‘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


Ahead Of This Weekend’s Rally, Another Label Warning # ±

As we report about the “Unite the Right” rally planned for this weekend near the White House, keep in mind that the labels many groups create for themselves and those that the media put on them rarely fit well and should be avoided or put in context.

We’ve said before, for example, that “Alt-Right” is a euphemism and that “there’s much more that has to be said about the people who say they’re part of that movement.” Use their words and actions to show who they are. Don’t simply refer to the Alt-Right and move on.

In recent days, some media have described the rally organizers as “right-wing” and those who will be counter-protesting as “left-wing.” Those labels are inadequate and unfair to others on the “right” and “left.” Adding the words “extreme” or “ultra” to such labels doesn’t fix things.

Remember: “Show, don’t tell” is always good advice. Describe what people are doing and report what they’re saying. After you’ve established those facts, carefully considered labels may fit.

(“Memmos;” Aug. 7, 2018)


Think You Know How To Spell That Famous Person’s Name? Don’t Trust Your Memory # ±

The number of misspelled names that have made their way into digital stories has edged down in the past couple weeks and we’re catching more of them in scripts and other places before publication. Thank you.

But the evidence indicates we have a bad habit. It looks like we’re not always double-checking the spelling of some familiar folks’ names. We must be trusting our memories.

Some examples from recent months follow. We have:

The names of famous folks are easy to double-check before sending a script or story to be edited and before hitting “publish.” Please make sure you do.

(“Memmos;” July 26, 2018)

You Literally Can Really Say More By Actually Eliminating Words Ending In ‘ly’ # ±

I’ve bored many with the story that one of the first things an editor told me was that I should delete words that end with “ly” from my stories.

But it actually works. Stories really do read and sound better. Also, by eliminating those “throwaway intensifiers” you literally open up space for action words that definitely move a story along.

Try it. You’ll be totally surprised. Plus, many in the audience will surely thank you. Some will certainly stop complaining.

(“Memmos;” July 24, 2018)


Don’t Refer To Maria Butina As A ‘Student’ In Headlines And Intros # ±

The woman charged with being an unregistered Russian agent has been referred to in headlines and story summaries by us and others as a “student” or “graduate student.”

While it has been reported that she entered the U.S. on a student visa, simply referring to her that way in headlines and introductions could mislead those who don’t read or listen to the rest of a story. It makes it sound like her reason for coming to the U.S. was to get an education. That’s a conclusion we shouldn’t jump to.

Her name is now familiar enough to be in headlines and intros. “Russian woman” is obviously a helpful description.

Also: Lucian Kim says it’s “BOO-tee-nah .”

(“Memmos;” July 18, 2018)


Guidance On ’17 Intelligence Agencies’ # ±

As we continue to report about the president and his view of what the U.S. intelligence community has concluded regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election, we need to be careful about references to the 2017 analysis issued by the Director of National Intelligence.

While the DNI does speak on behalf of 17 intelligence agencies, the work that led to the assessment about Russian interference came from three of the 17 — the CIA, FBI and NSA.

The conclusion has been affirmed by other agencies and Congressional intelligence committees, but it is best to say that “U.S. intelligence agencies” or “the U.S. intelligence community” say that Russia tried to influence the campaign and “undermine faith in the U.S. democratic process.” Don’t specifically attribute the conclusion to all 17 intelligence agencies.

(“Memmos;” July 18, 2018)


To Cut Down On Mistakes, Let’s First Concentrate On Names # ±

Five weeks of data show our corrections pace has not slowed. We’re still on a 100-a-month pace.

The basic message today is a repeat: “We must start CQ’ing.” Reread that “Memmo” for more about how to do that.

Then do this: Commit to getting names right from the first time you put them in the draft of a script or story through to when a piece goes on the air on or the Web. About one-quarter of our mistakes concern names of people and organizations. They’re either just flat wrong (“Dean” instead of “Don”) or they are misspelled.

We can’t ignore the other things on the NPR Accuracy Checklist. They, too, need to be double-checked. But how about we aim to take names and kick those mistakes aside?

Did you know? “Memmos” are now posted here.

(“Memmos;” July 13, 2018)


‘Copy And Paste’ Can Help You Avoid Many Mistakes # ±

Now that everyone is clued in about CQ’ing, we want to talk about a simple step toward accuracy that some have been taking for years, but others aren’t.

Copy and paste.

We’re not suggesting anyone lift lines or phrases from others’ reporting. That’s plagiarism.

What we’re talking about is an efficient way to get some things right the first time.

And yes, again, we know that many have been doing this for a long time. But we’ve come to realize that others aren’t. So here goes.

Want to be sure you’ve got someone’s name correct? Asking the person to spell it for you is obviously an important step.

But if that’s not possible for some reason, find the person’s official bio or another authoritative record (such as a court case).

Then, copy the name and paste it into your script, Web story and any other piece of content where it appears.

For example, let’s say you’re not sure if it’s Corva or Korva. Go here, copy “Korva” and paste it into your script or story.

Definitely do this if you’re linking to that person’s official bio or to a court case he or she is part of. It is quite embarrassing to add such a link and still misspell the person’s name in your story because you didn’t copy and paste. We’ve done that, by the way.

Speaking of official bios, they usually have the person’s correct title and other key details. Those are also copy-and-paste opportunities.

The copy-and-paste method helps enormously when you’re dealing with accent marks that are critical to some non-English words. Remember all those Memmos about clichés? The é didn’t get into them because of a keyboard command. We just searched for the word cliché, copied it and pasted it in.

Numbers are prime examples of facts that benefit from a copy and paste. When the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the unemployment rate, for example, it’s simple to copy the number and transfer it to your story.

None of this eliminates the need to double- or triple-check such facts. There may be mistakes in supposedly official documents. There’s always the chance that your finger slipped and you didn’t copy all of a name, number or title. Take another look or two before sending a story on.

Tip: Create a file in Notepad of names, titles, accent marks and other verified facts that come up often in your reporting. (It’s good, by the way, to use Notepad as an interim step between copying a fact and pasting it into a story because that program can strip out any coding gibberish that might be hiding in the information.)

Update at 12:10 p.m. ET: A conscientious editor correctly suggests it’s important to emphasize that Web versions of court documents, police reports, bios and other official records are not always error-free. So, we repeat, “copy and paste” is helpful — especially when it comes to accent marks. But it is not foolproof and does not completely eliminate the need to double-check facts against other sources. We can, and should, pick up a phone or knock on a door to nail things down if there’s any uncertainty.

That said, it still makes sense to go here, copy “Korva” and paste it in.

(“Memmos;” July 5, 2018)


Like Other Loaded Language, ‘Catch And Release’ Is For Others To Use # ±

There have been a few occasions recently where some listeners thought it sounded like we were using the phrase “catch and release” as if it’s a neutral description of what happens to some people who have entered the country illegally.

But any phrase that compares something done to human beings to something done to animals is not neutral. It is phrasing meant to frame the debate.

As we say in the Ethics Handbook, NPR journalists should:

“Strive to use words and phrases that accurately deliver information without taking sides on emotional or political issues. Politically loaded language not only violates our commitment to be fair, but also gets in the way of telling good stories. It makes readers and listeners stop to consider whether we’re biased in favor of one side or the other.”  

In practice, that means if we do refer to “catch and release” we need to attribute and explain. For example:

- John Burnett said U.S. border agents use the phrase “derisively.”

- Domenico Montanaro attributed the phrase to “Trump and conservative critics.”

(“Memmos;” June 28, 2018)


Let’s Put ‘Truth Sandwiches’ On Our Menu # ±

Debunking falsehoods has long been among our standard practices. As we’ve said:

When There’s No Evidence To Support A Claim, We Should Say That

In the last few days it’s been suggested on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” and in Margaret Sullivan’s Washington Post column that news outlets should put the falsehood or spin between two slices of reality – “one tasty, democracy-nourishing meal,” Sullivan wrote. Or, as CNN’s Brian Stelter put it, a “truth sandwich.”

The idea is to start with the truth, then state the claim, and follow that with more reality.

Skipping the first step and just putting the falsehood first and then debunking it, linguist George Lakoff told CNN and the Post, may reinforce it in the minds of audience members. Starting with the truth, then reporting the claim and then adding more fact-checking, helps avoid that problem.

What might a truth sandwich look like?

Coleman Always Gets It Right, Despite What Memmott Claims

Even though recordings prove that news anchor Korva Coleman has not mispronounced his name on the air, NPR Standards & Practices Editor Mark Memmott charged Tuesday that she has repeatedly and deliberately referred to him as memm-NOTT, not MEMM-it. He falsely insisted that Coleman “never gets it right” even after being presented with audio recordings of the 17 times she has referred to him correctly. …

(“Memmos;” June 20, 2018)


We’re Making Too Many Mistakes; We Must Start CQ’ing # ±

You’ve hopefully heard about the meetings we’ve been having regarding the mistakes we’ve been making. If you haven’t been to one of the discussions yet, watch for an invitation.

As has been said many times at the sessions so far, it’s important upfront to acknowledge that we’re doing more good work — but without more good people. Almost everyone is stretched. Thanks are in order for all that you do.

But, then there’s this: We’ve posted about 100 corrections a month this year.

There is no acceptable number of mistakes per month, but there certainly is an unacceptable number.

One hundred a month is unacceptable.

In the past couple of weeks, editors from across NPR News, NPR Music and Programming have talked about why this is happening and what needs to be done. In coming weeks, reporters, producers, hosts and others will gather to do the same. We need everyone’s input.

Even as we continue to talk and brainstorm, it’s clear that one thing needs to happen now and is not optional: Before a story is turned in to an editor, the facts must be CQ’d.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Latin phrase cadit quaestio and its connection to journalism, here’s what it’s about:

Every name, date, place, number, title — all 13 things on the NPR Accuracy Checklist— must be double- or triple-checked by the writer before the copy goes to an editor or is posted. By copy, we mean scripts, Web stories, DACS lines, Facebook posts, captions, headlines – anything that’s going to be seen or heard by our audience.

The act of doing that checking is CQ’ing. When something is CQ’d, “the case is closed.” You’re telling the editor that “I know this is correct because I’ve checked more than once against impeccable sources.”

Impeccable is a key word. The promise cannot be based on something like “the Timessays she’s 65.” No, you should have firsthand, solid confirmation of your own (including her birth date). It doesn’t mean “I’ve checked my math once.” No, you’ve run the calculations two or three times. And it never means, “I’ve trusted my memory.” You’ve gone back, for instance, to listen to or read FDR’s speech after Pearl Harbor to verify that he said Dec. 7, 1941, was a “date” that would live in infamy, not a “day.”

You can put a note at the top of your story telling the editor that everything has been CQ’d. You can highlight every fact in bold or green or whatever color you like best as a sign that it has been checked. You can append a list of all the facts that have been put through the process. You can, imagine this, talk with the editor about how you verified each fact. We are going to pursue technological ways to highlight CQ’ing. But for now, just be sure to do it and to explain or show how it was done.

This doesn’t absolve editors. They must check the checking, though they shouldn’t change facts that have been CQ’d without talking to the writer. Speaking of talking, they have to challenge reporters: “What’s your source?” “Did you check his birth date?” “Where’s the document?” When editors send stories on to shows or to digital, they’re promising that everything’s been checked by the reporter and then checked again.

Some may say “I don’t have time” or ask “can’t a copy editor do this?” Well, we’re all pressed for time. But if the facts are right from the start, the checking is going to go quickly and will open up more time to sharpen stories. What’s more, rigorous CQ’ing at the front end will cut down on the amount of time spent fixing mistakes and writing corrections. Double-checking the spelling of a name usually takes less than a minute. Fixing a story, writing a correction, explaining to a supervisor why you made the mistake and — if you’re a repeat offender — being called in for a conversation that ends with a note in your personnel file take much longer.

Finally, whether you’re writing a script for broadcast, a DACS line, an introduction, a story for the Web, a photo caption or a tweet about what we’re reporting, it’s part of the job to get the facts right the first time. Yes, we’re all in this together and we need to back each other up and check each other’s work. Yes, mistakes will happen. But if we double-down on accuracy — if we CQ the facts at the start so that “the case is closed” — we can sharply reduce the number of mistakes we make.

(“Memmos;” June 18, 2018)


Tips On Reporting About Suicides # ±

Adding to our earlier guidance, here’s a helpful link courtesy of Nell Greenfieldboyce.

Tips from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:


(“Memmos;” June 8, 2018)


Let’s Keep The ‘Gate’ Closed # ±

Listening and reading from home the past few days, it was good to hear and see that we’ve treated mentions of “Spygate” as they should be — sparingly, in quotes and with attribution. We’ve made clear that it’s a label being used by one side to try to frame a debate.

There are, of course, other reasons to resist simply starting to call something a “gate.”

First, it’s a cliché. We fight clichés like there’s no tomorrow.

Second, as media columnist Rem Rieder put it, when the media tack “gate” on to a word it can come off as “lazy … so predictable … and really, really annoying.”

Third, to paraphrase the late Lloyd Bentsen, we knew Watergate, Watergate was a real scandal, this one (or the next one) may or may not turn out to be another Watergate. We don’t know yet. Let’s not elevate something to “gate” status without very good reasons.

This guidance doesn’t rule out some usages. “Deflategate” was, arguably, a word that let some air out of an over-inflated story.

But, we shouldn’t try to pump up other ongoing stories by joining the rush to attach “gate” to their names.

(Did you know? “Memmos” now live here.)

“Memmos;” May 30, 2018.


On Using Comments From Students Who Were At Today’s School Shooting # ±

Questions have been asked about whether we need parents’ permission to use quotes from students who were at today’s school shooting.

Here’s our guidance:

We do not need to get the consent of parents or guardians if the comments are from interviews the students give in public at or near the scene.

There is a “but”: We need to stick to things the students say about themselves and what they experienced. “I heard the shots and ran toward the woods,” kind of things. Or, “my teacher told us to get in the closet.” If they start talking specifically about other people, that’s material we should not use without discussing first (with senior editors and Legal). For example: “My friend [FIRST NAME, LAST NAME] got shot in the leg.” Or, “I saw [FIRST NAME, LAST NAME] point the gun at [FIRST NAME, LAST NAME] and pull the trigger.”

Meanwhile, if we see minors posting on social media about being at the school and then contact them for interviews — or get contact information for students and start reaching out to them — we do need to get permission from the parents or guardians before doing any interviews. The students are not in public anymore.

(“Memmos;” May 18, 2018)


Does The Cut Match The Voice-over & Is The Translation Accurate? # ±

It sounds simple: When you put an interpreter’s voice over the sound of a non-English speaker, “you never want the translation to be at
odds with the original actuality,” Jonathan Kern writes in Sound Reporting.

In practice, we sometimes slip. Either we don’t start the clip at quite the right place or the interpretation isn’t as true to what’s
been said as it should be.

People who speak the language will notice if things aren’t lining up correctly. Then they’ll question the accuracy of the
rest of a story.

Correspondents and field producers work hard to avoid such mistakes. They include instructions on when to start the clip
and what to say in a voice-over. Here’s a recent example of how to do it, from a piece by Lucian Kim:

ACT4 <<Irina Tyan. Fade under after the word “biznes.” 2 sec.>>

“Dlya ikhnovo gosudarstva etah biznes…”

V/O: “For North Korea it’s a business, because all the laborers who work here pay their government so they can be here.”

[Note: When interpreting the spoken word, there is room for some ... interpretation. The Russian speaker said "for
them." Listeners might ask, "who's 'them?'" It's clearer, but still true to the meaning of the cut, to say "for North

Let’s make voice-overs another part of our work that needs to be double- or triple-checked.

First, if the instructions aren’t clear, ask questions.

Jonathan’s advice: “When you are in doubt … always contact the reporter to make sure you’re pairing up the right actuality with the
right voiceover, and that you’re starting the actuality at a logical place.”

Then, find another pair of ears. The RAD team maintains a list of NPR staffers who speak languages other than English. It’s on our
Intranet. Tap their expertise to be sure an interpretation is as good as we can make it and that we’ve got the clip starting at the
right place. You can reach out for help on Slack as well.

For tips on other things that must be double- or triple-checked, see our Accuracy Checklist.

H/T to Alina Selyukh, Alison MacAdam and Kevin Beesley for their help on this.

(“Memmos;” May 16, 2018)


Avoid The Sin Bin: Say ‘Joint Base Andrews’ & ‘Stanley Cup Final’ # ±

Reminder I: In 2009, the name of the military facility outside Washington D.C. was changed to Joint Base Andrews. It is not Andrews Air Force Base.

Reminder II: The championship round that Korva is sure the Caps are going to get to is the “Stanley Cup Final,” not “Finals.” But, when Dave Mattingly tells listeners about the last round of the NBA playoffs, he’ll have to say it’s the “NBA Finals.” Korva can explain.

(“Memmos;” May 10, 2018)




Don’t Simply Say ‘Hawaiians’ & Don’t Say Eruptions Just Started # ±

The people who have left their homes because of lava flowing from Kilauea are not all of indigenous Polynesian descent — that is, “Hawaiians.”

In fact, according to the Census Bureau, just 10% of Hawaii’s residents are “native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone.”

That’s why we shouldn’t simply say those affected by the volcano are “Hawaiians.” They are residents of Hawaii or people who live near the volcano.

Also, we shouldn’t make it sound like Kilauea just began erupting in recent days. As Hawaii Public Radio has said, it’s been doing that “continuously since 1983.”

But, as the station added, “there are always changes, sometimes dramatic, and sometimes more subtle.”

What’s been happening in recent days would be on the dramatic end of the scale.

(“Memmos;” May 7, 2018)



Remember: People ‘Die,’ They Don’t ‘Pass Away’ # ±

From KERA in Dallas, our friend Rick Holter sends along a note he’s shared with his staff.

Just a reminder: All deaths are created equal.

So we should say/write that someone “died,” whether they’re young or old, rich or poor, prominent or obscure.

They didn’t “pass away” or “go to their great reward” or “shuffle off this mortal coil” (unless they were Hamlet – and actually, he said “die” twice in that speech before he got to the “mortal coil” part).

Any time you use one of those euphemisms on air or online (except in a direct quote) to ease the pain of the family or respect the person, you’re basically saying this death is different from others; it could be heard or read as this person’s death is more sensitive or valuable than others.

We shouldn’t be making those judgments.

Also, we follow Associated Press style, which is unequivocal about this:

“Don’t use euphemisms like passed on or passed away except in a direct quote.”

So remember: People die. And we respect all those deaths equally.

Thanks, Rick, for helping us get to a better place.

(“Memmos;” May 3, 2018)


This Is A Must-Read Note About Things We Must Do # ±

As a newsroom, we are producing more content than we ever have and that can be overwhelming.

But, we also know we have to do the things on this list, and more. If they aren’t done, stories aren’t ready for broadcast or posting and must be held:

- Get the other side. If people are accused of something, or their actions are described by someone else or words are attributed to them, we have to talk to them. If they’re dead or otherwise unavailable, find other ways to check out the story. Remember, no one gets to take a free shot at someone else. Related note: Give people a reasonable amount of time to get back to you. What’s reasonable? It depends. Consult with the Deputy Managing Editors or Standards & Practices editor.

- Be skeptical. “That’s what he said happened” isn’t good enough. Talk to other witnesses. Truth-squad the story. Can they prove they were where they say they were? Are there police records? If a full moon is a key part of their tale, was the moon actually full that night? Does their version of the timeline make sense? Bottom line: If the details don’t add up, the story may not either.

- Go to the records. Lawsuits. Police reports. Bankruptcy filings. Real estate sales. Divorce proceedings. If a story depends on someone’s credibility, check that person’s background. Read those records and talk to our colleagues in Legal early in the reporting. Show them what you found. They are here to help.

