Search Results for: standards and practices
At news organizations across the U.S., including at NPR, journalists and the colleagues who support their work are talking about whether basic journalistic standards and practices still make sense.
Some argue that journalists need to “do something.” That they need to “get involved.” That they should participate in the news as well as cover it.
The other side of the discussion is that journalists, and those who support their work, are already “involved.” That there is nothing more important they could be doing than their jobs. And that it is critical that they hold true to the core principles that have worked so well.
We’re going to be talking about all this in coming days, weeks and months. At lunch, over drinks and during meetings.
We’re planning a series of Q&As with Mike Oreskes and others. The hope is that they’ll be thought-provoking discussions about journalism that everyone at NPR, including those from outside News, will benefit from. If you have suggestions about specific topics we should tackle or speakers we might want to bring in, please tell Scott Montgomery or me.
Meanwhile, as we prepare for those sessions, this is a good time to remind ourselves about the NPR view.
We do not bury the lede in the Ethics Handbook. It begins with this:
“The mission of NPR, in partnership with its member stations, is to create a more informed public, one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas, and culture within the United States and across the globe. To this end, NPR reports, produces, acquires and distributes news, information and other content that meet the highest standards of public service in journalism and cultural expression.”
NPR, the handbook continues:
“Is at its core a news organization. Our news content, whether on the radio, on the web, or in any other form, must attain the highest quality and strengthen our credibility. We take pride in our craft. Our journalism is as accurate, fair and complete as possible. Our journalists conduct their work with honesty and respect, and they strive to be both independent and impartial in their efforts. Our methods are transparent and we will be accountable for all we do.
“We hold those who serve and influence the public to a high standard when we report about their actions. We must ask no less of ourselves. Journalism is a daily process of painting an ever truer picture of the world. Every step of this process – from reporting to editing to presenting information – may either strengthen or erode the public’s trust in us. We work hard to be worthy of that trust and to protect it.”
The key words in those passages were chosen carefully:
- “A more informed public.”
- “Public service.”
- “Accurate, fair and complete.”
- “Honesty and respect.”
- “Independent and impartial.”
- “An ever truer picture.”
- “The public’s trust.”
Our handbook makes a strong case about the importance of our jobs. We have a unique privilege. Think of it this way: There are plenty of other people sounding off on social media, marching in the streets and organizing for or against various things.
But we get to paint those ever truer pictures. We fulfill a public service. Everyone here contributes to the effort, whether you’re part of the newsroom or not.
As we all think about these issues, here are two suggestions:
- Reread the handbook; at least the opening page.
- Revisit the NPR mission statement that Bill Siemering wrote in 1970 — a time of great unrest when many journalists were surely feeling they should “get involved.” Bill underscored the role we play in giving people the information they need to “intelligently participate” in the debates of the day. He said we should help them be “more responsive, informed human beings and intelligent responsible citizens of their communities and the world.”
More to come.
(“Memmos;” Feb. 7, 2017)
Everyone at NPR – journalists and those who support the work they do – has a part to play in upholding two of this organization’s core principles:
We can’t keep the public’s trust if we aren’t seen as independent and we risk our reputation if it looks like we’re not impartial.
As you know, the Inauguration is going to spark celebrations and demonstrations in coming weeks, especially around Jan. 20.
That means some reminders are in order, for journalists and everyone else at NPR. As we’ve said previously, “We Can Observe, But We Don’t Participate In Rallies.”
The key line in that guidance: “We believe journalists can go see such events, even if they’re not assigned to cover them, so long as they don’t ‘participate.’ ”
Put another way, watching from the sidelines at rallies in support or opposition to the new president is fine. Marching or cheering is not.
You can go to the National Mall to see the Inauguration. That’s a national, historic event. It’s OK to attend. But, again, we go to observe – not to cheer or jeer.
These rules definitely apply to our journalists and to NPR employees in “outward-facing” positions. As we’ve said, those are “jobs that sometimes put them in the position of representing NPR to the outside world.” They should not “participate.”
Other staffers – those whose work doesn’t touch our journalism and who aren’t in outward-facing positions – should understand that their actions can reflect on NPR. We can’t cover every eventuality with a “do this, don’t do that” list. We do ask that no one wear any NPR paraphernalia or do anything that would raise questions about NPR’s objectivity.
It’s not always easy to determine whether a job touches our journalism. Talk with your supervisor, who in turn can consult with the Standards & Practices editor and NPR’s Chief Ethics Officer.
– We’ll have more to say about this in coming weeks, but the guidance in our post about “Social Media Rules Of The Road On Election Day” applies to Inauguration Day as well. Please, “conduct yourself online just as you would in any other public circumstances as an NPR journalist.” If you’re not a journalist, remember that what you say could reflect on NPR.
– NPR journalists do not donate to political parties or advocacy organizations. Except, that is, when a group’s issues are “directly related to our journalistic mission (e.g. First Amendment rights, the Freedom of Information Act, a federal ‘shield’ law).” The Ethics Handbook notes that it may be “appropriate to donate money or time to organizations that advocate on such issues” and on subjects such as the dangers facing journalists around the world. This guidance also applies to “outward-facing” employees. Others at NPR should know that their donations may draw attention and spark questions about NPR’s objectivity.
(“Memmos;” Dec. 15, 2016)
Everyone should know by now that before we accept speaking requests, we have to get OKs from our supervisors — who will consult with Talent Relations and Ethics. An email on the process went out on Aug. 4. If you need a copy, ask the Standards & Practices editor.
Why should you say “no thank you” to a request? Or, why might your boss say “no?”
These are three of the most common reasons:
- A government agency (foreign or domestic) is putting on the event or paying for it.
