

How we treat each other.

We sometimes want to write about NPR on social media. Sharing our colleagues’ work is encouraged. Pointing to NPR’s coverage of news events is of course perfectly fine. But when it comes to criticism of the work done by NPR’s journalists, we treat our colleagues as we hope they would treat us. If we have something critical to say, we say it to their face – not on social media.

We also treat each other with respect when using social media platforms such as Slack to communicate internally. When in doubt, it’s always wise to ask a few questions: Would I say that to this person’s face? Would I say that in front of my co-workers? How would I feel if that was said – in public — to me?

Side note: When posting about NPR’s work, do respect its copyrights. For example, it is OK to link from your blog or Facebook profile to a story of yours on the NPR site, but you should not copy the full text or audio onto a personal site or Web page. Assume the terms of use that apply to the public also apply to your usage in these situations.

How we deal with abusive behavior by others. 

Journalists are just like those in other professions. We enjoy being praised when we do good work. But unlike those in occupations that aren’t in the public eye, journalists have to accept that being criticized is part of the job. We know that the words we write and say, the photos and videos we post, the charts we produce and – yes – the things we say in social media may anger others. If we’re willing to report facts that may cast public officials in an unfavorable light and are willing to dig into controversial topics, we have to be willing to put up with some pushback from the public.

We do not, however, have to put up with threatening or abusive communications from those who don’t like our reporting. We do not have to put up being personally attacked because of our gender, race, religion or any other identifying factor.

The guiding principles when such abuse comes in are “don’t feed the trolls” and “don’t respond in kind.” This is a classic example of “easier said than done,” of course. We’re human. We want to fire back.

Here are two other approaches:

If the message is unpleasant but not threatening and is about work you’ve done, try responding with something along these lines – “I appreciate constructive feedback. Can you tell me more about what concerned you?” If the person responds constructively, you’ve got a conversation going. If the person continues to be unpleasant or becomes abusive, do not continue the conversation. Instead, move to our next suggestion.

If a message feels threatening, do not respond to it. Instead, forward it to our internal distribution list “NPRThreats.” It will be read by our Legal, Security and News Operations executives. They will take appropriate actions and keep you updated about what they’re doing.

Social media can be wonderful places to spread our journalism and hear from the public. But it’s become increasingly clear that social media communities are also places were some people’s darker sides emerge. NPR journalists should know that there is support available to them when they come under attack.

We are considerate of community norms. 

We know that different communities – online and offline – have their own culture, etiquette, and norms, and that we should be respectful of them. Our ethics don’t change in different circumstances, but our decisions might.

Awareness is critical. Strive to be knowledgeable about each social media platform’s culture, and be attuned to gaps in your understanding. Your colleagues can be a terrific resource to help you get up to speed on unfamiliar settings.

Consider as well how your conduct in a community will affect your reporting. As you adjust behaviors such as language and dress in different situations, think about what might be most helpful or harmful to effective reporting on social media.

Also, appreciate that journalism can be an intrusive act, and conduct yourself as a decent guest of the community where you’re reporting. If it was customary to remove your shoes upon entering a building, you would. It’s appropriate to follow the indigenous customs on social media as well. 

ACCURACY

Don’t just spread information. Be careful. Be skeptical. Add context. 

When determining whether to pass along information being reported on social media sites by other news outlets or individuals, be thoughtful. When we point to what others are saying, in the eyes of many we are effectively reporting that information ourselves. This is true whether the platform is an official NPR social media account or a post to an NPR journalist’s personal account.

Reporting about what’s being posted on social media can give our listeners and readers valuable insights into the day’s news. We encourage you to do it, with these guidelines in mind.

One key is to be transparent about what we’re doing. We tell readers what has and hasn’t been confirmed. Here’s an example of language we use:

“This is a breaking news story. As often happens in situations like these, some information reported earlier may turn out to be inaccurate. We’ll move quickly to correct the record and we’ll only point to the best information we have at the time.”

A Twitter-sized version might read like this:

“We’re following the news from Gotham City. We’ll focus on authoritative sources, update as things change and correct any misinformation.”