- Speaking of the Legal team … Documents turned up during background checks aren’t the only things we should talk to Legal about. If a story involves legal documents, legal proceedings, legal charges, accusations of wrongdoing, private facts or any of the other things that might drag you and NPR into court, get our Legal team involved. See the Standards & Practices editor or a Deputy Managing Editor to make that happen.

- Confirm and reconfirm. We don’t share our stories with sources before publication or broadcast. But if we have any doubts, we do call them back or check via email to make sure we understand what they told us. And if it’s been more than a couple weeks since we spoke to them, we call them back regardless. First, it’s a courtesy to let them know the story’s ready. Second, it’s a chance to ask “has anything changed?”

- Use the NPR Accuracy Checklist. We made a list of 13 things that must be double- or triple-checked for one important reason: we get them wrong too often. If you use the list you will get those things right almost all the time (we say “almost” because not doing so would be akin to stating a superlative and superlatives are on the list of things we should almost never use). Print it out and put it by your keyboard. Or stop by the Standards & Practices desk. We’ve got a few hundred 3×5 versions.

Three more thoughts:

- There’s always time to get things right.

- You’ll save time in the long run, because it almost always takes longer to fix mistakes than it does to prevent them.

- If you’re feeling like there’s too much on your plate to give an edit your absolute and undivided attention, talk to your manager. Your load and reality checks are OK to flag.

Thanks to Pallavi Gogoi for her help identifying these must-do’s.

(“Memmos;” April 18, 2018)



‘Minor Consent Form’ Now Available In French # ±

Along with the English and Spanish versions, there is now a French version of the minor consent form. Here are links to the PDFs:




As for when they’re needed, here’s a reminder, from the Ethics Handbook:

“Be sure to consider legal issues when dealing with minors (generally defined as anyone under the age of 18). An interview of a minor about a sensitive subject requires us to secure permission from at least one of the minor’s parents (preferably both) or a legal guardian. Examples of sensitive subjects include cheating, sexual activity, involvement in gangs or crime, difficult family relationships, probation violation, out-of-wedlock pregnancy or parenthood, victims’ sexual abuse and similar topics that could have legal ramifications or lead to embarrassment. An interview of a minor in a special custodial situation, such as foster care, juvenile detention, or holding facilities for illegal immigrants, requires the consent of the person who has custody of the minor. Utah also requires the consent of both the custodian of the juvenile facility and the minor’s parent.

“An interview on a non-sensitive topic (normal childhood activities, sports, book, movies, trips to the zoo, baseball and the like) does not require consent. Generally however, any interview on school premises will require the permission of the school authorities.

“In cases where there is even a hint of doubt about whether to get consent, contact our legal team (look for LegalAlert in the NPR internal email address book).”

(“Memmos;” April 18, 2018)


We’re Tracking Retirements From Congress; Here’s Where To Find The List # ±

From Brett Neely, NPR politics editor:

I have recently heard some inconsistent numbers on our air about how many Republicans have retired from the House.

In the interests of providing consistency to our audience, I want to direct you to NPR’s official count of members (from both parties) departing from Congress. Our own Jessica Taylor has done excellent work on this subject and is maintaining a list of retirements that is quickly updated whenever a member makes an announcement.

You should always refer to it first when writing copy. Please bookmark this link: https://www.npr.org/2018/01/12/577090915/chart-tracking-retirements-from-congress

You may see different numbers used by other news organizations that use differing benchmarks for defining retirements and vacancies. Our standard is to count members who have announced they will not be running for another term in the chamber they are currently serving. We do not count vacancies that will be filled before Election Day via special elections or have already been filled.

Questions??? Please contact Jessica Taylor, Arnie Seipel or myself and we will happily assist you.

(“Memmos;” April 12, 2018)


Do Say ‘Sarah Sanders’; Don’t Say ‘We’ # ±

The White House press secretary has confirmed for us that she should be referred to as Sarah Sanders, not Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Here’s some more evidence on that point:

- Sanders’ Twitter page.  

- White House press releases.

From now on, let’s be consistent and refer to her as Sarah Sanders.

In other reference-related news, when discussing issues such as tariffs, troop deployments and environmental regulations, do not use pronouns such as “we” or “our” to describe what U.S. policymakers are doing. “We” – that is NPR News – report about those matters. “We” don’t make policies or decisions. They are made by “U.S. officials,” “the Trump administration,” “the Pentagon” or others.

(“Memmos;” April 4, 2018)


Don’t Be Fooled: It’s April 1 Somewhere Starting Saturday Morning In D.C. # ±

There will be fake news this weekend. That’s for real.

Don’t wait until it’s Sunday morning where you are to start being suspicious of stories you see.


-        Calendars flip to April 1 in Wellington, New Zealand, at 7 a.m. Saturday on the East Coast of the U.S.

-        The foolish hour arrives in Sydney, Australia, at 9 a.m. ET.  Saturday.

-        We know those jokers at the BBC love their April Fools’ spoofs.

-        Folks may use social media to spread hoaxes before the day begins where they are.

-        We’ll need to remain vigilant into early next week.

Poynter.org has reposted its “journalist’s quick guide to surviving April Fools’ Day” here. It’s worth a read.

Korva, who is hosting WESUN this week, is going to monitor all NPR platforms starting at 6 a.m. ET Saturday. If she sees you got fooled, she will be around to collect $1. The money will go toward Newscast’s annual “Speer’s Spring Fling” outing at Six Flags.

(“Memmos;” March 30, 2018)


The Facts About Police Shootings Must Be Triple-Checked And Must Be Right # ±

What were the races of those involved – both the police and the person who was shot? Was the suspect armed? How many shots were fired? What happened before and after the shooting? What charges, if any, were filed? If there was a conviction, what was the officer found guilty of doing? (As we’ve noted, “murder” is not the same as “manslaughter.”) What still isn’t known?

Those are all key facts about the police shootings we cover and we need to make sure we’re getting them right every time. In recent days we haven’t always done that. Do not assume you remember the details. You may be confusing one case with another. Go back and triple-check everything before filing. Don’t base your sourcing on stories that came out immediately after a shooting. The facts may have changed since then.

Obviously, all stories should be thoroughly fact-checked before filing. But the number of stories about police shootings means the potential for mixing up details is especially high. Please get them right.

Related notes:

- Do not use the phrase “officer-involved shooting.” As we’ve said, it’s a euphemism.

- An 18- or 19-year-old should not be referred to as a “teenager.” That is a young adult.

(“Memmos;” March 28, 2018)


No, North Korea’s Leader Did Not Travel ‘Overseas’ # ±

Unless the North Korean leader’s train was amphibious and he took a rather roundabout route, he didn’t travel “overseas” when he went to China. Let’s find other ways to say he left his country.

(“Memmos;” March 28, 2018)


Reminder: Don’t Use ‘Sex’ And ‘Gender’ Interchangeably # ±

This week’s news about the status of transgender members of the military makes this a good time to review some of the language that should and should not be used when we’re reporting.

For instance, we don’t say someone is changing or has changed gender. As NLGJA – The Association of LGBTQ Journalists puts it, gender is “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.”

Just as we respect people’s wishes about how they identify themselves, their names and the pronouns they use, we respect that their gender and the sex they were assigned at birth may not be the same. They may be going through a transition (don’t refer to it as a “sex change”), but they are not changing their gender or the fact that they may be fluid.

We can’t prevent public officials or our guests from mixing the words “gender” and “sex.” But we can be careful about our usage.

Other things to note:

-        Do ask what pronouns a transgender person uses and then explain that we’re respecting that person’s choice. The clearest subsequent references, of course, may simply be the person’s name.

-        “Choice Is Not The Word To Use.”

-        Someone is “transgender,” not “transgendered.”

-        You may have noticed in recent months that we’ve been OK with adding “Q” to “LGBT.” It’s clear that LGBTQ is increasingly accepted, but do be aware that “queer” is still a word that many find offensive.

-        NLGJA’s stylebook is here. We don’t necessarily agree with everything in it, but it has good guidance.

-        Our previous “Memmos” on this subject are here.

(“Memmos;” March 27, 2018)




Ahead Of Saturday’s ‘March For Our Lives,’ Some Reminders # ±

As you know, there will be student-led rallies and marches across the country on Saturday to call for stricter laws and other steps that organizers say would reduce gun violence.

We’ve discussed demonstrations before. Our guidance remains that it’s OK to watch, but not to participate because that could raise questions about NPR’s independence and impartiality. Here’s a key passage from what we’ve said:

“There is real journalistic value in being an observer at public events such as a march or rally, even without a reporting assignment. But while we may observe, we refrain from actively participating in marches, rallies or public events involving political issues or partisan causes that our organization covers or may cover. Of course, the distinction between being a participant and being an observer can be subtle. But waving a picket sign or joining along in a cheer would be inappropriate. Again, we rely on your good judgment.”

We’ve also noted that:

“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.”

Now, some of us have children, nieces, nephews or young visitors who want to take part. If you feel you need to be there to keep them safe or from getting lost, that’s obviously fine. Stay as close as you think is necessary (yes, you can get into the middle of a crowd). But, again, the goal is to be watching, not participating.

Related notes:

- “March For Our Lives” is the name that organizers have given to the events. It should be capitalized on first reference and put in quotes. In audio, we need to note that it is what the students and their supporters call the events. You might say, “in cities across the nation Saturday, high school students led what they call the March For Our Lives. Their message …”

On social media, stay away from opinion. Also, remember that retweets may been seen as endorsements. Basically, proceed “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.”

- We have to be wary of crowd estimates. This is also a subject we’ve covered before. Focus on describing the crowds and do not cite figures coming from the organizers or critics as if they’re real. They are claims. If authorities come up with estimates (and in many places, including Washington, D.C., the authorities steer clear of doing that) use judgement about citing them and definitely attribute the information.

(“Memmos;” March 19, 2018)


Reminder: We’re ‘Saving’ Daylight This Weekend; No Second ‘S,’ Please # ±

Korva has already set the standard – twice today! – by telling listeners that this weekend clocks should be set an hour ahead because we’re switching to “daylight saving time.” See what she didn’t do there? She didn’t say “daylight savingS time.”

That doesn’t mean she’s getting back any of the $3 she’s forked over in recent days for other transgressions. But it’s a start.

Meanwhile, 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 8, 2018)


More Guidance On Describing The Weapon Used In Florida # ±

We can say it was an “AR-15 style” rifle. Or “a version of the AR-15.” But it was, specifically, a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 .223. Referring to it simply as an AR-15 is kind of like calling a Pontiac Firebird a Camaro because it looks so much like that Chevy. We can certainly also say he had a semi-automatic, assault-style rifle. Or just a semi-automatic rifle. Or just an assault-style rifle.

It’s problematic to refer to the weapon as “high-powered.” The cartridge used is too small to clearly fit that definition, which is generally applied to larger (.30 and above) ammunition. The AR-15-style weapon does so much damage because of the “high velocity” the bullets it fires can reach. That’s a label that can be useful.

It’s also problematic to refer to the magazines he was carrying as “high-capacity.” It’s unclear what size magazines he had, but referring to the standard 30-round magazine for an AR-15 as “high capacity” could be seen as taking a position on a debatable issue.

(“Memmos;” March 1, 2018)


‘Under Fire,’ ‘Shoot Down’ And Other Such Clichés Are Banned # ±

We’ve said many times that clichés are to be avoided. With the Florida school shooting and the gun debate that has followed very much in the headlines, it’s more important than ever that we not fall back on phrases such as:

- “Under fire.”
- “Shoot down.”
- “Stuck to his guns.”
- “Smoking gun.”
- “Gunning for.”
- “Hired gun.”
- “With guns blazing.”
- “War zone.”
- “Kill the [bill, proposal, plan ... etc.].”

I’m sure you can come up with others that should not be heard or written.

(“Memmos;” Feb. 27, 2018)



Reminder: ‘Rebut’ And ‘Refute’ Do Not Mean The Same Thing # ±

This has come up again, so here’s a refresher.

- 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)

In almost all cases, when politicians are talking about something they’ve been accused of doing, they’re “rebutting” the charges.

Occasionally they may also repudiate. That is, “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)

By the way, we still don’t endorse this word:

- 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.)

Finally, there’s nothing wrong with the simple word “denied.”

(“Memmos;” Feb. 16, 2018)


Guidance Reminders As We Cover The Florida School Shooting # ±

- The gun or guns will almost surely NOT be “automatic” weapons. They almost surely will NOT be “assault” weapons. Guidance: here  http://ethics.npr.org/?s=assault+weapons  and here http://ethics.npr.org/memos-from-memmott/guidance-specifics-about-weapons/  and here https://www.poynter.org/news/what-journalists-need-know-about-guns-and-gun-control

- Do remind listeners/readers that this is a developing story and things such as number of casualties are likely to change.

Go easy on superlatives. “First,” “biggest,” “worst” are among words to avoid or only use after careful consideration.

- When it’s known for sure, the name of the shooter does NOT have to be endlessly repeated. Biographical details are important, but repeating the name over and over runs the risk of glorifying the shooter in some eyes. http://ethics.npr.org/?s=name+las+vegas

- Why are we talking about the suspect’s “adoptive parents?” Unless there’s something about his story and adoption that hints at why he did this, the fact that he was adopted isn’t relevant and it’s quite disturbing to parents who have created families by adopting to hear that framing. It sounds to them like we’re saying something about adoption.

- Explain the numbers we’re hearing about “18 school shootings so far this year.” They weren’t all “mass shootings.” Some involved accidental discharges. Context is necessary.

- Please continue to refer to the suspect as a “19-year-old” and NOT as a teenager. As we’ve said in other cases, once you’re 18 you’re an adult. Reserve “teenager” for those 17 and under.

- Please eliminate “under fire” or other such phrases from headlines and teasers.

(“Memmos;” Feb. 15, 2018)



With CPB’s Funding In The News Again, A Reminder About Sticking To The Facts On Social Media # ±

From Current.org:

“President Trump once again aims to end public broadcasting funding in his draft budget for fiscal year 2019, released Monday.”

The news means it’s time to point to this post from a year ago:

Stick To The Facts In Any Posts, Tweets Or Comments About Funding News

The nutgraph:

“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.)”

That “Memmo” goes on to say that “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.”

(“Memmos;” Feb. 12, 2018)


It’s ‘Brinkmanship,’ Not ‘Brinksmanship;’ And ‘Data’ Are Almost Always Plural # ±

Another week, another shutdown showdown. In searching for ways to describe what’s going on with the negotiations, we’ve occasionally turned to a word that’s something of an old favorite at times such as these. But, we haven’t always got it quite right.

“Brinkmanship” is the word to use if you have to, not “brinksmanship.” The former is the preferred version in our dictionary and it is by far the more common usage according to Google Books’ Ngram Viewer. (H/T to Kevin Drum and Mother Jones.)

While we’re nagging, here’s a reminder from our style guide about something we’ve reminded everyone about before.

“DATA (DAY-tuh): A plural noun, it usually takes plural verbs and pronouns: The data have been collected (individual items). But it can also be used as a collective noun, which takes a singular verb: The data is sound (regarded as a whole unit).”

(“Memmos;” Feb. 7, 2018)


Tips From Some Pros On Prepping ‘Everyday People’ # ±

First, take a couple minutes and listen to this song. It’s been in my head all day.

I’ll wait.

OK, you’re welcome.

Now, about those “everyday people.”

This post is basically about those we’re looking to book for two-ways or as podcast guests.

Not everyone we interview (live or recorded) is used to being on the air or as part of a podcast. They may not know much about how we work, what we’ll do with the material we gather or that there are words they shouldn’t say (unless those words are essential and we’ve warned listeners they’re coming).

There are staffers on all the shows and desks who have years of experience walking guests and interviewees through the process. If you’re new to the world of pre-interviews and booking or just want some advice, pick their brains. That’s what I’ve done. Here are some tips from Liz Baker, Miranda Kennedy and Viet Le, and from Jonathan Kern’s book Sound Recording: The NPR Guide To Audio Journalism And Production:

- “If we are putting a fairly green guest on the air,” Miranda writes, “it’s a good idea to say we want to run through some tips with them to help them sound their best and most natural, while also sticking to some basic guidelines for broadcast.”

She often tells such guests “it’s especially important to be straightforward in a radio interview. Imagine you’re talking to someone who only cares a little about your topic, and is only half-listening, because they are driving or brushing their teeth.”

Miranda sometimes reminds folks “that live radio has a few basic rules, including to try to stay away from overly sensitive topics or words. One way to put this: if you’re not sure your friend or aunt would like her kids to hear that topic or word, just don’t use it.”

- “If it’s a first-person narrative we want,” Viet says, “I ask them to think of some anecdotes.  If it’s supposed to be a fun interview, I’ll remind them to be fun (sometimes people forget.)  If it’s a complicated idea, I’ll ask them to think of a good metaphor.  If a person had long answers in the pre-interview, I’ll remind them to try and keep it succinct.”

This may sound basic, but Viet notes it’s also important to make sure it’s clear to guests whether they’re on live or being taped. Yes, sometimes need to hear that.

- Liz says her main advice “is to always do a long pre-interview (at least 10 minutes).” That could reveal a potential issue: “If the person is using [foul] language in the pre-interview, chances are they’ll let it slip in the real one too- even if they say things like ‘don’t worry I won’t say this on the radio.’”

When doing pre-interviews, she believes in being “a normal person having a normal conversation” and being sure to “admit right away when you don’ t know something or are confused.” Guests, she says, are more at ease with the idea of coming on the air when they know we’ve taken the time and care to understand their stories before the interview.

- One of Jonathan’s tips in Sound Recording is that during pre-interviews it’s important to “listen for people who have interesting things to say and novel ways to say them.”

“The fluency of the guest,” Jonathan writes, “is most important when the guest is going to be on live.” One key step in such cases, Justine Kenin tells him in the book, may be “to get people clear about their thinking before they’re even on the air.”

It’s critical, adds Jonathan, to eliminate confusion – not just about why we want to talk to this person and what we’re doing, but also something as basic as when we’re going to do it. “Go over the time precisely,” he advises.

Those are just a few tips. As I said above, there are experienced hands across the shows and desks who can be consulted. Talk to them.

Now, back to Sly and the Family Stone.

Bonus content from NPR Training:

15 Principles Of Show Booking

(“Memmos;” Feb. 5, 2018)



Guidance On ‘Chain Migration,’ ‘Family Reunification’ And ‘Children Brought Here …’ # ±

It’s long been our position that “when language is politicized,” we should “seek neutral words that foster understanding.”

In the immigration debate, one side has latched on to an old term that in the past seemed neutral: “chain migration.” The other side talks about “family reunification.” As John Burnett has said, they’re arguing over “the visa program through which immigrants already residing here can bring their family members over.”

On “chain migration,” Tom Gjelten has pointed out that now, “you can say it in a neutral way,” or it can sound “horrible.” You could make the case that “family reunification” can be used the opposite way depending on the tone and context.

In our reports, we should explain how the two sides are using the phrases, or attribute the phrases to them. Use action words, as John did, to describe what it is they’re talking about. But we shouldn’t simply adopt one or the other.

Related: When describing those known as Dreamers, of which 800,000 or so have been DACA recipients, we can say they “were brought to the country as children” or “came to the country as children.” Notice that the word “illegally” is not in those lines. That’s because some came legally, but no longer have that status.

You might, of course, qualify the reference by saying “many came illegally …” The goal is to be accurate and not assume they all entered illegally.

