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During today’s Poynter Journalism Ethics Summit, here at NPR headquarters, Washington Post editor Martin Baron had this to say about what he’s told his staff since the failed attempt by Project Veritas to plant a false story in the Post:
If strangers start talking to you about your newsroom and how you do your work, “assume that it’s going to be on video.”
The takeaway: As always, it’s important to remember that when we’re in public (and when we’re on social media), we represent NPR. And it seems we must understand that not everyone is who they say they are, or does their work as we do — “in plain sight.”
(“Memmos;” Dec. 4, 2017)
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:
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
Social media platforms are great tools when handled correctly.
Social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter 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.
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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 NPR. We 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.”
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.
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.
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.
Take a look at the corrections page. We’re making the same kinds of mistakes over and over. Names. Numbers. Titles. We’re getting those, and other things, wrong.
This month has been especially busy. From reporters to producers to editors, it’s clear that we aren’t always double-checking the basics.
The result is that some great stories have corrections notes attached to them. That’s a shame.
- Be sure about “facts” you put into DACS, scripts, promos, blog posts or basically anything that could find its way onto our website or onto our airwaves. Remember, your keyboard is a live mic.
- Double- or triple-check everything, and never assume that the next person in the process is going to do it for you. If you write it, say it or approve it, you own it.
John Wooden, arguably the greatest men’s college basketball coach, would show his players how he wanted them to put on their socks and tie their sneakers. His point was that if they didn’t do those things correctly, they would get blisters — blisters that could put them on the bench and hurt the team.
We get so many things right. But we’re also getting too many blisters.
(“Memmos;” July 18, 2017)
March 1, 2017
By Sara Goo
Deputy Managing Editor, Digital News
At NPR, we believe deeply in some core principles. Those include accountability and transparency.
We must apply those principles to our bylines.
Our goal is to ensure that NPR bylines make clear to readers who created the work, whether it’s a news article, video or photo essay. That’s transparency.
Transparency fosters accountability – for any errors we make and for the praise that follows when we get a scoop.
We haven’t been applying the principles as well as we should. Sometimes, a script written by a reporter for a broadcast piece serves as the starting point for the story’s digital version but is then reworked and rewritten (with additional reporting) by another NPR journalist. Who gets the byline? Many times, it’s been only the originating reporter. The other journalist has gone unacknowledged.
This is our starting point: Bylines should go to the journalists who contributed the bulk of the work we publish. They recognize and include a wide variety of people: correspondents, station reporters, hosts, researchers, digital producers, audio producers, data journalists, photojournalists, developers and others.
With that in mind, we say:
All stories published on NPR.org should have a byline. Stories don’t write themselves. With few exceptions, perhaps in the case of security to protect a reporter who is on assignment in a dangerous place, we should always include a byline. There should be few reasons to have an “NPR Staff” byline.
The person who writes the story gets the byline or comes first. Readers assume a byline reflects the name of the person who wrote the story. That’s a simple fact.
While many stories are reported and written only for our digital audience, there are still some stories that begin as radio pieces. But the reporters heard in broadcast pieces aren’t always the same reporters who write the stories that appear online. There are many ways our reporting gets published on NPR.org, and many times there’s a lot of collaboration among our journalists.
Readers should know who wrote a story, and that writer’s name should come first. That fairly reflects the careful work of framing a story and selecting the parts of the story that are most appealing to readers. In practice that means:
- If a correspondent or producer reports and writes a broadcast piece and then turns in a written version that is edited for readers online, that correspondent or producer gets the byline.
- Sometimes a correspondent or producer reports and writes a broadcast piece, and the script serves as a starting point for other platforms – but that work is substantially rewritten and supplemented with other material by another NPR journalist. In that scenario, the journalist who did that substantial work should get the first byline. (Who decides? In most cases, it’s a collegial decision by those journalists. More on that process below.)
- When a writer takes a host’s radio interview and selects the best questions and answers or decides to write a story about the interview, there are two ways to handle the byline issue. If the host is heavily involved in the process, there could be a dual byline – the journalists and their editor can work out whose name goes first. If the host is not heavily involved, the piece should always reference that host and the program high in the story (“Jane Doe told Morning Edition host David Greene that …”).