If we are retweeting information, it’s because we think it’s of value. We know that doing this can make it look like NPR is vouching for what’s been said. That’s why we use the “quote tweet” function to say more, add context and make clear that we’re pointing to something that’s been posted by another person or news outlet. Keep this in mind: A retweet may be seen as an endorsement; don’t assume it’s not going to be viewed that way.

We challenge those putting information on social media to provide evidence. We raise doubts and ask questions when we have concerns — sometimes “knocking down” rumors is of enormous value to our readers. And we always ask an important question: are we about to spread a thinly-sourced rumor or are we passing on valuable and credible (even if unverified) information in a transparent manner with appropriate caveats?

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

When in doubt, consult the Engagement Team. 

Of course, it’s not always obvious how to apply journalistic principles to the social media arena. One resource available to NPR journalists is our “Engagement Team.” Its members have expertise in collecting information from a variety of sources, in establishing to the best of their ability the credibility of those voices and the information they are posting, and in analyzing the material they use. Always make clear to listeners and readers what has been obtained from our original reporting and what we’ve found posted in social media outlets. And to the greatest practical extent, spell out how the information was checked and why we consider the sources credible. We may also invite our audience to assist in our efforts to monitor and verify what’s being reported on social media. Such crowdsourcing does not determine what NPR journalists report, but it does add to our knowledge. The team can be reached via email (look for “homepageeditors” in the NPR internal email address book).

Follow up offline when appropriate.

It’s not hard to fake an identity online. Tonal or contextual nuances can be lost in online exchanges. So when appropriate, clarify and confirm information collected online through phone and in-person interviews. For example, when a social media posting is itself news, contact the source to confirm the origin of the information and attain a better understanding of its meaning. We must try to be as sophisticated in our use of social media as our audience and users are. The Engagement Team is a key asset in this effort.

Take care in using images that have been posted online. 

In considering whether to use photos and video that are being posted online by individuals, do your best to verify their accuracy and when in doubt, do not publish them.

Images can be manipulated. Old video can be reposted and made to appear as if it’s new. Photos or video taken in one part of the world can be repackaged and portrayed as being from somewhere else. Again, when in doubt, leave them out.

As with all information, bring a healthy skepticism to images you encounter, starting from the assumption that all such images or video are not authentic. Then, with guidance from NPR’s Multimedia and Engagement Teams (and if legal issues are involved, NPR’s Legal team as well), work through a series of questions, including:

  • When was it posted?
  • Do the images or video match what has been distributed by professionals (wire services, news networks, etc.)?
  • Is it original work or copies of what others have done?
  • Does this person have the legal right to distribute the work and has he made the materials available for others to use?

More resources: The National Press Photographers Association’s code of ethics is posted online.

HONESTY

We are open about who we are.

If as part of our work we are doing anything on social media or other online forums, we do not hide the fact that we work for NPRWe do not use pseudonyms when doing such work.

NPR journalists may, in the course of their work, “follow” or “friend” Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and other social media sites created by political parties and advocacy groups. But we do so to monitor their news feeds, not to become participants, and we follow and friend sites created by advocates from all sides of the issues. It’s as basic a tool as joining mailing lists.

If in their personal lives NPR journalists join online forums and social media sites, they may follow the conventions of those outlets and use screen names that do not identify who they are. But we do not use information gathered from our interactions on such sites in our reports for NPR without identifying ourselves to those involved and seeking their permission to be quoted or cited. If we get ideas for stories, we treat the information just as we would anything we see in the “real world” — as a starting point that needs to be followed by open, honest reporting.

Finally, 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.

We probably couldn’t hide anyway, because there is no privacy on the Web.

Imagine, if you will, an NPR legal correspondent named Sue Zemencourt. She’s a huge fan of Enormous University’s basketball team and loves to chat online about EU. She posts comments on blogs under the screen name “enormous1.” One day, an equally rabid fan of Ginormous State (“ginormous1”) posts obnoxious comments about EU.

