‘Memmos’: Memmott’s Missives & Musings
Standards & Practices Editor Mark Memmott writes occasional notes about the issues journalists encounter and the way NPR handles them. They often expand on topics covered in the Ethics Handbook.
From the Standards & Practices Outbox
This lede in The Two-Way on Friday underscores why it’s important to stick to the facts and avoid speculation when news is breaking:
“German federal prosecutors say the bombing of a soccer team’s bus in Dortmund, Germany, was carried out by a man apparently attempting to manipulate the team’s stock for profit. The 28-year-old man has been arrested and charged with attempted murder, among other things.”
So much for the supposed “terrorist involvement” that had been the subject of earlier news reports.
We skillfully avoided going too far in this case. The day of the attack, The Two-Way was clear: “Police and prosecutors have not identified who is behind the explosions.” Also, the blog quoted the Dortmund police chief saying “I do not want to suggest that this was a terrorist attack.”
On Newscast that day, Lucian Kim reported that “authorities say it’s too early to speculate on the motive behind the blasts.”
Caution is wise even when things seem obvious. The day Aaron Hernandez was found dead, there was discussion about whether we should immediately say it was a suicide. We chose not to, even though the circumstances pointed to that conclusion. The better choice was to simply report what was known about what happened and let the authorities figure out if it was a suicide (the eventual ruling: it was).
(“Memmos;” April 24, 2017)
Everything in this note has been said before, but needs to be said again. Click the links to read more.
– 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?
2. Senior editors must be consulted before we put anonymous voices in our stories.
“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.”
“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.”
Note: When someone is using a pseudonym they created to hide their identity, we might refer to them by that name if we believe they need to be kept anonymous. In those cases, we explain to the audience what we’re doing.
4. Explain, explain, explain.
We “describe anonymous sources as clearly as [we] can without identifying them” and we explain why they need anonymity.
Note: “NPR has learned” is never enough.
5. 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.)”
6. 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.”
There is more on this subject at http://ethics.npr.org/. Just type “anonymous” or “anonymity” in the search box at the top of the page.
(“Memmos;” April 18, 2017)
Do not use the word “battleship” unless you’re referring to the classic game or have checked in with our Pentagon team to be sure you’re using the word correctly. This is important: There are no active battleships in the U.S. Navy’s fleet. That means there are no battleships among the group sailing toward the Korean peninsula. The only U.S. battleships still around are museum pieces.
What is sailing to the region?
The Carl Vinson Strike Group – the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and its escorts, which include two destroyers and a cruiser.
(“Memmos;” April 17, 2017)
We’ve done pretty well so far, but it’s important to remember and say that the man being sought for the murder in Cleveland is a suspect. “Allegedly” is also an important word at this point.
And: We shouldn’t just flatly state that Stephens is the man in the video or is the man who uploaded it. That’s what police and other authorities are saying, so attribute that kind of information to them. The same goes for the man’s claim to have committed other murders. Police and other authorities are saying the man who claims that is Stephens. Let’s keep attributing that.
One attribution may be enough if the things he’s suspected of doing are introduced with something like this: “Police in Cleveland say the man, whom they’ve identified as Steve Stevens, allegedly …”
(“Memmos;” April 17, 2017)
On long drives from Virginia to New York State and back in the past month, I listened to our coverage of the Gorsuch* confirmation hearings, analyses of the health care debate, breaking news about the missile strikes in Syria and Alice Cooper talking about Chuck Berry. I felt fully informed and entertained. Thank you.
Now if, as happened to me, you get to a point where you need relief from the serious side of the news, here’s a recommendation: Listen to and read Alina Selyukh’s story about the couple who are preserving the emails they’ve been writing to their daughter, who’s almost three years old. It tugged at the heart of at least one aging editor.
This also happened to me during one of those long drives: I heard people ask on our air whether the missile strike was a “one-off” and I began to wonder where that expression came from and just what it means. William Safire reported that it began as a British manufacturing term meaning “the only item of its kind.” He concluded that one-off has become a way of saying something is unique in an age when the word unique has been mistakenly corrupted by modifiers such as “very, quite, rather, almost [and] practically.” Webster’s defines one-off as “something that is one of a kind, not part of a series.” Merriam-Webster’s definition seems to fit best in the current conversation: “limited to a single time, occasion, or instance.”
A correct usage: “Based on things she’s said to him in the past, Korva’s compliment to Mark was a one-off.”
An incorrect usage: “Korva’s perfect pronunication of Eyjafjallajokull was a one-off.” (It couldn’t be, because she nailed it many times.)
* REMINDER: Our official pronouncer is “GORE-such.” Not “GORE-sitch.” You can hear him say his name here. (H/T Melissa Block)
(“Memmos;” April 11, 2017)
It’s incorrect to refer to Mar-a-Lago as if it’s a town or city. That also doesn’t give enough information to identify where the place is.
A few words are needed – most importantly, “Palm Beach.”
Here are some examples of how to do it:
- As Greg Allen has noted, Mar-a-Lago is “a private club [Trump] owns in Palm Beach, Fla.”
- Jim Zarroli has simply called it “President Trump’s Palm Beach resort.”
- Jessica Taylor has referred to it as President Trump’s “Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla.”
(“Memmos;” March 31, 2017)
The same guidance that applied during the Obama-era health care debate applies for the Trump-era tax debate.
“Reform” is not a neutral word. It’s used by partisans as they make the case that something needs to be fixed and that they’ve got a solution. And, as we’ve said, it “has a positive connotation so use it advisedly when referring to an issue that is controversial … (immigration reform, health care reform, welfare reform). Good substitutes: revamp, overhaul, change.”
In other words, proponents can use it. We shouldn’t.
(“Memmos;” March 20, 2017)
The University of Tennessee Chattanooga has said the decision to terminate the employment of reporter Jacqui Helbert was made by university officials, not the news editors at WUTC. The station’s news staff says the decision to remove from WUTC’s website the story that Helbert had done about meetings held by state legislators with students from a Gay-Straight Alliance Club was also made by university officials, not WUTC’s editors. (That story has been archived here.)
Serious questions have been raised about whether university officials were pressured to take those actions by state lawmakers — who could cut state funding to the school and WUTC.
In both cases we at NPR believe the decisions should have been left to the journalists in charge. Taking the decisions about enforcing ethics out of their hands did more to undermine the station’s credibility than the original infraction.
This chain of events underscores why it is critical that newsrooms such as that at WUTC not be subject to pressure from the institutions that hold their licenses, the sponsors who give them financial support or the politicians who sometimes don’t like the stories they hear or read.
To be sure, Helbert should have said explicitly to the legislators that she was there to report a story for WUTC. That said, the fact that she was wearing press credentials and was holding a 14-inch long microphone that she moved around as people spoke would be obvious signs to any public officials that they were being recorded — most likely for some type of public posting.
Her mistake was not, her editors say, a firing offense. Instead, it was a learning moment for a new reporter and she was counseled about her mistake. Her editors did not view the story as fatally flawed — she had not hidden her equipment or misled anyone. They say they would not have removed it from WUTC’s website if they had not been ordered to do so. Removing a story – except in the most extreme circumstances — is a breach of the standards practiced by NPR and other credible news organizations.
We at NPR agree with the editors’ thinking. They should have been allowed to handle the situation as they – the journalists – felt was right. We strongly urge the university and WUTC to reach an agreement that ensures the station’s editorial independence in the future.
(“Memmos;” March 28, 2017)
The Pentagon is dealing with “another scandal involving women in the military,” we said in some intros Tuesday.
Let’s add some words.
The Pentagon is dealing with “another scandal involving the treatment of women in the military.”
Or, the Pentagon is dealing with “another scandal involving sexual harassment of women in the military.”
Though it becomes apparent in the stories, we want to be clear from the start that the women are not the cause of the scandal. Also, we don’t want it to sound as if it’s the women’s presence that’s the problem.
We also may be approaching the point where the first reference could be to the military’s “nude photo scandal” or a similar construction, since the story has been out for a few days.
(“Memmos;” March 15, 2017)
About that storm heading across much of the nation:
- We don’t use The Weather Channel’s names for winter weather events. So, please, don’t refer to this one as “Stella!”
- As we’ve said before, let’s bury all the worn-out winter clichés before they pile up. Those include:
- Big chill
- Brave the elements
- Hunker down
- White stuff
- Old man winter (or Ol’ Man Winter)
- Jack Frost
- Deep freeze
- Nipping at our noses (or anything else)
- Enough is enough
- First flakes
- Winter wonderland
(“Memmos;” March 13, 2017)
As we continue to cover the health care debate, each of our stories and interviews needs to make some things clear and we need to continue to be careful about some language.
For starters, when referring to the law enacted during the Obama administration, it is best to use “Affordable Care Act” on first reference before explaining that it’s also known as Obamacare. A recent survey (Feb 2017) showed that a third of the public thought the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare were two different things (17 percent) or didn’t know if they were the same or different (18 percent).
While it’s OK to say the law is also known as Obamacare, we should be sparing in our use of the Obamacare label in subsequent references. It has swung from being a politically loaded word used by the law’s opponents, to a label embraced by the Obama administration and now back to a politically loaded word.
Meanwhile, the package unveiled this week can be summed up as “the Republican proposal, called the American Health Care Act.”
We can’t get tied up in initialisms, of course. Few will understand if we go on to refer to the Obama-era law as the ACA and the Republican proposal as the AHCA. “The Republican plan” is the easiest subsequent reference.
As during debates in earlier years, we should steer clear of the word “reform” when reporting about the proposal. One person’s reform is another person’s destruction. We settled on “overhaul” as a worthy substitute in the past. Suggestions are welcome for other alternatives.
Contributing: Joe Neel
(“Memmos;” March 7, 2017)
There may be news in coming days about federal funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That’s not a prediction. It’s just an acknowledgement. If it happens, that would put NPR and NPR member stations in the news as well.
Just as we don’t participate in marches or rallies, don’t contribute to political campaigns and do not express our political opinions on social media, we should not be jumping into the middle of a debate about federal funding for public media. (We wouldn’t step into the debates over federal funding for defense, education or anything else, after all.)
If NPR journalists post opinions on social media or show up in other outlets’ news reports making critical comments, this news organization’s credibility will be compromised.
Jarl Mohn, Mike Riksen and others on the business side are making the case for public broadcasting. Member stations are making the case in their communities.
Meanwhile, some of NPR’s journalists will be covering the story. If others here weigh in with their opinions, the credibility of those NPR journalists’ work could be questioned.
We can, of course, post about the facts without opining. What types of things are OK?
- Links to any stories NPR does.
- Links to news reports from other credible outlets.
- Links to any “fact sheets” or similar materials put out by those on both sides of the issue. That includes this page about “Public Radio Finances.”
Obviously, we all care about the financial health of public media. The best thing we can do is to do our work as best we can — and that means showing we can treat news that affects NPR as we would any other story.
(“Memmos;” March 1, 2017)
A few times in recent days we’ve mispronounced the word anti-semitic. The middle syllable is “MIT,” not “MET.” Listen to Audie Cornish and Tom Gjelten, who get it right here.
For you dictionary fans, here’s how Webster’s New World does it: sə-MIT-ɪk.
(“Memmos;” Feb. 28, 2017)
At news organizations across the U.S., including at NPR, journalists and the colleagues who support their work are talking about whether basic journalistic standards and practices still make sense.
Some argue that journalists need to “do something.” That they need to “get involved.” That they should participate in the news as well as cover it.
The other side of the discussion is that journalists, and those who support their work, are already “involved.” That there is nothing more important they could be doing than their jobs. And that it is critical that they hold true to the core principles that have worked so well.
We’re going to be talking about all this in coming days, weeks and months. At lunch, over drinks and during meetings.
We’re planning a series of Q&As with Mike Oreskes and others. The hope is that they’ll be thought-provoking discussions about journalism that everyone at NPR, including those from outside News, will benefit from. If you have suggestions about specific topics we should tackle or speakers we might want to bring in, please tell Scott Montgomery or me.
Meanwhile, as we prepare for those sessions, this is a good time to remind ourselves about the NPR view.
We do not bury the lede in the Ethics Handbook. It begins with this:
“The mission of NPR, in partnership with its member stations, is to create a more informed public, one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas, and culture within the United States and across the globe. To this end, NPR reports, produces, acquires and distributes news, information and other content that meet the highest standards of public service in journalism and cultural expression.”
NPR, the handbook continues:
“Is at its core a news organization. Our news content, whether on the radio, on the web, or in any other form, must attain the highest quality and strengthen our credibility. We take pride in our craft. Our journalism is as accurate, fair and complete as possible. Our journalists conduct their work with honesty and respect, and they strive to be both independent and impartial in their efforts. Our methods are transparent and we will be accountable for all we do.
“We hold those who serve and influence the public to a high standard when we report about their actions. We must ask no less of ourselves. Journalism is a daily process of painting an ever truer picture of the world. Every step of this process – from reporting to editing to presenting information – may either strengthen or erode the public’s trust in us. We work hard to be worthy of that trust and to protect it.”
The key words in those passages were chosen carefully:
- “A more informed public.”
- “Public service.”
- “Accurate, fair and complete.”
- “Honesty and respect.”
- “Independent and impartial.”
- “An ever truer picture.”
- “The public’s trust.”
Our handbook makes a strong case about the importance of our jobs. We have a unique privilege. Think of it this way: There are plenty of other people sounding off on social media, marching in the streets and organizing for or against various things.
But we get to paint those ever truer pictures. We fulfill a public service. Everyone here contributes to the effort, whether you’re part of the newsroom or not.
As we all think about these issues, here are two suggestions:
- Reread the handbook; at least the opening page.
- Revisit the NPR mission statement that Bill Siemering wrote in 1970 — a time of great unrest when many journalists were surely feeling they should “get involved.” Bill underscored the role we play in giving people the information they need to “intelligently participate” in the debates of the day. He said we should help them be “more responsive, informed human beings and intelligent responsible citizens of their communities and the world.”
More to come.
(“Memmos;” Feb. 7, 2017)
The Supreme Court nominee’s last name, per our reporting from those who should know, is pronounced:
That’s Gore, as in Al Gore.
