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There’s been a flurry of appeals to the Standards & Practices editor and the DMEs in recent weeks about identifying someone we’ve spoken to by a first name only.
At least once, a first-name-only got on the air without being discussed with either the DMEs or that S&P scold.
There’s not really a distinction between a first-name-only and anonymity. So this passage from our guidelines applies:
“If a reporter and editor know ahead of time that a key interview can only be done if the source is granted anonymity, they must have a conversation in advance with a senior editor and make the case for granting it.”
Senior editor = a supervising senior editor, a DME or the Standards & Practices nudge. Senior supervising editors can weigh the issues and make the call on this. They should then flag the decision to the DMEs and the S&P. That way the DMEs and S&P can raise concerns if needed, but just as importantly can keep a handle on how often this is happening across the desks and shows.
Another important set of words in that passage: “key interview.” (Note: We realize that sometimes it isn’t known ahead of time that a person won’t want us to use a full name. In that case, the discussion about whether to use information from that interview will obviously happen afterward.)
We should be very sparing in our granting of such status and the appearance of first-name-onlys in our reports. Listeners and readers expect us to identify the people we interview. Among the questions to consider:
– Is the person going to be in danger if we use a full name?
– Is the subject sensitive and among those that could come back to haunt the person because the story will live on the Web forever?
– How hard have we tried to get others with equally good stories who have no problem with the use of their full names?
If after a discussion it’s decided that we should grant first-name-only (or anonymous) status, then we have to agree on the language that tells listeners and readers why we’re doing that. We should always explain why someone isn’t being fully identified. It might be because:
– She fears retribution from police.
– He’s concerned his chronic condition could make employers wary of hiring him.
– Her family doesn’t know about what happened.
– He would only discuss his medical condition if his full name was withheld.
You get the idea. It’s also the case that:
“NPR does not name individuals who are the alleged victims of sexual assaults. There are exceptions at times – such as certain instances when such an individual goes public with his/her identity – and NPR editors will judge these instances on a case-by-case basis.”
Related reminders from the handbook:
– No offers. “Occasionally in the course of our reporting, a source will agree to share information only if it’s not attributed to him or her. Journalists should use their good judgment to determine whether the information merits such a decision. However, we do not begin our quest for interviews by promising to keep a source anonymous or off the record. Our goal is to get as much information as possible on the record.”
– No pseudonyms. “When we decide to withhold a source’s name from a story, we don’t invent a pseudonym for that source. Again, our job is to present factual — not fabricated — information.”
(Memmos; Aug. 28, 2014)
Click here to see (and print if you need to) a copy of the latest form for obtaining “consent, authorization, release and waiver” before interviewing minors. We’ll be placing it on the Wiki too.
Here’s a reminder, from the handbook:
“Be sure to consider legal issues when dealing with minors (generally defined as anyone under the age of 18). An interview of a minor about a sensitive subject requires us to secure permission from at least one of the minor’s parents (preferably both) or a legal guardian. Examples of sensitive subjects include cheating, sexual activity, involvement in gangs or crime, difficult family relationships, probation violation, out-of-wedlock pregnancy or parenthood, victims’ sexual abuse and similar topics that could have legal ramifications or lead to embarrassment. An interview of a minor in a special custodial situation, such as foster care, juvenile detention, or holding facilities for illegal immigrants, requires the consent of the person who has custody of the minor. Utah also requires the consent of both the custodian of the juvenile facility and the minor’s parent.
“An interview on a non-sensitive topic (normal childhood activities, sports, book, movies, trips to the zoo, baseball and the like) does not require consent. Generally however, any interview on school premises will require the permission of the school authorities.
“In cases where there is even a hint of doubt about whether to get consent, contact our legal team (look for LegalAlert in the NPR internal email address book).”
(Memmos, Aug. 7, 2014)
The note about “How To Explain Why We Won’t ‘Take Down’ A Story” prompted several emails suggesting it would be helpful to offer guidance on what to say to people — before we interview them — about the fact that our stories go on the Web as well as the radio.
There’s a case to be made that some people who have come to regret speaking to news outlets did not fully understand that what they said will live on indefinitely thanks to the Web. Perhaps if that had been made clear to them they would have declined to be interviewed, been more careful about what they said or at the very least would have had no reason to object later.
After sampling opinions from various parts of the newsroom, it’s obvious there is no magical sentence that works in all situations and it’s clear that long explanations are not always necessary, possible or helpful.
This note is not intended to cover reporting done in war zones or situations when stopping to have a long conversation about the long tail of the Web isn’t safe or practical. Getting the permission of parents or guardians to interview minors is also a separate subject (and we make it clear when we get such consent that the material will be on the Web).