Also see:

- Update: Guidance On Immigration

(“Memmos;” Jan. 24, 2018)


Guidance on DACA and “Dreamers” and a note about the “three branches” of government # ±

When reporting about the debate over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, we shouldn’t make it sound like the number of DACA recipients is equal to the number of people commonly referred to as Dreamers. In fact, there are an estimated 3 to 4 million people who came to the country as children and are here illegally (the “Dreamers”). The number of DACA recipients totaled around 800,000, of which about 700,000 are still in the program.

In other words, DACA recipients are a subset of those known as Dreamers. Don’t simply conflate the two.

Meanwhile, don’t say Republicans control “all three branches of government.” They control two branches, the executive and legislative, but not the judicial.

(“Memmos;” Jan. 22, 2018)


Consider This A ‘So-Called’ Ban # ±

If you’re tempted to write or say “so-called,” stop. Don’t do it.

The odds are far too high that many will think you’ve decided that whatever it is you’re saying is “so-called” has been “inaccurately or questionably designated as such” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary). They would have a point. The synonyms for so-called that come up in a Thesaurus.com search include “supposed,” “alleged” and “purported.”

Alternatives include simply saying “called” or “known as.”

Can you come up with an exception? I’m sure you can, Korva. Please be ready to make a strong case. Otherwise, just kill it.

(“Memmos;” Jan. 22, 2018)


‘First Anniversary’ Is OK; ‘One-year Anniversary’ Is Not. # ±

We are not coming to the “one-year anniversary” of the Women’s March. It will be the “first anniversary.”

How’s that?

The word “anniversary” has its roots in the Latin word annus, or “miraculous year.” That makes saying “one-year anniversary” redundant. We don’t like redundancies. (You may recall the earlier warning about “redundant acronym syndrome.”)

If you feel the need to remind the audience that the Women’s March was one year ago, you can simply say it’s the “first anniversary.”

(“Memmos;” Jan. 19, 2018)


Guidance On The Vulgar Word Attributed To The President: # ±

These notes were sent to NPR journalists on Jan. 12, 2018:

1. With the president having now addressed the reports, we feel is it necessary to say the word “shithole” so that listeners have the full context.

But, the word should be heard very sparingly. No more than one use of the word each hour in the main shows is enough. Newscast, as you always do, stagger the reports.

Don’t include it in the body of spots that will be repeated throughout the day. Do give listeners a heads-up that a vulgar word is coming their way. We of course will continue to add the context that makes clear why this is important. Obviously, the president’s tweet is important information.

There are strong editorial reasons for taking this step and we should be clear about those reasons in the discussions we have on the air. The reports about the language used in the meeting have affected negotiations over DACA, they have had diplomatic repercussions and they are renewing charges of racism aimed at the president. For the audience to understand what’s happening, given the president’s denial, we feel it’s important for them to get all the information.

2. Don’t put the word “shithole” in NPR-branded tweets or other social media posts that pop into our audience’s feeds. It’s basically the same thinking we have about not putting the word in headlines or teasers. We don’t want the word to pop into folks’ feeds. They should have to click to open up a story where it will be. On window titles: if the word is in the body of the story, you may use it in the window title. Otherwise, do not.

And on the Jan. 12 All Things Considered:

Why NPR Decided To Spell Out And Say Vulgar Word Used By President Trump

(“Memmos;” Jan. 17, 2018)


No Joke: We’re Making Too Many Mistakes # ±

Read through our corrections.

We’re not doing a good enough job checking some basic things, including:

- Titles
- Names
- Numbers
- Dates
- Historical records

Mistakes will happen. But it is a shame that otherwise excellent stories have correction notes attached because we’ve gotten a senator’s state wrong, misspelled someone’s name or didn’t get the math right — those and other things that are easy to check. Readers and listeners question our credibility if we get the “small stuff” wrong.

In most cases, we can’t fall back on “it’s live radio” or “I misspoke.” Mistakes are being written into scripts or Web stories and read by editors before being recorded or published.

We all have to concentrate.

Correspondents and producers: Use the accuracy checklist; don’t trust your memories; double-check everything; challenge sources about their “facts.” Basically, apply this old rule: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Editors: do those things and more. Practice “prosecutorial editing.”

We’re doing great work. So many people are working so incredibly hard. Let’s do all we can to avoid unforced errors.

(“Memmos;” Jan. 3, 2018)


10 Words Or Expressions Not To Live By In 2018 # ±

If you’re looking for compelling and clear writing, we’ve got it.

- Listen to and read the “Been There” stories.

- Take a look at how we simply explained the “chained” consumer price index and its importance.

- Hear from and see the people in Puerto Rico who are still waiting for help.

We could continue.

But instead, we’ll move on to what you’ve come to expect from the Standards & Practices editor — nagging.

Here are 10 words or expressions we could do without next year:

- “Literally.” Don’t ask for more time or space for your story if it has “throwaway intensifiers” like that.

- “Actually.” Be careful with that word. It can sound as if you’re casting judgment.

- “Virtually.” There’s disagreement about whether that’s a good synonym for “nearly.” Webster’s New World says it means “in effect” or “for all practical purposes.”

  • Side note: Notice the “ly” endings in the first three entries? They remind us that in the vast majority of cases, adverbs ending with “ly” should be killed … ruthlessly.

- “Vast majority.” Oh yeah, as has been noted before, you’re probably wrong – or at least unclear – if you say “in the vast majority of cases.” Be precise, please. Is it “two-thirds?” Maybe “three-fourths?” Or “nine out of 10?”

- “Accident.” The train derailed. The plane crashed. The cars collided. The ship sank. You get the idea. “Accident” can sound soft and insensitive when used to describe something terrible.

- “Some say” (and its cousin “many say”). Be more specific, please.  Those expressions can make it sound like you don’t know for sure how many people are saying something.

- “Refute.” You probably mean “rebut.”

- “Data … is” (and “media … is”). No, they “are.” Those are plurals.

- “So” at the start of a sentence. Three years after we first brought this up, it’s still bugging many listeners.

- “Anxious.” Korva is eager to spike this “Memmo.” She’s not anxious about doing it.

Scroll back through the “Memmos” archives if you’re interested in seeing other notes about words we can live without.

(“Memmos;” Dec. 27, 2017)


Updated Guidance On References To Facebook And ‘NPR Live’ # ±

Starting Jan. 1, Facebook will not be paying NPR for any videos we put on the social media site.

In stories we do about Facebook the next few weeks, we should still err on the side of disclosure. The line can be something like “until recently, Facebook paid NPR to produce videos that run on the social media site.”

Then, beginning the week of Jan. 29, in almost all cases such disclosures won’t be necessary. The most likely exception would be in a story specifically involving Facebook’s video ventures. Then, the line could be something like “from 2016 through 2017, Facebook paid NPR and some other news organizations for the videos they ran on the social media site.”

Consult with the DMEs or Standards & Practices editor if this issue comes up.

This replaces our earlier guidance.

(“Memmos;” Dec. 26, 2017)


It’s That Most Punderful Time Of The Year. Let’s Just Say Snow To The Clichés # ±

With winter barreling down on the nation’s heartland like a runaway freight train and the ho-ho-ho holidays upon us, here’s your annual lump of coal.

Don’t say or write these phrases unless your tongue is firmly frozen in your cheek:

– “ ‘Tis the season to …” No, it ’tisn’t.

– “Big chill …” Big whoopie.

– “ ‘Twas the night before …” It ’twas?

– “Brave the elements …” Only if you’re trekking to the Pole.

– “Over the river and through the woods …” It’s been a while since we rode a sleigh to grandmother’s house.

– “Hunker down …” Have you ever hunkered?

– “Bah, humbug.” Be miserly with your references to Dickens.

– “Old man winter (or Ol’ Man Winter) …” Let’s ban him and his cousin, Mother Nature.

– “White stuff …” Just say snow.

– “Oh, the weather outside is …” Don’t put that song in my head!

– “Jack Frost …” What, are we doing nursery rhymes?

– “It’s beginning to look a lot like …” Not that song either!

– “Deep freeze …” We get it, it’s cold.

– “Yes, Virginia.” No, Korva.

– “Nipping at our noses (or anything else) …” Nip that one in the bud.

– “Christmas came early for …” Really? Seems like it’s always on Dec. 25.

– “Enough is enough …” Yes, we’ll all be tired of winter at some point. Don’t remind us.

– “Jing-a-ling.” Jing-a-don’t.

– “First flakes …” See “superlatives and why they’re almost always wrong.”

– “A Christmas Grinch stole …” Every burglar doesn’t have to be be turned into a Dr. Seuss character this time of year.

– “Bone-chilling …” That’s the kind of look Korva just gave me.

– “Santa’s elves …” They’re everywhere! But not on our air!

– “Snowpocalypse …” What, are we The Weather Channel all of a sudden?

– “Snowmageddon …” See “Snowpocalypse.”

– “On the Xth day of Christmas …” The song is boring enough as it is.

– “Winter wonderland …” You like it so much? Fine, then you shovel me out.

(“Memmos; Dec. 8, 2017)


If Strangers Want To Talk About NPR? Assume You’re Being Videotaped, ‘Washington Post’ Editor Would Advise # ±

During today’s Poynter Journalism Ethics Summit, here at NPR headquarters, Washington Post editor Martin Baron had this to say about what he’s told his staff since the failed attempt by Project Veritas to plant a false story in the Post:

If strangers start talking to you about your newsroom and how you do your work, “assume that it’s going to be on video.”

The takeaway: As always, it’s important to remember that when we’re in public (and when we’re on social media), we represent NPR. And it seems we must understand that not everyone is who they say they are, or does their work as we do — “in plain sight.”

(“Memmos;” Dec. 4, 2017) 





Recommended Reading And A Couple Thoughts About That Effort To ‘Infiltrate’ The ‘Post’ # ±

If you haven’t already, please read this story:

Woman’s effort to infiltrate The Washington Post dated back months

Here’s the top:

“The failed effort by conservative activists to plant a false story about Senate candidate Roy Moore in The Washington Post was part of a months-long campaign to infiltrate The Post and other media outlets in Washington and New York, according to interviews, text messages and social media posts that have since been deleted.”

One thought that came to mind is how that effort to infiltrate so clearly violates one of the core principles that we and other credible news organizations live by. As our Ethics Handbook says:

“Journalism should be done in plain sight, and our standards are clear. When we are working, we identify ourselves as NPR journalists to those we interview and interact with. We do not conceal our identities, pose as someone or something we are not, use hidden microphones or cameras to collect information, or record phone calls without the permission of all parties on the line, except in the very rarest of circumstances”

What might qualify as a rare circumstance? Basically, if someone’s life is at stake. We explore the issue here.

The story also reminds us that we’re constantly being judged and, perhaps, tested.

Fortunately, we know how to conduct ourselves.

One of the first statements in the handbook is that “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.” We go on to write about always remembering that “you represent NPR.” We remind everyone at several points to keep opinions about the issues of the day to ourselves, whether it’s when we’re out in public or when we’re posting on social media.

Someone may try to spin this note as a warning that “they’re coming after us.” That’s not what I’m saying. This is about being glad to work at a real news organization where journalists do their best to uphold important principles, and about pointing to the difference between us and “them.”

(“Memmos;” Nov. 30, 2017)


FYI: ICYMI Is An Initialism; Snafu Is An Acronym; They’re Both Abbreviations # ±

If an abbreviation formed from the first letters of several words is pronounced as one word, it’s an acronym. Gif, laser and snafu are examples.

If such an abbreviation is known by its letters, it’s an initialism. Think ATM, BBC and FBI.

“Email” is an abbreviation. It’s also what we will get if we call an initialism an acronym or an acronym an initialism.


(“Memmos;” Nov. 28, 2017)


Who, What, When, Where & Why. But What About Wifty? # ±

Merriam-Webster’s word-of-the-day is wifty, which it defines as “eccentrically silly, giddy, or inane : ditzy.”

A search indicates we’ve never used the word, even though we’ve covered many wifty stories.

Well, Korva?

For other weird words we should find uses for, check @HaggardHawks, where the word-of-the-day is bezoardical, an adjective that means “all-curing, antidotal.” They’re also pointing to “driffle,” which is best known as slight rain or snow but also can be “a large quantity of work completed hastily.” Isn’t driffling what we do every day?

(“Memmos;” Nov. 21, 2017)



‘Spree,’ ‘Even,’ ‘Still’ And Other Words We Should Stop Using The Way We’ve Been Using Them # ±

The Standards & Practices inbox is filling up. Let’s clear some space:

- We’ve used the phrase “shooting spree” to describe what happened Tuesday in Northern California. Let’s not call such an event a “spree,” which Webster’s New World defines as “a lively, noisy frolic … a period of drunkenness … [or] a period of uninhibited activity (a shopping spree).” It was a mass shooting, a rampage or a series of deadly attacks. We need to keep using words and phrases that underscore the severity of what happened.

- Please keep in mind that the accusations against Roy Moore include alleged sexual assaults. To only say he’s accused of “misconduct” or “inappropriate” behavior does not reflect the seriousness of the accusations. Also, we should be clear that his accusers were “girls” at the time if they were under 18, not “women.”

- If you’re tempted to write or say that “even such-and-such now admits” or “so-and-so still hasn’t dropped out” or “despite the latest news …” stop and consider the words “even,” “still” and “despite.” They can come off sounding judgmental — as if you’re trying to say “can you believe that?” Or, maybe, “can you believe this guy?”

- Speaking of “guy,” check out who we’ve referred to as “a guy” in the recent past: Thomas Edison. Donald Trump. Barack Obama. Pope Francis.

Come on guys folks. It’s one thing to want to be conversational, but let’s be careful about who’s a “guy.” Related observation: We don’t seem to use “gals” this way. Would we refer to a “gal named Hillary Clinton?”

- Question: Unless the other person is clearly speaking to us on a telephone, why are we saying they’re “on the line?”

The inbox now has room for more suggested topics. Thanks.

(“Memmos;” Nov. 15, 2017)


Words We Live By # ±

Friends and family are asking us about what’s going on at NPR. Like you, I’ve been sharing my anger and frustration. I’ve also been noting that every day I see and hear NPR journalists applying these principles:

-          “Our journalists conduct their work with honesty and respect …”

-          “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.”

-          “Journalists who conduct themselves honestly prove themselves worthy of trust.”

-          “Everyone affected by our journalism deserves to be treated with decency and compassion. We are civil in our actions and words, avoiding arrogance and hubris. “

-          “We will fulfill the high standard we owe the public if we hold true to our principles.”

-          “We believe it is our shared responsibility to live up to these principles.”

Many thanks to all who live those ideals.

They’re spelled out, by the way, here.

(“Memmos;” Nov. 6, 2017)


Thumbs Down (Not Hands Down) On ‘Meddling’ # ±

Many thanks to all those who helped entertain and inform the Traveling Memmotts as they put 3,200 miles on the odometer the past two weeks. We didn’t listen to the news every hour (sorry, Korva). But when we did, it was a pleasure to hear your voices and the stories you told.

But — there’s always a “but” — one word that came up a few times didn’t feel quite right: “meddling.” As in “Russian meddling in the 2016 election.” I could imagine George Carlin doing a riff on how soft that sounds. As the Washington Desk advises, meddling is something your nosy neighbor does — not a rival (enemy?) nation that’s trying to sway the results of the U.S. election.

“Interference” is a word that works.

Meanwhile, today’s news has raised the question of whether it’s correct to say an indictment has been “handed down” or “handed up.” You’ll hear it both ways, but there’s a case to be made that indictments are handed “up” to the bench, while verdicts are handed “down.” As often is the case, the best way to go is probably to avoid either phrase. How about “issued?”

(“Memmos;” Oct. 30, 2017)


Compare: New Social Media Guidance From The ‘Times’ And Our Update From Earlier This Year # ±

Today’s release of “updated and expanded social media guidelines” from The New York Times offers this opportunity to plug the updated guidance we issued earlier this year. As I’m sure you know, ours is collected in the “Social Media” section of the Ethics Handbook.

Please reread our version. Compare it to the Times‘ if you wish. The thinking is similar on most points.

As always suggestions are welcome.

(“Memmos;” Oct. 13, 2017)


Listen: It’s Not Always Necessary To Name The Shooter # ±

After mass shootings there are calls for the news media to not report the name of the attacker. As Poynter’s Kelly McBride has written, “it’s easy and convenient for politicians to beat the press up by accusing them of glorifying a bad person.”

We agree with McBride and others that news organizations need to report about the person in order to understand what happened and that the name is an important part of such stories. We have and will continue to report about the man who carried out the attack in Las Vegas and will use his name in our reports.

But Martin Kaste and Steve Inskeep showed this morning that we don’t have to repeat the name in every audio story we do. Listen to their conversation about what investigators have learned concerning the way the gunman prepared for the attack. His name, which had been heard elsewhere in Morning Edition and during our Newscasts, is not said during the conversation. I don’t think anything was lost because of that.

The takeaway is that we can use our judgment. The name does not have to be in every story we broadcast about the killer. We can be respectful of the feelings of those in the audience who find it disturbing to hear the name over and over, and respectful of those who sincerely believe that repeating the name somehow glorifies a horrible person.

Meanwhile, as we’ve been doing, we can tell the stories of the victims — with their names, of course.

(“Memmos;” Oct. 4, 2017)


Take Care With The Word ‘Refugees’ # ±

The people in Puerto Rico who have had their lives turned upside down by the hurricane are U.S. citizens, as we all know and as we’ve been careful to note. That means the word “refugees” can be misleading if it adds to a sense that these are “foreigners” (a word that definitely should not be used) or are in some way “others” who are leaving one country to seek shelter in another. Puerto Ricans who move to Florida are not leaving one country for another.

That said, many are certainly seeking refuge. And people who are now living in shelters on the island are known as “refugiados.”

We don’t need to ban the word refugee from our coverage. Just please watch how it sounds or reads in the context of a story and ask whether it makes it seem as if the people of Puerto Rico are not U.S. citizens.

(“Memmos;” Oct. 3, 2017)


Thank You, And A Few Things To Keep In Mind About The Las Vegas Mass Shooting # ±

The language we’ve been using about the mass shooting in Las Vegas has been precise and carefully attributed. Thank you.

Please continue to:

- Attribute the death toll and number of injured to police or other credible authorities. As you know, the numbers are expected to change. We need to keep reminding the audience where the figures are coming from and that we will be updating as needed.

- Characterize this as apparently the worst mass shooting in “modern” or “recent” U.S. history. As we’ve unfortunately been reminded in recent years, there were some horrible mass killings in the 1800s:


- Be careful about describing the weapon or weapons. As Steve Inskeep noted this morning, the gunshots sounded as if they came more rapidly than one person could pull a trigger. That could mean it was an automatic weapon or a rifle that was modified to be automatic. But as we’ve also noted before, the weapons used in mass shootings are almost always “semi-automatic.” We should get our guidance from the police and other investigators. Keep in mind, though, that even the authorities sometimes make mistakes in the early hours of investigations.

We should also keep in mind that the guns used in such shootings are sometimes “assault-style,” but almost never “assault” weapons. There’s more guidance about how to describe weapons here: http://ethics.npr.org/?s=assault+rifle

The AP Stylebook has a substantial entry for “weapons” that has good guidance. If you’re on our intranet, you can get to the Stylebook here: http://www.apstylebook.com/npr/


- Here’s An Effective Way To Talk About The Deaths And Injuries

It’s possible that many of the people injured in Las Vegas were hurt not by gunshots, but during the rush to escape the scene. It’s also possible some people died from such injuries. The Two-Way has done a good job describing what is known at this hour and its approach can be adapted for other platforms. It wrote that the gunman:

“Fired down upon thousands of people attending a music festival Sunday night, in a brutal attack blamed for at least 58 deaths, police say. In the mass shooting and panic that ensued, some 515 people were injured.”