- An advocacy group or political organization is making the request.
- A company or organization that we cover wants you to speak.
There’s a common thread running through those examples: We must guard our independence. We don’t work “with” or “for” governments, advocacy groups or the organizations we cover. We don’t want to even appear to be doing that.
Are there grey areas and cases where exceptions may be made? Of course. But the bars are set high. It might be OK, for example, to be on a panel or give an address if there’s no honorarium and no travel costs are reimbursed. If the topic is work you’ve done “outside” NPR (a book, for example), that could change things. But even then, if the invitation is from a government agency or political group you should probably say “no” — or not be surprised if that’s the response from your supervisor or the Ethics folks (Standards & Practices and the DMEs).
Beyond those issues, of course, is whether the event conflicts with not just your schedule and work, but also those of others on your desk or team. After all, if you’re out someone may need to cover for you.
Finally, the request might involve issues that aren’t on your beat. You and your supervisor should think about whether there might be someone else at NPR who’s a better fit for the speaking engagement.
(“Memmos;” Sept. 2, 2016)
When a story involves Facebook, when and what do we need to say or write about “NPR Live?”
The best advice is to err on the side of disclosure. When the news is about Facebook’s business or about controversies such as whether it does or does not “suppress” conservative stories, we should say something like this (from a David Folkenflik report):
“Facebook pays NPR and other leading news organizations to produce live video streams that run on the site. The network calls its offerings NPR live.”
Other information that can be added includes the fact that Facebook has “no role in the content of the videos” (a line from NPR Extra). The part of the line about what NPR calls its offerings is certainly optional.
If the story has little or no connection to Facebook’s “business,” such as COO Sheryl Sandberg’s thoughts about the challenge of being a single mother, a line about NPR Live may not be necessary. Senior editors and show executive producers should be making the call, with guidance from the deputy managing editors or standards & practices editor.
(“Memmos;” May 19, 2016)
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:
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:
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)
An editor once told me that if I asked 12 economists what was likely to happen I would get 13 opinions.
That line came to mind in recent days as I talked to people across NPR News about whether we do or do not allow music to be embedded in longer news stories. I’m talking about incidental music that is there, at the very least, to improve the listening experience, but otherwise has no obvious connection to the story. I’m also talking about longer pieces that are broadcast, not podcasts.
– “No …” I was told. NPR has a rule: No music; no sound effects. We don’t put anything in our broadcast pieces that isn’t “true” to the stories.
– “Sure …” I was assured. We’ve been adding music for years when it’s felt that “scoring” would improve a piece.
– “Well …” others said. Music can be used as a bookend or to create a bridge between sections of a long report. But it should never be layered beneath reporting.
– “But …” began some. If it’s obvious to listeners that the music is being used in a feature in a humorous way or in a long news story to set off a particular section, it’s OK to run it beneath the script.
– “Only …” said some. Music may be OK in features, but only rarely and with a “less is more” approach. That is, be sparing. We’re making news stories, not movies.
There was agreement on one thing. Music can’t be used in news stories to make editorial statements or to steer a listener toward judgments or conclusions. We don’t do those things – just as we would not tell the audience how to feel about the news we’re reporting.
But, but, but … what is an editorial statement and when is something manipulative? We can’t agree. There’s a “know it when we see it” sense.
After all that, here’s where are:
– There is no rule against putting music into broadcast pieces. It’s been done and is being done every week in features or special projects. Listen to WESUN’s “For The Record” series, a recent “Hidden Brain” piece that was recast for radio, Morning Edition’s report on “How The Libyan Revolution Opened The Door To The Islamic State” and the “Changing Lives of Women” essay from the “gray-haired granny” who has gone “punk rock.” Judge for yourself whether the music worked.
– Even those who advocate for the use of music say that “because it sounds cool” is not a reason to use it. Don’t do this either: Add music in the hope it will make a bad story better. There’s a problem with the story. Fix it or kill it.
– There’s agreement that music must be treated like any other piece of our journalism. An informed, editorially based decision is crucial. Be prepared to answer this question: “What’s that doing there?”
– We’re also in agreement that incidental music should not be layered beneath straight-forward, standard news stories.
– “Less is more” is a very important concept. Yes, there’s a case to be made that we need to keep up with the times and that some popular podcasts (including NPR’s) use music very effectively. But, we care deeply about principles such as honesty, transparency and fairness. Adding music can quickly raise questions in listeners’ minds about whether we’re staying true to our principles. A decade ago in Jonathan Kern’s Sound Reporting, Jay Kernis said that music could be added to “certain feature stories and mini-documentaries — on rare occasions.” The occasions are probably less rare these days, but we’re still thinking that they should be carefully considered.
This isn’t a “thou must” or “must not” note, as you can see. We have to take these thoughts and apply them as cases come up. That means talking to each other. Executive producers and desk heads need to be in on decisions about whether music should or shouldn’t be used in broadcast pieces. They should bring in the DMEs (Chuck Holmes and Gerry Holmes) or standards & practices editor (Mark Memmott) if outside opinions are needed. In coming months, watch for training opportunities about the use of music.
(“Memmos;” Nov. 30, 2015)
As Chris said in his note, we’ve been covering the Paris attacks “with a commitment and sense of mission that other news organizations simply can’t match.” Scott Montgomery echoed those thoughts and called the work done so far “extraordinary.”
This story has many threads. Reporters have been working sources hard. The “first file” process that flags what is “reportable” and what is “guidance” is working well and has kept us from putting out bad information.
Now, we want to pause and review how we handle “single source” reports.