- There is always room for judgment. There are cases when a correspondent or producer has a scoop or other critical information but does not have time to write for all platforms. That person still deserves a co-byline. Also, it may be important for other reasons (source building, for example) that an NPR journalist’s name be in the byline field.
NPR journalists should be generous about bylines. The guiding principle here is that we give credit where credit is due to one another. We recognize that on-air work isn’t the only work that matters. That’s why we encourage discussion among all of those involved in our reports about who should get a byline, and that should become part of the workflow for the stories we publish. Those discussions should be collegial.
Byline bios. All bylines should be linked to a short bio of the journalist. That reinforces our commitment to transparency.
Contributors. Non-NPR staffers who create content we publish should have bylines, and we should be consistent in explaining who they are and their background as relevant to the content that we are publishing. Contributors should not have byline bios.
Member station bylines. If we can’t link from a byline to a bio of a reporter from a member station, we will add an editor’s note to the end of the report. That note should explain who the reporter is and link to any bio of that reporter on the station’s website or to the reporter’s Twitter page. Example: Martin DiCaro, @MartinDiCaro, is a transportation reporter with NPR member station WAMU in Washington, D.C. He reported from Bethesda, Md.
Contributor lines. In some cases, journalists who contribute original reporting and writing deserve to be recognized, but the contributions are not substantial enough to warrant a byline. We should give credit to these journalists. If a journalist’s work is not cited in the text of the story, the story should include a contributor line. Example: Science reporter Alison Kodjak and All Things Considered producer Mallory Yu contributed to this report.
For stories reported by multiple reporters in different locations, their locations should be noted at the end of the story. This provides transparency to the reader about where our reporters are gathering information. Example: Eleanor Beardsley contributed to this report from Paris; John Burnett contributed from Austin, Texas.
Who decides who gets a byline? NPR journalists should be generous with one another’s contributions to a story and discuss bylines among themselves. If there is a question or a conflict, the editor of the story should decide. If need be, the standards and practices editor and deputy managing editor, digital should be consulted.
Standards & Practices Editor Mark Memmott contributed to this post.
The list could go on.
A scroll down our corrections page makes clear that we’re not doing a good enough job checking and re-checking many basic things. Bad information is getting into story collections and DACS lines. It’s getting into captions and blog posts. It’s getting on the air.
We’ve got to do better. We can do better. Here’s how:
- Be sure about “facts” you put into DACS, scripts, promos, blog posts or basically anything that could find its way onto our website or onto our airwaves. Remember, your keyboard is a live mic.
- Double- or triple-check everything, and never assume that the next person in the process is going to do it for you. If you write it, say it or approve it, you own it.
- Use the Accuracy Checklist.
(“Memmos;” Sept. 26, 2016)
We don’t base our decisions on whether to refer to those who are heading to Europe as “refugees” or “migrants” simply on what the U.N. or any governments say.
We also do not use words or phrases just because advocates on one side or another say we should.
There’s been discussion about whether the news media should only use the word “refugees” when referring to those who are in Europe or trying to get there. The word choice has legal ramifications and “refugees” is the word that human rights groups want to see used.
News outlets, including NPR, have leaned on “migrants” as the word that encompasses all those who are on the move.
Both words have a place in this story.
There is a migration under way. Large numbers of people are entering and crossing Europe. It is a migrant crisis. The people fit the dictionary definition of “migrants” because to migrate is to “move from one place to another.”
Obviously, given the makeup of the population, there’s a strong case to be made that most of the people are refugees. Here is the Webster’s New World College Dictionary definition: “A person who flees from home or country to seek refuge elsewhere, as in a time of war or of political or religious persecution.” Those fleeing conflict zones such as Syria and Afghanistan and places of persecution like Eritrea are almost surely refugees. But people fleeing poverty aren’t automatically refugees.
– “Migrants” is a word that covers all those who are on the move, whether it’s because they’re fleeing a war zone or hoping for better lives somewhere new.
– “Refugee” and “refugees” can stand alone when there is evidence that a person or group has left home because of war or persecution or when we’re reporting about people from specific places such as Syria. For instance, it made sense to have our headline say “Number Of Refugees Found Dead In Austrian Truck Rises To 71” because Syrian travel documents were found with the bodies.
But do not assume that “refugees” is the word that works in all cases.
– Phrases such as “hundreds of refugees and other migrants” may be extremely useful.