Such, as in “such a fine sight to see.”
Take it easy.
(“Memmos;’ Feb. 2, 2017.)
The next time a politician, press secretary or — yes — president says something that is false, unproven or has no basis in fact, the question will come up:
Do we call it a lie and do we call that person a liar?
Our policy remains the same as it’s been since we put it in writing during the 2016 presidential campaign.
We are not using the L-word.
You can read more about the reasoning here.
Mike Oreskes did say on Morning Edition that no word is “banned” and that NPR has “decided not to use the word lie in most situations.”
Those aren’t loopholes that give correspondents or editors the freedom to decide on their own that the word can be used. Someone from this group (and they all may weigh in) must give the OK: Mike, Edith Chapin, Chris Turpin, Gerry Holmes and Mark Memmott.
(“Memmos;” Jan. 26, 2017)
There will be claims and counterclaims from partisans this weekend about how many people came to watch the Inauguration and then how many came to Saturday’s march. Stay away from those claims. We should focus on describing the crowds – how far they stretched, how much of the Mall they covered, how many deep they were along the streets, how crowded the Metro was, etc. We should not cite the numbers coming from those partisans as if they’re real. They’re claims.
Brian Naylor is leading the effort to get non-partisan estimates from local security officials. Those will probably be disputed as well. We must attribute them to those officials if we report them. Look for “reportable” guidance from Brian and his editors.
By the way, some of the academic types who have done such estimates in the past have said they won’t be doing them this time around because of the blowback they’ve gotten in previous years. The Associated Press, meanwhile, says it is not planning to estimate the size of the crowds.
As for the widely cited 1.8 million figure for President Obama’s first inauguration, that is an estimate that has been disputed. Do not cite it as if it is a fact. Other estimates put the figure for that day several hundred thousand people, at least, lower. That needs to be noted in any mentions of the Obama crowd.
(“Memmos;” Jan. 20, 2017)
It’s a new year, we have new faces in the newsroom and there’s a new president being sworn in Friday.
For the few among us who haven’t saved or memorized the previous notes and the new among us who weren’t here when those notes were sent (that’s you, interns!), here are the headlines and links to the ways we’ve said “don’t march, don’t cheer, don’t jeer and don’t share your political views on social media”:
(“Memmos;” Jan. 18, 2017)
Russian President Vladimir Putin said a couple things today that were clues to some of the details in that unverified dossier about what Russian spies may or may not know about President-elect Trump.
We can’t let something like that alone be the reason we report things that we haven’t previously been putting into our stories.
Don’t report any backdoor mentions of such details without first discussing it with the duty editor.
(“Memmos;” Jan. 17, 2017)
We’ve added proper context to our stories about the back-and-forth between Rep. John Lewis and President-elect Donald Trump.
Trump tweeted that Lewis is “all talk … no action.” We stated the facts about Lewis:
- “Lewis was one of the original Freedom Riders and a top lieutenant of King’s, helping organize the March on Washington in 1963 and marching with King across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965, where his skull was fractured.” (Jessica Taylor on NPR.org/politics.)
- “Lewis has spent his life working for civil rights and suffered a skull fracture durin a march in Selma, Ala., more than 50 years ago.” (Newscast introduction to a Jessica Taylor spot.)
- “After Lewis had challenged the legitimacy of his election, Trump took to Twitter, calling Lewis all talk and no action. Of course Lewis still bears the scars of his action as a leader of the Selma voting rights campaign and one of those who helped lead the march on Washington where King made his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.” (Scott Horsley on All Things Considered.)
- “Lewis is a civil rights hero.” (Ari Shapiro on All Things Considered.)
- Trump’s comments had “a lot of things in [them] that just aren’t true both about [Lewis'] district and about John Lewis. … His district, as Tam is alluding to, has a higher percentage of people who are college graduates. You have Georgia Tech, Morehouse College, Coca-Cola. This is Atlanta. Like, this isn’t some, you know, crime-infested backwater in the way that Donald Trump wants to kind of bill it.” (Tamara Keith and Domenico Montanaro on All Things Considered.)
As we’ve said before:
- “Simply Setting Things Straight” is part of our job.
Update: If the issue of whether this will be the first inauguration Lewis has boycotted comes up, be sure to note it won’t be (even though that’s what he told Chuck Todd). Lewis did not attend George W. Bush’s inauguration in 2001: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/john-lewis-to-skip-inauguration-for-second-time-in-congressional-career/
(“Memmos;” Jan. 17, 2017)
A classic story device is showing up across all types of media: “advice” for the next president.
He needs to read these 10 books. He needs to consult these five experts. He needs to take these three steps. He needs to know this about that.
Those stories may work on opinion sites. But if they’re not handled carefully, they’re not appropriate for news outlets such as ours. They can make it sound or read like we — NPR, that is — are lecturing the president-elect and telling him what he “needs” to know.
We don’t do that. We don’t lecture.
Obviously, we do need to talk to a wide variety of people – from “regular folks” to Nobel scientists – about the president-elect and the decisions he makes. And, yes, we may ask about what they think he needs to know.
But if we’ve interviewed a cross-section of experts about what they would advise the next president, our reports must be framed so that it’s clear the advice is coming from them, not us.
It’s also important to remind the audience that, as President Obama and some of his predecessors have said, no one is ever prepared for the presidency. All newly elected presidents supposedly need to know a lot of things. Why else would the media do these stories?
(“Memmos;” Dec. 29, 2016)
Everyone at NPR – journalists and those who support the work they do – has a part to play in upholding two of this organization’s core principles:
We can’t keep the public’s trust if we aren’t seen as independent and we risk our reputation if it looks like we’re not impartial.
As you know, the Inauguration is going to spark celebrations and demonstrations in coming weeks, especially around Jan. 20.
That means some reminders are in order, for journalists and everyone else at NPR. As we’ve said previously, “We Can Observe, But We Don’t Participate In Rallies.”
The key line in that guidance: “We believe journalists can go see such events, even if they’re not assigned to cover them, so long as they don’t ‘participate.’ ”
Put another way, watching from the sidelines at rallies in support or opposition to the new president is fine. Marching or cheering is not.
You can go to the National Mall to see the Inauguration. That’s a national, historic event. It’s OK to attend. But, again, we go to observe – not to cheer or jeer.
These rules definitely apply to our journalists and to NPR employees in “outward-facing” positions. As we’ve said, those are “jobs that sometimes put them in the position of representing NPR to the outside world.” They should not “participate.”
Other staffers – those whose work doesn’t touch our journalism and who aren’t in outward-facing positions – should understand that their actions can reflect on NPR. We can’t cover every eventuality with a “do this, don’t do that” list. We do ask that no one wear any NPR paraphernalia or do anything that would raise questions about NPR’s objectivity.
It’s not always easy to determine whether a job touches our journalism. Talk with your supervisor, who in turn can consult with the Standards & Practices editor and NPR’s Chief Ethics Officer.
– We’ll have more to say about this in coming weeks, but the guidance in our post about “Social Media Rules Of The Road On Election Day” applies to Inauguration Day as well. Please, “conduct yourself online just as you would in any other public circumstances as an NPR journalist.” If you’re not a journalist, remember that what you say could reflect on NPR.
– NPR journalists do not donate to political parties or advocacy organizations. Except, that is, when a group’s issues are “directly related to our journalistic mission (e.g. First Amendment rights, the Freedom of Information Act, a federal ‘shield’ law).” The Ethics Handbook notes that it may be “appropriate to donate money or time to organizations that advocate on such issues” and on subjects such as the dangers facing journalists around the world. This guidance also applies to “outward-facing” employees. Others at NPR should know that their donations may draw attention and spark questions about NPR’s objectivity.
(“Memmos;” Dec. 15, 2016)
Instead of declaring that someone is a “climate change skeptic” or taking it a step further and using the word “denier,” use action words to explain what that person has said and done.
Basically, tell the audience what that person has said about climate change and humans’ contributions to it, and/or what that person has suggested should or shouldn’t be done. That information is much more helpful than any labels. “Says he doesn’t believe the science” says a lot more than “is a skeptic.” “Has called climate change a hoax” is better than “is a climate change denier.”
One reason action words are better is that the labels aren’t always easy to apply. Here’s what the words mean (from Webster’s):
- A “skeptic” is “a person who habitually doubts, questions, or suspends judgment upon matters generally accepted.”
- A “denier” refuses to accept something “as true or right.”
You have to determine what it is a person is skeptical about or denies is happening. At one end of the spectrum, someone may refuse to accept that climate change is happening. That’s complete denial. Another person might agree that climate change is happening, but doesn’t accept that humans are contributing to the change. That’s denial about one point, but not another. A third person might have doubts about climate change or questions about its severity and causes. That’s skepticism.
There are many other possible combinations.
Please note that we’re not saying you can’t use the words or must use one and not the other. The message here is that, as we’ve said before, action words are almost always better than labels. And if you do use a label somewhere in a story or piece, you have to be sure it fits and be as precise as possible.
(“Memmos;” Dec. 14, 2016)
The handwriting is on the wall. There’s a perfect storm bearing down on us. We need all hands on deck or we’ll soon be in over our heads. If we don’t redouble our efforts, in quicker than a New York minute we’ll be swept out to sea by a tsunami of clichés.
It’s an uphill battle. We’re under attack from three sides:
- You’re going to be tempted to trot out the holiday classics. There’s a list here. Don’t unwrap them. If you’re thinking of saying “ho, ho, ho,’’ just tell yourself, “no, no, no.”
- Bone-chilling temps are spreading as Jack Frost nips our noses and the white stuff falls. As we’ve said before, bury the winter clichés.
- Politicians are pivoting and doubling down as the nation braces for the changes that will come after a new president moves into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Let’s take the moral high ground and keep the political clichés behind closed doors.
(“Memmos;” Dec. 9, 2016)
Unless you’re working on the script of an On The Waterfront remake, the phrase “union boss” isn’t how you should refer to the elected leader of an organization representing the interests of workers. The person’s title is good enough.
(“Memmos;” Dec. 8, 2016)
Let’s be sure to say that President-elect Trump has “nominated” someone to a post if that job requires confirmation by the Senate. Save the word “appointed” for positions that don’t need the Senate’s OK.
Update: A well-informed source points out that the announcement may be that the president-elect “will nominate” someone or “intends to” nominate them. That’s why “tapped” or “chose” are also good words to consider.
(“Memmos;” Dec. 5, 2016)
“When language is politicized, seek neutral words that foster understanding.”
That’s been our guidance since the Ethics Handbook was published in 2012 and it remains in effect. We “strive to use words and phrases that accurately deliver information without taking sides on emotional or political issues.”
The language used in the debate over immigration policy is particularly partisan and politicized. Advocates try to stick labels on people to “otherize” them.
That’s why we’ve issued guidance that stresses the importance of “action words” rather than labels.
For those who’ve joined NPR since that guidance was issued, here’s the key point: We don’t label people by referring to them as “illegals,” “illegal immigrants,” or “undocumented immigrants.” We say they are “in the country illegally” or use other action words to describe their situations. Also, we don’t label those who want to tighten immigration laws. We use action words to describe what those advocates want to do.
Even labels that until recent years were OK aren’t necessarily acceptable. As Adrian Florido reported last year, words can turn into slurs over time.
Finally, there are words and phrases that are clearly divisive, dismissive or derogatory and should not be used. “Anchor babies,” for example. The American Heritage Dictionary calls that a “disparaging term.”
When an issue is as charged as this, advocates are constantly using loaded language. Our job is to cut through that. Action words help enormously.
(“Memmos;” Nov. 15, 2016)
When referring to the “alt-right” movement, additional words are needed because many in the audience either have not heard of it or aren’t sure what it is.
Morning Edition has explored “What You Need To Know About The Alt-Right Movement.” This excerpt is more than can be said in a Newscast spot or even most show pieces, but has good background:
The views of the alt-right are widely seen as anti-Semitic and white supremacist.
It is mostly an online movement that uses websites, chat boards, social media and memes to spread its message. (Remember the Star of David image that Trump received criticism for retweeting? That reportedly first appeared on an alt-right message board.)
Most of its members are young white men who see themselves first and foremost as champions of their own demographic. However, apart from their allegiance to their “tribe,” as they call it, their greatest points of unity lie in what they are against: multiculturalism, immigration, feminism and, above all, political correctness.
The AP says this: “The so-called alt-right – a movement often associated with far-right efforts to preserve ‘white identity,’ oppose multiculturalism and defend ‘Western values.’ ”
Sarah McCammon has put it this way: “The alt-right movement, which has been associated with white nationalism.”
“White nationalist” is the most concise description.
(“Memmos;” Nov. 14, 2016.)
We’ve been saying Donald Trump will be the nation’s 45th president and we will continue to say that.
But he will be the 44th person to take the oath of office.
Grover Cleveland gets counted twice. The former mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York was first elected president in 1884. That made him No. 22 in the line of succession.
Cleveland lost his re-election bid in 1888. Benjamin Harrison became the nation’s 23rd president.
Then in 1892, Cleveland beat Harrison in a rematch. Cleveland is the only person to have been elected president, lose a re-election bid, and then come back to the White House four years later.
It’s the break in the line of succession that’s important here. If anyone other than Cleveland had defeated Harrison in 1892, that person would have slipped into the No. 24 position. What else could be done other than to treat Cleveland as the nation’s 22nd and 24th president?
The point here is that we will continue to say Trump is going to be the nation’s 45th president. We should not, however, make a mistake like the one President Obama did in his first inaugural address. Obama said he was the 44th American to have taken the oath of office. In fact, he was the 43rd person to do so.
Trump will be the 44th person to take the oath of office, and he will be the 45th president.
(“Memmos;” Nov. 10, 2016)
This weekend, on Monday and especially on Election Day and Night, you will be tempted to tweet, post to Facebook and otherwise express yourself on social media. There’s probably a lot you’d like to say about the remarkable 2016 campaign and the candidates.
Please bear in mind that the coming days are as important as any to protecting NPR’s reputation as a trusted news source. All of us need to take great care and remember, as the Ethics Handbook says, that it is critical to:
“Conduct yourself online just as you would in any other public circumstances as an NPR journalist.”
