Our journalism is most valuable when we marry important truths with engaging narrative. We take enormous pride in the craftsmanship of our storytelling and in the quality of the words, sounds and images we use to help illuminate the world. When we edit, it is to add impact and clarity to our journalism — never to slant or distort. We don’t allow what is sensational to obscure what is significant. We aspire to tell stories that rise above the maudlin and mundane, avoiding shallow sentimentality. Above all, we do our best to faithfully and powerfully convey the truth.
Excellence in storytelling
We’re all fans of polished, beautiful storytelling. But is the quality of our work an ethical matter?
Yes. Our aspirations to excellence are an important element of our ethical decision-making. We believe it’s our responsibility not just to tell stories, but to make them compelling, vivid and clear. That means we carefully edit our interviews to capture the meaning of our sources’ words as clearly as we can. We make tough decisions on the lengths of our stories, keeping in mind both the complexity of the facts at hand and the needs of our audience.
When NPR was launched in 1971, the network made clear its commitment to excellence, saying it would “provide listeners with an aural esthetic experience which enriches and gives meaning to the human spirit.”
That commitment continues, on the air and online.
What are the characteristics of a “signature story” on NPR’s airwaves or website? The bullet points in this 2004 memo1 offer valuable guidance about producing in the field and how to put together the type of excellent pieces that NPR strives for, on air and online. Although this was originally written for show hosts and producers, its guidance is valuable for all reporters:
- Original reporting.
- A character or characters that the audience will care about or find compelling.
- NOT a “what happened” story or same-day reporting.
- Humanizes some social, economic or political issue.
- Provokes in the listener an “I didn’t know that” response, or “this is really interesting or really disturbing.”
- Has enduring importance.
- Exceptional writing.
- The host is clearly engaged and curious on the air [and now, online as well in our blogs].
- Reveals new information.
- Is ambitious and enterprising.
- Offers context and balance.
- Is deep and well told.
- Remains engaging from top to bottom.
- Takes you somewhere – a sense of place is established.
- There is action – real people doing real things.
- Something happens during the story and the details unfold.
- The host’s personality emerges and connects with the audience.
- Our host and reporter’s roles as rigorous journalists are evident.
- An intimacy occurs that is different than what happens in the studio. This is partly the way the interviews are mic’d in the field, and also something that occurs because of a different level of engagement between the host and the subject.
- The story is “sound rich” and textured. [And now, online it includes visuals and other "entry points" that enrich the experience.]
- The production values are extraordinary.
- It touches the head and the heart – and has emotional resonance.
- The “architecture” is strong. There’s a beginning, middle and end.
- The piece is cinematic.
- Source: Margaret Low Smith. [↩]
Engaging, clear and genuinely human storytelling is a hallmark of NPR journalism. But our audience’s perceptions of what we report can be influenced not only by the information we present but also by how we present it. Be cautious of nuances of voice, inflection, sound, visuals and other elements that can transform a straightforward news report into something that feels skewed. Personal observations, such as a display of grief or dismay in the wake of a tragedy, can sometimes be appropriate, but they must always be authentic and must not diminish our credibility.
After an earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, Margaret Low Smith sent a note to NPR correspondent Rob Gifford to tell him how much she appreciated how he covered the earthquake’s aftermath. In his response, as Margaret Low Smith says, “Rob perfectly captures what distinguishes our reporting”:
“It’s hard not to write emotively when you are seeing what we are seeing,” Rob writes. “The difficult part is to channel the emotion so it is not mawkish or shallow, but deep and powerful and raw.”
In The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel offer two helpful rules of thumb to help assess whether a display of emotion in a story is crossing the line:
- First, “it should come at those moments when any other reaction would seem forced – when emotion is the only organic response.” (See, for example, the case study on Jason Beaubien’s report from Haiti.)
- Second, it “should disappear between the moment of discovery of a problem and the subsequent search for information meant to put the event into a broader and deeper context. Once journalists have reacted in a human way to what they have seen, they must compose themselves to search for answers, and that requires all of their skepticism, professionalism, and intellectual independence.”
While covering the devastation in Haiti following the January 2010 earthquake, NPR’s Jason Beaubien was recording a two-way with All Things Considered host Melissa Block from outside a medical tent. As he was describing the heart-breaking scene, his voice choked:
Jason: “Right now I’m outside the Villa Creole Hotel, which is in the Petionville neighborhood an elite neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. And it’s really quite amazing, people have brought their injured children out front here because they know that there are medical – Western medical doctors staying inside. So, people have come here to try to get attention for – mainly for their children. There’s a girl – I’m sorry. There’s a girl right in front of me at the moment. [Jason chokes a bit; his voice breaks.] She’s covered in bandages. She’s laying on just some what are they they’re from the deck chairs that would be by the pool. She’s naked except for what looks like a tablecloth on top of her. And she keeps lifting her head and her lips are shaking.”
(Soundbite of crowd as Jason catches his breath.)
Jason: “Sorry, Melissa.”
Melissa: “That’s okay.”
Jason: “It’s heartbreaking what’s happening here. And there are people just in the streets everywhere. When you drive through, there are tent cities that have been sort of set up just in little lots. People are clearly just living wherever they can.”
