To inspire confidence in our journalism, it is critical that we give the public the tools to evaluate our work. We reveal as much as we practically can about how we discover and verify the facts we present. We strive to make our decision-making process clear to the public, especially when we find ourselves wrestling with tough choices. We disclose any relationships, whether with partners or funders, that might appear to influence our coverage.
Revealing our process
March 1, 2017
By Sara Goo
Deputy Managing Editor, Digital News
At NPR, we believe deeply in some core principles. Those include accountability and transparency.
We must apply those principles to our bylines.
Our goal is to ensure that NPR bylines make clear to readers who created the work, whether it’s a news article, video or photo essay. That’s transparency.
Transparency fosters accountability – for any errors we make and for the praise that follows when we get a scoop.
We haven’t been applying the principles as well as we should. Sometimes, a script written by a reporter for a broadcast piece serves as the starting point for the story’s digital version but is then reworked and rewritten (with additional reporting) by another NPR journalist. Who gets the byline? Many times, it’s been only the originating reporter. The other journalist has gone unacknowledged.
This is our starting point: Bylines should go to the journalists who contributed the bulk of the work we publish. They recognize and include a wide variety of people: correspondents, station reporters, hosts, researchers, digital producers, audio producers, data journalists, photojournalists, developers and others.
With that in mind, we say:
All stories published on NPR.org should have a byline. Stories don’t write themselves. With few exceptions, perhaps in the case of security to protect a reporter who is on assignment in a dangerous place, we should always include a byline. There should be few reasons to have an “NPR Staff” byline.
The person who writes the story gets the byline or comes first. Readers assume a byline reflects the name of the person who wrote the story. That’s a simple fact.
While many stories are reported and written only for our digital audience, there are still some stories that begin as radio pieces. But the reporters heard in broadcast pieces aren’t always the same reporters who write the stories that appear online. There are many ways our reporting gets published on NPR.org, and many times there’s a lot of collaboration among our journalists.
Readers should know who wrote a story, and that writer’s name should come first. That fairly reflects the careful work of framing a story and selecting the parts of the story that are most appealing to readers. In practice that means:
- If a correspondent or producer reports and writes a broadcast piece and then turns in a written version that is edited for readers online, that correspondent or producer gets the byline.
- Sometimes a correspondent or producer reports and writes a broadcast piece, and the script serves as a starting point for other platforms – but that work is substantially rewritten and supplemented with other material by another NPR journalist. In that scenario, the journalist who did that substantial work should get the first byline. (Who decides? In most cases, it’s a collegial decision by those journalists. More on that process below.)
- When a writer takes a host’s radio interview and selects the best questions and answers or decides to write a story about the interview, there are two ways to handle the byline issue. If the host is heavily involved in the process, there could be a dual byline – the journalists and their editor can work out whose name goes first. If the host is not heavily involved, the piece should always reference that host and the program high in the story (“Jane Doe told Morning Edition host David Greene that …”).
- There is always room for judgment. There are cases when a correspondent or producer has a scoop or other critical information but does not have time to write for all platforms. That person still deserves a co-byline. Also, it may be important for other reasons (source building, for example) that an NPR journalist’s name be in the byline field.
NPR journalists should be generous about bylines. The guiding principle here is that we give credit where credit is due to one another. We recognize that on-air work isn’t the only work that matters. That’s why we encourage discussion among all of those involved in our reports about who should get a byline, and that should become part of the workflow for the stories we publish. Those discussions should be collegial.
Byline bios. All bylines should be linked to a short bio of the journalist. That reinforces our commitment to transparency.
Contributors. Non-NPR staffers who create content we publish should have bylines, and we should be consistent in explaining who they are and their background as relevant to the content that we are publishing. Contributors should not have byline bios.
Member station bylines. If we can’t link from a byline to a bio of a reporter from a member station, we will add an editor’s note to the end of the report. That note should explain who the reporter is and link to any bio of that reporter on the station’s website or to the reporter’s Twitter page. Example: Martin DiCaro, @MartinDiCaro, is a transportation reporter with NPR member station WAMU in Washington, D.C. He reported from Bethesda, Md.
Contributor lines. In some cases, journalists who contribute original reporting and writing deserve to be recognized, but the contributions are not substantial enough to warrant a byline. We should give credit to these journalists. If a journalist’s work is not cited in the text of the story, the story should include a contributor line. Example: Science reporter Alison Kodjak and All Things Considered producer Mallory Yu contributed to this report.
For stories reported by multiple reporters in different locations, their locations should be noted at the end of the story. This provides transparency to the reader about where our reporters are gathering information. Example: Eleanor Beardsley contributed to this report from Paris; John Burnett contributed from Austin, Texas.
Who decides who gets a byline? NPR journalists should be generous with one another’s contributions to a story and discuss bylines among themselves. If there is a question or a conflict, the editor of the story should decide. If need be, the standards and practices editor and deputy managing editor, digital should be consulted.
Standards & Practices Editor Mark Memmott contributed to this post.
NPR’s “standard out cue” policy is either to SOC from the place where the reporter is filing or, if the reporter is no longer there, to SOC generically (“Joe Smith, NPR News”) and establish the “place” of the story in the intro and body of the story itself.