Sue snaps. Expletives and insults fly from her fingers on to the webpage. They’re so out-of-line that the blog blocks her from submitting any more comments — and discovers that her IP address leads back to NPR. The blog’s host posts that “someone at NPR is using language that the FCC definitely would not approve of” and describes what was said. Things go viral.

The basically good person that she is, Sue publicly acknowledges and apologizes for her mistake. But that doesn’t stop The Daily Show from satirizing about the “NPRNormous Explosion.”

Damage done.

Be circumspect about your behavior, even when the exchange feels private or anonymous. Even an email to a trusted recipient can be made public, with or without the recipient’s knowledge or consent.

Online sources should be on-the-record too. 

Many contacts with sources are made online — via emails and social media sites. As we discuss in the guidelines about accuracy and transparency, NPR pushes to keep its interviews on-the-record. The same is true of our “virtual” interactions with sources. We make that clear to potential sources when we reach out to them.

ACCOUNTABILITY

Social media outlets are public spaces. 

We know that everything we write or receive on a social media site is public. Anyone with access to the Web can potentially see what we’re doing. And regardless of how careful we are in trying to keep them separate, our professional lives and our personal lives overlap when we’re online.

The line between private and public activity has been blurred by these tools. Information from a Facebook page, blog entries and tweets — even if they’re intended to be personal messages to friends or family — can be easily circulated beyond the intended audiences. The content, therefore, represents us and NPR to the outside world — as do our radio pieces and stories for NPR.org. This applies to the people and organizations we choose to “friend” or “like” online as well. Those are content choices as much as a message or blog post. As in all of all reporting, the NPR Guiding Principles guide our use of social media.

Rule of thumb: You should conduct yourself in social media forums with an eye to how your behavior or comments might appear if we were called upon to defend them as being appropriate behavior by a journalist. In other words, don’t act any differently online than you would in any other public setting.

And a final caution – when in doubt, consult with your supervisor and, if needed, the Standards & Practices editor and Engagement Team.

Can we follow political parties or advocacy groups related to our beats?

If your work includes coverage of politics and social issues, can you “follow” or “friend” a political party or advocacy group?

Yes, if you’re doing it to keep up on what that party or group is doing. And you should be following those on the other side of the issues as well.

Self-protection is part of being accountable online. 

Protect yourself: Use the highest level of privacy tools available to control access to your personal activity when appropriate, but don’t let that make you complacent. It’s just not that hard for someone to bypass those safeguards and make public what you thought was private.

Don’t be careless. Keep your opinions to yourself. Imagine what you say or write landing in an AP story or in The Washington Post, and imagine the damage that could cause you or NPR.

Consider the legal implications of your actions, regardless of the medium. 

Whether in an NPR newscast or a tweet, “you always have to take into consideration what you’re saying, what you know, what you don’t know, and be thoughtful about not making libelous comments whatever the medium.”1

In many cases, a journalist will be legally responsible for any statement he or she repeats, even if the statement is attributed to another source. There are a few exceptions, and one of them is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects news organizations from defamation liability for content that’s created by a third party.  Many experts believe this protection would extend to retweets. Citizen Media Law Project co-founder David Ardia put it this way in a Poynter.org story: “So if a journalist or news organization were to retweet a defamatory statement, they would not be held accountable. If, however, they added a defamatory remark as part of the retweet, they could be.”

So, in theory NPR would be protected if someone retweets a post that says something defamatory or inaccurate about someone. But be careful about adding comments that would make the message your own and destroy immunity.

But beyond the legal implications, it is important to consider our listeners and readers and the fact that they trust that the information we’re giving them is as accurate as we can make it. This extends to the information we tweet, retweet, blog, tumble or share in any other way on social media. And that’s why we don’t simply pass along information — even via something as seemingly innocent as a retweet — if we doubt the credibility of the source or news outlet. We push for confirmation. We look for other sources. We reach out to those closer to the story. In other words, we do some reporting.

1. Source: NPR’s Ashley Messenger, in an article on Poynter.org.

IMPARTIALITY

The same standards apply.