After all, we take great pride in our objectivity and independence, and the fairness of our political coverage. We do not want a few words on social media to wrongly suggest a bias one way or the other.
What should you do? Some guidance follows.
As we’ve said before, what anyone who works at NPR tweets or retweets may look like something that “NPR is reporting.”
Now, as you would expect, NPR has a system in place for spreading news on social media on Election Day/Night.
So, this is important:
The Politics Team and our Digital News professionals are in charge of what “NPR is reporting” on social media. If you want to post about the day’s news, let them go first and then retweet what they’re reporting. Don’t even get ahead of them based on what you may see in emails to the desk that are marked “reportable.” Those are for internal use and the language in them may not have been given a final edit. Let that news go out on our various platforms and then share it.
Speaking of retweeting, our position is that retweets may be seen as endorsements. Please remember that you should:
“Tweet and retweet as if what you’re saying or passing along is information that you would put on the air or in a ‘traditional’ NPR.org news story. If it needs context, attribution, clarification or ‘knocking down,’ provide it.”
It is especially important on Election Day/Night to avoid retweeting the “news” posted by some websites about what they have supposedly learned from early exit polls. Whatever conclusions they draw from that data will likely be wrong.
There’s a good chance, by the way, that friends at other news organizations, other people you know and members of your family will be asking “What’s NPR hearing?” Tell them you love them, but that they’ll have to wait for us to report the news.
Finally, there will be things said in the newsroom on Election Day/Night that are not “ready for air.” Correspondents and editors will be talking about what they’re seeing and hearing. They’ll be making calls to sources. Editors will be debating what words can and can’t be used. There will be moments of confusion. Those are not things that should show up in your social media threads. Also respect your colleagues’ feelings about photos. Not everyone wants to have their faces show up on social media.
Related, and important, note about booing and cheering in the press box:
This may seem obvious, but is worth making clear for those doing this for the first time. On Election Day/Night, we do not celebrate or complain about the results on social media.
(“Memmos;’ Nov. 4, 2016)
The simplest thing to do if there’s any doubt about how to say someone’s name, of course, is to ask that person to say it for you.
What if he or she isn’t alive?
The best sources include:
- Tape or video of the person saying his or her name.
- Guidance from family members.
- Guidance from close friends.
These are NOT primary sources:
- Tape or video in which a journalist is heard introducing the person. We don’t know if the reporter got the name right, and we don’t know whether the person was too polite to correct the reporter.
- Historians, government officials or others who should know what they’re talking about. “Should” doesn’t mean they “do” know how to say the name.
Meanwhile, in case you haven’t looked at it in a while, here’s a highlight from NPR’s “Philosophy of Pronunciation”:
“NPR guidelines for proper nouns encourage on-air staff to approximate the pronunciation of proper nouns (names and places) as they are pronounced by the person or by residents of the place. However, they are not supposed to sound as if they’re splicing in a native speaker when pronouncing foreign names and places. And there are exceptions to this rule -– Americans do not say Roma or Moskva and so we say Rome and Moscow.”
As always, members of the RAD team are ready to help if someone’s name isn’t already on our Intranet list of pronouncers.
(“Memmos;” Oct. 28, 2016)
Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen’s latest post digs into the issue of how far we should go in characterizing what Donald Trump told Billy Bush he had done to women (which, Trump later said he hadn’t done, as you know).
Robert Garcia told Elizabeth that Lakshmi Singh found a way to add “the appropriate amount of nuance.” In a newscast, Lakshmi said that in a 2005 recording, Trump is heard “bragging about groping women, which without their consent, would be sexual assault.” She also added that Trump said during the second debate that he never actually did force himself on women.
Using Lakshmi’s framing as a starting point, here are some ways to talk about Trump’s words:
- In a 2005 recording … Trump talks about groping women, which without their consent is sexual assault.
- In a 2005 recording … Trump is heard saying he can get away with groping women. That could be sexual assault if there’s no consent.
- In a 2005 recording … Trump talks about groping women. If that’s done without their consent, it’s sexual assault.
- In the video, Trump says he can grab, grope and kiss women … Those may be sexual assaults if there’s no consent.
- Groping … touching someone without their consent … can be sexual assault. In a video from 2005, Trump claims he can grab women’s genitalia because he’s an “all-star.”
- Trump brags about being able to grope women … which without their consent is sexual assault.
(“Memmos;” Oct. 18, 2016)
Here’s a cheat sheet about some words we may use these last three weeks of the campaign. The first two often get confused:
Rebut: “To contradict … or oppose, esp. in a formal manner by argument, proof, etc. as in a debate.” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary)
Refute: “To prove (a person) to be wrong; confute. … To prove (an argument or statement) to be false or wrong, by argument or evidence.” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary)
Repudiate: “To refuse to have anything to do with. … To refuse to accept or support. … To deny the truth of.” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary)
Refudiate: “Verb used loosely to mean ‘reject’: she called on them to refudiate the proposal to build a mosque.” (H/T to Sarah Palin and the Oxford American Dictionary.)
We’re not suggesting anyone use “refudiate,” except perhaps on the Politics Podcast.
“Repudiate,” meanwhile, can be a mouthful.
We are suggesting that “rebut” is the word to use when one candidate contradicts or pushes back against another’s charge. Save “refute” for when a candidate actually proves that the other person is wrong. I guess one may “rebut” by seeking to “refute,” but that makes my head hurt.
Sometimes the most effective thing to do is to use the word “deny.”
(“Memmos;” Oct. 17, 2016)
Here is where we stand on the issue of bleeping (on-air) the vulgar words used by Donald Trump — and the thinking that got us here.
- Were Trump’s words “news?” The answer is clearly, “of course.” That has weighed in favor of airing them.
- Did he use words that are among those that many in our audience would find highly offensive? The answer to that question is also obvious: “yes.” That has weighed against airing them. “Respect” is one of our core principles.
- Do “community standards” about what is and is not offensive vary widely across the nation and could airing the words generate complaints that might lead to FCC action against some NPR member stations? “Yes” and “yes.” That has weighed against airing them.
- If we do not “bleep” the words, can we give radio listeners adequate warning so that if they wish to tune out, they can? “Yes, but.” Certainly, we could include an advisory that lets listeners know there is language that many would find offensive and that they might not want children to hear. That would help most of those listening. But not everyone tunes in at the top of the hour or top of a report. What about those who turn on their radios in the middle of a report and one of the first things they hear is Trump’s vulgarity? A warning earlier in the report would be of no use to them.
- Can we adequately tell the story if we “bleep” the words? The answer to this question – “yes” — is the deciding factor. By letting the audience know that Trump had spoken in vulgar terms about how he tried to pressure a married woman into having sex with him, and about how an “all-star” such as him could grab a woman’s genitalia as if that was an acceptable thing to do, we have given listeners the key information about the pieces of tape that they will hear. When the cuts are played, there is no serious confusion about what was said – even with the bleeps.
Some will wonder why it is OK to use our digital platforms to give people a choice between hearing Trump’s words “bleeped” and “unbleeped?” The key word there is “choice.” Digital users can decide for themselves whether they wish to hear the words. Radio listeners aren’t always able to do that.
Some may ask “if this wasn’t the time to air such language, will we ever?” I suspect the answer is “yes.” I can’t predict what the circumstances will be. All I can say is that I trust the same amount of hard thinking will be applied.
(“Memmos;” Oct. 11, 2016. Note: This was emailed to staff on Oct. 9, but not posted here until today because I was out of the office.)
We haven’t “hunkered down” or “battened the hatches.” We haven’t talked about the hurricane’s “wrath.” “Mother Nature’s fury” hasn’t come up. There haven’t been “calm before the storm” references. Only a few “lashes” have been whipped.
Perhaps we’ve had Matthew “barreling” toward a coast a few too many times.
But, overall, we seem to be avoiding hurricane clichés.
Thanks for not letting them rain down upon the audience.
(“Memmos;” Oct. 7, 2016)
The words to use and not use when reporting about transgender people have been the subject of several notes in recent years. We’ll link to them below.
This note is a recommendation. Today’s Morning Edition piece about D.C. police Sgt. Jessica Hawkins is worth a listen, read and look (for the photos) because of the way Gabriela Saldivia and her editors simply and sensitively told the officer’s story. It’s also a model for how to handle gender references, names and pronouns in such reports.
One of our core principles is “Respect.” The story does exactly what we aim to do: treat “everyone affected by our journalism … with decency and compassion.”
Along with Gabriela, the team included:
- Morning Edition‘s Andrew Jones
- Story Lab’s Michael May
- Digital’s Heidi Glenn
- Photo intern Raquel Zaldivar
(“Memmos;” Oct. 6, 2016)
We are reporting today about Donald Trump’s latest tweets in which he had more to say about both Hillary Clinton and Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe who says Trump bullied and humiliated her.
Be very precise about what is said about the content of Trump’s tweets concerning Machado. He states, as if it’s a fact, that she appears in a “sex tape.” We should not frame any references to imply that such a tape exists. That is not an established fact and Trump did not provide any evidence that it exists. As Snopes.com has reported, a tape that has been cited by others is grainy, not explicit and “possibly staged or fabricated.” (I would give you the Snopes link, but it’s not “safe for work.”)
Headlines, spots and intros should not give any misimpressions.
Here are some bad headlines from other news outlets. Avoid anything like them:
- “Donald Trump: ‘Check Out Sex Tape And Past’ Of ‘Disgusting’ Alicia Machado.”
- “Donald Trump Urges Followers To Check Out Alicia Machado’s ‘Sex Tape.’ ”
- “Trump Rips Beauty Queen Machado For ‘Sex Tape And Past.’ ”
Here’s a better one:
- “Trump Attacks Former Miss Universe In Early Morning Tweet Storm.”
- “Trump Again Attacks Miss Universe Contestant.”
And here’s how we introduced a Sarah McCammon spot:
- “Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump unleashed and early-morning tweet storm going after his democratic rival Hillary Clinton… And again attacking former miss universe Alicia Machado. NPR’s Sarah McCammon has more.”
(“Memmos;” Sept. 30, 2016)
The list could go on.
A scroll down our corrections page makes clear that we’re not doing a good enough job checking and re-checking many basic things. Bad information is getting into story collections and DACS lines. It’s getting into captions and blog posts. It’s getting on the air.
We’ve got to do better. We can do better. Here’s how:
- Be sure about “facts” you put into DACS, scripts, promos, blog posts or basically anything that could find its way onto our website or onto our airwaves. Remember, your keyboard is a live mic.
- Double- or triple-check everything, and never assume that the next person in the process is going to do it for you. If you write it, say it or approve it, you own it.
- Use the Accuracy Checklist.
(“Memmos;” Sept. 26, 2016)
“Whenever your pals show up in your work,” Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride has written, “a small number of people in the audience will be wise to the connection. For those in the know, it may seem like you have duped the readers. You also are likely to experience conflicting loyalties. Your friendship may cause you to paint a rosier picture of your friend than you would of other sources. Depending on the subject, you might ignore bad grammar, illegal behavior or plain old stupidity. Your friends would most likely expect to look good in your article, if they agreed to participate.”
The simplest solution is to follow this rule: Friends, family members and co-workers are not sources or subjects we put in stories unless our relationships with them are important to the tales and are fully disclosed. “Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish” comes to mind.
Now, this note isn’t about the kinds of friendly relationships with sources that may develop when a reporter has been on a beat for many years. When that happens, it’s important that our reporting remain solid and objective, as we’ve previously noted. Also, it’s critical that reporters and editors monitor such situations.
We’re talking here about a story in which a character shows up for no other reason than being a friend or relative of the reporter — but it’s a connection that isn’t disclosed.
When is someone a “friend” who shouldn’t be part of a story? Here are some thoughts from The Canadian Association of Journalists:
“As Scott White, then editor- in-chief of the Canadian Press (and a former member of our committee) told us: ‘Current or recent connections are generally more problematic than long-ago connections; close personal friendships more problematic than casual acquaintances or routine professional interactions; siblings or spouses more of an issue than third-cousins.’ That said, almost everyone knows that some long-ago entanglements can have lasting impacts on choices, whether on a conscious level or more subtly.”
If there’s any doubt, leave that person out. Or, hand off the story to someone else. Or, if you’re the editor, assign the piece to someone else.
Two final, probably obvious, points:
- Reporters have to tell editors about connections to sources that might raise conflicts.
- Editors should ask “how’d you find this person?” if they don’t know already.
(“Memmos;” Sept. 22, 2016)
Just eight weeks to go. We can do it, folks. We can get through the next campaign surprise, the upcoming debates and the rest of this election cycle without a social media snafu.
For the benefit of the new interns and anyone who hasn’t memmorized the earlier Memmos about this subject, here’s a snapshot version of our social media guidance:
- Keep your politics to yourself.
- Control your cursing.
- No personal attacks, even if you’re trolled.
- Speaking of trolls, don’t feed them.
- If you do respond, stay classy.
- If someone’s just ranting, disengage.
There’s more guidance in the Ethics Handbook, under “Social media.”
(“Memmos;” Sept. 13, 2016)
When there is disturbing or offensive content in a report, this question gets asked: “What’s our style for warning listeners?”
There is no one style. Sometimes, “this report includes offensive language” is enough because there are only a few such words. Other times, a more substantial advisory is needed — when a story includes sounds of suffering or painful accounts of personal trauma, for example. We use our judgment to determine how much is necessary and what to say.
On Morning Edition today, there was an advisory that’s worth spotlighting because of the key information it got across in just five words. It was in the introduction to a report about the man who has admitted killing a Minnesota boy in 1989 — a case that led to a 1994 federal law about sex offender registries. Here’s how the introduction went:
“After almost three decades, Minnesota parents — whose 11-year-old son was abducted — finally know what happened. And we should tell you now, this story, which lasts about three minutes, will be disturbing to some listeners. A man arrested last year on child pornography charges admits he kidnapped and killed the boy.”
Saying that this report about a child’s murder would last about three minutes was a simple but powerful way of showing respect to our listeners (an NPR core principle). Most notably, parents with children nearby would know that they might want to turn down the volume or switch stations for a little while. We weren’t sounding scary or shocking. It was conversational — as if a friend was speaking. And we were indirectly inviting them to come back.