- On ‘Automatic’ Weapons

While we should NOT say whether the weapons used in Las Vegas were or were not “automatic” because that information has not surfaced yet, we also should be careful NOT to flatly say that automatic weapons are illegal. Their availability is severely restricted, but there are legal ways to obtain such weapons, including in Nevada. Here’s more on that:




(“Memmos;” Oct. 2, 2017)


Here’s How Teamwork Produced An Effective Response To A ‘False’ Tweet # ±

After we reported that there is “no guarantee of coverage for people with pre-existing conditions” in the Graham-Cassidy health care bill, this tweet popped up from @BillCassidy:

@NPR FALSE. Under the bill, states must ensure that individuals with pre-existing conditions have access to adequate & affordable insurance.

Steve Mullis suggested NPR should respond. Alison Kodjak, whose story the senator was questioning, and her editors (Gisele Grayson, Nancy Shute, Joe Neel) got to work. The goal would be to respond calmly. The forum would be Twitter, where the senator made his charge. The response and how we got there, is worth revisiting.

Some key points:

- We followed our mantra: “Stand with the Facts.”

- It was known that we might decide not to go ahead if we couldn’t strike the right tone — and that would be OK.

- The teams that knew what to do, from the best way to engage to the best way to explain the story, led the process.

- We moved quickly, but we didn’t hurry. Everyone who needed to weigh in did, but no one held up the process.

You can see the result here.

Or, read through how tweets rolled out:

- Sen @BillCassidy called our reading of his health care bill on pre-existing conditions false. Here’s how we read it: http://n.pr/2fAWevD

- Prior to ACA, insurers routinely excluded care for cancer or mental health or made the coverage so expensive that it was out of reach

- Current law (ACA) guarantees coverage for 10 “essential health benefits”—in every exchange policy in every state http://bit.ly/2wGO8qS

- Those EHBs are central to pre-existing condition protections because they define what an insurance policy is required to cover

- #GrahamCassidy allows states to opt out of EHBs. That cld mean a person with diabetes can be charged extra for a plan with Rx drug coverage

- Allowing states to opt out of EHBs under #GrahamCassidy cld also mean a person w/ depression may not find a plan with mental health coverage

- Sen. @BillCassidy says his bill ensures that people with pre-existing conditions have access to “adequate & affordable” coverage

- With no EHB requirements and no subsidies, “adequate” and “affordable” is left up to states and does not guarantee coverage

Thanks to all involved in crafting this response.

(“Memmos;” Sept. 25, 2017)


Peter Overby’s Story Gives Us More To Think About When It Comes To Think Tanks # ±

Please read and listen to Peter Overby’s story headlined “Who Controls Think Tanks? Shift In Funding Highlights Changes In The Industry.”

As Peter reports, think tanks are being “pulled away from their academic heritage” by several forces — including the pressures that come from being funded by “wealthy business people — in modern jargon, philanthro-capitalists — notably many from the tech industry.”

His story underscores why we’ve previously said that:

It’s Our Job To Know About ‘Experts’ Conflicts Of Interest.

- It’s wise to use JournalistResource.org’s “Cautionary Tip Sheet About Think Tanks.”

(“Memmos;” Sept. 20, 2017)


Guidance On How To Discuss Other News Outlets’ Reports # ±

When credible news organizations are reporting things that we have not confirmed or knocked down and we decide it’s important to let our audience know about those reports, our language has to be precise.

We must:

- Clearly attribute the news to those other outlets (or “multiple” news outlets if that’s the case).

- Summarize their sourcing. For example: “intelligence officials with first-hand knowledge.”

- State that NPR has not independently confirmed the reports.

- Make sure in later references that we DO NOT make it sound as if things have been confirmed. A line such as “investigators found the stolen thumb drive in Coleman’s Manhattan pied-à-terre,” sounds like a fact without the additional phrase “according to The Daily Planet’s sources.” In other words, attribute, attribute and attribute again.

As for whether and when we report about other news organizations’ significant scoops, those discussions have to involve, at the least, the DME on duty.

(“Memmos;” Sept. 19, 2017)


Sports Talk: Reminders On Potentially Offensive Names And Images # ±

The NFL season is under way. Just in case the team from Washington does something that warrants reporting, please remember that we avoid saying its name. Our guidance is here.

Meanwhile, the baseball team from Cleveland is setting records and could end up in the World Series again. We should avoid using photos that include images of the team’s longtime mascot, Chief Wahoo. As we have previously said:

“At NPR, the policy on ‘potentially offensive language’ applies to the images posted online as well. It begins by stating that ‘as a responsible broadcaster, NPR has always set a high bar on use of language that may be offensive to our audience.’”

If you come across other potentially offensive team names or logos, apply the same thinking as we have in these cases.

(“Memmos;” Sept. 14, 2017)


This Won’t Go Untold: We’ve Made Some Excellent Word Choices While Covering The Storms # ±

We’ve watched, read and listened with deep respect and appreciation as colleagues have gone into dangerous and difficult situations in Texas and Florida the past two weeks. Meanwhile, others have put in even longer hours than usual to get that fine reporting ready for broadcast and the Web. Many thanks to all.

Embedded within the stories have been key words, well-turned phrases and simple explanations that are worth pointing out. Here are some examples:

- Leila Fadel, using an appropriately sensitive way to describe someone’s medical condition: “They spent the storm in a shelter to make sure they could care for Matthew’s sister, who lives with cerebral palsy.”

- Nate Rott, choosing three words — “still drying out” — that say much more than just “recovering”: “Earlier this week, there were even concerns that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would run out of money just as Irma is forecast to make landfall in South Florida. A $15 billion disaster relief package, passed Friday by Congress and signed by President Trump, has quelled those concerns. But it does little for the on-the-ground crews that are still drying out from a massive response to Hurricane Harvey just a couple of weeks ago.”

- Chris Joyce, explaining in plain English how climate change exacerbates hurricanes: “Heat drives storms. The more heat you have, the bigger storms you have. What happens is hot water creates water vapor. You know, a cup of coffee — it’s got vapor coming off it. So the water vapor rises. You get convection. It creates these circulating winds. And that’s what creates the conditions for a hurricane. … Hurricanes feed off of this fuel. And the hotter the oceans, the more fuel you’ll get for the hurricane.”

- Kirk Siegler, avoiding the almost always misused word “countless”: There are, he said, “an untold number of downed trees and power lines” across the Keys.

- Camila Domonoske, telling readers a lot  in just a few words about one elderly man’s feelings about not being able to get home: ” ‘It’s over. We made it out,’ Ward said, with an unhappy laugh that verged on tears. ‘But we can’t get out.’ ”

- Adrian Florido, describing Hurricane Harvey’s impact on one vulnerable community: “Houston is home to some 600,000 immigrants without legal status — 1 in 10 Houstonians does not possess the right to live in the U.S. — and in the storm’s aftermath, many of them now find themselves teetering on the edge of destitution.”

- Melissa Block, using short, declarative sentences to bring home some key points: “Now, as hurricane Irma approaches Florida, the Houstonians are talking with the restaurant community there, sharing what they’ve learned from Harvey. Organize as much as you can ahead of time. Line up kitchens and transport and volunteers. Social media will be your best friend. Above all, don’t wait.”

We could go on, and more examples will turn up in coming days. Thanks.

(“Memmos;” Sept. 12, 2017)


‘Out West’ Is Out Of Date # ±

Saying that something’s going on “out west,” “down south,” “up north” or “back east” can make it sound as if we’re peering at the rest of the nation like astronomers, rather than covering the news from where it’s happening. It can also make it seem as if we’re talking about “other” people or places.

Be more specific. Include names of the affected states or regions and avoid words such as “out” or “up” that suggest to the audience that we’re reporting from a fixed point in the mid-Atlantic states.

It remains OK to say that Korva’s dancing is out of this world.

(“Memmos;” Sept. 6, 2017)


On Crises And The People We Meet At Them # ±

We aren’t first responders and we go to dangerous scenes and natural disasters such as the one in Texas to report, not rescue. There are others trained to do that work. We don’t have their skills and we don’t have their equipment.

That said, if we find ourselves in situations where another person is in danger, we can try to help if no one else is there or our assistance would make an important difference.

As Reveal host Al Letson said Monday on All Things Considered about why he jumped in to shield a white nationalist being beaten by anti-fascists:

“I don’t want to be a part of the story, at all. And I believe in all of those journalistic ethics and all of that — but I also think that, before that, I’m a human being.”

It’s worth repeating that we don’t go into situations looking to do the work that first responders are trained to do. We also don’t go looking to insert ourselves into a story.

Again, we go to report about what’s happening and about the people who are directly affected.

But as Letson said, we’re also human beings — who, the Ethics Handbook advises, treat “everyone affected by our journalism … with decency and compassion.” That’s an important principle to keep in mind.


Yes, Journalists Can Give To Charities That Are Helping People In Need

(“Memmos;” Aug. 29, 2017)


We’re Barreling Toward A Perfect Storm Of Clichés; Let’s Dodge That Bullet # ±

Since this is the calm before the storm, it’s time again to rain on everyone’s parade and suggest that we should avoid hurricane-related clichés like the plague.

Please remember that:

- There’s no law requiring that we say a hurricane is “barreling” toward shore.

- Hatches are probably not being battened in many homes.

- Mother Nature isn’t furious.

- Communities that escape serious damage didn’t dodge any bullets.

- Cats and dogs will not be falling from the sky.

- Pounding isn’t the only word to describe what’s going to happen.

- Not that many people peel back sardine cans these days; that’s a reference only grampa may get.

I’ve probably missed the boat and forgotten some. Feel free to stick a fork in any others.

(“Memmos;” Aug. 25, 2017)


Can We Agree That Not Every Interesting Thing Or Person Is ‘Iconic?’ # ±

The word “iconic” shows up 1,840 times in a search of NPR.org for the past year.

It appears 194 times in a search of just what we’ve broadcast since last Aug. 22.

Movie scenes. Photos. Athletes. Animals. Apps. Godzilla*. We’ve heard and read that all those, and more, are iconic.

It’s been said that iconic is among the English language’s most overused words.

Overuse dilutes the word’s impact. Let’s save it for references to true icons. That is, those people or things that are “revered” or that embody “the essential characteristics of an era, group, etc.” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary)

There are many other words to choose from. Last year, Washingtonian senior editor Bill O’Sullivan suggested these 10: “legendary, pioneering, incomparable, signature, trademark, definitive, unmatched, unforgettable, unparalleled, one-of-a-kind.” (Of course, if you use superlatives such as one-of-a-kind you need to be sure that person or thing really is one-of-a-kind.)

*Save your outrage. I’m not saying Godzilla isn’t iconic.

(“Memmos;” Aug. 22, 2017)


No One Label Fits The ‘Alt-Right,’ So Use Their Words And Actions To Show Who They Are # ±

The coverage from and about this weekend’s attack and violence in Charlottesville has been impressive, starting with the breaking news coverage on digital and on-the-air Saturday, right through Sunday’s reports and this morning’s step-backs.

Many thanks to all those involved.

A couple things to note:

We’ve done well on this point, but it’s worth a reminder that (as we said last November) it’s not enough to simply refer to the “alt-right” and then move on. First, that label feels like a euphemism. Second, there’s much more that has to be said about the people who say they’re part of that movement.

Within the ranks of those who call themselves the alt-right there are:

- White supremacists.
- White nationalists.
- Neo-Nazis.
- Anti-Semites.
- Racists.

There are also those who say they are none of those things, but contend that whites are suffering economically because “others” are being given unfair advantages.

Here’s the thing: The positions people hold, the things they do and the politicians they choose to support say a lot — more than labels, it can be argued.

What do we do? As much as possible, we should “show, don’t tell.” For instance, we described what the people at the “unite the right” rally were doing, saying, carrying, throwing, etc. Their words and actions spoke loudly. The descriptions then allowed for later references to “white supremacists,” “white nationalists,” “neo-Nazis” and others as being among those there. “White supremacists and others” is an appropriate catch-all.

The second thing worth noting is that when someone says something that’s clearly not true, we should point that out as soon as possible. Check how it was done, twice, in Brian Mann’s report this morning about a man who supports the way President Trump addressed the violence.

When the man claimed that Black Lives Matter was “another hate group,” Brian came right in to note that “in fact, Black Lives Matter has no history of violence or racial bigotry comparable to America’s far-right militias, neo-Nazis or Klan groups.”

When the man said he never heard President Obama call for unity, Brian immediately pointed out that “in fact, Barack Obama did call for national unity numerous times during his presidency, especially during times of racial conflict and violence.”

Again, good work all around. Thanks.

(“Memmos;” Aug. 14, 2017)


Wise Words From A Wise Man About The Work We Do # ±

“Attempts to restrict press freedom are becoming, for some, a national sport, but the real battle begins at home — on the local beat with aggressive reporting, progressive editing and united defending of the First Amendment.”

John C. Quinn; Jan. 8, 1973

Wednesday at the Newseum, journalists who worked with John Quinn remembered USA Today’s first editor. He died last month, at the age of 91.

If you were with Gannett in the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s, you knew Quinn — or knew of him. He was the conscience of the newsroom; the editor who set standards and pushed everyone to do their best.

And if you’re among the 1,400 or so journalists who have passed through the Chips Quinn Scholars Program for Diversity in Journalism (named for Quinn’s son), you probably can’t say enough good things about him.

This obituary posted by the Newseum explains his impact.

At Wednesday’s gathering, retired Gannett executive Phil Currie read from some of Quinn’s “Wire Watch” weekly notes that went to all Gannett journalists, not just those at USA Today. The quote at the top of this post is from those notes. It’s as relevant today as it was in 1973; as are the others below. Quinn was talking about newspapers, but the advice applies to all types of news operations:

- “A newspaper must be factual, and the true fact is that our readers face an indulged and difficult life.  Like a parent, we must not placate; we must educate.  We must reach them by giving them what they need to know in a form they can accept and what they want to know in a manner they can appreciate.  We must help them realize that this is all part of our duty to them.” Dec. 3, 1973

- “Responsible news people have come out of the closet with their corrections and clarifications, and they showcase their sins to be as effective as possible in setting the record straight. The best efforts to right a wrong, however, still run a very poor second to avoiding the error in the first place, a goal that no news staffer dares to forget.” April 9, 1978

- “If newspapers cover their entire communities and deal with all of the concerns fully and fairly, then their readers will be reminded that they are indeed fortunate to have a free press, that it is an important part of their freedom, and they will join in the fight for its life. If, on the other hand, newspapers fail to deliver a free press which reflects all quarters of their communities, then they shall forfeit their claims to free press status and shall lose the support of those they should serve. Gannett newspapers and all in their communities must prove to each other daily that we are lucky to have each other.” March 25, 1979

We could change just a couple words, put new dates on those quotes and send them out today.

(“Memmos;” Aug. 10, 2017)



Let’s Call A Truce On ‘War Of Words’ References # ±

We get it, the rhetoric is hot. Things are heating up. There’s a “war of words” underway.

But let’s can that phrase and other clichés. Our stories don’t need them and there are so many other compelling ways to describe what’s going on.

Also, we’re doing some excellent work. We don’t want yet another clanger of a cliché to be the thing listeners or readers remember.

(“Memmos;” Aug. 10, 2017)


Reminder On The Word ‘Teenager’ # ±

Wednesday marks three years since the shooting death of Michael Brown. In stories about that, he should not be referred to as a “teenager.” Brown was 18 — an adult.

Our guidance from 2014 still applies:

- Cite his age.

- Avoid labels. If you have to use one, “young man” is OK.

Weekend All Things Considered applied the guidance correctly here.

(“Memmos;” Aug. 7, 2017)


From The Visuals Team: Guidance On Taking Shots With & Of The Stars # ±

Editor’s note: This “Memmo” comes from Ariel Zambelich and Emily Bogle.

As journalists, we sometimes find ourselves in the same room with famous and powerful folks.

We encourage photography of our reporters in action: in the field, in the studio, and occasionally seeking comment from local wild life.

However, we ask that you be cautious about taking photos with the subjects of your stories. Posed grip-and-grin portraits and selfies may be OK for your personal collection (we’re looking at all you scrapbookers out there). But we shouldn’t be using them to promote the journalism we do.

Remember: While we’re friendly to those we encounter (whether they’re famous or not) we are not their friends. Our job as journalists is to report the facts, tell important and compelling stories, and remain detached. Posting that photo of yourself with Sen. Soandso, former President Suchandsuch or champion swimmer Flipandkick can make it look as if you’re on their “side” or are so darn thrilled about interviewing them that someone might question your objectivity.

That said, the Visuals team is excited to work with you to create high-quality imagery to accompany your stories online and to add to social promotion. Loop us in early if you have something that could use visuals – it can sometimes take a little bit of prep to figure out the best way to facilitate.

Here are some kinds of images we’re looking for, in order of priority:

- Portraits of interview subjects when they come to HQ (before or after the interview).

- Environmental portraits of the interview subjects in a place that’s relevant to your story.

-  Action shots of the interview subjects doing the cool thing you’re featuring.

-  Sense of place pictures to show where the story is happening.

- Action shots of the interview happening (in the studio or in the field).

You can take these kinds of shots, too! We’ve got some great resources on the NPR Training website and offer monthly training sessions to help you build up your image-making skills.

So remember: selfies are pictures, too, but they’re not the ideal way to promote your stories.

(“Memmos;” July 31, 2017)


Please Read Our New And Improved (We Think) Guidance On Social Media # ±

Wright Bryan, Lori Todd and I – with input from others – have updated and reorganized the Social Media section of the Ethics Handbook.

The basic principles remain the same. But there has been a lot of change in the social media world in the five years or so since the handbook was first published. It was time to add some guidance and tweak our thinking in a couple places.

Please read through it. Like the rest of the handbook, it’s more a discussion of how to think things through rather than a set of rigid rules.

As you see, the guidance is attached to the handbook. If you want to compare it to the previous section about social media, that version is archived here.

Related: You’ve heard that Wright is leaving NPR. His last day is Friday.

I’m glad this update comes before Wright departs because it gives us all the chance to thank him for being a wise guide to the social media world. His thinking is woven throughout NPR’s principles.

You might say he’s set us on the Wright path.

(“Memmos;” July 26, 2017)




Update: Guidance On Immigration # ±

It’s been three years since we issued guidance on the language to use and avoid when reporting about illegal immigration.

Since then, a couple references have worked their way into common usage and no longer seem to fall into the category of loaded language.

Here, then, is updated guidance:

- The debate is still about “illegal immigration” and what to do about it. “Illegal immigration” remains an acceptable term when we’re reporting about the issue.

- When we’re reporting about the people at the center of this story, it’s still best practice to begin with action words, rather than labels. Two examples: They are “in the country illegally” or have “entered the country illegally.”

- In subsequent references, we now think it’s OK to mix in the phrases “undocumented immigrants” and “unauthorized immigrants.” They are now in common usage. And, unlike the label “illegal immigrants,” they are not phrases sometimes used to hurt others. (Our approach on this language is similar to what we’ve said about the debate over health care – it is best practice to first refer to the law Republicans want to replace as the “Affordable Care Act”. Then it’s OK to say “Obamacare.”)

- “Undocumented” is also OK in headlines.

For an example of how to handle immigration language, see John Burnett’s report on “Riding With ICE: ‘We’re Trying To Do The Right Thing.’

(“Memmos;” July 25, 2017)



On ‘Trafficking’ And ‘Smuggling’ # ±

The grim news from San Antonio has two words being used interchangeably. It’s not yet clear that they should be used that way.