The exchange was broadcast, Jason’s moment of emotion included. It was “a display of grief or dismay in the wake of a tragedy” that was clearly authentic. And after that moment, Jason appropriately recomposes himself to address the important context.
Social networking sites, such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter have become an integral part of everyday life for millions of people around the world. As NPR grows to serve an audience that extends well beyond radio listeners, social media are becoming an increasingly important aspect of how we interact with our audiences. Properly used, social networking sites can be valuable parts of our newsgathering and reporting kits because they can speed research and quickly extend a reporter’s contacts. They are also useful transparency tools — allowing us to open up our reporting and editing processes when appropriate. We encourage our journalists to take advantage of them.
But reporting in social media spaces requires the same diligence we exercise when reporting in other environments. When NPR bloggers post about breaking news, they do not cite anonymous posts on social media sites — though they may use information they find there to guide their reporting. They carefully attribute the information they cite and are clear about what NPR has and has not been able to confirm.
When NPR correspondents go on the air they may mention discussions they’ve seen on social media sites as reflecting in part the tone or mood or general reaction to an event. But they realize that is not the same as a scientific survey of public opinion or a substitute for the kind of in-depth reporting that leads to a deep understanding of a subject.
And all NPR journalists understand that to get the most out of social media we need to understand those communities. So we respect their cultures and treat those we encounter online with the same courtesy and understanding as anyone we deal with in the offline world. We do not impose ourselves on such sites. We are guests and behave as such.
From Sound Reporting by Jonathan Kern:
Unlike newspapers, which use ellipses to show that quotes have been compressed, or TV interviews, which sometimes include visible video dissolves, radio interviews [and audio interviews on the Web] don’t reveal their edits in any obvious way. … So be very careful that you don’t change the meaning of what someone said when you trim an answer or question. As Sara Sarasohn puts it, the producer has to be faithful to the intentions of both the host and the guest. …
If you’re cutting an interview, it’s understood that you may need to drop questions and answers, or shorten answers, or tighten up questions. But you may be tempted to go too far — collapsing two answers into one, rearranging the order of questions, and so on. When you make such extensive changes, the result may not reflect what actually happened in studio. …
No one in public radio argues that it’s ethical to deceive the listener. What people are constantly trying to define is when deception occurs. After all, the production process necessarily involves a certain amount of manipulation of audio, whether it’s simply picking the actualities out of a raw interview or fading the sound of a farmer’s combine under a reporter’s voice track.
Our art depends on a certain amount of artifice. So how much is too much? Does every ambience bed suggest that the reporter is really on site, and not in the studio? Should a host always make clear to the audience when an interview has been recorded? If a live interview is rebroadcast on a ‘rollover’ of a program, should it be preceded by an announcement that it was previously recorded. Should the entire show start with such an announcement? …
Whether you are a producer, reporter, editor or host, it’s worthwhile at least to discuss these issues, and to try to come to some agreement with your colleagues about which production techniques might be off-limits.
- Does the story have the potential to be great, or just OK?
- Have I done everything I could to make it great? (While keeping all our other principles in mind, of course.)
- Will readers and listeners connect with the story?
- Is this a piece that goes deeper than other news outlets will?
- Does it step beyond the ordinary?
In his “Editor’s Manifesto,” Jonathan Kern reminds us of some of the most common mistakes we make in our writing. Be wary of pitfalls like the ones Jonathan cites here; they sometimes indicate that our reporting or our grasp of a story isn’t as robust as it should be:
- Passive voice: “The Bush administration is taking a hit for its position on global warming.” Who’s doing the hitting? We can’t picture the players if they’re not named.
- Cliches and shopworn phrases: “This decision comes in the wake of a ruling last week,” “the long-simmering dispute has provoked a storm of controversy,” “investors have been taken for a wild ride by the roller coaster stock market,” “public school teachers are leaving in droves” – these are just a few examples of the hundreds of modular phrases journalists use to write with a minimum of effort. It’s understandable: the reporters and news writers are under deadline pressure, and these are the phrases that spring to mind. The editor’s job is not to let them get away with it.
- Generalities: Keep a sharp eye out for phrases like, “Most people have never heard of,” “Many people think,” “The conventional wisdom is,” and their ilk. They are often simply wrong, and rarely convey much real information.
- Vague attributions: Vague phrases like “officials say,” “analysts say,” and “critics say” suggest sloppy reporting. Editors should push reporters to be as specific as possible.
- Jargon and overcomplexity: Part of our job is to make the complex clear. Falling back on technical language might be a sign that we don’t yet understand something well enough to distill it clearly for our audience.
Excellence in news judgment
Some things are givens:
- NPR will be on top of the news. We make sure our listeners and online users have the latest information.
- NPR will break news. We take great pride in telling people things they don’t know.
- NPR will explain events. Listeners and online users will come away understanding what’s happening and why.
- NPR will choose stories and tell them in ways that surprise and delight.
Those are among the factors that drive our thinking about the stories we do and don’t cover.
Recall NPR’s mission: “to create a more informed public, one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures.”
As an NPR editor once wrote, “Our decisions about what to cover will be made with intelligence and imagination, seeking coherence and meaning amidst the jumble of events.”
Whether producing a show or a home page, a radio segment or a video story, we distinguish our journalism by striving to reflect the full spectrum of world events and human affairs, not just a single facet.