Do not advocate for political or other polarizing issues online. This extends to your Facebook page or a personal blog. Don’t express personal views on a political or other controversial issue that you could not write for the air or post on NPR.org. These guidelines apply whether you are posting under your own name or — if the online site allows pseudonyms — your identity would not be readily apparent. In reality, anything you post online reflects both on you and on NPR.

Your simple participation in some online groups could be seen to indicate that you endorse their views. Consider whether you can accomplish your purposes by just observing a group’s activity, rather than becoming a member. If you do join, be clear that you’ve done so to seek information or story ideas. And if you “friend” or join a group representing one side of an issue, do so for groups representing other viewpoints.

THE LEGAL FINE PRINT

When posting or gathering material online, consider terms of service. 

It’s important to keep in mind that the terms of service of a social media site apply to what we post there and to the information we gather from it. Also: The terms might allow for our material to be used in a different way than intended. Additionally, law enforcement officials may be able to obtain our reporting on these sites by subpoena without our consent — or perhaps even our knowledge. Social media are a vital reporting resource for us, but we must be vigilant about keeping work that may be sensitive in our own hands.

We understand that what we say on platforms such as Snapchat, where things seem to disappear after a short time, may still exist in the service’s database. That’s why we follow the same rules on those platforms as on all others. We’re as careful about what we say there as we are anywhere else.

Notes

‘A Cautionary Tip Sheet’ About Think Tanks #

It is “our job to know about ‘experts’ conflicts of interest” and share that information with our audience (or not use experts whose conflicts are problematic).  As we’ve said, it’s not optional.

Click here for related reading from JournalistsResource.org. It includes “some questions journalists should ask when researching think tanks.” Among them:

- “Look at the think tank’s annual report. Who is on staff? On the board or advisory council? Search for these people. They have power over the think tank’s agenda; do they have conflicts of interest? Use OpenSecrets’ lobby search, a project of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, to see if any of these individuals are registered lobbyists and for whom. …

- “Does the organization focus on one issue alone? If so, look carefully at its funding. …

- “Does the organization clearly identify its political leanings or its neutrality? …

- “Does the annual report list donors and amounts? Are large donors anonymous? If the answer to the second question is yes, you should be concerned that big donors may be trying to hide their influence. …

- “Does it have a conflict of interest policy?”

(“Memmos;” May 30, 2017)

 

Notes

Required Reading: The Do’s And Don’ts’ Of Anonymity #

Everything in this note has been said before, but needs to be said again. Click the links to read more.

1. First, ask these questions:

– 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?

2. Senior editors must be consulted before we put anonymous voices in our stories.

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

3. We don’t create 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.”

Note: When someone is using a pseudonym they created to hide their identity, we might refer to them by that name if we believe they need to be kept anonymous. In those cases, we explain to the audience what we’re doing.

4. Explain, explain, explain.

We “describe anonymous sources as clearly as [we] can without identifying them” and we explain why they need anonymity.

Note: “NPR has learned” is never enough.

5. No attacks.

“In our coverage, anonymous or unnamed sources generally cannot make pejorative comments about the character, reputation, or personal qualities of another individual, or derogatory statements about an institution. We don’t use such material in our stories, with rare exceptions. (If an individual is blowing the whistle on significant misdeeds or making an allegation of sexual assault, we may decide to air the person’s claims. But we would only make such a decision after careful deliberation with senior news managers.)”

6. 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.”

There is more on this subject at http://ethics.npr.org/. Just type “anonymous” or “anonymity” in the search box at the top of the page. 

(“Memmos;” April 18, 2017)

Notes

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

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

We’ve discussed this before, in posts about:

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

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

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

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

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

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

- The ‘don’ts’ of anonymity.

- A supervisor decides if anonymous news is shared.

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

- Our word is binding.

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

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

(“Memmos;” May 5, 2016)

Notes

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

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

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

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

This post is about two simpler issues.