Smuggling, in this context, is the illegal transporting of people into the U.S.

Trafficking involves “force, fraud or coercion.”

As of now, the driver of the truck has been charged with smuggling.

It might turn out that the people in that truck were also the victims of “force, fraud or coercion.” But we don’t know that yet. So “trafficking” isn’t the word to use at this point.

(“Memmos;” July 24, 2017)


We Must Check Our ‘Facts;’ Mistakes Are Piling Up Again # ±

Take a look at the corrections page. We’re making the same kinds of mistakes over and over. Names. Numbers. Titles. We’re getting those, and other things, wrong.

This month has been especially busy. From reporters to producers to editors, it’s clear that we aren’t always double-checking the basics.

The result is that some great stories have corrections notes attached to them. That’s a shame.

So, once again:

- 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.

John Wooden, arguably the greatest men’s college basketball coach, would show his players how he wanted them to put on their socks and tie their sneakers. His point was that if they didn’t do those things correctly, they would get blisters — blisters that could put them on the bench and hurt the team.

We get so many things right. But we’re also getting too many blisters.

(“Memmos;” July 18, 2017)


Let’s Not Leave Alaska Off The Continent # ±

If we refer to Washington, D.C., and the 48 states that are south of Canada as being the “continental United States,” we’re leaving something rather large out of the picture.

Alaska is, after all, part of the North American continent.

The states south of Canada are within the “contiguous United States.”

Or, and this is a word that not even Korva has ever used on the air, they are “conterminous.” (Think she can do it?)

(“Memmos;” July 5, 2017)


Hate Speech Is Offensive Too: Some Thoughts And Guidance # ±

We worry about references to bodily parts and bodily functions. We obsess about which of the various uses of the word “ass” have to be bleeped. We wonder why “effing” is OK but the F-word isn’t. We give our audience warnings before they hear such words, as well as many others.

Then, sometimes without much discussion beforehand, we in the media print or broadcast comments from those who engage in what most people would agree is hate speech.

We do not want to sanitize such comments or shield the audience from them if they are important to our stories. We do, though, want to give the question of whether to include hate speech in our reports the same sort of careful thought that we give to other forms of offensive language. The framing, for instance, has to be correct. Is a warning or other type of heads up needed? Is the audience owed an acknowledgement that what they heard is highly offensive? How should the speaker be challenged about what was just said?

The point is simple. Our position is that as a responsible broadcaster, NPR sets “a high bar on use of language that may be offensive to our audience.” If we’re going to be concerned about a mild oath or a scatological reference, we should be equally or more concerned about hate speech.

Talk with senior editors about such material and how it will be handled. The DMEs and/or Standards & Practices editor should be consulted as far as possible before broadcast or publication.

(“Memmos;” June 20, 2017)


Thanks For Getting So Many Things Right # ±

When news is breaking, we tell listeners and readers that we’ll do our best to be accurate – but that it’s a developing story and some things that get reported may later turn out to have been wrong.

Wednesday’s shootings in Alexandria tested us again. From this vantage point, it looks like we did remarkably well. Some important things were kept in mind (and are important to remember for the next time):

-          We went to eyewitnesses and kept the discussions to “what did you see?”

-          We stuck close to the language that police officials and other authorities were using to report what was “known.” Rumors and comments beginning with “I’m hearing that …” weren’t passed along.

-          When the shooter’s name started to appear in other media, we worked our sources to confirm rather than go with what others were saying.

-          As the shooter’s Facebook page started to circulate, we tapped the expertise of our social media team to do what we could to verify it was his. And we were careful to use such words as “purported to be” when there was any smidgen of doubt.

-          We used our Visuals team to think through how to handle the videos and other material that were popping up on social media and other news sites.

-          Speaking of social media, we steered clear of unverified accounts – but followed what was being posted to get leads that we could run down ourselves.

-          We stuck with words such as “suspect” and “alleged” a little longer than many other outlets. That’s OK. It’s better to be cautious than to have to go back to correct.

-          There wasn’t unfounded speculation about a motive in our reports. We kept to the facts as they came in.

I’m surely missing many other important steps we took to keep things straight.


(“Memmos;” June 15, 2017)


Guidance: How To Handle Tweet Mistakes # ±

Editor’s note on July 27, 2017: Click here to go to an updated special section about the do’s and don’t's of social media.  

When a tweet containing verifiably incorrect information (beyond a minor typo or something easily corrected in a follow-up tweet or reply) goes out from an NPR account, here’s what to do:

1. Take a screenshot of the offending tweet, preferably on Twitter.com with you logged in as NPR (or your specific branded account). Save that screenshot for archiving.

2. In Notepad or a similar tool, draft a correction. The format should follow the style we use at NPR.org/corrections. That is, we state what the error was and then give the corrected information. For example: “We’ve deleted a tweet that [insert description of mistake]. In fact [insert correct information].” If you can fit in a link to a page where the correct information is more fully stated, do so.

3. Ideally, show the draft to someone. We all need an editor and we don’t want a typo or an error to slip into a correction. For relatively simple, low-profile fixes a colleague is fine. For more serious corrections (trust your gut on this), talk with the DME in charge that day, your supervisor, the Standards & Practices editor or one of the copy editors. The members of the Social Media team are invaluable resources as well.

4. Then, delete the offending tweet. Again, be sure you have your corrected tweet and screenshot ready to go before deletion.

5. Once the tweet has been deleted, create a fresh tweet with your correction language. Add a link if you have one and attach the screenshot you created of the problematic tweet.

6. If a DME or the Standards & Practices editor isn’t already in the loop, send them a note recapping what’s been done.

Here’s what is going on:

We’re aiming to be transparent, but we also don’t want a tweet with a serious mistake to keep circulating. By making a screenshot and attaching it to the follow-up tweet with the right information, we are acknowledging the error without hiding it.

What sorts of mistakes warrant this type of treatment? We’re going to have to apply judgment. Sometimes, it will be obvious. But in many cases a “reply” to the tweet might suffice. Again, talk with an editor, a DME, the Standards & Practices editor or the Social Media team.

Thanks from:

Wright Bryan, Sara Goo, Lori Todd, Mark Memmott & Steve Mullis

(“Memmos;” June 15, 2017)


Lordy, Lordy # ±

We’ll go with “lordy,” not “lordie.”

(“Memmos;” June 8, 2017)


They’re ‘Developing’ Or ‘Low Income;’ Not ‘Third World’ Nations # ±

There have been a few times recently when we’ve referred to “third world” nations. As Goats & Soda has previously explained, that’s an out-of-date expression.

We basically agree with The Associated Press:

Third World

“Avoid use of this term. Developing nations is more appropriate when referring to the economically developing nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America.”

“Developing” has its critics, as Goats & Soda noted. But the word does describe a nation’s situation, without as openly assigning a lesser (“third” vs. “first”) status.

As always, of course, action words can work better than labels. Rather than simply saying a nation is developing, facts about its status can help tell the story.

In summary:

- “Third world” is out.

- “Developing” is OK.

- Action words may be better alternatives.

(“Memmos;” June 1, 2017)


‘A Cautionary Tip Sheet’ About Think Tanks # ±

It is “our job to know about ‘experts’ conflicts of interest” and share that information with our audience (or not use experts whose conflicts are problematic).  As we’ve said, it’s not optional.

Click here for related reading from JournalistsResource.org. It includes “some questions journalists should ask when researching think tanks.” Among them:

- “Look at the think tank’s annual report. Who is on staff? On the board or advisory council? Search for these people. They have power over the think tank’s agenda; do they have conflicts of interest? Use OpenSecrets’ lobby search, a project of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, to see if any of these individuals are registered lobbyists and for whom. …

- “Does the organization focus on one issue alone? If so, look carefully at its funding. …

- “Does the organization clearly identify its political leanings or its neutrality? …

- “Does the annual report list donors and amounts? Are large donors anonymous? If the answer to the second question is yes, you should be concerned that big donors may be trying to hide their influence. …

- “Does it have a conflict of interest policy?”

(“Memmos;” May 30, 2017)



Here’s A Dictate: Don’t Use These Words Interchangeably # ±

A “dictator” has “absolute power and authority” (Webster’s). That power and authority may have been acquired through a military coup, family succession or over time. Dictators do not hold on to power through free elections.

An “authoritarian” enforces “unquestioning obedience to authority” (Webster’s), but doesn’t have the personal, absolute power of the dictator and might be just the latest leader of an authoritarian regime. Authoritarians may enjoy majority support, though any elections that keep them in office are not likely to be truly free.

“Strongman” is a word that foreign policy wonks and journalists love, probably so that they don’t have to say authoritarian or dictator. Here’s something to remember: A male dictator is a strongman, but a strongman might not be a dictator. That’s because he (they’re almost always men, right?) may not have absolute power.

A “totalitarian” government reaches down into, and attempts to control, all aspects of life. It goes deeper into society than an authoritarian regime. There’s usually a dictator at the top.

As always, action words are better than labels. For example, describing Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte’s violent crackdown on drug dealers and users, and the resulting deaths of 7,000 Filipinos, says more than only referring to him as a strongman.

Contributing: Will Dobson

(“Memmos;” May 8, 2017)


A Presidential Reminder # ±

There have been some questions from our new arrivals, so a note seems timely.

First reference: “President Trump.”

Note: “President Donald Trump” is OK in a first reference on the air, but the “Donald” really isn’t necessary.

Note: “Donald Trump” alone is not how we initially refer to the president.

Later references: “Trump” or “the president.”

Note: “Mr. Trump” is OK in later audio references, but we long ago did away with the “Mister” requirement for presidents.

(“Memmos;” May 3, 2017)


Four Effective Warnings # ±

When there’s disturbing news or content, the issue of whether and how to warn the audience comes up.

As we’ve said before, ”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.”

Here are four effective ways the issue was handled in the past 24 hours:

- A Newscast spot about the latest murder posted on Facebook was introduced with an advisory: “This next report involves details that may be upsetting to some listeners.” Then, before the details were shared, listeners were given a sense of what the story would be about and enough time for most of them to turn down the volume if they wished.

- On Morning Edition, a conversation about that murder and video was preceded with word that “many people will find this next story disturbing. It’s the story of the latest murder shown on Facebook. The world’s biggest social network has offered condolences … but has not said much about just how it addressed the violent content from Thailand. We are going to talk about some troubling details, which is going to take us about four minutes or so.”

Telling listeners how long a report will be is, of course, a way of signalling that some of them might want to tune out for that period. Here’s what we’ve said about that kind of warning:

“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.”

- The Facebook news was in the Up First podcast, and a heads-up tailored for a digital audience was included: “Let’s have a warning here — before we begin our final story — because … some people may just want to hit pause or something at this point because [they] are going to find this disturbing.”

- Online, rather than just noting that there was sexual content in the piece, Eric Deggans’ review of The Handmaid’s Tale was introduced with a note that “this story talks about characters who are forced into sexual slavery.” The words “forced” and “slavery” were important because simply saying there was sexual content would not have given readers a clear enough picture of what was going to be discussed.

Thanks, all.

(“Memmos;” April 26, 2017)


Reminder: We’re Not On A First-Name Basis With Newsmakers # ±

The guidance we’ve applied to the Bush and Clinton families applies to the Trumps.

“The default setting for any of our news reports is simple: We use family names on second reference. That promotes clarity and helps us maintain an objective distance from those we report about.”

It’s especially important to apply that standard to first families because “there’s the matter of respect … and we don’t want to be perceived as being either for or against someone because of the way we refer to him or her. Everyone is treated the same.”

In stories that include more than one member of a family, subsequent references may need to include full names or other descriptions in order to keep everyone straight. It’s “Eric Trump” or “the president’s son,” but not “Eric.” It’s “Ivanka Trump” or “the president’s daughter,” but not “Ivanka.” The exception in the current first family is 11-year-old Barron. At least until he’s 16, he can be referred to by just his first name on subsequent references.

What about features stories? We’ve said before that it may feel appropriate to use first names on subsequent references in “personal pieces in which someone is the emotional center of the story.” Consult with a DME or the Standards & Practices editor ahead of time.

Other circumstances may arise. We’re always glad to discuss.

Finally, some famous folks may qualify for first names on second reference, including:

- Elvis

- Ringo

- Korva

(“Memmos;” April 25, 2017)


Bus Bombing Story Shows Why We Don’t Jump To Conclusions # ±

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).

Thanks, all.

(“Memmos;” April 24, 2017)


Required Reading: The Do’s And Don’ts’ Of Anonymity # ±

Everything in this note has been said before, but needs to be said again. Click the links to read more.

1. First, ask these questions:

– 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.”

3. We don’t create pseudonyms.

“When we decide to withhold a source’s name from a story, we don’t invent a pseudonym for that source. Again, our job is to present factual – not fabricated – information.”

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)


There Are No ‘Battleships’ Sailing Toward The Korean Peninsula # ±

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)


Reminder On Attribution In Stories About The Cleveland Murder Suspect # ±

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)


One-offs, GORE-such & A Heart-Warming Report From ‘PPR News’ # ±

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)


Thanks For Saying That Mar-a-Lago Is A Club In Palm Beach, Not A Community In Florida # ±

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)


Don’t Say ‘Tax Reform’ # ±

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)


Leave The Journalism To The Journalists # ±

(Statement from Michael Oreskes and Mark Memmott, released by NPR on March 27, 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)


A Couple More Words Can Make A Big Difference In References To The Military’s Nude Photo Scandal # ±

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)


‘Stella’ Banned; Clichés Frozen # ±

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

-          Bone-chilling

-          Snowpocalypse

-          Snowmageddon

-          Winter wonderland

(“Memmos;” March 13, 2017)


With Health Care In The News, Some Language Guidance # ±

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)


Guidance On Funders And Disclosures About Them # ±

Our supporters do not shape our coverage.”

Or, as the Ethics Handbook adds, “neither the people and organizations who support NPR financially, the sources we come in contact with, our competitors nor any others outside NPR’s newsroom dictate our thinking.”

We know we live up to those words. But we took a hit last year when it appeared to critics that we might have let the Ploughshares Fund influence our coverage.

The fact is that Ploughshares, a longtime financial supporter of NPR, did not influence our reporting. That didn’t matter to some. Perception can eclipse reality — especially in the eyes of those who are looking for reasons to knock us down.

We’re taking steps to keep reality and perception in line.

As you know, well-run newsrooms put firewalls between their journalists and those who give them financial support. At the same time, news organizations such as NPR promise to be transparent about the sources of their support and to disclose such connections in news reports involving those supporters.

That creates a problem. How can journalists acknowledge financial support that a firewall keeps them from knowing about?

To address this, we’re going to put a window in our firewall. Each month, NPR journalists will get access to a list of our financial supporters – primarily, philanthropic foundations and corporations; but also individuals who have given major donations. Basically, these will be updates of information that is already in NPR’s annual reports. The general areas that the funders support will be identified.

With that information in hand, reporters and editors will have what they need to include disclosures when NPR supporters are in the news. They will be expected to include such information in almost all cases. Only if the news is far removed from the reason NPR is receiving the support will we forego such disclosures.

Knowing who is on the lists will not be allowed to influence our coverage. Financial supporters are to be treated no differently by our journalists than any other news sources — neither better nor worse, that is. That’s been our standard and will continue to be so. It’s the way journalists work.

The lists will be posted on the Intranet. Go to “Work Tools,” then scroll down to “Editorial Resources” and click on “NPR Supporters & Support Principles.” That will open up links to our “Philanthropic Support Principles,” which you should read, and three sets of lists. We’ll send out reminders each month when the lists are updated.

A team that included representatives from the Development, Legal and News departments developed the principles and this process. Our colleagues in Development are committed to helping maintain the lists. Those colleagues are also committed to raising support for NPR’s priorities and ensuring that NPR’s financial supporters understand we are not “journalists for hire.” We stick to our principles, such as this:

“No outside organizations or individuals, including those who support us financially, tell us what to report or how to do our work.”

We’ll be having meetings with desks and shows to talk more about this. Here’s the key thing to know:

No NPR journalist will have to wonder anymore whether a foundation, individual or corporation is among our major supporters. That information is going to be available to you. Everyone will be expected to check the lists and to let listeners and readers know when the news we cover involves a person or organization that supports NPR.


Stick To The Facts In Any Posts, Tweets Or Comments About Funding News # ±

Editor’s note on July 27, 2017: Click here to go to an updated special section about the do’s and don’t's of social media.  

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)


It’s ‘seh-MIT-ik,’ Not ‘seh-MET-ik’ # ±

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)


Let’s Talk About What Journalists ‘Should’ Do # ±

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.”

- “Credibility.”

- “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)



On ‘GORE-such’ # ±

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.)


Read This Guidance On ‘Lie,’ ‘Liar’ And Other Forms Of That L-word # ±

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)


Guidance On Crowd Estimates Today And Saturday # ±

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)


Basically, Just Don’t Do It: One More Note About Rallies, Demonstrations & Social Media # ±

Editor’s note on July 27, 2017: Click here to go to an updated special section about the do’s and don’t's of social media.  

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”:

Watch? Yes. March? No. A Reminder About Rallies And Demonstrations

We Can Observe, But We Don’t Participate In Rallies

Social Media Rules Of The Road On Election Day 

Campaign-Time Reminder: ‘Don’t Sign, Don’t Advocate, Don’t Donate’

(“Memmos;” Jan. 18, 2017)


Don’t Let Dossier Details Drip Into Our Reports # ±

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)


Good Work: Adding John Lewis’ Record To Our Stories # ±

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:

- “When There’s No Evidence To Support A Claim, We Should Say That.”

- “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)


1 Thing We Shouldn’t Do: Tell Trump 10 Things He Should # ±

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)


Watch? Yes. March? No. A Reminder About Rallies And Demonstrations # ±

Editor’s note on July 27, 2017: Click here to go to an updated special section about the do’s and don’t's of social media.  

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)


Action Words Are Better Than Labels Such As ‘Skeptic’ And ‘Denier’ # ±

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)


It’s The Most Cliché-ful Time Of The Year # ±

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)


Don’t Call Them ‘Union Bosses’ # ±

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)


If It’s A Cabinet Post, The Word To Use Is ‘Nominated,’ Not ‘Appointed’ # ±

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)


We’ll Be Reporting A Lot About Immigration, So Here’s A Reminder: Don’t Label People # ±

“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)


Guidance On References To The ‘Alt-Right’ # ±

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.

If you’re looking for more background, check out this Reveal episode and the conversation David Folkenflik had today on Here & Now (he’ll also be on All Things Considered).

(“Memmos;” Nov. 14, 2016.)


Will Trump Be The 44th Or 45th President? Yes And Yes # ±

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.

How’s that?

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)


Social Media Rules Of The Road On Election Day # ±

(Editor’s note on July 27, 2017: Click here to go to an updated special section about the do’s and don’t's of social media.)

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)



For Pronunciation Of Names, Get As Close As Possible To The Source # ±

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)


On Describing What Donald Trump Spoke About In That Video # ±

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)


‘Rebut,’ ‘Refute,’ ‘Repudiate,’ ‘Refudiate’ … Or Maybe ‘Deny?’ # ±

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)


Trump’s Words And Our Bleeping # ±

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.)


Thank You For Not Pounding Us With Hurricane Clichés # ±

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)


Recommended Reading, Listening & Viewing: ‘For D.C.’s LGBT Community, A Police Liaison Who Can Relate’ # ±

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

Earlier guidance:

- On Gender Identity
- ‘Choice’ Is Not The Word To Use
- Reminder: It’s “Transgender,’ Not ‘Transgendered’
- Guidance On North Carolina’s ‘HB2′


- NLGJA’s stylebook

(“Memmos;” Oct. 6, 2016)


Guidance On Trump’s Latest Tweets # ±

(Editor’s note on July 27, 2017: Click here to go to an updated special section about the do’s and don’t's of social media.)