– Also useful: Thinking of it as a migrant crisis “fueled by refugees from [country or countries].”
– Listen to how Steve Inskeep and Joanna Kakissis handled the words Friday on Morning Edition. Steve framed the conversation by talking about “why so many people risk their lives to move across Europe,” referring to them as “migrants.” Then as he and Joanna dug into the story, they folded in logical references to refugees.
– It will make sense in most cases to employ action words to describe who we’re reporting about — ”families fleeing the war in Syria,” for instance.
– We turn to the dictionary for help, not the legal definitions. But everyone reporting this story should be familiar with the legalese because it may be necessary to explain it to listeners/readers.
(Memmos; Aug. 28, 2015)
Is it necessary to alert listeners that there’s offensive/disturbing/troubling/etc. language in a report if we’ve already bleeped the nettlesome word or words?
The short answer is, “not always.”
Previous guidance has been too strict on this point. Let’s try this:
If it’s been decided after discussions with senior editors that a word or phrase will be bleeped, don’t assume listeners do or do not need to be alerted. Instead, consider the context.
– Is the cut still intense, graphic or disturbing even after it’s been bleeped? Then a heads up for listeners could be warranted. By the way, it may not have to be a line that sounds like a warning. The language can be conversational and informational (more on that below).
– Is the cut funny and a naughty word or two are said in jest? Then a heads up probably isn’t necessary.
– Is it one bleep in an otherwise family-friendly piece and the word wasn’t said in anger? Then, again, there could be no need for a heads up.
Basically, it’s a judgment call. Talk to the deputy managing editors (Chuck Holmes & Gerry Holmes) and/or the standards & practices editor (Mark Memmott). It will get figured out.
Two related notes:
– Here’s the part about being conversational and informational. If we think listeners should be alerted, we don’t always need to say something like “we should warn you.” On Morning Edition recently, there was a piece about the comic Chris Gethard. Two F-bombs were bleeped. In the introduction, David Greene said of Gethard that, “Chris is funny and weird. But he doesn’t shock audiences. You’ll only hear a couple of bleeps this morning.” That told listeners something about Gethard and tipped them off to what was coming without saying they needed to be on guard.
– Any time there’s bleeped language in a piece, the DACS line must tell stations what that word is, when it appears (or approximately if we’re still editing) and that it will be bleeped. Obviously, on the occasions when we don’t bleep offensive language, the DACS need to explain that.
NPR’s “Policy On Use Of Potentially Offensive Language” is posted here.
(Memmos; Aug. 18, 2015)
There have been times in recent weeks when potentially offensive language — bleeped, thankfully — was broadcast without a discussion beforehand with senior editors. That’s disturbing given the number of reminders that have gone out concerning such language and our policy. It should not happen.
Hopefully the points that follow are clear:
1. We have a detailed “Policy On Use Of Potentially Offensive Language.” Print it and read it.
2. Any clip with offensive language must be brought to the attention of the DMEs well before air time. Basically, as soon as you think you might be using it, talk to them. They may need time to consult with Legal.
Note: It does not matter if the words have already been bleeped. Be prepared to justify their use.
a. By the way, it’s assumed show executive producers and desk chiefs will already have been consulted.
b. The standards & practices editor should also be flagged.
3. The DMEs have yea-or-nay authority.
4. DACs lines must tell stations the specific language that is in the cut, when it occurs and whether it is bleeped. Those lines must go out with as much lead time as we can give.
5. If the words are bleeped, they must be completely bleeped. No syllable can be heard.
6. We do all this because we respect our audience and know that certain language will offend many. We also know that community standards vary around the nation and that complaints to the FCC can be costly to our member stations.
7. Overall, NPR is conservative about potentially offensive language — not permissive. There’s a key line right at the top of our policy statement: “NPR has always set a high bar on use of language that may be offensive to our audience.” The words must be important to the piece.
Questions? See Chuck, Gerry or me.
(Memmos; June 16, 2015)
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)
What did Mark annoy us about in 2014? Here are the year’s “Memmos” divided into categories:
ATTENDING RALLIES AND POLITICKING
– “Why do we get some things wrong?” Our most common errors.
LABELS AND WHY IT’S WISE TO AVOID THEM
– “Victims” vs. “survivors.” (Particularly in cases of sexual assault.)