The first thing to say is that we operate on the assumption that information needs to be cross-checked and verified with multiple sources. Single source reports should be rare.
It’s true, though, that sometimes only one credible source has critical information. When NPR journalists get such information, and they and their editors believe it should be reported, they must get approval from one or more of the following people:
– SVP for News Mike Oreskes.
– VP for News Chris Turpin.
– Executive Editor Edith Chapin.
– Deputy Managing Editor Chuck Holmes.
– Deputy Managing Editor Gerry Holmes.
– Standards & Practices Editor Mark Memmott.
NPR journalists understand they will be expected to explain who the source is, why the source is in a position to know what he/she is telling us, why it’s important that we report the information and what’s been done to cross-check the information.
You don’t have to contact all six people on that list. Chuck and Gerry are the logical ones to consult first. One of them is on duty every day. They can draw in the others if they feel it’s necessary.
One other thing: Information from single sources can’t be classified as “reportable” in a “first file” note until it has been approved. The note should include a line stating that the single-sourcing has been OK’d and by whom. It should also clearly state how we will refer to that source — “person with direct knowledge of the investigation … law enforcement source who has seen the documents … intelligence official who has been briefed on the details … source close to the investigation … etc.”
Thanks again for all the hard work of the past few days. Thanks in advance for all the hard work of the next few days.
(“Memmos,” Nov. 16, 2015)
There have been a couple times in recent weeks when people we’ve interviewed asked that we remove their names from the stories we posted on the Web. We have issued guidance on this topic several times before. Reminders seem to be in order about how to avoid getting into such situations and how to handle them if they arise.
Click on these headlines to see our guidance:
Here are some important points from those notes:
– We’re not saying that Sen. Doe or Mayor Smith or CEO Jones need to be reminded that what they say to us is on the record and will be available to anyone with a Web connection. They should know what they’re doing.
– The notes don’t cover “reporting done in war zones or situations when stopping to have a long conversation about the long tail of the Web isn’t safe or practical.”
– But the guidance does cover other situations involving people who are vulnerable. Those include survivors of sexual assault, people with serious medical conditions and those whose lives may be put in danger if they are fully identified. As the handbook says, “we minimize undue harm and take special care with those who are vulnerable or suffering.”
We do not preview our stories for those we interview. But it is essential that vulnerable individuals understand in general how we will be using the information we get from them, how we will identify them and whether any images of them will be published (remember: visuals are important parts of our journalism and we treat them that way). There may be times when people say we can use their full names and photos and we are not comfortable doing so.
It must be made clear to such individuals that our stories do not only air on the radio — they live on various digital forms and will be searchable on the Web.
How such individuals’ names, biographical details and images will be handled must be discussed with a senior editor well before anything is aired or published. That means a supervising senior editor, a deputy managing editor or the standards & practices editor. In reality, they’ll all probably be involved.
One other reminder (because we’re asked about it at least once a week):
(“Memmos;” Sept. 29, 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 was a good discussion this week among correspondents and editors in the New York bureau about whether we can use some offensive language in podcasts that we can’t on the air.
The immediate question was this (NOTE: sensitive readers may find the next sentence objectionable):
Can we call an asshole an asshole?
The answer was “no,” we don’t want an NPR correspondent to say that on a podcast.
The process, by the way, worked. A correspondent consulted his editor. The editor consulted his boss and the Standards & Practices noodge. A case was made, consideration was given and a decision was reached that everyone understood.
This is a good time to ask: How do we feel about offensive language in podcasts?
As an organization, we respect our audience and “set a high bar on use of language that may be offensive.”
That line was originally written about what we say on the air, but we made clear three years ago when the Ethics Handbook was published that the bar applies to our other platforms as well:
“Online, if sound or text containing potentially offensive language has been approved for use by a Managing Editor or someone above that level, it too must be preceded by text (and in the case of audio, a verbal warning as well) advising the NPR.org audience that what follows contains language some may find offensive.”
The environment is changing quickly. Some very popular podcasts do not worry about whether their language might offend. Their hosts’ conversational and sometimes profane ways of speaking are probably pulling in far more listeners than they repel.
We don’t want to seem boring and out-of-step. We do want to sound like America. But, the bar that NPR journalists need to get over before using such language themselves has to be set incredibly high — so high, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to get over.
We’re professional communicators at a major news organization. What we say and write in public reflects on NPR. No matter what platform we’re using or where we’re appearing, we should live up to our own standards. Yes, there’s more room in podcasts to let guests speak freely and for our journalists to be looser with their language. But it doesn’t mean NPR correspondents are free to use words or phrases in podcasts that they would never use on the air.
We should always be the news outlet that revels in language. There are so many wonderful words. Use them!
The most common offensive words and phrases are among the least creative ways of expressing yourself. They’re akin to cliches in the sense that they’re easy ways out. We pride ourselves on using words that pop out because they’re funny, provocative, rarely heard or just perfect. Again, use them!
You may be asking: Who needs to sign off on what is permissible language in a podcast, what does and does not need to be bleeped and what kind of warnings need to be given to listeners? The people to consult are: the deputy managing editors (Chuck Holmes & Gerry Holmes) and the standards & practices editor (Mark Memmott).
(Memmos; July 16, 2015)
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)
Occasionally, someone in a photo we have posted asks that we remove the image from our website.
Any such request must be redirected to:
– Kainaz Amaria or another editor from the Visuals team.
– Chuck and/or Gerry Holmes, the deputy managing editors.
In most cases, the correspondent producer or staff photographer who took the image will already be aware of the request, as will the editor who handed the report. If not, they will be drawn into the discussion by Kainaz, Chuck and/or Gerry.