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.”

Here’s the solid one we used earlier today:

- “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) 


Our Corrections Page Shows Too Many Unforced Errors; Let’s Fix That # ±

Misspelled names.

Wrong titles.

Math mistakes.

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)


If A Friend Is In A Story There Must Be A Good Reason And Full Disclosure. But Who Is A Friend? # ±

“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)


One More Frigging Message About Social Media # ±

(Editor’s note on July 27, 2017: Click here to go to an updated special section about the do’s and don’t's of social media.)

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.”

Related Memmos:

With The Conventions Coming; Some Thanks, Fresh Guidance And Reminders About Social Media

Before Super Tuesday, A Reminder About Social Media

Reporter’s Suspension For A Tweet Makes This A Good Time To Read Our Social Media Guidance

Read This If You Use Social Media; Everyone Should Know Our Thinking

(“Memmos;” Sept. 13, 2016)


On ‘Morning Edition’: An Effective ‘Warning’ To Listeners # ±

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)


Three Reasons To Say ‘No Thanks’ To A Speaking Request (Or, Why Your Boss Will Say ‘No’) # ±

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)


A ‘Major’ Speech? Says Who? # ±

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)


‘To Be Honest’ … Well, What Else Would We Be? # ±

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)


It’s Our Job To Know About ‘Experts’ Conflicts Of Interest # ±

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:

- “How Think Tanks Amplify Corporate America’s Influence

- “Think Tank Scholar or Corporate Consultant? It Depends on the Day.”

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)


Thank You For Simply Setting Things Straight # ±

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)


Hold Your Fire If You’re About To Launch A War Metaphor # ±

- “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
- Barnstormed
- All those state nicknames

(“Memmos;” Aug. 2, 2016)


A Finely Honed Story Is A Beautiful Thing # ±

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)


On The Definition Of Plagiarism # ±

Because it’s in the news today, here’s a reminder about how we have defined the word “plagiarism”:

 ”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)


With The Conventions Coming; Some Thanks, Fresh Guidance And Reminders About Social Media # ±

(Editor’s note on July 27, 2017: Click here to go to an updated special section about the do’s and don’t's of social media.)

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:

- Before Super Tuesday, A Reminder About Social Media

- Reporter’s Suspension For A Tweet Makes This A Good Time To Read Our Social Media Guidance

- Read This If You Use Social Media; Everyone Should Know Our Thinking

(“Memmos;” July 13, 2016)



Guidance On The Word ‘Sniper’ # ±

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)


Recommended Listening: Why Not To Use The Phrase “Officer-involved Shooting” # ±

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)


Couldn’t We Care Less About The Word ‘Pivot,’ Irregardless Of The Consequences? # ±

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.

Redundancies and clichés are almost always wastes of time and space.  In the vast majority of cases we’re better off without them.

(“Memmos;” July 6, 2016)


Guidance: How To Say ‘Rio de Janeiro;’ Who Is And Isn’t The U.K.’s ‘Head Of State’ # ±

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)


Guidance: Specifics About Weapons # ±

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.

We’ve said that:

“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.”

We’ve cautioned that:

“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)


Stop Using The Word ‘Worst’ # ±

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)


Chew On This: Is It Chomping Or Champing? # ±

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:

Let’s Toss ‘Hat In The Ring’ Into The Cliché Round File

(“Memmos;” June 9, 2016)


Guidance On Facebook & ‘NPR Live’ # ±

Update on Dec. 26, 2017: This guidance has been replaced. Read more here.

(Editor’s note on July 27, 2017: Click here to go to an updated special section about the do’s and don’t's of social media.)

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)


‘Choice’ Is Not The Word To Use # ±

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.”


Reminder: It’s ‘Transgender,’ Not ‘Transgendered’

On Gender Identity

– NPR Issues New Guidance On Manning’s Gender Identity

(“Memmos;” May 16, 2016)


Reminder: It’s “Transgender,’ Not ‘Transgendered’ # ±

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/

Related posts:

–  On Gender Identity

–  NPR Issues New Guidance On Manning’s Gender Identity

(“Memmos;” May 13, 2016)


‘I Mostly Listen’: One Key To Avoid ‘Othering’ # ±

“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.

Related:Don’t ‘radiosplain’ and other ways to report on communities that aren’t your own.”

(“Memmos;” May 12, 2016)


Guidance On North Carolina’s ‘HB2′ # ±

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)


Reminder: Sometimes ‘Can I Get Your Name?’ Isn’t Enough # ±

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:

How To Explain Why We Won’t ‘Take Down’ A Story.

‘This Story About You Is Going To Be On The Web Forever And You May Come To Regret That.’

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:

- The ‘don’ts’ of anonymity.

- A supervisor decides if anonymous news is shared.

- Whether To Go With ‘First-Name-Only’ Needs To Be Discussed And Explained.

- Our word is binding.

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)


On ‘Presumptive’ # ±

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)


‘Factoid’ Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does # ±

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.

Here’s why:

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.

Our own list is here.

(“Memmos;” April 25, 2016)


A Reminder About A Word We Shouldn’t Use And Some More Thoughts On Avoiding Labels # ±

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.

This isn’t about political correctness. It’s about respect for those we report about (and “Respect” is one of our core principles) and it’s about accuracy (another core principle).

(“Memmos;” April 22, 2016)


Guidance On The Name Of The Ukrainian Pilot # ±

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)


Reminder: ‘When Language Is Politicized, Seek Neutral Words That Foster Understanding’ # ±

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)


Korva Discovers That Hailstones Come In ‘Grapefruit’ And ‘Softball’ Sizes; Diatribe About Clichés Averted # ±

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:

No, Virginia, It ‘Tisn’t The Season
Let’s Toss ‘Hat In The Ring’ Into The Cliché Round File
We Wave A Lot; Perhaps We Should Stem The Tide

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)


Don’t Be Fooled # ±

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)


You May Hear The Word ‘Sniveling’ More Times Today Than In All Of NPR’s Previous 46 Years # ±

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)


Guidance On Podcast ‘Back Announces’ # ±

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)


This May Make You Smile: A 12-Year-Old’s Polite Note About ‘Kids’ # ±

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.

-          Page 1 is here.

-          Be sure to open Page 2 as well.

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)


Guidance On The Titles ‘Analyst’ & ‘Commentator’ # ±

“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)


Do Spring Forward, But Don’t Say ‘Daylight Savings’ # ±

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)


Is That Cut From A Skype Conversation? Then You Must Tell Listeners # ±

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)


Before Super Tuesday, A Reminder About Social Media # ±

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.

Our resources:

– 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)


Refused Or Declined? It Depends On The Tone # ±

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)


Refresh My Memory: When Can We Stop Saying ‘Alleged?’ # ±

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)


Here’s A Way To Stop Me From Nagging You # ±

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.

For instance:

– 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:

The Ethics Handbook.

The “Memmos.”

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.

Other suggestions:

- 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)


Seven Wonderful Words About Set-Top Boxes # ±

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)


Be Sure To Ask ‘Experts’ About Connections To The Candidates # ±

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)


In Our Latest Edition Of ‘Don’t Do What They Did’: A Deal We Wouldn’t Want To Make # ±

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:

- “This Is How Hillary Clinton Gets the Coverage She Wants” (Gawker)

- “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:

Unlike A ‘Rolling Stone,’ We Don’t Change Names Or Share Stories With Sources

Don’t Trust, Do Verify: The Vaping Hoax

Don’t Trust Your Mother Or The Internet

Free Laptops, Big Shrimp And #Ethicsschmetics

Plagiarism: The Offense That Keeps On Repeating

Don’t Always Believe What You Remember

(“Memmos;” Feb. 10, 2016)


Laugh Break: Interviewing Tips From Bob & Ray # ±

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)


There’s No Need To Run Through Some People’s Résumés On First Reference # ±

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.

Related notes:

– 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)


Guidance: Don’t Use ‘Ride-Sharing’ # ±

“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)


Let’s Bury These Winter Clichés Before They Pile Up Like … # ±

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

-          Bone-chilling

-          Snowpocalypse

-          Snowmageddon

-          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.

Stay warm.

(“Memmos;” Jan. 20, 2016)


Flint Water Crisis: Say ‘Government Officials’ # ±

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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The NPR Accuracy Checklist: It’s A Must-Read & A Must-Use # ±

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.


–  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.


–  We own them. THIS IS IMPORTANT:  If you realize a mistake has been made, email corrections@npr.org and notify the appropriate editor or producer. Senior managers need to be told about “serious” mistakes.

–  We correct them.


  • – NAMES
  • – AGES
  • – TITLES
  • – DAYS and DATES
  • – QUOTES

(Memmos; Jan. 13, 2016)


Unlike A ‘Rolling Stone,’ We Don’t Change Names Or Share Stories With Sources # ±

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)


Language To Use And Not Use When Reporting About The Occupation In Oregon # ±

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)


Keep KISSing In 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.


– Precision Writing & Editing: 5 Timeless Tips 

(Memmos; Dec. 29, 2015)


What Did We Say About That? A Guide To The 2015 ‘Memmos’ # ±

What did Mark annoy us about in 2015? Here are the year’s “Memmos,” divided into categories:



-         An Anonymous Editor Thinks What The ‘Times’ Did Was Funny

-         Single Source Approval Process



-         When News Breaks, Keep A Couple Things In Mind



-         Your Keyboard Is A Live Mic (Or, If You Write It They May Say It)

-         NPR’s ‘Minor Consent Form’: Spanish Version

-         Guidance: On Station Reporters & News About Their Universities Or Institutions

-         Resource: Guidelines About The ‘Morning Edition’ Book Club, Fundraising & The Firewall Between Them


-         Ben Affleck, ‘Finding Your Roots’ And Why Our Standards Point To A Different Decision

-         On Gender Identity

-         Yes, Journalists Can Give To Charities That Are Helping People In Need

-         Guidance on: Coverage of books written by NPR staffers

-         When We’re Asked To Remove A Photo, Here’s What We Do


-         Proofread DACS Lines; Mistakes In Them Can End Up On Our Website

-         On Why It’s Not OK To Ask Friends, Family Or Fixers To Take Photos For Us

-         DACS Lines Are Journalism

-         Guidance On The Use Of ‘Disturbing’ Videos And Audio

-         Online News Commentaries


-         This Is An Important Reminder About Dealing With Those Who Are Vulnerable; Please Read It

-         When There’s No Evidence To Support A Claim, We Should Say That

-         Guidance On Music In Broadcast Pieces

-         Reminder: If The Facts Don’t Support Someone’s Claim, Say That



-         The ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Cartoons And NPR’s Decision Not To Publish Them

-         Gyrocopter Story Raises An Old Question: When Should Journalists Intervene?

-         On The Plagiarism Case And How It Was Handled



-         Repetitive Acronyms

-         Reminder: References To War Camps Must Be Precise

-         Don’t Be Careless With The Word ‘Countless’

-         Here’s Why We Use The Word ‘Islamist’

-         Analysts, Critics, Experts & Officials Agree: We Talk About Them An Awful Lot


-         Some So-called Guidance

-         Watch What You Say: It’s National Grammar Day

-         In The ‘Vast Majority’ Of Cases, Are We Sure We Should Use Those Words?

-         On The Word ‘Suicide’

-         Let’s Toss ‘Hat In The Ring’ Into The Cliché Round File


-         Guidance On The Words ‘Protests’ And ‘Protesters’

-         Guidance: ‘Same-Sex Marriage

-         Guidance: If ‘We’ Are Not Part Of The Story, Keep ‘Us’ Out Of It

-         No Joke: A Reminder About Writing, Courtesy Of ‘The Daily Show’

-         Guidance On Key Words That Come Up In The Planned Parenthood Stories


-         Save Yourself A Word And Make The Latin Teachers Happy

-         No Change In The Way We Introduce The Islamic State (later revised; see next entry in this list)

-         New Guidance On ‘ISIS’ & ‘Islamic State’

-         On ‘Migrants’ And ‘Refugees’

-         Pleonasms: Words That Don’t Need To Be Together

-         Take Care When Describing Weapons


-         There’s No Debate About This: We’ll Get Complaints If We Say The Candidates Are Behind Podiums

-         Take The ‘Sting’ Out Of References To The ‘Planned Parenthood Videos’

-         “Let’s Reduce Our ‘Buts’ “

-         Words We Get Wrong: The List

-         New Guidance On References To Myanmar


-         As Great Uncle Frederick Said, ‘More’ Or ‘Most’ Probably Don’t Belong In Front Of An Adjective With One Syllable

-         It’s ‘Boy With Autism,’ Not ‘Autistic Boy’

-         Keep Your Enemies Close And Your Antecedents Closer

-         No, Virginia, It ‘Tisn’t The Season



-         We’re Making More Than A Few

-         Serious Mistakes Need To Be Flagged Immediately

-         The NPR Accuracy Checklist

-         Please Read The ‘CJR’ Report About ‘Rolling Stone’

-         Don’t Trust, Do Verify: The Vaping Hoax


-         Reminder: When Posting Corrections, The Correspondents/Bloggers/Editors Who Allegedly Committed The Errors Need To Be Involved

-         Don’t Trust Your Mother Or The Internet

-         Stories About Illinois Police Officer’s Death Underscore Need To Attribute

-         Put On-Air Corrections With The Original Stories



-         Guidance On The Name Of Argentina’s President

-         Reminders On Two Names (Ofeibea Quist-Arcton & Leila Fadel)

-         Reminders: Say ‘MURZ’ & ‘STEHF-in’

-         “It’s ‘Argentine,’ Not ‘Argentinian’ “



-         Bleep The Whole @#$%&*! Word

-         Resending: The ‘NPR Policy On Use Of Potentially Offensive Language’ And Related Notes

-         No Exceptions: Any Clip With Offensive Language, Bleeped Or Not, Must Be Approved Well Ahead Of Broadcast

-         Warning: This Post Contains Language That May Offend; Such Words Should Not Be Used In Podcasts Or On The Air

-         If We’ve Bleeped It, Do We Also Need To Warn Listeners? Maybe Not



-         For Comparison Purposes: The BBC’s Updated Guidance On Social Media

-         False Alarms About The Queen Reinforce Why We Think Before We Tweet

-         Read This If You Use Social Media; Everyone Should Know Our Thinking

-         Reporter’s Suspension For A Tweet Makes This Is A Good Time To Read Our Social Media Guidance



-         Encore! Encore!

-         Hey, You Should Read This: We Put The ‘Superbug’ News In Its Proper Place

-         Do Listen To This: A Walk Through Sandtown That Is Compelling And Instructive

-         A Thanks And Two Reminders On Describing Weapons And Adding Sources To ‘Reportable’ Notes

-         Kudos For Some Solid Reporting, Careful Writing & Smart Blogging



-         Click here to see that list

(“Memmos;” Dec. 22, 2015)


Kudos For Some Solid Reporting, Careful Writing & Smart Blogging # ±

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.



– Precision Writing & Editing: 5 Timeless Tips 
– Be Judicious When Passing Along Breaking News
– Don’t Just Spread Information. Be Careful And Skeptical
– The NPR Accuracy Checklist

*This list is not meant to be exhaustive. If you’re among the “everyone else,” thank you.


Reminder: If The Facts Don’t Support Someone’s Claim, Say That # ±

We wrote about this last month. The New York Times’ public editor weighed in this week. It’s worth repeating:

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)


A Thanks And Two Reminders On Describing Weapons And Adding Sources To ‘Reportable’ Notes # ±

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)


No, Virginia, It ‘Tisn’t The Season # ±

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)



Guidance On Music In Broadcast Pieces # ±

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)


When There’s No Evidence To Support A Claim, We Should Say That # ±

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.”

FactCheck.org has noted that:

“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)


Put On-Air Corrections With The Original Stories # ±

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)


Reporter’s Suspension For A Tweet Makes This Is A Good Time To Read Our Social Media Guidance # ±

(Editor’s note on July 27, 2017: Click here to go to an updated special section about the do’s and don’t's of social media.)

CNN global affairs correspondent Elise Labott tweeted this Thursday afternoon:

“House passes bill that could limit Syrian refugees. Statue of Liberty bows head in anguish.”

That has gotten her suspended for two weeks.

The line between editorializing and engaging with the audience is not always easy to see. Also, bloggers, analysts and commentators may be able to do things on social media that we would not want our “traditional” journalists to do.

We have specialists – the social media team – who can help figure out what is and isn’t appropriate. Editors can take a look at tweets and posts before you hit publish. It pays to first ask others on your show or desk for their opinions.

We also have plenty of guidance online:

– The “social media” section of the Ethics Handbook. Here’s an important line: “Conduct yourself online just as you would in any other public circumstances as an NPR journalist.” In other words, if you wouldn’t say it on the air, don’t say it on other platforms.

– This “social media guideline,” which says, in part:

“Refrain from advocating for political or other polarizing issues online. … Don’t express personal views on a political or other controversial issue that you could not write for the air or post on NPR.org. These guidelines apply whether you are posting under your own name or — if the online site allows pseudonyms — your identity would not be readily apparent. In reality, anything you post online reflects both on you and on NPR.”

– There’s another guideline that’s helpfully headlined “When In Doubt, Consult The Social Media Team.”

– We have a post called “Remember: There Is No Privacy On The Web, And ‘Personal’ Pages Are Not Safe Zones.”

– Finally, these posts point to the particular problems that come with political seasons:

Read This If You Use Social Media; Everyone Should Know Our Thinking

Some Guidance About Social Media On Election Day

(“Memmos,” Nov. 20, 2015)


Single Source Approval Process # ±

As Chris said in his note, we’ve been covering the Paris attacks “with a commitment and sense of mission that other news organizations simply can’t match.” Scott Montgomery echoed those thoughts and called the work done so far “extraordinary.”

Thank you.

This story has many threads. Reporters have been working sources hard. The “first file” process that flags what is “reportable” and what is “guidance” is working well and has kept us from putting out bad information.

Now, we want to pause and review how we handle “single source” reports.

The first thing to say is that we operate on the assumption that information needs to be cross-checked and verified with multiple sources. Single source reports should be rare.

It’s true, though, that sometimes only one credible source has critical information. When NPR journalists get such information, and they and their editors believe it should be reported, they must get approval from one or more of the following people:

– SVP for News Mike Oreskes.

– VP for News Chris Turpin.

– Executive Editor Edith Chapin.

– Deputy Managing Editor Chuck Holmes.

– Deputy Managing Editor Gerry Holmes.

– Standards & Practices Editor Mark Memmott.

NPR journalists understand they will be expected to explain who the source is, why the source is in a position to know what he/she is telling us, why it’s important that we report the information and what’s been done to cross-check the information.

You don’t have to contact all six people on that list. Chuck and Gerry are the logical ones to consult first. One of them is on duty every day. They can draw in the others if they feel it’s necessary.

One other thing: Information from single sources can’t be classified as “reportable” in a “first file” note until it has been approved. The note should include a line stating that the single-sourcing has been OK’d and by whom. It should also clearly state how we will refer to that source — “person with direct knowledge of the investigation … law enforcement source who has seen the documents … intelligence official who has been briefed on the details … source close to the investigation … etc.”

Thanks again for all the hard work of the past few days. Thanks in advance for all the hard work of the next few days.

(“Memmos,” Nov. 16, 2015)


New Guidance On References To Myanmar # ±

When reporting about or from Myanmar, it is no longer necessary to say at the top that it is “Myanmar, also known as Burma,” as our style has been since 2011. We feel there are very few in the audience who still need that immediate reminder.