LANGUAGE TO USE AND LANGUAGE NOT TO USE
– Ebola; infectious or contagious?
– “Immigration” (and related terms).
– ISIS and al-Qaida; how to refer to their links.
– “Victims” vs. “survivors.” (Particularly in cases of sexual assault.)
STYLE & STANDARDS
‘TAKING DOWN’ STORIES
THINGS THAT SHOULD NOT BE FORGOTTEN
– Get names (why we don’t put random voices on the air).
– Good grammar.
– Never assume.
WHERE TO FIND GUIDANCE
(Memmos; Dec. 29, 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)
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 story was chilling:
Two 12-year-old girls in Wisconsin were arrested for the near-fatal stabbing of another young girl. Authorities quickly identified the suspects and announced that they would be charged — as adults — with attempted first-degree murder.
The suspects’ names were reported by local and national news outlets. At first, our Two-Way news blog also published the names. The thinking: The girls were to be prosecuted as adults and their names were now known because authorities had made them public. We did not report the victim’s name.
Then we rethought things, and concluded that we agree with the AP:
“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.”
We removed the names from the blog post and added this editor’s note:
“The two girls charged in the attack have been named in some news reports, including an earlier
version of this post. However, after careful consideration of the information’s news value, NPR
is no longer naming the girls because of their ages.”
Names are facts that are standard parts of crime stories. Not reporting them creates holes that listeners and readers would expect to have been filled. So why did we take them out?
– There was discussion in Wisconsin that the case might be moved into a juvenile court. The names of juvenile defendants are rarely made public. We decided to let the legal process play out a bit longer. We knew that if ultimately the girls were tried as adults, we could revisit the decision.
– The story may have been of national interest, but the girls’ names were not critical, at least at that early stage, to a national audience’s understanding of what happened.
– This was an instance where there clearly was a need to “take special care with minors.” We didn’t know how the case would turn out, but we did know it would follow these girls — and the victim — for the rest of their lives. We did not see the need to, at the initial stage at least, add to the reports that will trail them.
– Minors are generally defined as those under the age of 18. If the suspects are 16 or 17 and there’s a track record in their cities or states of such defendants being dealt with as adults, that might tip the scales TOWARD reporting their names. Still, talk with your editor, the Standards & Practices editor, a deputy managing editor and if necessary other senior newsroom managers before doing so.
– It will be rare for us to ever report the names of suspects younger than 16. Again, consider whether doing so meets the “overriding needs” standard established by AP.
– Don’t, however, assume anything. While we recognize it will be rare to report the names of young suspects, we do ask in each case whether we should. Questions to pose include: How serious was the crime? Has the name been widely reported? Is the defendant going to be tried as an adult?
– As always, the NPR legal team (email “LegalAlert”) is available to advise.
(This case study was added to the handbook on June 20, 2014.)
(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.)
In 2010, the NPR News Code of Ethics included a concise, seemingly straightforward rule concerning marches and rallies. It read, in its entirety: “NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers, nor should they sign petitions or otherwise lend their name to such causes, or contribute money to them.”
When satirical newscasters Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert announced they were going to hold a rally on the Mall in Washington, D.C., in October 2010, many employees wondered how the ethics policy applied to the event. The gathering – a mashup of Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” and Colbert’s “March to Keep Fear Alive” – was clearly satirical. But it wasn’t an apolitical comedy show, either. The comedians would use the occasion to extend critiques they often make on their shows, criticisms of our political system, media, and culture. Certainly these are “issues that NPR covers.” And a bystander who spotted an NPR journalist cheering along with the comedians’ barbs at various news subjects could fairly assume that the journalist shared the comedians’ views, undermining our impartiality.
So memos went out reminding staff of the ethics policy, and clarifying that it did apply to the Stewart/Colbert event. The memos and the decisions they reflected offered plenty of fodder for the ensuing news cycle, and touched off a flurry of sharp, wide-ranging questions, including:
- Why weren’t employees reminded of the policy prior to previous events such as the ones Glenn Beck and Al Sharpton had held earlier that fall?
- How do we distinguish between “observing” and “participating”? (The Washington City Paper’s Michael Schaffer offered a notable tongue-in-cheek poke at the distinction.)