Have we given listeners that time of warning before? Yes.
Are you suggesting we do it all the time? No.
What is being suggested is that some types of reports — especially those that parents might not want their children to hear or that might disturb particular groups of vulnerable people — might merit a mention about how long they’ll last.
It’s a friend doing someone else a favor.
(“Memmos;” Sept. 7, 2016)
Everyone should know by now that before we accept speaking requests, we have to get OKs from our supervisors — who will consult with Talent Relations and Ethics. An email on the process went out on Aug. 4. If you need a copy, ask the Standards & Practices editor.
Why should you say “no thank you” to a request? Or, why might your boss say “no?”
These are three of the most common reasons:
- A government agency (foreign or domestic) is putting on the event or paying for it.
- An advocacy group or political organization is making the request.
- A company or organization that we cover wants you to speak.
There’s a common thread running through those examples: We must guard our independence. We don’t work “with” or “for” governments, advocacy groups or the organizations we cover. We don’t want to even appear to be doing that.
Are there grey areas and cases where exceptions may be made? Of course. But the bars are set high. It might be OK, for example, to be on a panel or give an address if there’s no honorarium and no travel costs are reimbursed. If the topic is work you’ve done “outside” NPR (a book, for example), that could change things. But even then, if the invitation is from a government agency or political group you should probably say “no” — or not be surprised if that’s the response from your supervisor or the Ethics folks (Standards & Practices and the DMEs).
Beyond those issues, of course, is whether the event conflicts with not just your schedule and work, but also those of others on your desk or team. After all, if you’re out someone may need to cover for you.
Finally, the request might involve issues that aren’t on your beat. You and your supervisor should think about whether there might be someone else at NPR who’s a better fit for the speaking engagement.
(“Memmos;” Sept. 2, 2016)
If we’re going to say that a candidate is set to deliver a “major” address about something, in almost all cases we need to make clear that’s how the candidate’s campaign is characterizing it, not NPR.
This introduction to a Newscast spot last night did the job well:
“To the chants of ’USA. USA,’ Donald Trump has taken the stage in Phoenix, Arizona, tonight to deliver what his campaign has billed as a major policy speech on immigration.”
Yes, there are times when objective observers agree that a speech is going to be “major” or some similar word. But in most cases, “major” is a word that campaigns want the media to use to help build anticipation — whether it fits or not. The best advice: Avoid or attribute, and if we don’t think the facts support the campaign’s spin, don’t even use the word.
The same goes for describing the speech after it’s delivered. Some questions need to be answered. Who says it was a “major” address? If we’re going to characterize it that way, what’s our proof? How was it anything more than what the candidate usually says?
(“Memmos;” Sept. 1, 2016)
When some listeners hear the phrase “to be honest,” they ask this question:
“Does that mean you don’t usually tell the truth?”
We get emails about that phrase, which has been heard on the air at least 240 times in the past year. Most of the time it’s been said by guests, but we’ve used it as well. Along with the snarky question, listeners point out that of the many mostly meaningless ways there are of moving conversations along, it is can be among the least meaningful. For example, here’s Larry Wilmore on Fresh Air talking about what it was like to roast the media during the White House Correspondents’ Dinner: “It was really all in fun, to be honest with you.” What did “to be honest with you” add?
If the words aren’t meaningless, they may give the exact wrong impression. As The Wall Street Journal has reported, the phrase is among the verbal tee-ups that may “signal insincerity.”
Or, there’s the fact that “to be honest” can be heard as an adverbial disjunct that “conveys the speaker’s or writer’s comment on its content, truth or manner” (Merriam-Webster). A “to be honest” can make it sound like you’re opining.
If you want to signal that what you’re about to say is important or you want to underscore that you’re being candid, just say that. “To be clear” might be what you really want to say.
(“Memmos;” Aug. 31, 2016)
This is not optional: Before we put “experts” in our stories, we have to know where their financial support comes from, who’s paid for their latest work and whether they’re doing any lobbying or advocating related to the issue we’re interviewing them about. It’s information that may knock them out of stories and needs to be shared if they stay in.
That all seems obvious. Why are we bringing it up now?
Well, if you haven’t read these two New York Times reports yet, do so:
This “nut graph” should concern us all:
“Think tanks, which position themselves as ‘universities without students,’ have power in government policy debates because they are seen as researchers independent of moneyed interests. But in the chase for funds, think tanks are pushing agendas important to corporate donors, at times blurring the line between researchers and lobbyists. And they are doing so while reaping the benefits of their tax-exempt status, sometimes without disclosing their connections to corporate interests.”
That’s troubling because news outlets are constantly interviewing “experts” from those think tanks. Many of those experts are getting into stories without any references to their connections to “moneyed interests” and lobbying groups. We aren’t perfect on that score. I suspect it’s because in some cases we didn’t do enough digging.
This is important: Just as we said that we have to ask experts about any connections they have to candidates, we have to be looking at the connections experts from think tanks, universities and other institutions might have to interest groups and others.
That means, as we said above, asking questions such as:
- Who’s funding your work?
- Who or what organization has supported you in the past?
- Who paid for the study?
- Is your organization (or school or think tank) taking any money from a corporation or organization with an interest in the issue?
- Are you lobbying or advocating on this issue?
If someone won’t answer such questions, that’s a red flag.
Answers need to be checked, of course. Look in archives. Consult databases. Read a think tank’s annual report and other disclosure forms to see where it’s been getting its money. The RAD team can help.
We should use tools such as the U.S. Senate Lobbying Disclosure Act Database to find out if an expert is also a registered lobbyist.
This is also critical. We have to keep expanding our contact lists to get away from the usual think tanks and sources. Have you consulted the Source of the Week lately or contributed to it? Please do.
Finding out that a study was paid for by a corporation with an interest in the issue will raise questions about the findings. Learning that a think tank “fellow” is also a paid lobbyist may mean that person doesn’t make it into a story. Whatever the result, it’s basic information that we we’re expected to know and share with our audience.
Finally, there’s this: If an expert’s potential conflict of interest should have been revealed in a story, but wasn’t, that is an error that needs to be acknowledged and corrected.
(“Memmos;” Aug. 15, 2016)
It seems longer ago, but was only last November when we wrote that “When There’s No Evidence To Support A Claim, We Should Say That.”
When Donald Trump kept saying this week that President Obama is the “founder” of ISIS, we simply said in our reports:
- It’s a “false claim.”
- It’s “unbelievable.”
- That there’s an “obvious fact check here — President Obama did not found ISIS.”
- It’s an “unfounded claim.”
- It’s an “unfounded assertion.”
We also, of course, explored the history of ISIS and the role that U.S. policy during the Obama and previous administrations has played. As Ari Shapiro put it, “the true story of the U.S. and ISIS is complicated and nuanced.”
(“Memmos;” Aug. 12, 2016)
- “Trump Fires Back Against Fallen Muslim-American Soldier’s Father.”
- “Donald Trump Targets Muslim Soldier’s Parents Over ‘Sacrifice’ Remark.”
- Donald Trump has been in a “war of words with the parents of a Muslim Army captain who was killed in Iraq.”
Those are headlines and copy from some stories in the media this week.
Three things come to mind:
1. It seems insensitive to use war or violent metaphors in stories that involve the death of Army Capt. Humayun Khan in Iraq and his parents’ high-profile comments about Trump. What’s going on between Trump and the Khan family is not a “war” when compared to what Capt. Khan experienced.
2. As we’ve said before, clichés are to be avoided at all costs — especially during election years, when they spread like wildfire. In a Hall of Fame for clichés, war-related ones would be among the first inductees.
3. On any given day there may be an attack or battle in which people are killed. The juxtaposition of a headline or story about politics that is peppered with war clichés alongside news of real people dying in real warfare can make it look as if we’re not careful with our words.
Speaking of campaign clichés, two others phrases have been brought to our attention in recent weeks — “on the campaign trail” and “threading the needle.” You can probably think of others you’ve heard or read that sound tired. Let’s try to avoid all of them. The AP’s list of campaign clichés includes:
- Horse race
- Laundry list
- Pressing the flesh
- All those state nicknames
(“Memmos;” Aug. 2, 2016)
Sometimes we say “honed in” when we mean “homed in.” Within minutes, we hear from listeners or readers who wonder why we don’t know the difference between “hone” and “home.”
They want us to save “hone” for when we’re talking about sharpening, and to use “home” when we’re saying that something or someone has been targeted.
Those folks are sticklers and that’s OK. What they rarely acknowledge, though, is that there’s a lot of fine honing in the work we do.
Look at how much information was packed into two Newscast obits this morning:
– “Renowned TV and film writer and director Garry Marshall has died in Burbank, Calif., at the age of 81. His publicist says he had pneumonia following a stroke. He was behind many TV hits such as Happy Days. Other Marshall hits included Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy and films such as Pretty Woman and The Princess Diaries. Marshall had supporting roles in Lost in America and in Soap Dish.” (Korva Coleman)
– “The creator of the 1970s and ‘80s TV sitcoms Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley and Mork and Mindy has died. Garry Marshall was 81 years old. He died at a hospital in Burbank, Calif., of complications from pneumonia; following a stroke. Actor Richard Gere worked with Marshall on the film Pretty Woman. He says Marshall was one of the funniest men who ever lived, with a heart of pure gold.” (Dave Mattingly)
Listen to the top of Morning Edition’s roundup of news from the GOP convention. Steve Inskeep quickly wraps up the campaign so far, folds in news from last night and sets up listeners for three wonderful clips:
“Months of brutal campaigning for president concluded with a quaint American tradition last night. State delegations cast their ballots for president at the Republican National Convention. It’s a chance to promote your candidate for the nomination; and also your state.”
Revisit the way Weekend All Things Considered opened its look at policing. With short, declarative sentences and the effective use of clips, the show prepared listeners for a powerful hour. Michel Martin then kept things simple:
“After all that’s happened this week, indeed, after all that’s happened in recent years and confrontations between citizens and law enforcement that have resulted in deaths and injury among both, we decided to take this entire hour to talk about policing.
“Almost all of our guests today are or have been directly involved in law enforcement, and we’ll be talking with them about the work they do, why they do it and whether they think the system is broken. We’ll talk about how they cope with the stresses of the job, and we’ll be talking with folks who’ve looked at the latest research around policing to ask them what, if anything, should be done differently.”
Read these concluding paragraphs from Linda Holmes’ appreciation of The Great British Baking Show (which I also love):
“What emerges over the course of the show is that it doesn’t only have a style; it has an ethic. Mary and Paul do not fall victim to the misdirection of small but spectacular-looking mistakes. If the custard in the middle of whatever you’re making doesn’t quite set, the entire thing may collapse and run all over the counter, but they’ll taste it anyway! And they’ll tell you that your custard not setting isn’t necessarily a bigger mistake than anything else; it just looks worse. If you can’t get your cake put together, they’ll still taste the layers. You may not be out. Do not lose heart. Do not lose heart.
“Don’t laugh, but this is life, in a way, as we all hope for it to be. You screw up, but not entirely. You see your hoped-for result dashed on the counter in a pile of goop, but someone says, “I see what you put into this; I see what you intended.” Someone you trust who is better than you are at whatever you’re trying to do says, “We both see what you did wrong; I can help you identify what you did right.” You still might lose. You still might go home crying with disappointment. But someone will have said, “Next time, take it out of the oven five minutes sooner and you’ll really have something.” It’s a show of such … hope. Hoping everybody else is going to be willing to try the imperfect layers of your particular not-quite-put-together cake is often the only way to get through the day, after all.
“It will also really make you want to learn to make macaroons. Though that might be just me.”
Check out this carefully crafted phrase from Camila Domonske’s Two-Way opus on Larry the Cat and the rumors that he hasn’t been a very competent prime mouser:
“Slurs on Larry’s efficacy continued to dog him.”
The list could go on. The point is that while we may not always use the word “honing” correctly, we do know very well how to hone.
(“Memmos;” July 20, 2016)
”Taking someone else’s work and intentionally presenting it as if it is your own.”
Note the word “intentionally.”
We can talk about phrases that are “word-for-word” or that “mirror each other.” It’s fine to say there’s a “plagiarism issue” or that the speech last night raised questions about whether some parts were plagiarized. But we don’t know at this time whether anything was done “intentionally.” So don’t declare that there’s been some plagiarism.
(“Memmos;” July 19, 2016)
On Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and other social media platforms, we’ve been doing lots of great work. Thank you for engaging with the audience in those places. It’s very important.
Now, a “memmo” wouldn’t be a “memmo” without some nudging. Here goes:
The political conventions are approaching. During them, you may be tempted to say some things on social media – especially when candidates are on stage and the urge to live tweet is strong. This is a good time to remind everyone about our thinking when it comes to social media.
- Keep your politics to yourself. And that means on Facebook too. You may think only your “friends” are seeing what you say, but they may share it widely.
- Control your cursing. NPR journalists don’t swear on the air and we don’t think they should be swearing in the digital world either. But we also know that language that isn’t appropriate in one place is common in another. How about this: Don’t use such words in anger and never in a way that might look like a political comment.
- No personal attacks, even if you’re trolled.
- Speaking of trolls, don’t feed them. Here’s a tip: You do not have to respond to any obnoxious Tweet, Facebook post or other diatribe. They can be ignored. (If they feel threatening, please send a message about them to our internal distribution list, “NPRThreats.”)
- If you do respond, stay classy. Something along the lines of “I’m sorry you feel that way and would like to hear more about why you do” is far better than “go back to the cave you crawled out of.” Remember, “we are civil in our actions and words, avoiding arrogance and hubris. We listen to others.”
- By the way, you can usually tell after one or two exchanges whether the person on the other end is willing to have a conversation or just wants to rant. If it’s a conversation, great. If they’re just ranting, disengage with something like, “thanks, I’m out. We just disagree.”
There’s more guidance in the Ethics Handbook, under “Social media.”
There have also been several “memmos” on the subject:
(“Memmos;” July 13, 2016)
Let’s stop referring to the man who killed five Dallas police officers and wounded seven others and two civilians as a “sniper” or to what he did as a “sniper attack.”
He was a “gunman,” a “killer,” a “shooter” and several other words you can probably come up with. It was an “ambush” as well as an “attack.”