It is also no longer necessary to include the reminder about the name Burma in every report. Use your judgment. In longer pieces, and especially in those tracing the country’s recent history, an “also known as Burma” is appropriate and helpful.

Meanwhile, our guidance (and AP’s) has been that Myanmarese is the adjective to use when describing the people of that country. You should know, however, that there is disagreement over whether that is the proper adjectival form and that people in Myanmar do not refer to themselves that way. Many authorities say Burmese is the word to use, even when referring to the country as Myanmar. One way around all that, of course, is to say something such as “the people of Myanmar” or “the people here.”

(Memmos; Nov. 13, 2015)


Keep Your Enemies Close And Your Antecedents Closer # ±

“Korva said she would tell her driver, Pat, to start warming the car at 3:07 a.m. each day instead of 3:05 just as soon as she returns from the organic smoothie shop.”

Who’s at the organic smoothie shop? Pat or Korva? Who’s the “she?” When will she get back with that smoothie?

We offer this presumably fictional and rather convoluted sentence because many of us aren’t careful about making sure that the pronouns we use are clearly connected to the antecedents they replace. Editors see antecedent/pronoun problems in copy every day.

Let’s pick apart the opening scene. This is what was happening:

–  Korva wanted the car started at 3:07 a.m., not 3:05.

–  Pat was at the organic smoothie shop getting Korva’s Mango/Kale/Chia Supreme.

– Korva would have to wait until Pat returned to tell her about the new starting time.

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style offers this advice: “The relative pronoun should come, in most instances, immediately after its antecedent.” Note, for instance, how much clearer it reads to say Korva would have to “wait until Pat returned to tell her.” Just four small words separate the antecedent from the pronoun. It’s clear that Pat is “her.”

Please also take care to pair singular pronouns with singular antecedents and plurals with plurals. Gender agreement is important as well, but bear in mind that the choice of pronoun may be a sensitive issue when the subject is a transgender person.

(Memmos; Nov. 11, 2015)


It’s ‘Boy With Autism,’ Not ‘Autistic Boy’ # ±

Jeremy Mardis, the boy killed in Louisiana, had autism.

We should say and write that he was “a boy with autism,” not an “autistic boy.”

As we’ve said before about individuals with medical conditions, please avoid labels and use action words. We hear from many who say, “I’m not just a [insert condition]. I am a son/daughter/father/mother with [insert medical condition].”

(“Memmos;” Nov. 9, 2015)


As Great Uncle Frederick Said, ‘More’ Or ‘Most’ Probably Don’t Belong In Front Of An Adjective With One Syllable # ±

Did Myanmar hold its “most free elections in decades?”

No, as a listener told us, it held its “freest elections in decades.”

Today’s question: When should we use more or most instead of -er or -est to form comparatives and superlatives?

To figure out the answer, it helps to count syllables.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage says that “adjectives of one or two syllables normally form their comparative and superlative forms by adding –er and –est. … Adjectives of more than two syllables are normally preceded by more or most …”

The BBC puts it this way: “It is clear that adjectives of one syllable normally end in -er and –est in their comparative and superlative forms whilst the comparative and superlative of adjectives with three or more syllables are formed with more and most.”

The Chicago Manual of Style agrees. It notes, however, that “a few one-syllable adjectives – such as real, right, and wrong – can take only more and most. … Eager, proper, and somber, unlike many two-syllable adjectives, also take only more and most.” It sagely advises consulting “a good dictionary.” (NPR uses Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fifth Edition.)

Finally, in 1925 my great uncle Frederick Memmott and fellow educator Nell Young, in the sixth grade edition of their textbooks Good English in Speaking and Writing, told students that “nearly all our adjectives containing only one syllable are compared by adding the syllables -er and -est. Some of our adjectives containing two or more syllables are compared by adding -er and -est, but others require the use of the words more and most. All the adjectives containing more than two syllables require the use of more and most in comparing things.”

There you go. If the adjective has one or two syllables, you almost always add –er and –est. When there are three or more syllables, more and most are almost certainly the words to choose. Check the dictionary if you’re not sure.

Uncle Frederick died 32 years before I was born. I don’t know this for sure, but I trust he would have thanked us for keeping these guidelines in mind.

(Memmos; Nov. 6, 2015)


Stories About Illinois Police Officer’s Death Underscore Need To Attribute # ±

A look back at our coverage of what happened to Illinois police Lt. Charles Gliniewicz, who authorities now say killed himself, highlights the importance of attributing information and not getting ahead of ourselves when stories are breaking and investigations are under way.

Here are lines from five stories we aired or posted in the first few days after the news broke:

– Gliniewicz “was shot to death in the line of duty on Tuesday — while chasing three suspects on foot.”

– “Investigators acknowledge they still only have vague descriptions of the three men Fox Lake police officer Charles Joseph Gliniewicz was trying to apprehend when he was shot and killed Tuesday morning.”

– “Lt. Gliniewicz was pursuing those suspects–two white men and a black man– on foot when he lost radio contact with a dispatcher.”

– ”Before he was shot and killed Tuesday morning, Lt Charles Joseph Gliniewicz told dispatchers he was pursing three suspicious men on foot — two of them white and the third, black.”

– “The officer radioed to dispatchers that he was going to check on suspicious activity around 8 a.m. local time in the community of Fox Lake, Lake County sheriff’s office spokesman Christopher Covelli said at a news conference. The officer, who has not yet been identified, then said he was in a ‘foot pursuit,’ before losing contact. Covelli said responding officers arrived and found the officer injured from a gunshot wound and without his service weapon. The officer died at the scene.”

The first three examples flatly say that Gliniewicz was chasing suspects when he was shot. The last two examples make it clear that Gliniewicz said he was in pursuit of three suspects.

Examples 1-3 skipped a key fact — that it was Gliniewicz who reported he was chasing three suspects. He was the source for that information. He was a single source. In hindsight, the attribution was critical.

Two other phrases in our early reports are interesting to think about now: “Shot to death” and “shot and killed.” Gliniewicz was shot. He did die. However, those phrases make it sound as if someone else did the shooting. If we had known he took his own life, we wouldn’t have used them. We couldn’t have known that, of course. But there’s a case to be made that we should have thought through the possibilities and said “before he was shot and died” or some other phrasing that didn’t include the word “killed.”

(Memmos; Nov. 4, 2015)


Words We Get Wrong: The List # ±

We speak and write well most of the time.

There are, however, words and phrases that trip us up. Listeners, readers and our colleagues cringe at the mistakes.

This is going to be a living post. We’re starting with some of the common mistakes. There are some links to where you can get help on the proper usages. We’ll add to the list as suggestions — perhaps we should say “complaints” – come in. The hope is that if the problem cases are identified, they’ll become less common as times goes on.

– Advance planning: One of many pleonasms we should avoid.

Anniversary: It is redundant to say “one-year” or “five-year” or “10-year” … “anniversary.”

– Begs the question: If you think that means “raises the question,” you will incur the wrath of dozens or more audience members.

– But: It’s a little word we use far too often and in ways we shouldn’t.

-- Countless: Do you really mean there are “too many to count?” Or that there’s an “indefinitely large number?” Should you be saying “hundreds” or “thousands?”

– Data: At NPR, we use plural verbs and pronouns when referring to data — unless, that is, we’re confident we’re using the word as a collective noun. Tip: If you can substitute the word “information,” that’s a sign you’re using “data” as a collective noun. If the word “numbers” is the proper substitute, than you need plural verbs and pronouns.

– Farther and further: Use “farther” when discussing distances. “Further” is for issues involving matters of degree.

– Fewer or less? Do you choose your supermarket based on what the sign says over the express aisle? Some people do. “Fewer” is the word to use when things can be counted. “Less” is to be used when when you’re talking about mass quantities.

– Interpreters and translators: An interpreter turns spoken words into another language. A translator works with written words.

– Lay and lie: Stop and check yourself before choosing between these words. Go here or here. At the very least, remember this: You lay down a book; you lie down to rest.

– Lecterns and podiums: You stand on a podium. You put your notes on a lectern, which you sit or stand behind.

– Marine, sailor, soldier: A Marine is not a soldier or a sailor. A sailor is not a Marine or a soldier. A soldier is not a sailor or a Marine. Be careful when referring to them.

– Media: NPR treats “media” as a plural.

– Percent and percentage point: When comparing changes in two percentages, the difference is expressed in “percentage points.” For example, if 36% of Little Valley Central School’s class of ’76 show up at next year’s reunion, that will be an increase of 5 percentage points from the 31% turnout 10 years ago. Attendance, though, will go up 15%. That’s because the 15 who come next year would mark a 15% increase from the 13 who attended in ’06.

– Reticent and reluctant: They do not mean the same thing. Webster’s defines reticent as “habitually silent or uncommunicative; disinclined to speak readily; reserved; taciturn” and “having a restrained, quiet or understated quality.”

– Shrink, shrank and shrunk; sink, sank and sunk: William Safire weighed in on these words back in 1995.  Tip: The movie should have been called “Honey, I Shrank the Kids.”

– Vast majority: The best advice is to just not say it. You’ll probably be wrong. Use facts instead.

(Memmos; Nov. 3, 2015)


On The Plagiarism Case And How It Was Handled # ±

If you haven’t read the news we posted Thursday, please do. Click on these headlines:

- Editor’s Note: Ethics Violations Identified In Several NPR Music And WQXR Reports
- Stories By A Contributing Writer Published On NPR.org That Contain Plagiarism
- NPR Acknowledges Plagiarism In 10 Music Stories

The ombudsman has also posted:

- Plagiarism Found In 10 NPR Music Stories

Before describing how this situation was handled, we should note that the Ethics Handbook is clear: “Plagiarism – taking someone else’s work and intentionally presenting it as if it is your own – is theft. At NPR it’s an unforgivable offense.”

The Handbook goes on to say:

“That means no material from another source should ever be included verbatim, or substantially so, without attribution. This includes material from Associated Press reports. We do not, for example, produce news ‘spots’ or other pieces that closely resemble wire service stories. NPR’s standard is that our writing should be our own. There is no excuse for writing that repeats the wire stories that we use word-for-word, or nearly so.”

Now, about how things were handled once we knew the extent of the problem.

We started from the position that when we make mistakes, we acknowledge them. Steps were taken to do that:

1. We stated as clearly as possible, in multiple places, what had happened and what we had done to correct the mistakes. That’s why there is an editor’s note signed by Mike Oreskes and WQXR General Manager Graham Parker, an editor’s note on top of the page where the stories in question were collected and editor’s notes on each of the 10 pages where the pieces originally appeared.

2. We did not try to hide the stories. They were all put on one page because we felt that would be a simple and user-friendly way to make them available to anyone who wanted to see what was in those pieces that had appeared elsewhere before.

3. We highlighted the words and phrases that had appeared elsewhere and linked to the places they had been drawn from. Again, we aimed to make it as simple as possible for anyone to see what had been done.

4. A headline and link to the main editor’s note was put on the NPR.org homepage.

5. The Two-Way was given no instructions other than to cover the news as it saw fit.

We will make mistakes, though hopefully none this serious. Steps similar to those taken in this situation may need to be repeated. Having them written down here may prove helpful in the future.

Before finishing, a couple more things should be noted.

The first sign that there was a problem came last Friday when copy editor Mark Mobley was checking an unusual spelling and came across a document with phrases much like those in the piece he was editing. He brought the duplication to the attention of editors at NPR Music. That was exactly the right thing to do. Mark was then asked to start going through the pieces the writer had done for NPR.org in the past. His research turned up the multiple examples.

Tom Huizenga, Jessica Goldstein and Jacob Ganz worked through this situation with what I would say was “firm compassion.” It is not easy to deal with news such as this when it involves a person you like and have enjoyed working with. They stayed focused on what was the right thing to do for NPR and its audience.

We all owe Mark, Tom, Jessica and Jacob a thanks.

(Memmos; Oct. 30, 2015)


It’s ‘Argentine,’ Not ‘Argentinian’ # ±


As the AP notes, “Argentine” is “the preferred term for the people and culture of Argentina.” Don’t use “Argentinian.”

And as we said earlier this year, the pronunciation is “AHR-jen-tyne.” Not “teen.”

(Memmos; Oct. 28, 2015)


Let’s Reduce Our Buts # ±

We’re obsessed with our buts.

At least, that’s what I’ve been told by more than one person in the newsroom.

The problem is that we try to insert too many of them into places they don’t belong. We use but to signal a conflict that doesn’t exist or when the conjunction should  be “and.”

I asked Paul Soucy, a veteran copy editor and former colleague, to send me a note he wrote for the staff at USA Today a decade or so ago. Here are excerpts from the memo he titled, “But. Why?

“One objection is mainly stylistic. An over-reliance on but — not just as a word but as a rhetorical device — results in a story that reads like a Ping-Pong match:

– “A, but B.

– “C, but D.

– “E, but F. …

“… all the way to the end.”

“The other major objection to but is linguistic. … Without getting too grammar-y, let’s just say that but is best used to illustrate contradiction, not just contrast. What comes after but should have some impact on what comes before but; it shouldn’t just be something different.

“We run a lot of sentences constructed like this one: ‘Chet has a red Ford, but Ned has a blue Toyota.’

“Why but? There’s contrast in this sentence, but no contradiction. The fact that Ned has a blue Toyota has no bearing whatsoever on the fact that Chet has a red Ford. … If there is no contradiction, there’s no need for but.

“We could just as easily say … ‘Chet has a red Ford and Ned has a blue Toyota.’ [Or] ‘Chet has a red Ford. Ned has a blue Toyota.’ “

Paul finished with three tips:

– “The troublesome buts will usually jump out at you. The best buts are invisible.”

– “Not sure whether a but belongs? Try just taking it out.”

– “If the sentence can be written without the but, perhaps it should be.”

If you’ve read this far, you may have a song in your head: Schoolhouse Rock’s “Conjunction Junction.”

This post also may have brought back memories of last year’s nagging about sentences that start with “so.” If you haven’t read that one, please do. We’re still “soing” a lot.

Other language issues we’ve droned on about include:

Begs The Question

Farther And Further


Imagined Elegance

Lay And Lie

With that, I’ll butt out.

(Memmos; Oct. 22, 2015)



Take The ‘Sting’ Out Of References To The ‘Planned Parenthood Videos’ # ±

Please use phrases such as “secretly recorded” and “covertly recorded” when referring to the videos made by anti-abortion activists.

“Undercover” is another useful word. True, it may invoke in some listeners’ minds the image of a government spy who has gone under cover, but as an adjective it means “acting or carried out in secret.”

We have concluded that “sting” doesn’t apply because it is defined as “an elaborate confidence game” or “an elaborately planned operation engaged in by law enforcement agents to entrap criminals.” Those don’t fit in this context.

(Memmos; Oct. 14, 2015)


There’s No Debate About This: We’ll Get Complaints If We Say The Candidates Are Behind Podiums # ±

The five candidates on stage tonight in Las Vegas will be standing at lecterns, not podiums, as many emailers have reminded us already.

From Webster’s New World College Dictionary:

“lectern … a stand for holding the notes, written speech, etc., as of a lecturer.”

“podium … a low platform, esp. for the conductor of an orchestra; dais.”

(Memmos; Oct. 13, 2015)


Read This If You Use Social Media; Everyone Should Know Our Thinking # ±

(Editor’s note on July 27, 2017: Click here to go to an updated special section about the do’s and don’t's of social media.)

The presidential campaign, particularly the debates, and breaking news events such as this week’s mass shooting in Oregon 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.

We’ve issued guidance on this before. Everyone is expected to be familiar with our thinking. Please reread:

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” 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; Oct. 2, 2015)


Take Care When Describing Weapons # ±

As we cover news about the mass shooting in Oregon, we will get reports and see reports about the weapons that were used.

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.

Obviously, the shooter had “guns.” It is being reported that he had both “handguns” and a “rifle.” Those are good words because of their breadth. It is best to stick to such words until authorities release details.

The AP Stylebook has a substantial entry for “weapons” that has good guidance. If you’re on our intranet, you can get to the Stylebook here: http://www.apstylebook.com/npr/

We also have hard copies of the Stylebook. There’s one with The Two-Way team and others with copy editors Susan Vavrick, Amy Morgan and Pam Webster.

(Memmos; Oct. 2, 2015)


This Is An Important Reminder About Dealing With Those Who Are Vulnerable; Please Read It # ±

There have been a couple times in recent weeks when people we’ve interviewed asked that we remove their names from the stories we posted on the Web. We have issued guidance on this topic several times before. Reminders seem to be in order about how to avoid getting into such situations and how to handle them if they arise.

Click on these headlines to see our guidance:

– ‘This Story About You Is Going To Be On The Web Forever And You May Come To Regret That

– Reminder: Whether To Go With ‘First-Name-Only’ Needs To Be Discussed And Explained

– How To Explain Why We Won’t ‘Take Down’ A Story

When We’re Asked To Remove A Photo, Here’s What We Do

Here are some important points from those notes:

– We’re not saying that Sen. Doe or Mayor Smith or CEO Jones need to be reminded that what they say to us is on the record and will be available to anyone with a Web connection. They should know what they’re doing.

– The notes don’t cover “reporting done in war zones or situations when stopping to have a long conversation about the long tail of the Web isn’t safe or practical.”

– But the guidance does cover other situations involving people who are vulnerable. Those include survivors of sexual assault, people with serious medical conditions and those whose lives may be put in danger if they are fully identified. As the handbook says, “we minimize undue harm and take special care with those who are vulnerable or suffering.”

We do not preview our stories for those we interview. But it is essential that vulnerable individuals understand in general how we will be using the information we get from them, how we will identify them and whether any images of them will be published (remember: visuals are important parts of our journalism and we treat them that way). There may be times when people say we can use their full names and photos and we are not comfortable doing so.

It must be made clear to such individuals that our stories do not only air on the radio — they live on various digital forms and will be searchable on the Web. 

How such individuals’ names, biographical details and images will be handled must be discussed with a senior editor well before anything is aired or published. That means a supervising senior editor, a deputy managing editor or the standards & practices editor. In reality, they’ll all probably be involved.

One other reminder (because we’re asked about it at least once a week):

When we decide to withhold a source’s name from a story, we don’t invent a pseudonym for that source.”

 (“Memmos;” Sept. 29, 2015)


Pleonasms: Words That Don’t Need To Be Together # ±

Here’s a word that a search indicates may never have been said on NPR: “pleonasm.”

But we and other news outlets put pleonasms on the air and on the Web every day.

What is a pleonasm?

“The use of more words than are necessary for the expression of an idea; redundancy.”

Some examples:

– There’s been a “mass exodus” of Syrians.

An “exodus” is the departure of a large, massive group.

“What I did was legally permitted, first and foremost,” says Hillary Clinton.

“Foremost” means “first in place or time.”

Homes that were in the path of a wildfire were “completely destroyed.”

If they were destroyed, enough’s been said.

John McIntyre, the “veteran drudge” at the Baltimore Sun, has collected pleonasms, here and here.

A few of the more common:

–  “Safe haven.”

–  “Final results.”

–  “Advance planning.”

You can probably think of many more.

There are times when pleonasms are useful – for instance, when you want to make sure listeners really, really, really understand the point you’re making. Also, they are common expressions and we do try to be conversational.

But, they annoy some listeners, might add nothing to your story and take up space when you may be fighting to squeeze in valuable information.  Feel free to cut them.

Related post:Do You Suffer From RAS Syndrome?

(Memmos; Sept. 15, 2015)


Guidance: Online News Commentaries # ±

There have been some questions in recent days about how we handle commentaries online.

Basically, the same principles that apply to on-air news commentaries from outside voices should apply to those commissioned for blogs and other digital platforms.