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

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

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

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

(“Memmos;” Jan. 11, 2016)

Notes

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

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

 

ANONYMITY AND SOURCING

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

-         Single Source Approval Process

 

BREAKING NEWS

-         When News Breaks, Keep A Couple Things In Mind

 

DACS AND OTHER STANDARD PROCEDURES

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

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

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

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

 

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

-         On Gender Identity

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

-         Guidance on: Coverage of books written by NPR staffers

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

 

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

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

-         DACS Lines Are Journalism

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

-         Online News Commentaries

 

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

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

-         Guidance On Music In Broadcast Pieces

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

 

DIFFICULT DECISIONS

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

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

-         On The Plagiarism Case And How It Was Handled

 

LANGUAGE TO USE AND LANGUAGE NOT TO USE

-         Repetitive Acronyms

-         Reminder: References To War Camps Must Be Precise

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

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

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

 

-         Some So-called Guidance

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

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

-         On The Word ‘Suicide’

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

 

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

-         Guidance: ‘Same-Sex Marriage

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

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

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

 

-         Save Yourself A Word And Make The Latin Teachers Happy

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

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

-         On ‘Migrants’ And ‘Refugees’

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

-         Take Care When Describing Weapons

 

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

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

-         “Let’s Reduce Our ‘Buts’ “

-         Words We Get Wrong: The List

-         New Guidance On References To Myanmar

 

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

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

-         Keep Your Enemies Close And Your Antecedents Closer

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

 

MISTAKES: HOW TO HANDLE THEM AND HOW TO AVOID THEM

-         We’re Making More Than A Few

-         Serious Mistakes Need To Be Flagged Immediately

-         The NPR Accuracy Checklist

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

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

 

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

-         Don’t Trust Your Mother Or The Internet

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

-         Put On-Air Corrections With The Original Stories

 

NAMES AND PRONUNCIATIONS

-         Guidance On The Name Of Argentina’s President

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

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

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

 

OFFENSIVE LANGUAGE

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

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

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

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

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

 

SOCIAL MEDIA

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

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

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

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

 

THIS IS HOW TO DO IT!

-         Encore! Encore!

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

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

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

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

 

WHAT DID WE SAY IN 2014?

-         Click here to see that list

(“Memmos;” Dec. 22, 2015)

Notes

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

The New York Times is reviewing some of its reporting about the San Bernardino terrorist couple, Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple writes. The Times is looking back at a story that said Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik had “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.”

The Times is examining the story and the anonymous sourcing for that claim because the FBI says it has not found any public social media postings by Farook and Malik that might have “tipped off authorities to the couple’s extremist views,” as The Two-Way writes. Instead, it looks like the couple communicated via emails and private messages.

Whether the communications were public or private is important. Wemple calls it “a gigantic deal” because the Times’ story went on to say that American immigration officials failed to uncover “what Ms. Malik had made little effort to hide — that she talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.” That’s a damning conclusion if the couple had been communicating in the open. If they weren’t doing that, the story went too far.

But this Memmo isn’t just about what the Times did. It’s about what NPR did.

Carrie Johnson, Dina Temple-Raston, Phil Ewing, Martin Kaste, Nathan Rott, Richard Gonzalez, Matt Guilhem, the Two-Way team, the Newscast desk and everyone else who touched the story* stuck to what we were confident we could say and avoided things that weren’t solid. They were precise in their language. For example, we were careful to say federal sources were telling NPR that Malik had posted a message on Facebook “at the time of the shooting.” That information has held up.

Thanks.

Related:

– Precision Writing & Editing: 5 Timeless Tips 
– Be Judicious When Passing Along Breaking News
– Don’t Just Spread Information. Be Careful And Skeptical
– The NPR Accuracy Checklist

*This list is not meant to be exhaustive. If you’re among the “everyone else,” thank you.

Notes

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

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

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

There are two other things worth noting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a simple request that produced an excellent story.

(Memmos; May 4, 2015)

Notes

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

“The particulars of Rolling Stone’s failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail.”