Yes, it appears he at times was firing from hidden positions and from above the street. But he also shot at least one officer from point-blank range. Reporting since the attack indicates he moved quickly from one position to the next. He wasn’t a “sniper” in the sense that most people have come to understand that word — an expert who lies in wait and then methodically fires single shots from a long distance.
(“Memmos;” July 11, 2016)
A check of our archives shows we’ve generally avoided the phrase “officer-involved shooting.” Thanks.
But it has crept into some DACS-only pages, online teasers, photo captions and headlines. Going forward, let’s not use it.
As On The Media explored this week, “officer-involved shooting” is among those phrases that feel like “euphemisms designed by government to change the subject.”
The better way to go is almost always to simply say “police shooting” or to use action words – basically, to describe what happened rather than try to label it.
(“Memmos;” July 7, 2016)
Scott Simon weighed in last month about the word “pivot,” which he’s tired of hearing in stories about politicians. “The hundredth time you’ve heard it bounce off the echo chamber of pundits and analysts, it begins to smack of smug insider-ness,” he said.
“Pivot” is a word we use a lot when discussing politicians and their shifting positions. It shows up in about 100 stories we posted or broadcast in the past year.
Scott has a point. We don’t have to use the same word every time. Just as each tornado does not have to “sound like a freight train,” every politician’s pirouette does not have to be called a pivot. Let’s try to use some other words. “Change” or “switch” or “shift” offer possibilities. Maybe it’s a simple “turn.”
Today’s other potentially pedantic points:
– Just say “regardless.” “Irregardless” means “without without regard” and just doesn’t make sense.
– If you’re “flaunting,” that means you’re proudly showing off. If you’re “flouting,” you’re showing scorn or contempt; rejecting or defying.
– In almost all cases, you really mean to say “couldn’t care less,” not “could care less.”
– “Sink, sank, sunk.” “Spring, sprang, sprung.” Watch your tenses.
(“Memmos;” July 6, 2016)
It’s Not “Day:”
Do say “REE-oh dee zhah-NEH-roh.” Don’t say “REE-oh day zhah-NEH-roh.”
It’s Not David Cameron:
Queen Elizabeth II is the U.K.’s head of state.
The prime minister is the head of government.
That means, for example, that the prime minister meets with “other leaders,” not “other heads of state.”
(“Memmos;” June 30, 2016)
There has been a lot of great work this week about another disturbing news event; the mass shooting in Orlando. Thank you.
As much as we hope “this is the last one,” we have to think about things we’ve learned in case they come up again.
This brings us to weapons.
Posts after earlier mass shootings have discussed why we need to be very careful when describing them.
“Until we have solid information from the authorities, we need to be careful about descriptions of those weapons. Words to avoid unless we are sure of them include: ‘automatic,’ ‘semi-automatic,’ ‘assault’ and ‘assault-style.’ They are often misused.”
“To many in the audience, ‘assault rifles’ are fully automatic weapons that cannot be legally purchased. At this point, it’s better to refer to the rifles used in San Bernardino as ‘assault-style.’”
Everyone’s done a good job applying that thinking. Thank you. Here’s what we’re adding to the guidance:
Until there are on-the-record statements from officials in charge of an investigation, or until we have heard from multiple, reliable sources with direct knowledge and the reporting has been vetted with senior editors, do not go into specifics about the types of weapons or their manufacturers. It will often be enough to say, for example, that the gunman had a “rifle and handgun.” As more details come in, “assault-style” may be important to add. Or, perhaps “semi-automatic” if we’re absolutely sure that’s correct.
When we eventually get into specifics, attribution is essential – “said Police Chief John Doe” or “said three law enforcement officials with directly knowledge of the investigation.”
The message here is simple. The details about the weapons will emerge. But in the early hours and perhaps days after a mass shooting, the exact make and model and manufacturer are not at the top of the list of things we need to nail down. And, frankly, if we try to be too precise before all the facts are in, we run the risk of being wrong.
Think of it this way: If the story is that someone with a rifle killed or injured dozens of people in a matter of minutes, it’s clear a powerful weapon that could be rapidly fired was used. Whether it was made by one company or another and exactly which model it was doesn’t immediately change the story or add substantially to the audience’s understanding of what happened.
Again, thanks for the hard work and for applying previous guidance notes.
(“Memmos;” June 17, 2016)
There are several reasons not to refer to the murders in Orlando as the “worst mass shooting in U.S. history.” Editors have been pointed to Eyder’s post about this, where those reasons are explored, but the phrase is still getting into stories. It’s time to stop.
If a piece needs to put this tragedy in context, it can be said that it was the “deadliest” mass shooting in recent history.
(“Memmos;” June 14, 2016)
The listener could have complained that “chomping at the bit” is a cliché, and that it’s one we’ve used at least three times so far this month. But his gripe was more specific — that we should have said “champing at the bit.”
To the dictionary we go:
Webster’s says “champ at the bit” is to “show impatience at restraint; be restless.” It comes from something said about horses when they bite their bits “repeatedly and restlessly.” They “champ.”
That fits with what we were trying to say this week about President Obama and his eagerness to get out on the campaign trail.
The AP says “champ at the bit” is “the original and better form.”
But, Webster’s adds that “chomp at the bit” is a variation.
What’s more, no less an authority than William Safire weighed in 31 years ago, saying that “to spell it champing at the bit when most people would say chomping at the bit is to slavishly follow outdated dictionary preferences.”
The Grammarist blog also comes down on the side of “chomping.” It points out that “champing at the bit can sound funny to people who aren’t familiar with the idiom or the obsolete sense of champ, while most English speakers can infer the meaning of chomping at the bit.”
We’ve been … itching to issue a note about some picky point of punctuation or grammar. After chewing on this one for a while, we’re not going to insist on “champing.” Feel free to use it. After all, you’ll score points with the lexicographers out there.
But “chomping” is fine.
Fine, that is, except for the fact that it is a cliché. As for them:
(“Memmos;” June 9, 2016)
When a story involves Facebook, when and what do we need to say or write about “NPR Live?”
The best advice is to err on the side of disclosure. When the news is about Facebook’s business or about controversies such as whether it does or does not “suppress” conservative stories, we should say something like this (from a David Folkenflik report):
“Facebook pays NPR and other leading news organizations to produce live video streams that run on the site. The network calls its offerings NPR live.”
Other information that can be added includes the fact that Facebook has “no role in the content of the videos” (a line from NPR Extra). The part of the line about what NPR calls its offerings is certainly optional.
If the story has little or no connection to Facebook’s “business,” such as COO Sheryl Sandberg’s thoughts about the challenge of being a single mother, a line about NPR Live may not be necessary. Senior editors and show executive producers should be making the call, with guidance from the deputy managing editors or standards & practices editor.
(“Memmos;” May 19, 2016)
Several times we have said the so-called bathroom bill in North Carolina is about whether transgender people should be able “to use the public bathrooms of their choice.”
In this case, “choice” is a loaded word. Proponents of laws restricting bathroom access to the sex on someone’s birth certificate say transgender people want to “choose” which bathroom to use, which also implies that being transgender is a “choice.” But transgender people say choice isn’t involved; that that this is about people using the bathrooms that match the genders they identify with. They say being transgender is who they are, not a choice.
We look for neutral language. One way to talk about this subject is to say it’s a debate over whether transgender people should be allowed to use public bathrooms “based on their gender identities or, instead, what’s stated on their birth certificates.”
As for “gender identity,” the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association defines it as “an individual’s emotional and psychological sense of having a gender; feeling like a man, woman, both or neither (gender nonconformity). Does not necessarily align with an individual’s sex at birth.”
We’re going to be using “gender identity” again. It could help our audience understand the phrase if we take a moment when possible to explain it, perhaps simply as “the way we feel about ourselves.”
(“Memmos;” May 16, 2016)
As we report about the administration’s letter to schools, the HB2 law in North Carolina and related stories, here’s a reminder: Someone is “transgender,” not “transgendered.” And it’s “transgender people,” not “transgendered people.”
Vox has written about the difference between “transgender” and “transgendered” here: http://www.vox.com/2015/2/18/8055691/transgender-transgendered-tnr
The National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association has helpful language resources here: http://www.nlgja.org/
(“Memmos;” May 13, 2016)
“Othering,” or “otherizing,” has been a topic of conversations on the campaign trail this year and in newsrooms for many years.
I think of it this way: Othering is when a story feels like it’s about “them” and that “they” aren’t like “us.” They’re “others.” It can look and sound as if the news outlet or reporter is tone deaf or condescending. The stories often feel like the reporters began with preconceived notions and looked for confirmation.
This post isn’t about a case of othering. Read or listen to Debbie Elliott’s piece this week about “transgender rights, the new front in culture wars.” The central character is LBGTQ advocate Lane Galbraith. I didn’t detect any othering, so I asked Debbie about the way she reports.
“You know, my approach is always to just try to get to know the people I’m interviewing as people first, not ‘subjects,’ ” she said in an email. “I get rather familiar quickly, but always say something like, ‘OK, now I’m going to get a little nosy or into private territory, please don’t be offended and feel free to wave me off if it’s too personal.’ I will also be honest and admit that I’m not sure a question is appropriate, but ‘here’s what I’d like to know.’
“Generally, I find that people are longing to tell their story, so I mostly listen. And in this case, we had spoken a few times before during the same sex marriage battles in Alabama, so I had a bit of a foundation to build from. …
“There are some interviews you do that are mostly about gathering facts, or (let’s be honest here) getting the sound bite you need. But if you’re looking to share a deeper truth, and get below the surface of the news of the day, it requires a different approach. You have to care about a person’s story and give them the time and space to tell it. And that’s hardly ever linear or even logical. Those kind of interviews are certainly less efficient, but can yield priceless insights.”
There’s a key point there: “I mostly listen.” Also, yes, we tell stories. But they’re not about us or our preconceived notions. As Debbie says, “people are longing to tell their story … give them the time and space to tell it.”
No news outlet gets this right every time. We should keep talking about othering and how to avoid it. Please flag “good” and “bad” examples.
(“Memmos;” May 12, 2016)
First, the “long version” describing what HB2 is all about:
HB2 is the controversial North Carolina law limiting civil rights protections for LGBT people. It excludes LGBT people from the state’s non-discrimination laws and prevents local governments from offering discrimination protections that go beyond the state’s. It also requires people to use public restrooms that correspond with the sex indicated on their birth certificates.
The law also eliminates the ability to sue in state court over a discrimination claim and prevents local governments from requiring contractors to pay a higher minimum wage than the state’s.
Then, a shorter (hopefully intro- and spot-friendly) version:
HB2 is the controversial North Carolina law that limits civil rights protections for LGBT people.
“So-called bathroom bill” is acceptable in billboards and as a subsequent reference in stories. Material from the “long version” can certainly be folded into pieces in different places.
Note: LGBT is acceptable on first reference. Somewhere else in the story, spell out “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.”
Thanks go out to Brent Wolfe at WUNC, Russell Lewis, Theo Balcomb and Renita Jablonski.
(“Memmos;” May 11, 2016)
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)
Here’s a definition we dust off every four years. It will come into play, but not just yet:
Presumptive nominee: Has accumulated the required number of delegates to be the Democratic or Republican party’s nominee, but hasn’t been officially made the nominee. Basically, it’s a designation that applies from when someone gets the required number of delegates up to the vote at the convention (after that, the person is a plain old “nominee”).
Obviously, at this point there are clear front-runners for the Republican and Democratic nominations. For some sharp analysis about where they stand and how likely they are to be the nominees, check Domenico’s post from early this morning.
(“Memmos;” April 27, 2016)
If you use the word “factoid” to describe a single bit of important information or “factoids” to talk about several pieces of such data, we will get complaints.
Norman Mailer gets the credit for coming up with the word “factoid,” which he used in a 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe. Merriam-Webster notes that Mailer called them “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority.”
Mailer seems to have chosen the suffix “oid” because it forms “resembling” nouns. Think of it this way: A “humanoid” resembles a human — but isn’t human. A “factoid,” then, resembles a fact — but isn’t one, according to Mailer’s definition. Judging from our email traffic, plenty of people agree with him.
Now, English is a living language. Meanings do change. In 1993, William Safire worried that the word would come to mean “a little-known bit of information; trivial but interesting data.”
Safire was right. Webster’s New World dictionary defines the word as “a single fact or statistic variously regarded as being trivial, useless, unsubstantiated, etc.”
The Grammarist blog points out that that in the U.S., at least, “‘factoid’ is now almost exclusively used to mean ‘a brief interesting fact.’ … This definition is still considered incorrect by people who follow English usage, but it’s so widespread those who dislike it may eventually have to accept it, even if it does contradict the word’s original sense.”
Where does this leave us? If you want to be cheered rather than jeered for your attention to language, save “factoid” for those occasions when the subject is something that resembles a fact, but isn’t one. Or for things that are “trivial, useless [and] unsubstantiated.” For everything else, the simple word “fact” is accurate and you can save yourself a syllable.
As for words such as “literally,” “founder” and “reticent,” there are many online lists of those we all misuse. Here’s a Huffington Post version with 50 entries.
(“Memmos;” April 25, 2016)
We said this week that a man was “mentally retarded.”
“Retarded” is not a word we use to describe anyone. It’s among the “words that hurt.”
Joe Shapiro, who has done a lot of reporting and thinking about this, suggests phrases such as “intellectual disability” or “developmentally disabled” and that they be used with a “people first” approach. That is, put the person before the condition. Say “a man with an intellectual disability” rather than “a mentally retarded man.”
If you can’t seem to avoid a label, the AP recommends “mentally disabled,” “intellectually disabled” or “developmentally disabled.” But those aren’t great alternatives, as is often the case with labels.
As for labels, reminders are in order:
No. 1: “It is generally best to avoid labeling people, especially with terms that partisans have chosen.” Use “action words” to describe people rather than pinning them with labels.