Others who will be brought in:
– Digital ME Scott Montgomery.
– Standards & Practices editor Mark Memmott.
The executive editor, VP for News and SVP for News will be looped in too.
The issue of whether to remove an image is a serious matter. As we’ve said before when discussing requests to take down stories, we agree with the AP that:
“We are guided by a newsroom policy that says it is inappropriate to remove content from our Website. If a report is inaccurate, we will correct it and state why it has been altered. If relevant new information emerges, we will update or do a follow-up story.
“But our content is a matter of public record and is part of our contract with our audience. To simply remove it from the archive diminishes transparency and trust and, in effect, erases history. This is not a practice engaged in by credible news organizations or in line with ethical journalism.”
A key question that will be asked when such requests come in: What was the person told about how the photo or photos would be used?
It is important that people know we’re not doing stories that only go on the air. We spend time making sure they understand that the stories live on our website and that the photos we take will be there as well. And as we’ve said before:
“Kainaz Amaria from NPR’s visuals team says she has found ‘that the more transparent I am about my intentions with people in my story, the more they are willing to share their time and moments. It may sound counterintuitive, but in fact it’s been proven to me every time I step out of the office and into someone’s life. If people trust you, trust you are there to listen and learn, you’ll be surprised at the access they will offer you. … If people say, ‘Wait you are radio, why do you want my picture?’ I usually say something like, ‘Well, many of our stories go online to reach a wider audience and to get more eyeballs. Chances are if they see you, then they will connect with your story.’ ”
Kainaz and the Visuals team have considerable experience dealing with this issue. If a request comes in, they should take the lead. In most cases, it should be someone from Visuals who gets back to the person who wants a photo removed.
(Memmos; June 15, 2015)
No, we haven’t had a language mishap (that I know of).
This note is just a reminder of some things because there have been questions in recent days.
– The “NPR Policy On Use Of Potentially Offensive Language” is posted here.
– As we’ve said a few times before, “if there’s potentially offensive language in a piece intended for broadcast — even if the words have been bleeped — stations need to be alerted in the DACS line. Listeners and readers online deserve to be warned as well, of course.”
– We “Bleep The Whole @#$%&*! Word.” Yes, that means no “bull.” Not even the “b.”
– As soon as you know that you might want to use some potentially offensive language, bring it to the attention of senior editors. Here’s a recent update to our Ethics Handbook:
- Discussions Must Happen Well Before Any Broadcast:
- If potentially offensive language is being considered for broadcast, senior editors (typically, the Deputy Managing Editors or Standards & Practices editor) must be consulted with enough lead time to allow for a substantive discussion and enough lead time to give the General Counsel time to provide guidance. If time for discussion is running short, the language must be cut from the report or “bleeped.”
- This rule applies to acquired programs as well. As NPR’s policy on use of potentially offensive language states:
- “In the case of programs under the ultimate direction of the Vice President for Programming, including all acquired programs, producers shall consult NPR’s Vice President for Programming or the VP’s designee as soon as possible, but in any event before the program is delivered to NPR for distribution to stations.”
(Memmos; May 11, 2015)
“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:
“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)
All NPR journalists should read and follow the guidance in this handbook. Those who work for shows, podcasts and programming that are not part of the News division should understand that these principles apply to them as well. Others at NPR whose work touches our journalism and programming, or who have “outward-facing” jobs that put them in contact with the public, should be familiar with these guidelines. When in doubt about how this handbook applies to you, consult a supervisor and the standards & practices editor.
This handbook also applies to material that comes to NPR from independent producers, member station journalists, outside writers, commentators and visual journalists. In cases where such contributors make statements of fact, those statements must be as accurate as anything else broadcast or published by NPR. We expect outside contributors to be free of conflicts of interest, to be fair and to perform their work in a manner consistent with NPR’s ethical principles. When they accept an assignment or make a story pitch to NPR, outside contributors must disclose potential conflicts of interest or other issues that involve matters discussed in this handbook. At the same time, NPR editors and producers should make sure that outside contributors are familiar with the principles laid out in this handbook, and that those contributors are living up to NPR’s standards.
There may be instances when an outside contributor can do things that appear to go against the guidance in this handbook. A music critic, for example, may be able to publicly express opinions about news events — something an NPR journalist should avoid. Supervisors will judge whether such actions present problems on a case-by-case basis. Among those who may be part of such discussions: the senior vice president of News, the vice president of News, the executive editor of News and the standards & practices editor.
If it is decided that an outside contributor’s actions are in conflict with the principles in this handbook, NPR may turn down a story pitch and/or decide to cut ties with that person entirely.
The producers of stand-alone programs acquired by NPR and the staffs of those shows should study and apply the ethical principles and guidance in this handbook. Because the missions of those programs vary widely, there may be greater flexibility. Part of a program’s mission, for example, may be to have the host express his or her opinions about news events. In that case, NPR expects the show and host to be transparent — that is, to share those opinions with the audience — while also being fair and respectful of differing opinions. Another show’s mission may be more about entertaining than news reporting. In that case, the handbook’s guidance on issues such as “completeness” and “transparency” may be less relevant than the sections on “respect” and “excellence.”
While there may be flexibility, there is also a base line. The same guidance given to the staff of all NPR desks and shows applies: Hosts and other journalists on acquired news, news/talk and entertainment programs should avoid becoming participants in the stories and issues of the day. For example, it is almost never appropriate for such a host to help an advocacy organization raise money (as we discuss elsewhere, advocacy around issues “directly related to our journalistic mission” may be an exception). Also, just as with the content that NPR produces, it would not be appropriate for an acquired program to push an idea or position by airing more reports or discussions than are reasonable based on the demands of the news cycle.