That line from the Columbia Journalism Review‘s dissection of Rolling Stone‘s infamous investigation of an alleged gang rape underscores why the CJR report is highly recommended reading. It reminds us that the basics matter — a lot.

CJR concludes that “better and clearer policies about reporting practices, pseudonyms and attribution might well have prevented the magazine’s errors. … Stronger policy and clearer staff understanding in at least three areas might have changed the final outcome.” From the report:

– “Pseudonyms. [Editors] said using pseudonyms at Rolling Stone is a ‘case by case’ issue that requires no special convening or review. Pseudonyms are inherently undesirable in journalism. They introduce fiction and ask readers to trust that this is the only instance in which a publication is inventing details at its discretion. Their use in this case was a crutch — it allowed the magazine to evade coming to terms with reporting gaps. Rolling Stone should consider banning them. If its editors believe pseudonyms are an indispensable tool for its forms of narrative writing, the magazine should consider using them much more rarely and only after robust discussion about alternatives, with dissent encouraged.”

– “Checking Derogatory Information. [The reporter and her editor] made the fateful agreement not to check [a key part of the accuser's story that put three people in an unfavorable light] with the three friends. If the fact-checking department had understood that such a practice was unacceptable, the outcome would almost certainly have changed.”

– “Confronting Subjects With Details. When [the reporter] sought ‘comment,’ she missed the opportunity to hear challenging, detailed rebuttals from [the fraternity] before publication. The fact-checker relied only on [the reporter's] communications with the fraternity and did not independently confirm with Phi Kappa Psi the account Rolling Stone intended to publish. … If both the reporter and checker had understood that by policy they should routinely share specific, derogatory details with the subjects of their reporting, Rolling Stone might have veered in a different direction.”

Our Ethics Handbook deals with those points. Here is where NPR stands:

– “Don’t Create Pseudonyms For Sources Whose Names We Withhold.  When we decide to withhold a source’s name from a story, we don’t invent a pseudonym for that source. Again, our job is to present factual – not fabricated – information. Instead, we use pronouns and descriptions to make clear who is speaking or whom we’re referring to. (Or we may refer to him or her without using a last name, if the source is comfortable with that degree of anonymity, and the situation meets our standards for granting anonymity. … )”

– “No Attacks. In our coverage, anonymous or unnamed sources generally cannot make pejorative comments about the character, reputation, or personal qualities of another individual, or derogatory statements about an institution. … [Exceptions are made only after] careful deliberation with senior news managers.”

– “Give Sources Time To Respond. If our audience wonders what someone we report about had to say in his or her defense, and we haven’t provided that information or explained our efforts to get it, we have failed.”

Give Subjects Enough Information To Be Able To Respond Effectively. “In 2005, NPR aired a story about the new editor of the Paris Review. Former staffers of the magazine — some of whom had been let go — were heard saying that the new leader was ‘betraying the vision’ of the Review’s founder, George Plimpton. What was the editor’s response to that charge? He didn’t get the chance to say. Our interview with him was done before the critics were contacted, and the editor wasn’t contacted again. NPR subsequently apologized on the air for not giving the editor the chance to answer his critics. As Bill Marimow, then-NPR vice president for news, said: ‘If the subject of the story doesn’t know what you’re going to report, how can we be fair to them?’ “

CJR‘s analysis makes clear that several people are to blame for Rolling Stone‘s failures, starting with the reporter and extending to her editors. So here’s another reminder from our handbook:

Edit Like A Prosecutor.

“Great journalism comes in part from the collaborative efforts of reporters, editors and producers, who all play a key role in ensuring accuracy. We believe in teamwork. But good editors are also good prosecutors. They test, probe and challenge reporters, always with the goal of making NPR’s stories as good (and therefore as accurate) as possible.”

(Memmos; April 7, 2015)

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(H/T Evie Stone.)

(Memmos; Feb. 25, 2015)

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– She fears retribution from police.

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

– Her family doesn’t know about what happened.

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

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

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

Related reminders from the handbook:

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

No pseudonyms. “When we decide to withhold a source’s name from a story, we don’t invent a pseudonym for that source. Again, our job is to present factual — not fabricated — information.”