Update on Feb. 18, 2015:
There is flexibility when we are doing FEATURE REPORTS. That is: When a correspondent has done all the reporting in one place, that reporter – in consultation with his/her editor – can SOC “Joe Smith, NPR News, Stockholm” even if he/she is no longer in that location. The introduction to the piece should include a reference to the recent reporting trip (“… NPR’s Joe Smith has just returned from a reporting trip in Sweden”) to make clear the reporter is not there when the report airs. This SOC exception for radio feature reporting cannot be used if the material in a piece has been gathered from multiple sources or locations.
We tell listeners about the circumstances of an interview when that information will help put the piece in context and add to the listener or reader’s understanding (such as when the interview took place if it was either before or shortly after a key event, the fact that someone was speaking to us while on the fly, etc.). Whenever it’s not obvious (but important to know) how an interview was obtained, we should make it clear.
When our stories include tape or material from an earlier story, we identify it as such. The listener should not be left to think that any archival or previously obtained audio was gathered in the context of the current piece. As an example, a story updating a controversy surrounding an individual would be misleading if it included new assertions of fact but only used past statements by that individual and failed to identify them as such.
Much of the work NPR journalists do to gather, verify and present our journalism is necessarily outside the view of our audience. But we must always give our audience a sense of how we’ve developed the stories we deliver. We never hide our reporting behind opaque evasions such as “NPR has learned.” And if a story has occasioned a long conversation with multiple editors about how to handle an ethical tough spot, that might be a clue that the story should explain some of the decisions we made.
When we attribute information to anonymous sources, it is assumed that these are our sources and that we have obtained the information firsthand from them. If this is not the case, and we are referring to reports in other news outlets based on anonymous sources of theirs, we are meticulous about attributing the information to those other outlets and we describe as fully as possible who those sources are.
When a decision is made to use information that we have obtained from a source that must remain anonymous, we describe in as much detail as we can (without revealing so much that we effectively identify that person) how they know this information, their motivations (if any) and any other biographical details that will help a listener or reader evaluate the source’s credibility.
It is never enough to say “NPR has learned” something. It is not enough to report that “officials say” something, or that some detail is “reportedly” true. If it is important for listeners or readers to know, for example, what political party the source is from, we report that information. If it is important to know what agency the source is from, we report that. If it is important to know which side of an issue the source represents, we report that. We push to get as much detail as we can about how the source knows this information, and to get the source’s agreement to report as much of that detail as possible. Was she in the room when the meeting happened? Does he have a copy of the report? Did he participate in the investigation?
Individual NPR journalists — reporters, producers, bloggers and others — do not on their own have the authority to assure any individual that information he gives us anonymously will be reported on our airwaves or by NPR.org.
For sure, sometimes in the course of reporting we gather important information that a source will only reveal if the conversation is “off the record.” But the decision as to whether that information will be reported by NPR can only be made in consultation with an editor. As the level of importance of the information rises, so should the level of editor who is pulled into the conversation. There is no hard-and-fast rule. When in doubt, editors should always err on the side of caution and consult with the next person above them.
If a reporter and editor know ahead of time that a key interview can only be done if the source is granted anonymity, they must have a conversation in advance with a senior editor and make the case for granting it.
No attacks. In our coverage, anonymous or unnamed sources generally cannot make pejorative comments about the character, reputation, or personal qualities of another individual, or derogatory statements about an institution. We don’t use such material in our stories, with rare exceptions. (If an individual is blowing the whistle on significant misdeeds or making an allegation of sexual assault, we may decide to air the person’s claims. But we would only make such a decision after careful deliberation with senior news managers.)
No disguises. We may withhold a source’s name who talks to us on tape or on the record, if that individual might be put in danger, legal jeopardy or face some other serious threat if their name is revealed. We may refer to the person without using a last name, if he or she is comfortable with that degree of anonymity and if we decide the situation meets our criteria for granting anonymity. But we don’t use pseudonyms to replace their real name.
No offers. Occasionally in the course of our reporting, a source will agree to share information only if it’s not attributed to him or her. Journalists should use their good judgment to determine whether the information merits such a decision. However, we do not begin our quest for interviews by promising to keep a source anonymous or off the record. Our goal is to get as much information as possible on the record.
Before we rely on information from anonymous sources, we press them hard on exactly what they know and how they know it — and we press them hard for as detailed a description as possible of who they are and their motivation (if any) to use in our reports. Our goal is to tell listeners and readers as much as we can about why this person is being quoted.
So, for example, “a senior White House official who was at the meeting and heard what the president said,” is the type of language we use. “An official” is not.
We use information from anonymous sources to tell important stories that otherwise would go unreported. This is not a solo decision – the editors and producers of these stories must be satisfied that the source is credible and reliable, and that there is a substantial journalistic justification for using the source’s information without attribution. This requires both deciding whether it is editorially justified to let the person speak anonymously, and being satisfied that this person is who the piece says he is and is in a position to know about what he’s revealing. We should never be in the position of having to verify these things after a story has been broadcast or published.
Although NPR journalists do agree to talk to sources on background when necessary, NPR’s strong preference is to have sources stay “on the record.” Before any such information is reported, reporters must make every reasonable effort to get it on the record — if not from that source, then from somewhere else.