With those caveats in mind, we obviously start conversations that hopefully will turn into interviews by identifying ourselves. As the handbook says, “journalism should be done in plain sight.”
But as for what to say after we introduce ourselves, rather than try to come up with a one-size-fits-all approach, here are some thoughts.
– Nell Greenfieldboyce comes at the issue as someone who reports about complicated and often sensitive subjects. “If the person is talking to me about, say, their child’s health, I really caution them,” she writes. “I point out that years in the future, someone could search on their child’s name and read this story. Are they really OK with that?
She suggests that in sensitive situations it may be wise to say something like this:
“Before we start, I have to ask you: you know you are being recorded, right? And that I am a radio reporter and the reason I am recording is that I may use part of this tape in my broadcast radio story, just like a newspaper reporter uses a quote? And you should know that we also put our stories up on our website, so this isn’t just for radio, but the audio will go online and there will be a story with it, and you may be quoted by name and your voice may be used. Are you OK with all that?”
Nell adds that she knows “there is a concern that if we fully inform people, they will not want to talk to us. I find it’s just the opposite, that the more I try to talk to sources about the effect on them, the more firm they are in their conviction that they want to talk and the more they trust me.”
– Jon Hamilton also deals with sensitive subjects. He writes that:
“In 2012 I did a story about a guy named Christopher Stephens, who had taken part in an NIH trial of a drug called ketamine for severe depression. We talked about the implications of his story (and photo) being on the Web forever and, after pondering it, he agreed to use his name. The interesting twist came when I did another ketamine story later that year. The website wanted to run one of the photos of him that we already had on file. Legally, we could have. But I tracked him down and got his approval anyway. I wanted to know whether his mental health status had changed and whether he wanted another web reference that would never go away. He gave his permission to use the photo.”
(The BBC devotes a section of its editorial guidelines to the issue of using “archive material involving illness, death, emotional trauma or intimate personal revelation” and the need to “minimise possible distress to surviving contributors, victims and relatives.”)
– Pam Fessler’s reporting on poverty takes her into some very personal places. “I’m often profiling fairly vulnerable people who laying out a lot of personal stuff,” she writes. Pam makes it clear that her report will be on both the radio and the Web — “and that it could expose them to lots of uncomplimentary on-line comments.”
– The Web needs photos. Kainaz Amaria from NPR’s visuals team says she has found “that the more transparent I am about my intentions with people in my story, the more they are willing to share their time and moments. It may sound counterintuitive, but in fact it’s been proven to me every time I step out of the office and into someone’s life. If people trust you, trust you are there to listen and learn, you’ll be surprised at the access they will offer you. … If people say, ‘Wait you are radio, why do you want my picture?’ I usually say something like, ‘Well, many of our stories go online to reach a wider audience and to get more eyeballs. Chances are if they see you, then they will connect with your story.’ ”
Now we come to the situations in which long explanations aren’t needed or might be counterproductive.
Are you trying to book a conversation with a senator? Her press secretary should already know that the interview will be on the radio and the Web. Many people we speak with, in fact, probably only need to be told that the story will be on the Web as well as on the air and that we’ll be glad to send them a link. If it seems to surprise them that we put stories on the Web, the conversation may need to be extended. But otherwise, if the subject isn’t sensitive, they’ve been informed.
Then there are the situations where it’s obvious what reporters are doing and where the people they’re talking to are very familiar with what’s going to be done with what they say. Don Gonyea’s been in a lot of coffee shops. The folks in Iowa, for example, know that if it’s caucus time the guy with the microphone who has come to their table wants to talk politics. Don tells them who he is, who he works for and asks if he can speak with them for a report he’s doing. If the answer is yes, he gets their names first and then starts asking questions. He’s not hiding anything, Don says, but he suspects that a long windup about how names and voices may be on the Web for the foreseeable future could just get in the way of the conversation and wouldn’t be news to media-savvy (and media-weary) Iowans.
So, there’s no “you must say this” dictum. Just be aware that some situations and some people require longer conversations about the potential lingering effects from the reports we do. It comes down to respect, and as the handbook says:
“Everyone affected by our journalism deserves to be treated with decency and compassion. We are civil in our actions and words, avoiding arrogance and hubris. We listen to others. When we ask tough questions, we do so to seek answers — not confrontations. We are sensitive to differences in attitudes and culture. We minimize undue harm and take special care with those who are vulnerable or suffering. And with all subjects of our coverage, we are mindful of their privacy as we fulfill our journalistic obligations.”
(Memmos; Aug. 6, 2014)
We’re going to be doing more reporting in coming weeks and months about sexual assaults on campuses, the way the cases are handled by universities and legislation that’s working its way through Congress.