(Memmos; Aug. 28, 2014)

Notes

Hey Did You Hear How We Handled That? Volume II: Transparency #

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)

Notes

We Name Names And … Do Our Due Diligence #

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.

Case study:

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.

– Second, check out Twitter’s  best-practices page, which has guidance on “filtering mentions for verified users.”

– 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)

Guideline

Social media are excellent tools when handled correctly. #

(Editor’s note on July 27, 2017: Click here to go to an updated special section about the do’s and don’t's of social media.)

Social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter have become an integral part of everyday life for millions of people around the world. As NPR grows to serve an  audience that extends well beyond radio listeners, social media are becoming an increasingly important aspect of  how we interact with our audiences. Properly used, social networking sites can be valuable parts of our newsgathering and reporting kits because they can speed research and quickly extend a reporter’s contacts. They are also useful transparency tools — allowing us to open up our reporting and editing processes when appropriate. We encourage our journalists to take advantage of them.

But reporting in social media spaces requires the same diligence we exercise when reporting in other environments. When NPR bloggers post about breaking news, they do not cite anonymous posts on social media sites — though they may use information they find there to guide their reporting. They carefully attribute the information they cite and are clear about what NPR has and has not been able to confirm.

When NPR correspondents go on the air they may mention discussions they’ve seen on social media sites as reflecting in part the tone or mood or  general reaction to an event. But they realize that is not the same as a scientific survey of public opinion or a substitute for the kind of in-depth reporting that leads to a deep understanding of a subject.

And all NPR journalists understand that to get the most out of  social media we need to understand those communities. So we respect their cultures and treat those we encounter online with the same courtesy and understanding as anyone we deal with in the offline world. We do not impose ourselves on such sites. We are guests and behave as such.

/ Guideline

When you cite the sources of others, attribute clearly. #

When we attribute information to anonymous sources, it is assumed that these are our sources and that we have obtained the information firsthand from them. If this is not the case, and we are referring to reports in other news outlets based on anonymous sources of theirs, we are meticulous about attributing the information to those other outlets and we describe as fully as possible who those sources are.

Guideline

Our word is binding. #

As an ethical matter, we would not want to reveal the identity of an anonymous source unless that person has consented to the disclosure. That’s why we take the granting of anonymity seriously.

Keep in mind that the legal protection provided to journalists to keep source identities, outtakes, or other confidential information secret is not 100% secure. Courts can compel journalists to testify or reveal information even when confidentiality has been promised, and refusal to reveal the information can result in jail time or fines. Judith Miller of the New York Times, for example, spent three months in jail for refusing to identify the source of the leak that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA.

To make matters worse, if we have promised confidentiality to a source but disclose the source’s identity, we could be liable for breach of contract. In Cohen v. Cowles Media, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment does not protect the press from breach of contract lawsuits when a reporter breaches a promise of confidentiality.

It is therefore possible that if a journalist makes a promise of confidentiality but is later compelled to testify, s/he may either be jailed or ordered to pay money damages. Neither is a good situation. So consult with your supervisor and our legal team before you make a promise of confidentiality. Discuss whether the promise is necessary, what the exact scope of confidentiality will be, under what conditions the source might be willing to release you from the promise, and what the potential risks to you or NPR might be. We want to be sure we can keep whatever promises we make.

/ Guideline

Describe anonymous sources as clearly as you can without identifying them. #

When a decision is made to use information that we have obtained from a source that must remain anonymous, we describe in as much detail as we can (without revealing so much that we effectively identify that person) how they know this information, their motivations (if any) and any other biographical details that will help a listener or reader evaluate the source’s credibility.

It is never enough to say “NPR has learned” something. It is not enough to report that “officials say” something, or that some detail is “reportedly” true. If it is important for listeners or readers to know, for example, what political party the source is from, we report that information. If it is important to know what agency the source is from, we report that. If it is important to know which side of an issue the source represents, we report that. We push to get as much detail as we can about how the source knows this information, and to get the source’s agreement to report as much of that detail as possible. Was she in the room when the meeting happened? Does he have a copy of the report? Did he participate in the investigation?