NPR expects that producers of acquired programming will be aware of the guidance here and will consult with the vice president of Programming before problems arise. Senior editors (for instance, the senior vice president of News, vice president of News, the executive editor of News and the standards & practices editor) may be brought into discussions. What’s right and what’s wrong may not always be clear. But we are committed to working hard with producers of acquired programs to make the right decisions.
(This guidance was added on March 26, 2015)
If a significant mistake is made on the air or online, these individuals need to know about it as soon as possible:
– Senior vice president for news (Chris Turpin, acting)
– Executive editor (Madhulika Sikka)
– Managing editor, digital news (Scott Montgomery)
– Deputy managing editors (Chuck Holmes; Gerry Holmes)
– Standards and practices (Mark Memmott)
– Legal (Ashley Messenger)
– Member partnership (Gemma Hooley)
– Media relations (Isabel Lara)
Use emails, phone calls, shouts across the newsroom — whatever it takes — to get word to one or more of them. They pledge to respond quickly and to take over the task of reaching others in that group if you haven’t already.
What is a serious or significant mistake? There’s no simple definition. But we all know one when we see or hear it. Examples include:
– An obscenity getting on the air (unless it was vetted and OK’d by senior editors beforehand).
– An offensive or disturbing image being posted online.
– A high-profile “scoop” turning out to be wrong.
(Memmos; Jan. 26, 2015)
– NPR’s standard style is to use family names on second reference.
– There are some types of stories and projects in which exceptions can be made.
– Minors (15 or younger) are usually referred to by their first names on second reference.
On second reference, NPR’s standard style is to refer to someone by his or her family name. There have been several pieces in recent weeks, though, where we used first names on second reference. This is a good time to round up our guidance.
– First, the traditional position. The default setting for any of our news reports is simple: We use family names on second reference. That promotes clarity and helps us maintain an objective distance from those we report about.
We’ve previously discussed why one likely 2016 presidential contender is “Clinton,” not “Hillary” on second reference. The reasons in that case apply to most newsmakers: “There’s the matter of respect … and we don’t want to be perceived as being either for or against someone because of the way we refer to him or her. Everyone is treated the same.”
– But, back in July we looked at the types of stories that seem to lend themselves to first-name-on-second-reference treatment. They’re personal pieces in which someone is the emotional center of the story. This week, for instance, Carrie Johnson reported about Stephanie George — a nonviolent drug offender who was “coming home to a different life.” Calling her Stephanie on second reference felt natural. (There was also the issue of the woman’s last name, which could have led some listeners to wonder “who’s George?” In addition, the others heard in the piece referred to her as “Stephanie.” There might have been confusion if Carrie had said “George.”)
As we also said in July, some platforms and projects that focus on being conversational have room to use first names on second reference — on their blogs, podcasts and NPR’s airwaves. Planet Money is an example. (The award-winning “Planet Money Makes A T-shirt” project, it should be noted, employed a few different ways to refer to people on second reference — by family names, by full names and by first names. The references sound right to this ear.)
Something to keep in mind: Using a first name might give the mistaken impression that the reporter has developed a bias, liking or sympathy for the subject. That could be a reason to use the family name instead. Editors and producers should consider that issue and discuss it with the deputy managing editors, their designated replacements or the Standards & Practices editor ahead of time if they have any doubts.
– Then there are minors. The AP’s style is to “generally refer to them on second reference by surname if they are 16 or older and by first name if they are 15 or younger. Exceptions would be if they are involved in serious crimes or are athletes or entertainers.”
That guidance applied when Malala Yousafzai was shot in 2012. She was 15 at the time and was “Malala” on second reference.
Two years later, should we still refer to her as “Malala?” That’s under discussion. For now, “Malala” remains OK even though that goes against the AP’s guidance (which the wire service isn’t following, by the way; it continues to call her “Malala”). One major reason not to change yet is that she’s known as “Malala” around the world.
Update: Of course, if your piece has several family members in it, there’s probably not going to be any way around referring to them by their first names on second reference. Check out how Nina Totenberg handled one such story:
(Memmos; Dec. 17, 2014)
Chuck Holmes sent out a guidance note last evening that read, in part:
“Two reports emerged Wednesday, one from Dallas and the other from Los Angeles, of people placed under medical care as a precaution because of possible exposure to Ebola. Neither is a confirmed case of Ebola.
“We can report what we know about these instances, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we should. As the disease spreads and the CDC take precautions like airport screenings, it is likely that more people worried about possible symptoms and concerned about possible contact with the disease will seek diagnosis and medical care. We’re likely to see more of this in the days and weeks to come. …
“These instances bear watching. But until the CDC confirms a case, they do not warrant more than a passing mention in our coverage, as Jeff [Brady] did of the Dallas deputy in his ATC piece tonight. And Eyder [Peralta] may mention the cases in a Two-Way blog post he’s working on the very phenomenon of the spreading public concern over Ebola.”
That’s a way of thinking about how to approach coverage that we can copy and paste into our planning in other situations. What Chuck was saying, in essence, was that developments need to be put into context — and sometimes that context will lead to a decision by NPR not to turn something into “breaking news” even if some of our competitors are.
We’re likely to hear again, it appears, that “out of an abundance of caution” somewhere in the U.S. someone is being tested for Ebola. Hopefully, there will be few if any cases confirmed. Treating each report of someone being tested as significant news could make listeners and readers feel as if the disease is sweeping the nation when in fact that’s not the case.
The teams that have been covering the Ebola news have been layering context and perspective throughout their reports. They’ve applied NPR’s standards and practices to a complicated and difficult story. Thanks.