No. 2: It’s certainly almost always best “to avoid labeling people who have medical conditions.” As we’ve written before, “it’s better to say someone ‘has been diagnosed with schizophrenia’ rather than ‘is a schizophrenic.’ Or, ‘she is being treated for anorexia’ rather than ‘she is an anorexic.’ Or, ‘he is diabetic,’ instead of ‘he is a diabetic.’ ”
No. 3: Pay particularly close attention to the way you refer to people who have gone through traumatic experiences. We’ve previously discussed the language regarding survivors of sexual assault.
(“Memmos;” April 22, 2016)
Going forward, the Ukrainian military pilot who is jailed in Russia should be referred to as “Nadiya Savchenko,” not “Nadezhda Savchenko.” We want to state and write her first name the way a Ukrainian would, not a Russian.
Yes, we realize other news outlets are using “Nadezhda.”
Courtesy of Corey Flintoff, here is pronunciation guidance for her last name: “SAHV-chen-ko.”
(“Memmos;” April 20, 2016)
The news from North Carolina about its gender identity law and from several states about laws allowing businesses to refuse service to LGBT customers make this a good time to reread our guidance on avoiding politicized, or loaded, language. It’s here.
Some key points:
– “Strive to use words and phrases that accurately deliver information without taking sides on emotional or political issues.”
– “In such cases we go with what’s accurate. And err on the side of neutrality.”
– “We also take the time to explain to our audience how certain words or phrases have taken on politically loaded meanings.”
– “Politically loaded language not only violates our commitment to be fair, but also gets in the way of telling good stories.”
Basically, beware the language and labels that any side wants us to use. We figure out for ourselves what’s the clearest thing to say.
(“Memmos;” April 15, 2016)
We were prepared to issue another rant about clichés this morning after hearing during the 6 a.m. ET Newscast that hailstones ranging in size from “grapefruits to softballs” fell in Dallas on Monday. Can’t we find some other comparisons?
We were also prepared to complain that grapefruits and softballs are basically the same size, so there really wasn’t a “range.”
But, as she sometimes is, Korva was on to something. NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center has posted a “traditional object-to-size conversion for assessment and translation of severe hail reports.”
Based on the diameters (in inches), here are NOAA’s conversions:
0.50 … marble or moth ball
0.75 … penny
0.88 … nickel
1.00 … quarter
1.25 … half dollar
1.50 … walnut or ping pong ball
1.75 … golf ball
2.00 … hen egg
2.50 … tennis ball
2.75 … baseball
3.00 … tea cup
4.00 … grapefruit
4.50 … softball
Thus, it appears there is official paperwork that blesses weather-worn clichés about hail. And as you see, there’s official word confirming there is a (slight) range between grapefruits and softballs.
However, the fight against clichés will continue. Previous posts:
Jonathan Kern’s thoughts about cliches are also worth rereading:
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.
(“Memmos;” April 12, 2016)
The first thing to say is that it’s “April Fools’ Day,” not “April Fool’s Day.” Be careful where you put the apostrophe.
The second thing to say is “be careful.” It’s already April 1 in some places. For the next day or so news sites, blogs and social media will be trying to trick others into reporting, retweeting and posting their “reports” as if they’re true.
For tips on some of the clues to look for when trying to figure out what’s real and what’s fake, listen to the conversation that Messrs. Zwerdling, Silverman and Gordemer had on Weekend All Things Considered.
For a look at some of the media mischief in the past, check out Linton’s post from last March.
(“Memmos;” March 31, 2016)
We hadn’t heard a presidential candidate call an opponent a “sniveling coward” until yesterday. But there it was, in newscasts and on NPR.org. Add it to the many things we hadn’t heard before this campaign.
Language lovers may be wondering:
Has that phrase or just the word “sniveling” been heard on NPR before?
A search of our transcripts, which go back to 1990, turns up two examples of the specific phrase.
- A 1991 piece from Sylvia Poggioli in which Croatian soldiers and “Serb insurgents” are heard trading insults on their walkie-talkies. “You’re a sniveling coward,” one Croatian called his enemy. (Google Translate tells us that in Croatian it would be “sniveling kukavica.”)
- A 1995 report by John Burnett about closing arguments in the trial of 11 Branch Davidians. The U.S. attorney said one of the defendants was a “sniveling coward” for firing at law officers from a place where there were children hiding.
“Sniveling” or “snivelling” turn up in transcripts 39 times. The closest example to this week’s usage is from 1992 when Mary Matalin, political director of President George H.W. Bush’s re-election campaign, said Bill Clinton’s campaign was full of “sniveling hypocrites.” She later apologized. She also later married Clinton campaign strategist James Carville.
A search of NPR.org turns up 16 examples of “sniveling” or “snivelling.”
Where does the word “snivel” come from?
- Oxford Dictionaries says “Late Old English (recorded only in the verbal noun snyflung ‘mucus’), from snofl, in the same sense; compare with snuffle.”
- Webster’s says “[Middle English] snivlen < [Old English] snyflan < base seen in snofl, mucus.”
What does “snivel” mean?
- In the context put forward this week, it is “to fret or complain in a whining, tearful manner … to make a whining, tearful, often false display of grief, sympathy, disappointment, etc.” (Webster’s)
Did Shakespeare ever use the word?
- Shakespeare search engines indicate the answer is no. But here’s one highfalutin place it shows up: In playwright Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Abigail Williams calls Elizabeth “Goody” Proctor “a lying, cold, sniveling woman.”
Why is this post attached to the NPR Ethics Handbook?
- As you’ve hopefully figured out the past two years, “Memmos” aren’t always about ethical issues. Sometimes we just have a few minutes to spare during lunch and start poking around.
(“Memmos;” March 25, 2016)
Chris Turpin, V.P. for news programming and operations, writes:
As podcasts grow in number and popularity we are talking about them more often in our news programs. We are also fielding more and more questions from news staff and Member stations about our policies for referring to podcasts on air. To that end, we want to establish some common standards, especially for language in back announces. Our hope is to establish basic principles that are easy to understand and allow plenty of flexibility for creativity. These guidelines apply to all podcasts, whether produced by NPR or by other entities.
– No Call to Action:We won’t tell people to actively download a podcast or where to find them. No mentions of npr.org, iTunes, Stitcher, NPR One, etc.
“That’s Linda Holmes of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast and our blogger on the same subject and Bob Mondello, NPR’s film critic. Thanks so much.
“OK, everyone. You can download Alt.Latino from iTunes and, of course, via the NPR One app.
– Informational, not Promotional: When referring to podcasts, and the people who host, produce, or contribute to them, we will mention the name of the podcast but not in a way that explicitly endorses it. References should not specifically promote the content of the podcast (e.g., “This week, the Politics Podcast team digs into delegate math.”) If you feel a podcast title needs explaining (e.g. Hidden Brain), some additional language can be added (e.g., “That’s Shankar Vedantam, he hosts a podcast that explores the unseen patterns of human behavior. It’s called, Hidden Brain” ). Just to repeat: Be creative in how you back announce podcasts, but please avoid outright promotion.
– No NPR One: For now, NPR One will not be promoted on the air.
There will be exceptions to these rules, but when in doubt let these principles be your guide.
If you have specific practical questions the Holmes Brothers or Mark Memmott are great places to go for answers.
And, as always, I’m happy to discuss any aspect of this decision.
(“Memmos;” March 16, 2016)
We get several emails a day from folks who want to correct our grammar. Many start like this:
“Would you please inform [insert name of NPR journalist] that to say [insert mistake, often about “lie” or “lay”] is incorrect.” Then they usually question the quality of our educations.
We recently got a warmer wag of a finger. Jarrod Jackson in Audience Relations passed along an actual letter – on paper – from 12-year-old Sylvia Seay of Crozet, Va. She chided us just a bit while also being absolutely charming, at least in the eyes of many in the newsroom.
Sylvia is a fan of NPR, but she has an issue:
“I have noticed that you refer to parents as ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers,’ rather than ‘moms’ and ‘dads.’ Despite this, children are still dubbed ‘kids.’ …
“I find this improper because the definition for ‘kid’ in Webster’s 7th New Collegiate Dictionary is as follows: ‘A young goat, or various related animals.’
“A child does not fall under this category. I myself am a child in 8th grade and of twelve years. I would suggest another term in place of ‘kid,’ such as: child, youth, younger population, teen, minor, or whippersnapper (haha).”
A search of NPR.org turns up about 1,300 mentions of “kids” in the past year and 1,400 of “children.”
The numbers wouldn’t have been that close, I bet, a few decades ago. I told Sylvia in an email that I remember being admonished by an editor nearly 40 years ago. “Children are not ‘kids,’” he said.
But, I added, “over time, the word has become more accepted.”
Perhaps we can put some of the blame on Madison Avenue. Remember that Armour hot dogs commercial from the ‘60s and ‘70s?
I also told Sylvia that:
“You’ve touched on an issue we deal with every day. We want to be careful with our words and we try not to make grammatical mistakes. But we also want to be conversational and ‘sound like America.’ English is a living language and we change with the times. That said … ‘kids’ is a word that works better in fun, or lighter, stories. A guideline might be that if you wouldn’t use the words ‘mom’ and ‘dad,’ then ‘kids’ probably isn’t appropriate either.”
Now, if only more of our language police were like Sylvia. She’s a good … person.
(“Memmos;” March 15, 2016)
“News reporting and analysis are at the center of our work,” The Ethics Handbook says. “Valid news analysis flows naturally from deep, thorough reporting. Its role is to provide interpretation, explanation and context.”
In other words, analytical reporting is a big part of what we do.
It isn’t commentary – “the expression of opinion on items of public interest.” We leave that to others. If we bring them on the air to explain things and offer their opinions, they are “commentators.”
Can we also call them “analysts?” No.
We want to be very clear. There’s a difference between “analysis” and “commentary.” Our journalists analyze events and issues. So do some guests. Others offer commentary.
Related note: Though they analyze, we don’t refer to our journalists as “analysts.” First, that makes it sound like they work on Wall Street or in a laboratory. Second, there is too much potential for confusion. The words “analyst” and “commentator” have become interchangeable in many listeners’ minds, even though they mean different things.
(“Memmos;” March 14, 2016)
Korva and her fellow Arizonans refuse to get on board with the idea of adjusting clocks, but most of the nation will spring forward an hour this weekend.
That means we need to remind everyone that it’s “daylight saving time” that’s starting again, not “daylight savingS time.”
Also, as we’ve said before:
Arizona and Hawaii don’t observe daylight saving time. Clocks in those states (except on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona) don’t need to be adjusted. Also not time-shifting this weekend: “Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Marianas Islands.” NationalGeographic.com
(“Memmos;” March 10, 2016)
If you use Skype to interview a guest and some of the conversation gets into a piece or two-way, then you need to say that you used Skype.
There are various ways to do it, including:
- “We reached her on Skype.”
- “She spoke to us on Skype.”
- “He joins us on Skype.”
Give the credit once before you cut to the clip or go to the conversation. Treat this just like those mandatory credits to networks on debate nights. It’s part of the deal when you download and use Skype.
Meanwhile, check the terms of service of any similar Internet service you use. Google’s voice and video chat services, for instance, do not require these credits – and may be alternatives you’d like to explore.
(“Memmos;” March 7, 2016)
On Super Tuesday Eve, here’s a reminder: there’s “no cheering [or booing] in the press box.”
This is very important, so we’re recirculating the guidance we posted last October about social media. It still applies.
Everyone should be familiar with our thinking:
The presidential campaign … and breaking news events … draw many of us to social media. We want to monitor the news, post our reporting, share the interesting information we find and offer our thoughts.
That’s great. Have fun out there.
But … (there’s always a “but”) … all of us — journalists as well as those in other departments — need to remember that what we post and retweet can reflect on NPR. None of us want NPR’s reputation for fairness to be put in doubt because of things we do on digital platforms.
– The “Social Media” section of the handbook. The introduction specifically mentions NPR’s journalists, but the principles apply to others here as well. If you’re in doubt, talk to your supervisor:
“The Internet and the social media communities it encompasses can be incredible resources. They offer both a remarkably robust amount of historical material and an incredible amount of ‘real-time’ reporting from people at the scenes of breaking news events. But they also present new and unfamiliar challenges, and they tend to amplify the effects of any ethical misjudgments you might make. So tread carefully. Conduct yourself online just as you would in any other public circumstances as an NPR journalist. Treat those you encounter online with fairness, honesty and respect, just as you would offline. Verify information before passing it along. Be honest about your intent when reporting. Avoid actions that might discredit your professional impartiality. And always remember, you represent NPR.”
– “Some Guidance About Social Media On Election Day.” You could substitute the words “Debate Night” [or "Super Tuesday"] for “Election Day.”
– “Reminder: There Is No Privacy On The Web, And ‘Personal’ Pages Are Not Safe Zones.” Here’s a key paragraph:
“Matt Thompson offers a test. Before posting something about your work or a news event or an issue, even if you’re putting it on what you think of as a personal page, ask this question: ‘Is it helping my journalism, or is it hurting my journalism?’ ”
(“Memmos;” Feb. 29, 2016)
When a company, politician or organization won’t comment on something, have they “refused” or “declined?”
“Refused” works, according to Webster’s New World, if the “no” has been “emphatic” or “blunt.” Maybe a phone has been slammed* in your ear or an email has included language we wouldn’t repeat on the air.
But “declined” is the word to go with in most cases. True, the words are close in meaning. But Webster’s notes that to decline is a polite way of refusing. If a spokesman simply says “we’re not going to comment,” that’s a polite response.
Ina Jaffe was correct this week when she reported that a nursing home had “refused” to readmit a patient. Here’s why: As the BBC notes, “to ‘refuse‘ is the opposite of to ‘accept’ ” and it is done “firmly.” In this case, the hospital said “no” even after being ordered by the state of California to accept the patient. That’s a firm decision.
*In the old days, people had phones that had to be “hung up” to end a call. If you were angry at the person on other end of the line, you might slam the handset (which was attached to a cord) down on the “cradle.” There was also a “dial” on the phone.
(“Memmos;” Feb. 26, 2016)
The man under arrest in Kalamazoo is a “suspect.” He “allegedly” killed six people.
The basic procedure is that we use such qualifiers, or others such as “who police say …,” until someone is convicted or has entered a guilty plea.
Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik are not “suspects” or “alleged” killers. They are the couple who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif.