Guideline

A supervisor decides if anonymous news is shared. #

Individual NPR journalists — reporters, producers, bloggers and others — do not on their own have the authority to assure any individual that information he gives us anonymously will be reported on our airwaves or by NPR.org.

For sure, sometimes in the course of reporting we gather important information that a source will only reveal if the conversation is “off the record.” But the decision as to whether that information will be reported by NPR can only be made in consultation with an editor. As the level of importance of the information rises, so should the level of editor who is pulled into the conversation. There is no hard-and-fast rule. When in doubt, editors should always err on the side of caution and consult with the next person above them.

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.

Guideline

The ‘don’ts’ of anonymity. #

No attacks. In our coverage, anonymous or unnamed sources generally cannot make pejorative comments about the character, reputation, or personal qualities of another individual, or derogatory statements about an institution. We don’t use such material in our stories, with rare exceptions. (If an individual is blowing the whistle on significant misdeeds or making an allegation of sexual assault, we may decide to air the person’s claims. But we would only make such a decision after careful deliberation with senior news managers.)

No disguises. We may withhold a source’s name who talks to us on tape or on the record, if that individual might be put in danger, legal jeopardy or face some other serious threat if their name is revealed. We may refer to the person without using a last name, if he or she is comfortable with that degree of anonymity and if we decide the situation meets our criteria for granting anonymity. But we don’t use pseudonyms to replace their real name.

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.

Guideline

Press anonymous sources hard. #

Before we rely on information from anonymous sources, we press them hard on exactly what they know and how they know it — and we press them hard for as detailed a description as possible of who they are and their motivation (if any) to use in our reports. Our goal is to tell listeners and readers as much as we can about why this person is being quoted.

So, for example, “a senior White House official who was at the meeting and heard what the president said,” is the type of language we use. “An official” is not.

Key questions

Is the source credible, reliable, and knowledgeable? #

We use information from anonymous sources to tell important stories that otherwise would go unreported. This is not a solo decision – the editors and producers of these stories must be satisfied that the source is credible and reliable, and that there is a substantial journalistic justification for using the source’s information without attribution. This requires both deciding whether it is editorially justified to let the person speak anonymously, and being satisfied that this person is who the piece says he is and is in a position to know about what he’s revealing. We should never be in the position of having to verify these things after a story has been broadcast or published.

Case studies

There is no privacy on the Web. #

Imagine, if you will, an NPR legal correspondent named Sue Zemencourt. She’s a huge fan of Enormous University’s basketball team and loves to chat online about EU. She posts comments on blogs under the screen name “enormous1.” One day, an equally rabid fan of Gigormous State (“gigormous1”) posts obnoxious comments about EU.

Sue snaps. Expletives and insults fly from her fingers on to the webpage. They’re so out-of-line that the blog blocks her from submitting any more comments — and discovers that her i.p. address leads back to NPR. The blog’s host posts that “someone at NPR is using language that the FCC definitely would not approve of” and describes what was said. Things go viral.

The basically good person that she is, Sue publicly acknowledges and apologizes for her mistake. But that doesn’t stop The Daily Show from satirizing about the “NPRNormous Explosion.”

Damage done.

Be circumspect about your behavior, even when the exchange feels private or anonymous. Even an email to a trusted recipient can be made public, with or without the recipient’s knowledge or consent.

Guideline

Don’t let sources offer anonymous opinions of others. #

Unidentified sources should rarely be heard at all and should never be heard attacking or praising others in our reports (with the possible rare exceptions of whistleblowers and individuals making allegations of sexual assault; see the longer discussion of anonymous sources in the section on transparency). While we recognize that some valuable information can only be obtained off the record, it is unfair to air a source’s opinion on a subject of coverage when the source’s identity and motives are shielded from scrutiny. And of course, we do not include anonymous attacks posted on the Web in our reports.