(Memmos; Oct. 9, 2014)
What are the most common emails to our corrections inbox? (Besides those accusing us of favoring one side or the other in whatever is the hot debate of the day.)
They’re the ones that go something like this:
“Thanks for the reporting! Please apprise [insert name of NPR staffer here] of the difference between ‘to lay’ and ‘to lie.’ It should be ‘if everybody is lying low’ not ‘laying low.’ “
“Thanks for the reporting! Please apprise Mr. Clapton of the difference between ‘lie down’ and ‘lay down.’ It should be ‘lie down Sally’ not ‘lay down Sally.’ “
Many grammarians have posted about lie vs. lay. The University of Kansas has guidance under the headline “You’ll lay an egg if you don’t lie down.”
Arizona State has guidance and a practice exercise here.
The Associated Press begins its style guide entry this way:
“The action word is lay. It takes a direct object. Laid is the form for its past tense and its past participle. Its present participle is laying. Lie indicates a state of reclining along a horizontal plane. It does not take a direct object. Its past tense is lay. Its past participle is lain. Its present participle is lying. When lie means to make an untrue statement, the verb forms are lie, lied, lying.”
I bring this up for two reasons.
1. We get on average several emails a week about it.
2. It underscores something: Many in NPR’s audience (radio and online) pay very close attention to our grammar. While it’s true that we want to sound conversational and that some grammatical rules are being bent all the time across the nation, it does offend some of our most dedicated fans when we get things wrong.
Note: This is a bad thing for a Standards & Practices editor to admit — I’m not a grammarian. I’m in the camp that needs to look some words up every time I use them (principal? or principle?). Or, I turn to some of the better linguists in the room. There’s somebody who can help on each desk, show and online team. The librarians are here for us too.
There, I’ve put my cards on the table. (Notice how I avoided the whole lay vs. lie issue there.)
(Memmos; Aug. 29, 2014)
There’s been a flurry of appeals to the Standards & Practices editor and the DMEs in recent weeks about identifying someone we’ve spoken to by a first name only.
At least once, a first-name-only got on the air without being discussed with either the DMEs or that S&P scold.
There’s not really a distinction between a first-name-only and anonymity. So this passage from our guidelines applies:
“If a reporter and editor know ahead of time that a key interview can only be done if the source is granted anonymity, they must have a conversation in advance with a senior editor and make the case for granting it.”
Senior editor = a supervising senior editor, a DME or the Standards & Practices 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)
This is now one of the most common messages received by newsrooms:
”I’m mentioned in a story on your website. Please remove it or remove any mentions of me from it.”
The reasons tend to be:
”I’m no longer the same person.”
“I don’t want future employers to see it.”
“I didn’t know it would follow me forever.”
The Standards & Practices editor stands ready to field such inquiries (and to coordinate with our legal counsel if necessary). Here’s how we’ll generally respond. The guidance may prove helpful if you’re ever button-holed by a former source. The wording is based on language suggested by the Associated Press Media Editors:
“We are guided by a newsroom policy that says it is inappropriate to remove content from our Website. If a report is inaccurate, we will correct it and state why it has been altered. If relevant new information emerges, we will update or do a follow-up story.
“But our content is a matter of public record and is part of our contract with our audience. To simply remove it from the archive diminishes transparency and trust and, in effect, erases history. This is not a practice engaged in by credible news organizations or in line with ethical journalism.”
(Memmos; Aug. 4, 2014)
It felt more natural, editor Joe Neel says, to refer to Lissette Encarnacion as “Lissette” on second reference, not “Encarnacion,” in the broadcast version of Monday’s Morning Edition report about the debate in New York State over whether “housing counts as health care.”
Encarnacion was the emotional center of the piece. Her story — of suffering a traumatic brain injury and a decade of homelessness that followed — was used to spotlight how providing a home for some Medicaid recepients may in the end save states money.
Reporter Amanda Aronczyk, from WNYC, says there was discussion during the editing and that “because Lissette Encarnacion was telling a personal story, using her first name seemed appropriate.”
Though the broadcast version of the story used Encarnacion’s first name after she was introduced to listeners,
NPR.org’s editors changed the references in Aronczyk’s script from “Lissette” to “Encarnacion” before publishing the story in the Shots blog.
The NPR.org team was following NPR’s style. Like The Associated Press, we generally use last names on second reference. The typical exception comes when the subject is a juvenile.
So, for example, Trayvon Martin was “Trayvon” on second reference, while George Zimmerman was “Zimmerman.”
It’s our style, that is, except when it isn’t. Planet Money, in its conversational way, often uses first names on second reference.
Linton Week’s The Protojounalist blog has adopted first-names-on-second-reference as its style.
The Two-Way typically uses first names on second reference when it’s talking about NPR correspondents. We had a sad reminder of that today.
Those are platforms and projects with unique styles that are doing some experimenting and focus on being conversational.
Let’s get back to today’s case — a news report that opens with a human story. Referring to her as “Lissette” rather than “Encarnacion” did sound natural. And when the story is about someone who has suffered a traumatic injury, been homeless for a decade and still faces many struggles, the formality of the last name might seem harsh.
Aronczyk (or should I say Amanda?) adds that “while there is a larger debate to be had about who should be eligible for subsidized supportive housing, that was not the focus of this story and Lissette Encarnacion’s story was not intended to sway the listener on whether or not she was a worthy recipient.”
But — and there’s always a but, isn’t there? — might the way we referred to Encarnacion also add to the empathy listeners have for her? Also, couldn’t using her first name leave the impression that the reporter has developed a liking or sympathy for the subject? Are those impressions we want to give, even inadvertently, in this case? The state’s decision to spend Medicaid dollars on housing is not without its critics, as we report.
