We take full responsibility for our work, so we must always be ready and willing to answer for it. Just as careful attention to our sources makes a story stronger, careful listening to our public makes our journalism better. So we welcome questions or criticisms from our stakeholders and to the best of our ability, we respond. Mistakes are inevitable. When we make them, we correct them forthrightly, reflect on what happened, and learn from them.
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.
Egregious mistakes — for example, reporting someone’s death when they are in fact still alive or a mistake that could have legal consequences (defamation) — demand immediate correction on the air and/or online (if the information was also posted on NPR.org).
NPR’s legal department should be consulted immediately about mistakes that might have legal consequences — and especially if a purported mistake is brought to our attention by a lawyer or the subject of our reporting and they are claiming or implying that NPR is liable for any damages. When in doubt, contact the legal team. (Look for LegalAlert in the NPR internal email address book.)
All corrections will be reported to the NPR Library and to the Managing Editor and Deputy Managing Editor of NPR.org so that transcripts can be amended and online reports corrected. All corrections are posted at NPR.org. As a rule, we don’t make “silent” corrections to our stories. We make corrections to help keep the public accurately informed, not to absolve ourselves of our mistakes.
Interacting with the public
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.
Whether in an NPR newscast or a tweet, “you always have to take into consideration what you’re saying, what you know, what you don’t know, and be thoughtful about not making libelous comments whatever the medium.”1
In many cases, a journalist will be legally responsible for any statement he or she repeats, even if the statement is attributed to another source. There are a few exceptions, and one of them is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects news organizations from defamation liability for content that’s created by a third party. Many experts believe this protection would extend to retweets. Citizen Media Law Project co-founder David Ardia put it this way in a Poynter.org story: “So if a journalist or news organization were to retweet a defamatory statement, they would not be held accountable. If, however, they added a defamatory remark as part of the retweet, they could be.”
So, in theory NPR would be protected if someone retweets a post that says something defamatory or inaccurate about someone. But be careful about adding comments that would make the message your own and destroy immunity.
But beyond the legal implications, it is important to consider our listeners and readers and the fact that they trust that the information we’re giving them is as accurate as we can make it. This extends to the information we tweet, retweet, blog, tumble or share in any other way on social media. And that’s why we don’t simply pass along information — even via something as seemingly innocent as a retweet — if we doubt the credibility of the source or news outlet. We push for confirmation. We look for other sources. We reach out to those closer to the story. In other words, we do some reporting.
- Source: NPR’s Ashley Messenger, in an article on Poynter.org. [↩]
Protect yourself: Use the highest level of privacy tools available to control access to your personal activity when appropriate, but don’t let that make you complacent. It’s just not that hard for someone to bypass those safeguards and make public what you thought was private.
Don’t be careless. Keep your opinions to yourself. Imagine what you say or write landing in an AP story or in The Washington Post, and imagine the damage that could cause you or NPR.
Case studies | Key questions
If your work includes coverage of politics and social issues, can you “follow” or “friend” a political party or advocacy group?
Yes, if you’re doing it to keep up on what that party or group is doing. And you should be following those on the other side of the issues as well.
We know that everything we write or receive on a social media site is public. Anyone with access to the Web can potentially see what we’re doing. And regardless of how careful we are in trying to keep them separate, our professional lives and our personal lives overlap when we’re online.
The line between private and public activity has been blurred by these tools. Information from a Facebook page, blog entries, and tweets — even if they’re intended to be personal messages to friends or family — can be easily circulated beyond the intended audiences. The content, therefore, represents us and NPR to the outside world — as do our radio pieces and stories for NPR.org. This applies to the people and organizations we choose to “friend” or “like” online as well. Those are content choices as much as a message or blog post. As in all of all reporting, the NPR Guiding Principles guide our use of social media.
Rule of thumb: You should conduct yourself in social media forums with an eye to how your behavior or comments might appear if we were called upon to defend them as a news organization. In other words, don’t behave any differently online than you would in any other public setting.
And a final caution – when in doubt, consult with your supervisor.