They were not convicted and did not confess to authorities. Why drop the qualifiers?
Because they’re dead?
That’s a factor, but not necessarily the determining one.
As we’ve said before, ”at some point … it just makes common sense to stop inserting” words such as “suspected” and “allegedly.”
But as we’ve also said before, here are some of the “questions to ask before any shift in language:”
– Has the person [or persons] been positively and publicly identified as the killer[s] 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? …
– 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.
(“Memmos;” Feb. 23, 2016)
Because some words and phrases come up often, because there are new folks on most desks and shows, because some people have shifted jobs in recent months and because many of us have lousy memories, a reminder is in order.
We have guidance on a wide variety of words and phrases that need to be handled carefully. The guidance should be used.
– Do we say “abortion clinics?” No. We refer to “clinics that perform abortions.” Read more.
– “Illegal immigrants?” “Undocumented immigrants?” No and no. We prefer action phrases such as “people in the country illegally.” Read more.
– “Assault rifle?” Probably not. In most cases it’s “assault-style.” Read more.
– “Migrants” or “refugees?” They aren’t interchangeable. Read more.
– “Gay marriage?” No. “Same-sex marriage” is the phrase to use. Read more.
– “Islamic terrorists?” No. The word to use is “Islamist.” Read more.
There are several places to go to find such guidance. We all should read through them occasionally to see what’s there, refresh our memories and head off annoying notes from editors. The resources include two that are open to the public:
More is posted on our radio and digital style guides – which remain, for now at least, inside our Intranet. It’s not that hard to get to them. They’re just a couple clicks away. Go to the Intranet, click on the little “link” icon in the top left corner and a dropdown box will appear. Then click on “Wiki.” Note: There are “radio” and “digital” guides mostly because some things need to be spelled out or expressed slightly differently depending on the platform.
You’ll find our link to the AP Style Guide is there as well.
If you’re outside our Intranet, the RAD team or I can see if there’s guidance on your issue.
- Walk over and look at the white wall by Newscast. There’s quite a bit of information on it.
- Talk to the journalists here who have already thought through the issue you’ve got. The Science Desk, for example, comes to mind on subjects such as climate change and abortion.
(“Memmos;” Feb. 19, 2016)
Here’s the first line of a Brian Naylor spot this morning:
“The cable TV set-top box, which is actually probably under your TV, is pretty easy to ignore.”
Brilliant. Brian winks at listeners. It’s engaging. A “real” person is reporting the news and he knows that “set-top box” is one of those phrases that lives on after it no longer makes sense. What could have been a dull report pops instead.
Imagine the other words or phrases that offer such opportunities. “Glove compartment” comes to mind. I know mine has never contained a pair of gloves.
(Memmos; Feb. 18, 2016)
This is already happening, but it’s important not to forget that as we line up experts for two-ways and interviews about public policy issues, we need to know if they’re connected to or publicly support one of the presidential campaigns. A standard question these days should be something like “are you advising any of the campaigns?” Or, “have you been called by any of the campaigns or candidates?” Or, “are you publicly supporting one of the candidates?”
Check with them about connections to public policy groups and advocacy organizations as well.
We look for expertise on a wide variety of subjects that are campaign issues. They include climate change, criminal justice, economics, foreign affairs, immigration, national security and tax policy. The list could go on.
A “yes” response to one of our questions doesn’t automatically disqualify someone, but it is information we need to know, weigh and tell our listeners and readers if it’s decided that person should be part of our report.
Meanwhile, our responsibility doesn’t end with a “no” response from the expert. Trust, but verify. Do some searches to be sure that person hasn’t shown up in stories about “economists who support Smith” or “historians who are advising Jones.” The expert may have an explanation. After all, campaigns sometimes exaggerate their support and academics sometimes sign on to things without quite realizing what they’ve done.
It’s also important to know whether someone has advised candidates or groups in the past. That information may help put the expert’s thinking in context.
How far down the ballot do we need to go? It’s wise to ask whether they’re connected to any House, Senate or statewide races. We would also want to know if an expert in a particular field has gotten involved in a specific story — the Flint water crisis, for example.
(“Memmos;” Feb. 11, 2016)
It’s clearly stated in the Ethics Handbook that “we don’t allow sources to dictate how a topic will be covered.”
That’s a pretty basic rule.
We’re bringing it up now because of reports about 2009 email exchanges between then-Atlantic contributing editor Marc Ambinder and Philippe Reines, spokesman for then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:
- “Corrupt journalism doesn’t pay. Nor does abetting it.”(The Washington Post)
According to those reports, Ambinder got a scoop about a Clinton speech by agreeing to Reines’ “conditions.” One: that the address be described as “muscular.” Two: That he report that Clinton’s high-profile deputies would be there to show their support for the secretary.
Ambinder tells Gawker that the transaction “made me uncomfortable then, and it makes me uncomfortable today.”
“Unacceptable” is the word that comes to our mind.
Other “don’t do what they did” posts:
(“Memmos;” Feb. 10, 2016)
Be sure to listen to All Things Considered’s look back at the work of radio comedian Bob Elliott. Just what we can all use: Tips that make us smile!
Also, check out Here & Now’s remembrance, including a 2007 interview with Bob Elliott:
(“Memmos’: Feb. 5, 2016)
It’s been drilled into our heads that we should include at least a bit of a person’s biography on first reference. So this guidance is a break from tradition. Here goes:
If someone is well-known, it will often feel and sound more natural to move that bio material to later in a Newscast spot, blog post or show piece. In some cases it may not even be necessary to include all the biographical information you’re tempted to fold in.
For instance, rather than beginning with a reference to “2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin” or “former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin” or “former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin,” simply slip one of those reminders in later.
In most cases, there’s no need to remind the audience on first reference that Hillary Clinton is a “former secretary of state,” “former senator” or “former first lady.” You may need to say “Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton,” but there are more conversational ways to get that information across as well. For instance, by talking about “Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the White House” and getting the word “Democratic” in at another point.
It’s unlikely you would start a conversation with a friend by saying “Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.” You would say “Bernie Sanders.” In many cases, we can do the same and let the references to his run for the Democratic nomination, the senate and Vermont come in naturally.
This guidance is mostly about politicians, but can apply to others as well. “Former Beatle” doesn’t always have to go in front of “Paul McCartney.” Oprah Winfrey can stand on her own for a line or two. “Boxer Muhammad Ali” may not be necessary on first reference.
Here’s the takeaway: We don’t have to be bound to the notion that first references must be mini résumés. Use your judgment.
– This does not change the way we refer to sitting presidents, vice presidents and other world leaders. We’re sticking with formalities on first references to them.
– Party IDs are key information in stories about policy makers and politicians. If you don’t include an “R,” a “D,” a “Democrat” or a “Republican,” you will hear from readers and listeners who say you’re trying to hide someone’s affiliation.
– If the news is about legislation that’s being introduced, a hearing that’s being held, results of an investigation that are being released or other official business, we stick with tradition. It would be “Sen. Jane Doe” or “Attorney Gen. John Doe” on first reference.
– It should always be “Conqueror of the Unpronounceable Word Korva Coleman” on first reference.
(“Memmos;” Feb. 1, 2016)
“Ride-sharing” doesn’t accurately describe the service that Uber and others offer. As Webster’s says, “share … generally connotes a giving or receiving a part of something.” With these services, nothing’s being given away.
The AP suggests “ride-hailing” or “ride-booking.” Other suggestions are welcome.
People we interview may say “ride-sharing.” That’s perfectly fine. We should not.
(“Memmos;” Jan. 21, 2016)
Unless their tongue is firmly in their frozen cheek, the first person who uses any of these words or phrases this week has to shovel Korva’s long driveway:
- Big chill
- Brave the elements
- Hunker down
- White stuff
- Old man winter (or Ol’ Man Winter)
- Jack Frost
- Deep freeze
- Nipping at our noses (or anything else)
- Enough is enough
- First flakes
- Winter wonderland
Feel free to ban any other winter-related clichés that I missed.
Let’s not overdo some sounds, either. Snow shovels. Snow plows. Sleds. Etc.
(“Memmos;” Jan. 20, 2016)
When referring to the decision to switch Flint’s water supply, unless you’re going to go into a long explanation please say the decision was made by “government officials.” As Michigan Radio’s timeline shows, there were many players. To call them simply “city officials” is problematic because state-appointed emergency managers were also involved.
For further guidance, consult Ken Barcus or the editor sitting in for him this week (Russell Lewis). Luis Clemens is also up to speed on the situation.
(“Memmos;” Jan. 19, 2016)
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This list went out last January. A year later, we’re still making too many of the same mistakes. See for yourself on the corrections page: http://www.npr.org/corrections
As we said last year:
The checklist that follows is a reminder of things we all know we should do. It’s meant to be particularly useful to correspondents and producers. They collect the information we put on the air and online and they are expected to do all they can to make sure that what we report is accurate.
Think of the checklist as a tool. Print a copy for yourself and please use it. We know we will make mistakes. But we all need to do what we can to reduce them.
NPR REPORTERS, CORRESPONDENTS, PRODUCERS and MULTIMEDIA JOURNALISTS who collect and write the information we broadcast or post online will double-check:
– SUPERLATIVES. If something is said to be the “first,” “last,” “best,” “worst,” “only,” “oldest,” “youngest” etc., that claim must be verified. If it can’t be, the claim should be deleted or qualified – and clearly attributed.
– PERSONAL NAMES. Verify them, spell them correctly (for radio and the Web) and confirm pronunciations.
– AGES. Get a person’s date of birth and do the math.
– TITLES. President, CEO, professor, etc. They must be accurate.
– NAMES of BUSINESSES, SCHOOLS and INSTITUTIONS.
– DAYS and DATES. Are you sure this happened then?
– HISTORICAL “FACTS.” Are you sure it happened that way?
– LOCATIONS. Is that where this happened? Is that where this person is from? Is that really the capital?
– NUMBERS and CALCULATIONS. Do the math yourself. Should it be millions, billions or trillions? Is the decimal in the correct place? Is it percent or percentage point?
– QUOTES. They must be attributed to the right person.
– WEB ADDRESSES and PHONE NUMBERS. They have to be tested.
– GRAMMAR and SPELLING. Note: What goes in a radio script may end up on the Web.
When an NPR journalist says something is ready for editing, that journalist IS CONFIRMING that all such double-checking has been done. If something hasn’t yet been nailed down, the journalist will alert the editor. When news is breaking and we’re covering it live, NPR journalists make clear what is “known” and what is ”not known.”
– Will ask: Has everything that needs to be double-checked been double-checked?
– Will still check: The accuracy of the reporting.
WHEN MISTAKES ARE MADE
– We own them. THIS IS IMPORTANT: If you realize a mistake has been made, email email@example.com and notify the appropriate editor or producer. Senior managers need to be told about “serious” mistakes.
– We correct them.
- – SUPERLATIVES
- – NAMES
- – AGES
- – TITLES
- – INSTITUTIONS
- – DAYS and DATES
- – HISTORICAL “FACTS”
- – LOCATIONS
- – NUMBERS and CALCULATIONS
- – QUOTES
- – WEB ADDRESSES/PHONE NUMBERS
- – GRAMMAR and SPELLING
(Memmos; Jan. 13, 2016)
Give Rolling Stone some credit for transparency. Sean Penn’s account of his trip to meet Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán is topped with this editor’s note:
“Disclosure: Some names have had to be changed, locations not named, and an understanding was brokered with the subject that this piece would be submitted for the subject’s approval before publication. The subject did not ask for any changes.”
There’s a good discussion to be had about the line between activism and journalism and how far across it the “El Chapo Speaks” piece goes. Let’s set that aside for now.
This post is about two simpler issues.
First, NPR does not create pseudonyms for sources. Doing so gives the audience a reason to ask what else might have been made up. If we need to protect someone’s identity, we most often use real first names, sometimes real middle names, sometimes real “street” or nicknames that the source is known by and sometimes descriptions (the “husband,” the “sister,” the “officer,” etc.). Whatever we do, we explain it in our reports. We include the reason why the person needs anonymity.
We also pay attention to “the ‘don’ts’ of anonymity.” That is, no attacks, no disguises and no offers. The Ethics Handbook’s guidance on anonymous sourcing is collected here. Of particular importance is this guideline: “Describe Anonymous Sources As Clearly As You Can Without Identifying Them.”
Second, NPR does not show its stories to sources before broadcast or posting. Here is our guidance:
“For purposes of accuracy and fairness, there are times when we may want to review portions of a script with a source or read back a quotation to ensure we captured it correctly. We may also play audio or read transcripts of an interview to a third party if the purpose is to get that party’s reaction to what another person has said. Otherwise, however, the public is the first audience for our work — we don’t preview scripts or stories in advance of their broadcast or posting with sources, subjects of coverage or other parties outside NPR.”
(“Memmos;” Jan. 11, 2016)
As of Monday, Jan. 4 a.m. 10 a.m. ET:
– We are not using the words “militia” or “militiamen” on their own. A “militia” is organized to “resemble an army” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fifth Edition). At most, this group may be called a “self-described” or “self-styled” militia. It doesn’t “resemble an army.” Note: Reporting indicates there may only be a dozen or so men doing the occupying.
– We are not calling this a “standoff.” A standoff requires two sides. Right now, one group is occupying some lands and buildings while the other (the government) is considering what to do. There’s an “occupation” and it may become a “standoff,” but it’s not there yet.
– We have been using the words “protesters” and “armed protesters.” But the word “protesters” is not entirely adequate. These are armed individuals who have occupied government property. They are not simply citizens peacefully expressing their opinions, which is how the word “protesters” is more often used. This is an “armed occupation.” They are “armed occupiers.” They are “armed men” or “armed individuals.”
“Militants” is a better word than “protesters.” A militant is “ready and willing to fight,” according to Webster’s. These men say they are. The dictionary also says a militant is “vigorous or aggressive in supporting or promoting a cause.”
– As we’ve previously discussed, it’s best to avoid labels if possible. Use action words to describe who these people are and what they want. They are an armed group. They want an end to federal management of public land in the west. They are armed anti-federalists who want the states to control public lands in the west (referring to them simply as “anti-government” is not quite right).