You may have figured out by now that this note isn’t going to end with a “thou shall never use first names on second reference” declaration. And I’m not saying that it was clearly wrong to refer to Encarnacion as Lissette.
The guidance is more like “thou shouldn’t … except after some discussion.” The exceptions should be rare. We do not need to add to our procedures, but it never hurts to talk first with Chuck, Gerry, their designated replacements or the Standards & Practices nudge.
(Memmos; July 28, 2014)
Reuters moves an alert — “Defense official: senior Taliban official killed in drone strike.”
The Associated Press says — “Pentagon official: Taliban official killed by drone strike in Pakistan.”
CBS pushes out a short story — “Top Taliban leader dies in Pakistani drone strike.”
The question arises in our newsroom.
“It’s on both wires and CBS, can we go with it?”
No. At least not based on the information we have so far. What we’re looking at, in this not unusual scenario, is likely one source who has spoken to different news outlets.
What we want, ideally, is our own on-the-record confirmation — and not from that same person who has spoken to the wires, but from others who are in a position to know.
If that’s not possible yet and the news is of such importance that we decide it needs to be reported, we still want to see multiple news reports that are based on multiple sources who are in a position to know.
Then, we “attribute, attribute and attribute some more.”
Can you come up with a scenario in which we report something that’s coming from just one source or one news outlet? I suppose. But it has to be really important news. And we don’t do that without considerable discussion involving the executive editor, the deputy managing editors, the standards & practices editor and others.
Might The Two-Way post about the report or reports before we air something? Yes. But, again, that would only happen after discussion among the top editors. And the blog would make clear to readers what we know, what we don’t know, where the information is coming from, what we’re doing to confirm it — and that if the story changes, we will update immediately. The blog has the space to do and say things that Newscast, for instance, doesn’t.
(Memmos, June 18, 2014)
This handbook is intended to frame your decisions in ways that help you do better journalism. It is not primarily a rulebook or a punitive tool. There are several instances throughout this book, however, where clear guidelines have been laid out on how NPR journalists should conduct themselves. We expect our journalists to know these guidelines and to abide by them.
Occasions will inevitably arise where an NPR journalist’s actions may conflict with the guidelines expressed in these pages. These situations will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and we will not pre-judge the outcome of those evaluations. Minor instances that supervisors deem as posing no significant threat to the credibility of our work may elicit no more than a conversation. Situations that may significantly undermine our journalism will be subject to a consistent review process, led by the Senior Vice President for News along with the Standards and Practices Editor and the appropriate members of the news management team. Our goal will be to identify in a timely, thoughtful and consistent manner the nature of the potential harm to our journalism and to recommend an appropriate response to mitigate that harm. If disciplinary action is called for, Human Resources and Legal will be consulted.
We rely on the contributions of every NPR journalist to ensure this handbook remains current and relevant to the situations you face each day. If you encounter decisions for which you feel the guidance in this book is inadequate, have questions about interpreting what you read here, or suggestions for how to improve the handbook, we encourage you to send a note to Ethics.
Twice a year, the Standards and Practices Editor will convene an ethics advisory group to consider all suggestions, review the Handbook, and make any additions or revisions necessary.
If any changes or additions are made, the revised handbook will be sent to staff with an accompanying memo outlining changes. Sessions will be scheduled at that time to give the staff the opportunity to review and discuss the revisions.
In many instances, this handbook is intended to raise questions, not offer answers. Some of those will be questions you feel perfectly comfortable answering yourself. Others might give you pause, or require sign-off from a colleague.
Alongside this handbook, your two best sources of help in making ethical decisions are (1) your supervisor and (2) NPR’s Standards and Practices Editor.
The Standards and Practices Editor is a resource – someone to help you raise the right questions, involve the appropriate stakeholders and uphold our standards as you do your work. Well-versed in the workings of our news operation, this editor is responsible for facilitating thoughtful, consistent ethical decision-making on any matter related to our journalism, whether it regards granting anonymity to a source or attending a charitable event.
The Standards and Practices Editor is also charged with cultivating an ethical culture throughout our news operation. This means he or she coordinates regular training and discussion on how we apply our principles, monitors our decision-making practices to ensure we’re living up to our standards, and oversees the continual development of the ethical guidelines collected in this handbook.
This role is distinct from those of our Ombudsman and our Chief Ethics Officer. The Ombudsman serves as an independent representative of the public, examining our news practices and decisions from outside the newsroom. The Chief Ethics Officer is responsible for safeguarding the ethical functioning of our entire company – its corporate, legal and political practices, as well as the actions of employees outside the newsroom. While the Chief Ethics Officer is sometimes involved in higher-level newsroom decisions, he or she is also essentially independent of the newsroom. The role of the Standards and Practices Editor, on the other hand, is deeply woven into the functioning of our news operation, on-hand to discuss any ethical matter, no matter how big or small it may be. You can reach the Standards and Practices Editor by emailing Ethics (you can find the email address in the NPR internal email address book).
When confronted with an ethical question or issue that warrants the input of another, proceed as follows:
- If you’re looking for a basic gut check – someone to bounce your thoughts off of, to test whether your thinking is sound or whether others should be involved in the decision, talk to your supervisor. Many matters can be handled at this level. Your supervisor will help you determine whether the issue is clear-cut and merits an immediate decision, and whether others should be notified about the matter. If there’s any question of whether the matter should be brought to the attention of others, supervisors will err on the side of caution and reach out to the Standards and Practices Editor.