There will probably be several words or phrases that we have to consider carefully as the stories develop.
This came up this morning: “Rape victim” or “rape survivor?”
Here’s how we approached the question. The process may provide guidance not only on this particular issue, but on how to think about others that come up.
– First, we have to be careful about referring to someone as a victim or survivor before there’s evidence (police reports, medical reports, etc.) about what happened. Bear in mind that if there’s a victim/survivor, that means we’re telling our audience that there’s an attacker or attackers. We don’t want to be prejudging. When such stories begin, we’re typically dealing with allegations, not verdicts.
– Second, as we’ve said in other cases (immigration, for example), it’s best not to put labels on people. It is better to focus on acts. So, rather than declare that someone is a survivor or a victim, we should describe what happened or what has been alleged. That simplifies the issue. She’s not a “rape survivor” or “rape victim.” She is a young woman “who was raped” or whom “police say was sexually assaulted in her dorm room.” Again, though, be careful not to prejudge.
– But, if there’s a need to choose, we look at the definitions of the words. According to our go-to dictionary, (Webster’s New World College Dictionary), in this case both words apply:
Survivor: “person or thing that survives; specif., a person who has survived an ordeal or great misfortune.”
Victim: “someone or something killed, destroyed, injured, or otherwise harmed by, or suffering from, some act, condition, or circumstance.”
– We could stop there and use either. However, one of our core values involves “respect in sensitive circumstances”:
“NPR journalists show sensitivity when seeking or using interviews of those affected by tragedy or grief.”
That doesn’t mean we automatically refer to people by the terms or words that they want to be called. On matters that are politically charged, we do not adopt the language of one side over the other’s. But we are sensitive to those who have been seriously injured. And if either word is correct, the sensitive choice is the one that respects their feelings. Many of those who have been sexually assaulted make a forceful case that they are not just victims, they are survivors.
So, on this issue, the guidance would be: a) try not to “label; b) either word is correct; but c) “survivor” is more sensitive to those we are reporting about.
(Memmos; July 31, 2014)
We’ve had several emails from listeners who believe they heard us refer to what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 as only a “crash.”
“I feel that the use of the word crash in this case is ambiguous at best and in my mind relaxes and deflects responsibility,” one person writes.
“I am dismayed and disturbed by the way that this disaster is referred to as a ‘crash,’ ” says another. “The passengers were murdered, not merely killed. Call it what it is.”
The emailers’ basic point: The word “crash” applies when a plane comes down because of bad weather, mechanical failure or perhaps pilot error — not when it is shot out of the sky.
After looking through scripts from Newscast and the shows, it would seem that some listeners who were offended didn’t hear the words that quickly followed about what brought the plane down. But in at least one case, it wasn’t until half-way into a nearly 4-minute long conversation that we mentioned what caused the “crash” we had referred to in the introduction.
The long gap between the reference to a “crash” and the mention of what caused it makes the listeners’ concerns understandable.
Here’s some guidance, based on conversations involving several editors and a look through various approaches:
As we’ve said in other instances, it’s usually best to convey actions. So, instead of simply calling it a “crash,” describe what happened.
Dave Mattingly began a Newscast spot today this way: “FIVE DAYS AFTER THE SHOOT-DOWN OF MALAYSIA AIRLINES’ FLIGHT 17 OVER EASTERN UKRAINE …”
On Morning Edition, Steve Inskeep introduced a piece with these words: “A train arrived [today] in Ukraine’s second largest city. Its cargo was the remains of hundreds of people. They were killed when a Malaysian passenger jet was shot down last week.”
On The Two-Way, Eyder Peralta referred at the top of his post to “the downed Malaysia Airlines plane”
So, does the word “crash” have a place in this story? “Crash site” is being commonly used to describe the scene. Listeners and readers would certainly understand what we mean when we say that. But Didi Schanche offers this thought: “Wreckage field” or “debris field” are more accurate since it appears the plane did not crash in one piece — but, rather, broke up in midair.
(Memmos; July 22, 2014)
Everyone’s thoughts would be appreciated on this:
Over the weekend a piece on WESAT had, in the show’s first feed, a brief bit of “Taps” playing underneath while the NPR correspondent described the scene in Normandy.
A producer thought there might be a problem, and our “Style, Grammar & Usage” Wiki confirmed there was:
“TAPS music: Do not talk over ‘Taps.’ If you use the beginning bars, please fade down and out. You may start speaking on the fade but do not allow it to stay under you as you read your lines. If you use the final bars of taps, please be sure to end speaking before you bring them up. Do not use as a bed under your read. (Dave Pignanelli, 11/11/11)”
We devote a section of our Ethics Handbook to “Respect.” The guidance on “Taps,” which came after listener input, is in line with our concern about showing proper respect. Military personnel know that when “Taps” is played, they are to “render a salute from the beginning until the conclusion of the song. Civilians should place their right hand over their heart during this time.” Silence is expected.