- If being a witness to world events is one of the essential components of journalism, should journalists be prevented from observing an event of significant public interest, even if the event has no direct bearing on their beat or coverage?
The evolution of the News Code of Ethics into this Ethics Handbook offered an opportunity to review our decision-making on the Stewart/Colbert event and to add helpful nuance to the guidance on making similar decisions in the future. This handbook’s guidance on attending marches, rallies and other political events is different from its predecessor in several ways that won’t be enumerated here. But we highlight the shift to underscore two broader themes that should play into all our thinking:
- First, the guideline – like many in this handbook – is intended not only to answer or preempt questions, but also to raise them. There’s no easy one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how “participating” and “observing” differ, for example, but there’s value in considering where our actions sit along that spectrum.
- Second, our thinking will evolve – as it has here – and should. We not only make decisions, we review them, we consider their effects and we learn from them. This too is characteristic of a healthy ethical newsroom guided by sound ethical principles.
NPR journalists are in high demand. We get many requests for media appearances, interviews and other outside work. To manage these requests, we collaborate with our colleagues in NPR’s Marketing and Communications Division. We value their judgment and support.
NPR seeks out opportunities for public appearances for NPR journalists, and also receives many requests for our journalists to make speeches or otherwise appear at events. These requests come from member stations, academic institutions, professional organizations and many others. NPR generally views these as opportunities to extend our work and foster valuable connections outside of our company.
In order to get the go-ahead for an appearance, you should seek approval from your supervisor. Supervisors, in turn, should consult with Talent Relations, the unit within Marketing and Communications that is charged with managing this entire process (look for “TalentRelations” in the internal email address book). They’ll assist with everything from event vetting, to negotiating honorariums, arranging travel, and preparing journalists for appearances. Many requests, whether for a specific journalist or not, come first to Talent Relations. They gauge the appropriateness of each request, and then clear it with the journalist and his or her supervisor to ensure that it doesn’t present ethical concerns or coverage conflicts. Then they invite the journalist to participate.
If an opportunity presents a new, complex or difficult ethical question, or if a supervisor and a journalist disagree about an event’s ethical merit, it should be discussed with the Standards and Practices Editor.
- Agents and event appearances: Several NPR journalists are represented by agents who book their appearances. These appearances also need to be approved by the journalist’s supervisor and vetted through Talent Relations prior to confirming and publicizing the booking.
- Work on NPR’s behalf: Occasionally NPR will ask our journalists to make appearances to outside organizations because such appearances are valuable to NPR. In these cases, our journalists will not need to take time off.
- Media requests: The role of NPR’s Media Relations team is to field requests from outside media for interviews or media appearances with NPR journalists. In addition, Media Relations proactively pitches and places NPR journalists. When Media Relations receives an outside request, the team assesses the merits of the request and consults the relevant journalist and his or her supervisor for approval before clearing the request and setting up the opportunity. When Media Relations asks you to do an interview or make an appearance, you can assume that this has already been cleared with your supervisor.
Media requests of any kind that don’t come from Media Relations – including off-the-record background interviews – must be approved by Media Relations in advance (look for “MediaRelations” in the NPR email address book). In most cases, Media Relations will clear, arrange and sometimes sit in on the interview.
NPR supervisors and the communications team will respond to requests as quickly as possible and in accordance with the union contract. We understand that they won’t say “yes” to everything. And we know that NPR can revoke its permission if senior management decides that an appearance (or in some cases, recurring appearances) could harm either the organization’s or the journalist’s reputation.
Our goal is to encourage NPR journalists to be visible as ambassadors of NPR journalism, and to build their reputations as professionals while assuring that all appearances are consistent with NPR’s ethical standards and our priorities.
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.
Journalism should be done in plain sight, and our standards are clear. When we are working, we identify ourselves as NPR journalists to those we interview and interact with. We do not conceal our identities, pose as someone or something we are not, use hidden microphones or cameras to collect information, or record phone calls without the permission of all parties on the line, except in the very rarest of circumstances, outlined below.
Do we need to announce ourselves every time we’re in a line at the supermarket and overhear what people are saying about the news of the day? Of course not. But if we want to quote what one of those people said, we need to introduce ourselves as NPR journalists and assume our “working journalist” role.
Do we need to wear our IDs around our necks at all times? No. We are allowed to be “off-duty.”