- If you need help interpreting any of the guidance in the handbook or navigating territory that isn’t covered here, if you’re concerned about a matter that’s out of your jurisdiction, or if the handbook notes that the decision may require the sign-off of supervisors, talk to your supervisor and send an email to Ethics. They’ll decide whether the issue needs to be elevated to a higher level and, if so, where it should be directed.
- If for any reason you feel uncomfortable discussing a matter with your supervisor or sending a query to Ethics,talk to a senior news manager. That includes our Senior Vice President for News, the Managing Editors for News and Digital, the Deputy Managing Editors for News and Digital, and the Executive Editor for News Programming.
We encourage questions – answers aren’t always self-evident. Consultation and collaboration make us better at what we do.
The single best safeguard of NPR’s integrity is the ethical foundation that each of our journalists brings to his or her work. NPR has a Standards and Practices Editor, but no individual can stand guard over all the decisions made by every journalist at NPR. The Standards and Practices Editor is a resource, just as this handbook is a resource. Resources are only valuable if they are used. Anytime an ethical question arises in your mind, consult the handbook and talk with your supervisor. Everybody at NPR is encouraged to write to Ethics to pose a question or seek guidance on making a difficult decision.
There is a lengthy document (updated in January 2014) that lays out NPR’s policy on use of offensive language posted online. It is radio-centered, but the same rules apply to what we post on NPR.org.
The policy statement begins with this:
“As a responsible broadcaster, NPR has always set a high bar on use of language that may be offensive to our audience. Use of such language on the air has been strictly limited to situations where it is absolutely integral to the meaning and spirit of the story being told.”
“We follow these practices out of respect for the listener,” the policy continues, and because in the post-Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” world, federal regulators “have taken a much more aggressive line on what they regard as indecent or profane content.” The 2010 decision by a federal appeals court that invalidated the FCC’s indecency policy has not prompted NPR to change its position.
That said, “there are rare instances where we will permit use of profane or indecent languages for news or programmatic reasons. Such an instance is when the use of such language is so vital to the essence of the story that to excise or bleep it would be to distort it or blunt its power and meaning.”
An example (fair warning … you’re about to see an expletive): While traveling with U.S. Army forces in Iraq, NPR’s Eric Westervelt was on the scene when the unit came under fire. At one point in his tape, an American soldier could be heard telling another man to “get the fuck under the truck.”
The NPR policy states that in this case “the use of profanity … is editorially justifiable” because it meets the test of being “vital to the essence of the story” and cutting it out or bleeping the word would alter the power and meaning of the report.
As required by NPR’s policy, “the piece was preceded by a language advisory in the intro read by the host, in addition to the DACS notices in advance to stations. NPR policy is to do both in all such instances for both legal and editorial reasons.”
Online, if sound or text containing potentially offensive language has been approved for use by a Managing Editor or someone above that level, it too must be preceded by text (and in the case of audio, a verbal warning as well) advising the NPR.org audience that what follows contains language some may find offensive. When used in a blog, in most cases the warning should come before a “jump” to a second page. It should require a second “click” to get to the offensive material.
If used online, audio or video containing offensive material should never play automatically. To view or hear it, the user must choose to click “play.”
Update on May 4, 2015. Discussions Must Happen Well Before Any Broadcast:
If potentially offensive language is being considered for broadcast, senior editors (typically, the Deputy Managing Editors or Standards & Practices editor) must be consulted with enough lead time to allow for a substantive discussion and enough lead time to give the General Counsel time to provide guidance. If time for discussion is running short, the language must be cut from the report or “bleeped.”
This rule applies to acquired programs as well. As NPR’s policy on use of potentially offensive language states:
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.)
If you have good reason to think NPR got something wrong on the air or online – or that there was a serious defect in a report – you have an affirmative responsibility to speak up. The first stop should be your supervisor. If the supervisor does not think that a mistake was made, but you disagree, talk it over with the Standards and Practices Editor (or email Ethics). NPR journalists who come to their supervisors in good faith with such concerns should have no concerns about stepping forward.
Sometimes, a member of the public will get in touch with us to report a mistake or make a complaint. We review all such feedback, and take it seriously, following the steps outlined above.
Strive to use words and phrases that accurately deliver information without taking sides on emotional or political issues. Politically loaded language not only violates our commitment to be fair, but also gets in the way of telling good stories. It makes readers and listeners stop to consider whether we’re biased in favor of one side or the other.
So, for example, we report about efforts to “overhaul” health care or tax policy, not the “reform” that advocates on all sides say they are pursuing. “Reform” is in the eye of the beholder. “Overhaul” is a better, less-charged word.
In such cases we go with what’s accurate. And err on the side of neutrality.
We also take the time to explain to our audience how certain words or phrases have taken on politically loaded meanings, as Joanne Silberner did in a November 1995 piece for All Things Considered. Reporting on the debate over certain abortions performed late in pregnancy, she noted that:
This time, the debate even extends to what the procedure is called. Opponents call it a ‘partial birth abortion,’ while supporters of abortion rights prefer the medical term ‘intact dilation and evacuation.’ Abortion opponents say the procedure is brutal and inhumane to the fetus, but abortion rights supporters say it can save the life of the mother and allow her to become pregnant again.
For guidance, NPR policy on many terms and phrases is collected on NPR’s internal wiki (under Grammar & Usage Guide). If you’re unsure and the subject isn’t covered there, ask the librarians and consult with our in-house experts — the correspondents and editors who cover controversial topics such as abortion, tax policy, climate change and others. They have likely already worked through the issues. Also feel free to talk it over with the Standards and Practices Editor (email Ethics).
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.