Addition at 1:30 p.m. ET:
When referring to the dispute that Cliven Bundy and others have with the federal government, don’t say it’s over “grazing rights.” Instead, say “grazing fees,” “grazing privileges,” “grazing permits” or some combination of those words — such as “grazing permits and fees.”
(“Memmos;” Jan. 4, 2016)
Much of the best work we did this year had this in common: direct, evocative writing. Editors have long said it’s best to “keep it simple, stupid.” That’s not as easy as it sounds. But, we’ve often done it well. Here are six examples, in no particular order. Many more could be listed. Thanks go out to correspondents and editors who craft lines such as these every day:
– Julie McCarthy describing an earthquake survivor in Nepal: “A physician from Doctors Without Borders hovers over Aitimaya, inspecting her head injury while an IV drains into her bony arm. Stretched out on a dirty mattress, the only motion she can muster is a limp swat at the flies.”
– Gene Demby on the disturbing reason he and two friends (“black journos,” as Gene wrote) were having dinner in St. Louis: “We weren’t gathered for a birthday, or happy hour, but because a young black man’s body had lain out for four hours on a sweltering street.”
– Robert Siegel reflecting on the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris: “No one ever summed up the French Enlightenment by saying: ‘I disapprove of what you order at the cafe, but I will defend to the death your right to order it.’ But what happened here shows there is a real connection between big ideas about freedom and small, casual acts of friendship and recreation. One person publishing a biting satire and another reacting to it over a bite at the bistro are two sides of the same coin. The gunmen and suicide bombers who came here claiming divine authority understood that. The guns that were aimed at the few in January were fired without distinction in November. Everyone was a target. The French are Charlie. And in their grief, they need no reminding of it.”
– Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, Tyler Fisher, Kainaz Amaria, Lauren Migaki, Claire O’Neill, Wes Lindamood and Becky Lettenberger on a fascinating “Look At This” digital trip to the Amazon. It begins with two simple sentences that draw visitors right in: “You were taught in school that the rain forest is like the lungs of our planet. It’s not that simple.” The lines that follow on the other images are all examples of spare, compelling storytelling.
– Jasmine Garsd on why it’s significant that Ruben Blades’ character in Fear The Walking Dead isn’t another Latin American stereotype and is revealing the scars many Latin Americans bear: “Here’s what’s important about discussing our historical wounds and our cultural fears: rather than divide us, they bring us closer to one another. Sometimes, they highlight the fact that we all have the capacity to be monsters.”
– Wade Goodwyn, summing up a performance by opera singer Frederica von Stade and a choir of homeless people: “It was an evening they said they’d remember the rest of their lives. For a night, two dozen of Dallas’s homeless were lifted from the city’s cold streets and sidewalks to bask in the warm glow of spotlights. For the usual hostility and indifference to their fate, they were traded love, respect and goodwill — one performance only.
Jonathan Kern advised in Sound Recording that “the goal is to write the way you wish you could speak — or the way you speak on your best day, when you’ve had just the right amount of caffeine and sleep.” He recommended “short, repetitive sentences.”
It looks like we’re still heeding Jonathan’s advice.
(Memmos; Dec. 29, 2015)
What did Mark annoy us about in 2015? Here are the year’s “Memmos,” divided into categories:
ANONYMITY AND SOURCING
DACS AND OTHER STANDARD PROCEDURES
LANGUAGE TO USE AND LANGUAGE NOT TO USE
- No Change In The Way We Introduce The Islamic State (later revised; see next entry in this list)
MISTAKES: HOW TO HANDLE THEM AND HOW TO AVOID THEM
NAMES AND PRONUNCIATIONS
- Reminders On Two Names (Ofeibea Quist-Arcton & Leila Fadel)
THIS IS HOW TO DO IT!
WHAT DID WE SAY IN 2014?
(“Memmos;” Dec. 22, 2015)
The New York Times is reviewing some of its reporting about the San Bernardino terrorist couple, Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple writes. The Times is looking back at a story that said Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik had “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.”
The Times is examining the story and the anonymous sourcing for that claim because the FBI says it has not found any public social media postings by Farook and Malik that might have “tipped off authorities to the couple’s extremist views,” as The Two-Way writes. Instead, it looks like the couple communicated via emails and private messages.
Whether the communications were public or private is important. Wemple calls it “a gigantic deal” because the Times’ story went on to say that American immigration officials failed to uncover “what Ms. Malik had made little effort to hide — that she talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.” That’s a damning conclusion if the couple had been communicating in the open. If they weren’t doing that, the story went too far.
But this Memmo isn’t just about what the Times did. It’s about what NPR did.
Carrie Johnson, Dina Temple-Raston, Phil Ewing, Martin Kaste, Nathan Rott, Richard Gonzalez, Matt Guilhem, the Two-Way team, the Newscast desk and everyone else who touched the story* stuck to what we were confident we could say and avoided things that weren’t solid. They were precise in their language. For example, we were careful to say federal sources were telling NPR that Malik had posted a message on Facebook “at the time of the shooting.” That information has held up.
*This list is not meant to be exhaustive. If you’re among the “everyone else,” thank you.
When politicians and public officials (or anyone, for that matter) say things that don’t fit the facts, we should point it out – and we are, as the “Break It Down” fact-checks show.
Our earlier post suggested several ways to say and write that what Candidate A or City Official B just said doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The Times’ Margaret Sullivan pointed to other approaches, such as noting that they spoke “without citing any evidence” or that the statement “has no basis in fact.”
If the evidence shows that a claim clearly doesn’t add up, we don’t need to qualify with a “critics contend” or a “some say.” State what is known and how we’ve reached that conclusion (for example, “an NPR search of news accounts and police records found no evidence to support the claim”).
Sullivan also noted something we agree with: that as much as possible, the fact-checking should be done “in real time.” That is, as soon as possible after a claim is made. We’ve been doing that very effectively after the presidential debates and notable claims by candidates.
Obviously, politicians and public officials aren’t the only people who make claims that can’t be substantiated. Keep in mind that, as the Ethics Handbook says, “our purpose is to pursue the truth. Diligent verification is critical. We take great care to ensure that statements of fact in our journalism are both correct and in context.” Also, we shouldn’t “just spread information. Be careful and skeptical.”
(Memmos; Dec. 17, 2015)
Many thanks to everyone for the care that’s been taken with the information coming in from San Bernardino. Our language has been precise, we’ve added important context and we’ve been clear about what’s known and what isn’t.
The “reportable” and “guidance” notes from editors and reporters have been extremely helpful. One thing: Please remember to include language about the sources of that information. It’s very important that we be able to tell listeners and readers where we’re getting our information.
Also, please continue to be careful about descriptions of the weapons. To many in the audience, “assault rifles” are fully automatic weapons that cannot be legally purchased. At this point, it’s better to refer to the rifles used in San Bernardino as “assault-style.”
But again, thanks. We’ve gotten many messages such as this one posted on Facebook:
“Thank you for reporting only the facts while others in the media build a frenzy just to be the first with ‘new information’, credible or not.”
From October: “Take Care When Describing Weapons.”
(“Memmos;” Dec. 3, 2015)
It’s that time of year again, so here’s a reminder:
If you feel a holiday cliché trying to tiptoe into your copy, please resist.
From last year’s post on this topic:
– “ ‘Tis the season to …” No, it ’tisn’t.
– “ ‘Twas the night before …” It ’twas?
– “Over the river and through the woods …” It’s been a while since we rode a sleigh to grandmother’s house.
– “Bah, humbug.” Be miserly with your references to Dickens.
– “Oh, the weather outside is …” Don’t put that song in my head!
– “It’s beginning to look a lot like …” Not that one either!
– “Yes, Virginia.” No, Korva.
– “Christmas came early for …” Really? Seems like it’s always on Dec. 25.
– “Jing-a-ling.” Jing-a-don’t.
– “A Christmas Grinch stole …” Every burglar doesn’t have to be be turned into a Dr. Seuss character this time of year.
– “Santa’s elves …” They’re everywhere!
– “On the Xth day of Christmas …” The song is boring enough as it is.
As we also said last year, you may be able to play around with these holiday evergreens. You might stand one on its head, so to speak.
But the guidance we’ve given about adjectives applies in most cases to clichés as well: if you see one, kill it.
In other words, say “no, no, no,” not “ho, ho, ho.”
(Memmos; Dec. 1, 2015)
An editor once told me that if I asked 12 economists what was likely to happen I would get 13 opinions.
That line came to mind in recent days as I talked to people across NPR News about whether we do or do not allow music to be embedded in longer news stories. I’m talking about incidental music that is there, at the very least, to improve the listening experience, but otherwise has no obvious connection to the story. I’m also talking about longer pieces that are broadcast, not podcasts.
– “No …” I was told. NPR has a rule: No music; no sound effects. We don’t put anything in our broadcast pieces that isn’t “true” to the stories.
– “Sure …” I was assured. We’ve been adding music for years when it’s felt that “scoring” would improve a piece.
– “Well …” others said. Music can be used as a bookend or to create a bridge between sections of a long report. But it should never be layered beneath reporting.
– “But …” began some. If it’s obvious to listeners that the music is being used in a feature in a humorous way or in a long news story to set off a particular section, it’s OK to run it beneath the script.
– “Only …” said some. Music may be OK in features, but only rarely and with a “less is more” approach. That is, be sparing. We’re making news stories, not movies.
There was agreement on one thing. Music can’t be used in news stories to make editorial statements or to steer a listener toward judgments or conclusions. We don’t do those things – just as we would not tell the audience how to feel about the news we’re reporting.
But, but, but … what is an editorial statement and when is something manipulative? We can’t agree. There’s a “know it when we see it” sense.
After all that, here’s where are:
– There is no rule against putting music into broadcast pieces. It’s been done and is being done every week in features or special projects. Listen to WESUN’s “For The Record” series, a recent “Hidden Brain” piece that was recast for radio, Morning Edition’s report on “How The Libyan Revolution Opened The Door To The Islamic State” and the “Changing Lives of Women” essay from the “gray-haired granny” who has gone “punk rock.” Judge for yourself whether the music worked.
– Even those who advocate for the use of music say that “because it sounds cool” is not a reason to use it. Don’t do this either: Add music in the hope it will make a bad story better. There’s a problem with the story. Fix it or kill it.
– There’s agreement that music must be treated like any other piece of our journalism. An informed, editorially based decision is crucial. Be prepared to answer this question: “What’s that doing there?”
– We’re also in agreement that incidental music should not be layered beneath straight-forward, standard news stories.
– “Less is more” is a very important concept. Yes, there’s a case to be made that we need to keep up with the times and that some popular podcasts (including NPR’s) use music very effectively. But, we care deeply about principles such as honesty, transparency and fairness. Adding music can quickly raise questions in listeners’ minds about whether we’re staying true to our principles. A decade ago in Jonathan Kern’s Sound Reporting, Jay Kernis said that music could be added to “certain feature stories and mini-documentaries — on rare occasions.” The occasions are probably less rare these days, but we’re still thinking that they should be carefully considered.
This isn’t a “thou must” or “must not” note, as you can see. We have to take these thoughts and apply them as cases come up. That means talking to each other. Executive producers and desk heads need to be in on decisions about whether music should or shouldn’t be used in broadcast pieces. They should bring in the DMEs (Chuck Holmes and Gerry Holmes) or standards & practices editor (Mark Memmott) if outside opinions are needed. In coming months, watch for training opportunities about the use of music.
(“Memmos;” Nov. 30, 2015)
Politicians, public officials and — yes — members of the press will say things that don’t check out.
– Brian Williams’ helicopter was not shot down.
– Hillary Clinton did not have to run to her car because of sniper fire at an airport in Bosnia.
– Toronto Mayor Rob Ford … pick your story.
When we can say some something definitive about such accounts, we should.
The latest case: Donald Trump’s statement that he “watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down.”
Regarding that account of what he says happened in New Jersey, we have told our audiences that:
– “Police say it didn’t happen.”
– “Local officials in New Jersey continue to dismiss Trump’s claims.”
– “New Jersey officials say it didn’t happen.”
Those lines add helpful context, but they also create a “he said, she said” situation. Trump says one thing, police and local officials say another. Have we done all we can to help listeners and Web users figure out who’s right?
In situations such as this, we should first ask whether we should repeat the claim. After all, repeating it might give it more life. But if the answer to that question is yes, we should get to the point and say what we’ve found. Here’s how The Two-Way has done it:
“We asked our library to look through contemporaneous news reports. They tell us that that they could not turn up any news accounts of American Muslims cheering or celebrating in the wake of Sept. 11.”
Another way to say that might be: “NPR has searched for credible news accounts about large groups of American Muslims celebrating during or after the Sept. 11 attacks. No such accounts have been found.”
We could also flatly report that “no evidence has been found in police or credible media accounts from the time to indicate there were large numbers of Muslim-Americans in New Jersey celebrating.” We have used the “no evidence” framing on the air.
Regarding The Washington Post report from Sept. 18, 2001, that Trump has cited, it stated that “in Jersey City, within hours of two jetliners’ plowing into the World Trade Center, law enforcement authorities detained and questioned a number of people who were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks and holding tailgate-style parties on rooftops while they watched the devastation on the other side of the river.” But as we said on Morning Edition this week, “there is no reference in the [Washington Post] article to Trump’s claim of seeing thousands and thousands Muslims celebrating in Jersey City.”
“The Post story said that Jersey City police detained ‘a number of people’ who were ‘allegedly seen celebrating the attacks and holding a tailgate-style party’ in Jersey City. That allegation was unattributed and unverified. Even if it did happen, and there is no evidence of it, the celebrating was not on TV and did not involve ‘thousands and thousands of people.’ “
(“Memmos,” Nov. 25, 2015)
When there’s an on-air correction, attach a copy of the audio file to the Webpage where the story originally appeared. See the example on this page: http://www.npr.org/2015/11/18/456541300/worlds-largest-jigsaw-puzzle-wildlife-features-fantasy-forest
That way, anyone who comes to the original story will get both a text correction (at the bottom of the page) and an audio correction right at the top.
– A “How We Make Corrections“ memo.
– A document called “A Common Corrections Scenario.”
(“Memmos,” Nov. 20, 2015)