The question is, are their other types of occasions or ceremonies that might lead us to refrain from talking over the sound?
– The reading of names on 9/11? We have talked over them.
– The choir at a service for victims of the Boston bombings? We’ve talked over them too.
I’m not suggesting we need a list or some sort of rule. But as I said at the top, thoughts would be welcome.
(Memmos, June 11, 2014)
The murders Friday night in Santa Barbara have once again raised questions about whether we need to keep using words such as “alleged” or “suspected” when reporting about a now-deceased person who has been identified by authorities as the killer.
Here’s my take:
At some point — and we reached that fairly quickly in this instance — it just makes common sense to stop inserting those words.
And as long as we properly attribute what we’re reporting, in a case such as this we don’t need to keep saying and writing things such as “alleged.”
Several constructions could be used, including:
– “The young man who went on a killing spree in Santa Barbara, identified by authorities as Elliot Rodger … ”
– “Elliot Rodger, who police say killed six people before taking his own life …”
– “The young man who investigators say murdered six people Friday in California before killing himself …”
Some questions to ask before any shift in language:
– Has the person been positively and publicly identified as the killer by proper authorities?
– Have authorities ruled out the possibility of someone else being involved?
– Were there many witnesses? (In other words, did dozens or more see this unfold?)
– Is there considerable video evidence? And, as in this case, a long manifesto?
– Has the inevitable confusion that comes when such events happen been resolved? Often, for example, witnesses and authorities initially get things wrong — including the name of the person responsible.
This is not to say that it necessarily hurts to be cautious and slip in an “alleged” or “suspected.” But as we’ve discovered now several times, at some point it begins to raise more questions in listeners’ and readers’ minds if we keep using such words when it’s become obvious that the person responsible has been identified and is dead. A reasonable consumer of our news might wonder if we’re implying he didn’t do it.
What about a person who’s still alive, such as the young man who will be tried for the Boston bombings? He has not been convicted. Obviously, we can’t declare he’s guilty. That’s for a jury to do. We can keep referring to him as a suspect and report about what he’s alleged to have done. But common sense applies there as well. We might say, for example:
– “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who goes on trial today for the Boston bombings …”
– “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who federal prosecutors say conspired with his brother to …”
– “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who could receive the death penalty if he’s convicted of …”
– “Prosecutors say Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother …”
A related note: It isn’t accurate to refer to Elliot Rodger only as a “shooter.” Police say his first three victims were stabbed to death.
But editors here have also been discussing whether “shooter” is even the right word to use about those responsible for mass murders involving guns. I’d like to hear whether you think it can sometimes sound like too “light” a description for such a person or whether it’s one of several words — including “gunman,” “attacker,” and “killer” — that can work interchangeably.
(Memmos, May 27, 2014)
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.
Be sure to consider legal issues when dealing with minors (generally defined as anyone under the age of 18). An interview of a minor about a sensitive subject requires us to secure permission from at least one of the minor’s parents (preferably both) or a legal guardian. Examples of sensitive subjects include cheating, sexual activity, involvement in gangs or crime, difficult family relationships, probation violation, out-of-wedlock pregnancy or parenthood, victims’ sexual abuse and similar topics that could have legal ramifications or lead to embarrassment. An interview of a minor in a special custodial situation, such as foster care, juvenile detention, or holding facilities for illegal immigrants, requires the consent of the person who has custody of the minor. Utah also requires the consent of both the custodian of the juvenile facility and the minor’s parent.
An interview on a non-sensitive topic (normal childhood activities, sports, book, movies, trips to the zoo, baseball and the like) does not require consent. Generally however, any interview on school premises will require the permission of the school authorities.
In cases where there is even a hint of doubt about whether to get consent, contact our legal team (look for LegalAlert in the NPR internal email address book).
NPR welcomes feedback from listeners and readers.
They can be words of praise that help us understand what the audience appreciates and whether we are fulfilling our obligation to serve the public. Sometimes they are as encouraging as the comment from one All Things Considered listener about a June 2011 report by Howard Berkes on the latest news in the investigation into West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine tragedy.
“That coal mine disaster is one of those stories that usually comes and goes in American journalism,” wrote Tom Blackburn of Florida. “In the near future, those stories may even stop coming, since none of the victims were rich and famous, and some of the malefactors are. But Mr. Berkes stuck with it, got to know the real people involved, probably knows more about it by this point than the officials he interviews and is doing a wonderful job of being both a reporter and a mensch.”
But we can learn from criticism as well.