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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)
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)
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)
The note about “How To Explain Why We Won’t ‘Take Down’ A Story” prompted several emails suggesting it would be helpful to offer guidance on what to say to people — before we interview them — about the fact that our stories go on the Web as well as the radio.
There’s a case to be made that some people who have come to regret speaking to news outlets did not fully understand that what they said will live on indefinitely thanks to the Web. Perhaps if that had been made clear to them they would have declined to be interviewed, been more careful about what they said or at the very least would have had no reason to object later.
After sampling opinions from various parts of the newsroom, it’s obvious there is no magical sentence that works in all situations and it’s clear that long explanations are not always necessary, possible or helpful.
This note is not intended to cover reporting done in war zones or situations when stopping to have a long conversation about the long tail of the Web isn’t safe or practical. Getting the permission of parents or guardians to interview minors is also a separate subject (and we make it clear when we get such consent that the material will be on the Web).
With those caveats in mind, we obviously start conversations that hopefully will turn into interviews by identifying ourselves. As the handbook says, “journalism should be done in plain sight.”
But as for what to say after we introduce ourselves, rather than try to come up with a one-size-fits-all approach, here are some thoughts.
– Nell Greenfieldboyce comes at the issue as someone who reports about complicated and often sensitive subjects. “If the person is talking to me about, say, their child’s health, I really caution them,” she writes. “I point out that years in the future, someone could search on their child’s name and read this story. Are they really OK with that?
She suggests that in sensitive situations it may be wise to say something like this:
“Before we start, I have to ask you: you know you are being recorded, right? And that I am a radio reporter and the reason I am recording is that I may use part of this tape in my broadcast radio story, just like a newspaper reporter uses a quote? And you should know that we also put our stories up on our website, so this isn’t just for radio, but the audio will go online and there will be a story with it, and you may be quoted by name and your voice may be used. Are you OK with all that?”
Nell adds that she knows “there is a concern that if we fully inform people, they will not want to talk to us. I find it’s just the opposite, that the more I try to talk to sources about the effect on them, the more firm they are in their conviction that they want to talk and the more they trust me.”
– Jon Hamilton also deals with sensitive subjects. He writes that:
“In 2012 I did a story about a guy named Christopher Stephens, who had taken part in an NIH trial of a drug called ketamine for severe depression. We talked about the implications of his story (and photo) being on the Web forever and, after pondering it, he agreed to use his name. The interesting twist came when I did another ketamine story later that year. The website wanted to run one of the photos of him that we already had on file. Legally, we could have. But I tracked him down and got his approval anyway. I wanted to know whether his mental health status had changed and whether he wanted another web reference that would never go away. He gave his permission to use the photo.”
(The BBC devotes a section of its editorial guidelines to the issue of using “archive material involving illness, death, emotional trauma or intimate personal revelation” and the need to “minimise possible distress to surviving contributors, victims and relatives.”)
– Pam Fessler’s reporting on poverty takes her into some very personal places. “I’m often profiling fairly vulnerable people who laying out a lot of personal stuff,” she writes. Pam makes it clear that her report will be on both the radio and the Web — “and that it could expose them to lots of uncomplimentary on-line comments.”
– The Web needs photos. Kainaz Amaria from NPR’s visuals team says she has found “that the more transparent I am about my intentions with people in my story, the more they are willing to share their time and moments. It may sound counterintuitive, but in fact it’s been proven to me every time I step out of the office and into someone’s life. If people trust you, trust you are there to listen and learn, you’ll be surprised at the access they will offer you. … If people say, ‘Wait you are radio, why do you want my picture?’ I usually say something like, ‘Well, many of our stories go online to reach a wider audience and to get more eyeballs. Chances are if they see you, then they will connect with your story.’ ”
Now we come to the situations in which long explanations aren’t needed or might be counterproductive.
Are you trying to book a conversation with a senator? Her press secretary should already know that the interview will be on the radio and the Web. Many people we speak with, in fact, probably only need to be told that the story will be on the Web as well as on the air and that we’ll be glad to send them a link. If it seems to surprise them that we put stories on the Web, the conversation may need to be extended. But otherwise, if the subject isn’t sensitive, they’ve been informed.
Then there are the situations where it’s obvious what reporters are doing and where the people they’re talking to are very familiar with what’s going to be done with what they say. Don Gonyea’s been in a lot of coffee shops. The folks in Iowa, for example, know that if it’s caucus time the guy with the microphone who has come to their table wants to talk politics. Don tells them who he is, who he works for and asks if he can speak with them for a report he’s doing. If the answer is yes, he gets their names first and then starts asking questions. He’s not hiding anything, Don says, but he suspects that a long windup about how names and voices may be on the Web for the foreseeable future could just get in the way of the conversation and wouldn’t be news to media-savvy (and media-weary) Iowans.
So, there’s no “you must say this” dictum. Just be aware that some situations and some people require longer conversations about the potential lingering effects from the reports we do. It comes down to respect, and as the handbook says:
“Everyone affected by our journalism deserves to be treated with decency and compassion. We are civil in our actions and words, avoiding arrogance and hubris. We listen to others. When we ask tough questions, we do so to seek answers — not confrontations. We are sensitive to differences in attitudes and culture. We minimize undue harm and take special care with those who are vulnerable or suffering. And with all subjects of our coverage, we are mindful of their privacy as we fulfill our journalistic obligations.”
(Memmos; Aug. 6, 2014)
This is now one of the most common messages received by newsrooms:
”I’m mentioned in a story on your website. Please remove it or remove any mentions of me from it.”
The reasons tend to be:
”I’m no longer the same person.”
“I don’t want future employers to see it.”
“I didn’t know it would follow me forever.”
The Standards & Practices editor stands ready to field such inquiries (and to coordinate with our legal counsel if necessary). Here’s how we’ll generally respond. The guidance may prove helpful if you’re ever button-holed by a former source. The wording is based on language suggested by the Associated Press Media Editors:
“We are guided by a newsroom policy that says it is inappropriate to remove content from our Website. If a report is inaccurate, we will correct it and state why it has been altered. If relevant new information emerges, we will update or do a follow-up story.
“But our content is a matter of public record and is part of our contract with our audience. To simply remove it from the archive diminishes transparency and trust and, in effect, erases history. This is not a practice engaged in by credible news organizations or in line with ethical journalism.”
(Memmos; Aug. 4, 2014)