Let’s start this discussion with a bit of what the Ethics Handbook says about commentaries:

“In selecting commentaries from independent writers, we honor our commitments to impartiality and fairness by presenting our audience with a variety of voices, encompassing many sides of an issue. Our commentaries must also hew to other Guiding Principles, reflecting honesty, accuracy and transparency.”

More on fairness below.

On the air, commentators have always been identified as … well … commentators. Listeners have also heard at least brief bios to establish the commentators’ credentials.

Online, users should know immediately that what they’re seeing is an opinion piece and they should see biographical details about the writer or writers. There are different ways to do it, including assigning commentaries to a category called … wait for it … “commentary.” Then there are combinations of these approaches:

– The headline could begin with “Commentary:”

– An editor’s note at the top might simply state something like: “Social scientist Jane Doe has spent the last 10 years studying [insert the issue]. She has watched the recent events in [insert location]. Doe has some ideas about how to prevent it from happening again.”

– A bio box near the top of the page could spell out who the author is and why she has some expertise.

Now, on fairness.

This is obvious — the commentaries we put online must be fair. It’s also obvious that a writer needs to make well-reasoned, articulate points.

The right thing to do when a commentator is suggesting a person or institution is guilty of bad judgment, malfeasance or some serious misdeed, is to reflect the other person’s side of the story. On the air it’s often been a case of saying something like: “As we just heard, congressman John Doe said today that the $1 million he took from [insert name of shady character] was a gift, not a bribe. Jane Smith, a former federal prosecutor in Texas, doesn’t buy Doe’s explanation and predicts the Justice Department won’t either.”

Online, approaches can include a recap of what the other side says in response to our questions or (if we get a “no comment”) what that side has said in the past. The digital audience should be told what we find out. If the only thing we can say is “they had no comment,” that should be stated. There are several ways to present the information, including: As an editor’s note; as an inset box; or as a separate post that is linked to prominently.

Consider how a recent Goats and Soda commentary turned out. At the top of the post headlined “Taylor Swift Is Dreaming Of A Very White Africa” is a box that begins “this essay reflects the opinions of the authors, Viviane Rutabingwa and James Kassaga Arinaitwe.” Substantial bios of each author follow. Directly below them is a link to a post headlined “The Director Of The Taylor Swift Video Defends His Work.”

To recap: Commentaries must be fair; they must be labeled; the authors’ credentials need to be spelled out; and if the “other side” of the story needs to be told or restated or prominently linked to, we need to do one or more of those things for our Web users.

Side note: An arts critic is a type of commentator. But this guidance is not about critics’ reviews. They certainly shouldn’t be mean-spirited, but are not the same as commentaries on the news or people in the news.

(Memmos; Sept. 11, 2015)


On ‘Migrants’ And ‘Refugees’ # ±

We don’t base our decisions on whether to refer to those who are heading to Europe as “refugees” or “migrants” simply on what the U.N. or any governments say.

We also do not use words or phrases just because advocates on one side or another say we should.

There’s been discussion about whether the news media should only use the word “refugees” when referring to those who are in Europe or trying to get there. The word choice has legal ramifications and “refugees” is the word that human rights groups want to see used.

News outlets, including NPR, have leaned on “migrants” as the word that encompasses all those who are on the move.

Both words have a place in this story.

There is a migration under way. Large numbers of people are entering and crossing Europe. It is a migrant crisis. The people fit the dictionary definition of “migrants” because to migrate is to “move from one place to another.”

Obviously, given the makeup of the population, there’s a strong case to be made that most of the people are refugees. Here is the Webster’s New World College Dictionary definition: “A person who flees from home or country to seek refuge elsewhere, as in a time of war or of political or religious persecution.” Those fleeing conflict zones such as Syria and Afghanistan and places of persecution like Eritrea are almost surely refugees. But people fleeing poverty aren’t automatically refugees.

Our guidance:

– “Migrants” is a word that covers all those who are on the move, whether it’s because they’re fleeing a war zone or hoping for better lives somewhere new.

– “Refugee” and “refugees” can stand alone when there is evidence that a person or group has left home because of war or persecution or when we’re reporting about people from specific places such as Syria. For instance, it made sense to have our headline say “Number Of Refugees Found Dead In Austrian Truck Rises To 71” because Syrian travel documents were found with the bodies.

But do not assume that “refugees” is the word that works in all cases.

– Phrases such as “hundreds of refugees and other migrants” may be extremely useful.

– Also useful: Thinking of it as a migrant crisis “fueled by refugees from [country or countries].”

– Listen to how Steve Inskeep and Joanna Kakissis handled the words Friday on Morning Edition. Steve framed the conversation by talking about “why so many people risk their lives to move across Europe,” referring to them as “migrants.” Then as he and Joanna dug into the story, they folded in logical references to refugees.

– It will make sense in most cases to employ action words to describe who we’re reporting about —  ”families fleeing the war in Syria,” for instance.

– We turn to the dictionary for help, not the legal definitions. But everyone reporting this story should be familiar with the legalese because it may be necessary to explain it to listeners/readers.

(Memmos; Aug. 28, 2015)


New Guidance On ‘ISIS’ & ‘Islamic State’ # ±

Enough time has gone by and so many stories have been reported that it’s been decided we no longer need to always use words such as “self-declared,” “self-proclaimed” or “self-styled” with first references to the “Islamic State.”

Also, we believe the audience is familiar enough with that group to allow us to say “ISIS” on first reference.

Please note that we are not issuing a rule that it must be “ISIS” on first reference. Also, “self-declared Islamic State” (or some variation) on first reference is not being banned. The change being made is that we’re no longer saying the first reference has to be done a certain way.

It will still make sense in many cases to remind listeners and readers that ISIS is “the group known as the Islamic State” or some other formulation that spells out exactly what and who we’re referring to. Also, we’ll still have to deal with officials and guests who want to call it “ISIL” or “Daesh,” which will require us to throw in an “also known as.”

This note mostly supersedes our previous guidance. There’s a “mostly” in that sentence because the guidance about not using “so-called” remains in effect.

(“Memmos;” Aug. 19, 2015)


If We’ve Bleeped It, Do We Also Need To Warn Listeners? Maybe Not # ±

Is it necessary to alert listeners that there’s offensive/disturbing/troubling/etc. language in a report if we’ve already bleeped the nettlesome word or words?

The short answer is, “not always.”

Previous guidance has been too strict on this point. Let’s try this:

If it’s been decided after discussions with senior editors that a word or phrase will be bleeped, don’t assume listeners do or do not need to be alerted. Instead, consider the context.

– Is the cut still intense, graphic or disturbing even after it’s been bleeped? Then a heads up for listeners could be warranted. By the way, it may not have to be a line that sounds like a warning. The language can be conversational and informational (more on that below).

– Is the cut funny and a naughty word or two are said in jest? Then a heads up probably isn’t necessary.

– Is it one bleep in an otherwise family-friendly piece and the word wasn’t said in anger? Then, again, there could be no need for a heads up.

Basically, it’s a judgment call. Talk to the deputy managing editors (Chuck Holmes & Gerry Holmes) and/or the standards & practices editor (Mark Memmott). It will get figured out.

Two related notes:

– Here’s the part about being conversational and informational. If we think listeners should be alerted, we don’t always need to say something like “we should warn you.” On Morning Edition recently, there was a piece about the comic Chris Gethard. Two F-bombs were bleeped. In the introduction, David Greene said of Gethard that, “Chris is funny and weird. But he doesn’t shock audiences. You’ll only hear a couple of bleeps this morning.” That told listeners something about Gethard and tipped them off to what was coming without saying they needed to be on guard.

– Any time there’s bleeped language in a piece, the DACS line must tell stations what that word is, when it appears (or approximately if we’re still editing) and that it will be bleeped. Obviously, on the occasions when we don’t bleep offensive language, the DACS need to explain that.

NPR’s “Policy On Use Of Potentially Offensive Language” is posted here.

(Memmos; Aug. 18, 2015)


Guidance On The Use Of ‘Disturbing’ Videos And Audio # ±

Videos and audio clips of someone being shot, a disaster victim crying for help, bodies being recovered and other potentially disturbing scenes present us with challenges.

When weighing whether to post such videos online and to use any clips on the air, keep in mind that:

– Conversations are required. The senior news manager on duty (a DME or the designated supervisor) must be consulted. The Visuals team should be pulled in. Other senior editors may be as well.

– The conversations start from this position: We report the news, good and bad.

– But we can’t be callous. The video may show someone’s death. Out of respect for that person and that person’s family, we consider carefully what should be shown or heard. Our general rule is that we do not post video or play audio of someone’s moment of death. There will be exceptions, but only after discussion.

– We also respect our audience. They want the facts. But for many, reading or hearing descriptions will be more than enough. Seeing or hearing disturbing events could leave them too shaken to follow the rest of a story.

– “Every other news outlet else is using it” is not on its own a justification for posting or broadcasting anything.

– Especially in the first minutes and hours after such content surfaces, its credibility may be in doubt. Proceed with caution.

– The content may be propaganda. For example, extremist groups spread their messages and try to spread terror by putting out videos of hostages being murdered. We do not blindly post or air propaganda. It would be highly unusual for us to even link to it.

Rigid rules about what to do won’t work. Each situation is different. However:

– If it’s decided that videos with potentially disturbing content can be posted, they should never start automatically when a webpage loads. They must require a “click” to begin. They must either have a warning note embedded in them or it must appear directly above them.

– Likewise, on the air listeners should never hear potentially disturbing content without first being told that it’s coming. For instance, cellphone audio of gunshots that kill a man should not be heard until after a caution has been given.

– We should consider whether a video’s disturbing moments and sounds can and should be blurred and bleeped, for posting online and using on the air.

– If the original content is too disturbing to post and we do not have a blurred/bleeped version that we are comfortable using, we may decide to link to another news outlet’s edited version if it is in line with our standards. We should caution readers that it includes potentially disturbing content. The language should be simple and clear. For example:  ”The Daily Planet has posted a clip from the video here. Reminder: It is graphic.”

– When a member station is chasing the same story, we should talk with the news director about how to handle the content. Often, we’ll be in agreement and can link to the station’s coverage.

But, But, But:

– Does this mean we’ll never put such content online or on the air?

No. See above: “We report the news, good and bad.” We would not have edited a video of the Challenger explosion, for example, to blur the key moments.

– Are we treating the audience like children?

Some will say we are. We believe we’re making editorial judgments.

Note: The guidance above applies to images as well. We do not post potentially disturbing photos without first discussing.

(Memmos; Aug. 11, 2015. This guidance has also been posted under “Respect.”)


Save Yourself A Word And Make The Latin Teachers Happy # ±

We’ve gotten a steady stream of emails the past few days reminding us that it’s redundant to say “one-year anniversary” since anniversary comes from the Latin annus, or “year.”

Just say “first anniversary.”

This isn’t a new issue, of course: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/18/magazine/18onlanguage-anniversary.html?_r=0

(Memmos; Aug. 11, 2015)


Guidance On Key Words That Come Up In The Planned Parenthood Stories # ±

Flatly saying or writing that Planned Parenthood officials have been secretly recorded discussing the sale of fetal tissue is akin to concluding that they committed a crime. That is a problem. We should not attach such judgments to people or institutions until the confessions or convictions are in.

We’ve been on the story. Meanwhile, both FactCheck.org and PolitiFact have explored what is and isn’t known at this point about what Planned Parenthood has done. FactCheck links to the 1993 law that defines what is and is not legal regarding the use of fetal tissue. Here are two key sections:

– “PURCHASE OF TISSUE — It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly acquire, receive, or otherwise transfer any human fetal tissue for valuable consideration if the transfer affects interstate commerce.”

– “The term ‘valuable consideration’ does not include reasonable payments associated with the transportation,  implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue.”

The video makers and other Planned Parenthood critics say the organization was selling fetal tissue. Planned Parenthood says the tissue has been donated, not sold, and that only the organization’s costs (reasonable payments) have been covered.

The facts are not all in.

For now, just as we would report that “prosecutors say John Doe robbed the bank,” we should attribute references to fetal tissue being sold. They’re coming from “Planned Parenthood’s critics,” for example. Conversely, at this point it is for Planned Parenthood to say — not us — that these were donations, not sales.

In the short space of a Newscast spot, an “allegedly” or “accused of” may be required when there isn’t time to say more.

There are cases to be made for saying that Planned Parenthood officials were heard discussing how they could “provide” fetal tissue to researchers, or how those researchers could “procure” or “obtain” it. The issue of money being paid should be addressed in most reports. But, again, attribution is important when characterizing those payments.

(Memmos; Aug. 4, 2015)


No Joke: A Reminder About Writing, Courtesy Of ‘The Daily Show’ # ±

Crusty editors aren’t the only ones who extol the merits of “precision writing and editing.”

Here’s what comedian Hasan Minaj had to say about Jon Stewart during Elizabeth Blair’s piece on Morning Edition today:

“He’s always been really great about cutting. … Because we only have 22 minutes to convey a lot and in a field piece you only have 4 1/2, 5 minutes, maybe 6 minutes tops. … Cutting out extraneous stuff, even if it’s extra laughs. … Cutting those things out to convey the story and to convey the narrative and the argument. And you’ll still get great jokes in there. But once you really establish and lay that groundwork out, that’s where it goes to that next level.”

Also on writing:

When Looking For The Right Words, Beware Of ‘Imagined Elegance’

Let’s Toss ‘Hat In The Ring’ Into The Cliché Round File

We Wave A Lot; Perhaps We Should Stem The Tide

Don’t Be Reticent Or Reluctant About Flagging The Words We Overuse, Misuse Or Otherwise Abuse

Weak language is sometimes a symptom of weak journalism

(Memmos; Aug. 3, 2015)


DACS Lines Are Journalism # ±

By Chuck Holmes:

DACS lines are many things. A thumbnail description of a story. A necessity. And, yes, often a pain in the backside.

But above all, they are journalism. And they reach ­a vast audience. They are the prime means to inform the network of the stories we’re telling. Shows, Digital News, Member Stations — all rely on them.

A DACS line must be brief, accurate, up to date and reflective of the story. Too often they are written in haste, not updated or simply do not exist.

Bad DACS lines can have a serious cascade effect. In recent weeks, a show billboard was incorrect because information was lifted from a dated DACS line. It was an easily avoidable mistake that was heard by listeners around the world. We too often see imprecise headlines on NPR.org, again because the DACS line doesn’t accurately reflect the content of the story. On weekends especially, member stations often read our DACS lines — word for word — on air as promotional copy to highlight upcoming stories.

DACS lines are the responsibility, first and foremost, of Desk reporters and Desk editors or, in the case of 2-ways, Show editors and Show producers. Like a story, they should be written, edited and updated. And DACS lines from Desks may be further edited by Shows and Digital News, as warranted.

Here are the rules:

– Every NewsFlex entry needs a DACS line. And every DACS line needs to be updated as the story changes. If you’re creating a NewsFlex entry, you own it and will be accountable for it.

– Keep DACS lines tight and to the point. Think tweet. DACS lines should not be more than a short sentence or two. (If a language advisory or embargo note must be included, those can run longer.)

–  The DACS line needs to say something, even on a story that is developing. Unacceptable: “lines tk.” But it shouldn’t say too much. Unacceptable: a cut and paste of the first few grafs of the piece.

–  Do not include names of reporters, hosts, contributors in the DACS lines for pieces. (A byline will appear automatically on the web rundown and the note to stations).

– In a DACS line for a 2-way, only include the name of a guest when the guest is not affiliated with NPR or a member station. (An issue expert, newsmaker, etc.)

– In our hectic daily routine, it may not be the reporter who creates the DACS line, but in the end the reporter’s name is associated with it. So, if you’re a reporter, it is in your best interest to make sure the DACS line accurately reflects the story.

– Follow-up. If a story changes, let the Show and Digital News know that the DACS line needs to change, too.

We’re putting together a more extensive style guide to DACS lines and will be working with the Shows and Digital News to codify a standard workflow.  More to come.


– Proofread DACS Lines; Mistakes In Them Can End Up On Our Website

– Your Keyboard Is A Live Mic (Or, If You Write It They May Say It)

– No Exceptions: Any Clip With Offensive Language, Bleeped Or Not, Must Be Approved Well Ahead Of Broadcast

(Memmos; July 21, 2015)


Warning: This Post Contains Language That May Offend; Such Words Should Not Be Used In Podcasts Or On The Air # ±

There was a good discussion this week among correspondents and editors in the New York bureau about whether we can use some offensive language in podcasts that we can’t on the air.

The immediate question was this (NOTE: sensitive readers may find the next sentence objectionable):

Can we call an asshole an asshole?

The answer was “no,” we don’t want an NPR correspondent to say that on a podcast.

The process, by the way, worked. A correspondent consulted his editor. The editor consulted his boss and the Standards & Practices noodge. A case was made, consideration was given and a decision was reached that everyone understood.

This is a good time to ask: How do we feel about offensive language in podcasts?

As an organization, we respect our audience and “set a high bar on use of language that may be offensive.”

That line was originally written about what we say on the air, but we made clear three years ago when the Ethics Handbook was published that the bar applies to our other platforms as well:

“Online, if sound or text containing potentially offensive language has been approved for use by a Managing Editor or someone above that level, it too must be preceded by text (and in the case of audio, a verbal warning as well) advising the NPR.org audience that what follows contains language some may find offensive.”

The environment is changing quickly. Some very popular podcasts do not worry about whether their language might offend. Their hosts’ conversational and sometimes profane ways of speaking are probably pulling in far more listeners than they repel.

We don’t want to seem boring and out-of-step. We do want to sound like America. But, the bar that NPR journalists need to get over before using such language themselves has to be set incredibly high — so high, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to get over.

We’re professional communicators at a major news organization. What we say and write in public reflects on NPR. No matter what platform we’re using or where we’re appearing, we should live up to our own standards. Yes, there’s more room in podcasts to let guests speak freely and for our journalists to be looser with their language. But it doesn’t mean NPR correspondents are free to use words or phrases in podcasts that they would never use on the air.

We should always be the news outlet that revels in language. There are so many wonderful words. Use them!

The most common offensive words and phrases are among the least creative ways of expressing yourself. They’re akin to cliches in the sense that they’re easy ways out. We pride ourselves on using words that pop out because they’re funny, provocative, rarely heard or just perfect. Again, use them!

You may be asking: Who needs to sign off on what is permissible language in a podcast, what does and does not need to be bleeped and what kind of warnings need to be given to listeners? The people to consult are: the deputy managing editors (Chuck Holmes & Gerry Holmes) and the standards & practices editor (Mark Memmott).

(Memmos; July 16, 2015)


On Why It’s Not OK To Ask Friends, Family Or Fixers To Take Photos For Us # ±

Here’s what everyone needs to know: When on assignment, do not turn to friends, family members, freelance producers or foreign fixers and ask them to take a picture to go with the digital version of your story.

This has been happening in recent months and as the Visuals team notes, it’s a problem. Among the issues:

– In most cases, the people being asked to take photographs are not trained journalists, so NPR may not be able to vouch for the journalistic integrity of their image-making.

– In some cases, the person who’s been asked to take a photo is being employed by NPR to do a very specific job. Because the photo-making is not negotiated ahead of time, it’s asking someone to do more work than they’ve signed on to do.

– Why not just pay them another $50? Well, the budget for photos is limited, so Visuals must carefully weigh whether to hire a photographer to cover any particular story. If the budget gets drained by ad hoc arrangements, we may not be able to hire professionals for other stories.

– What’s wrong with having your son or daughter come along to take photos? Asking minors to work for us raises child labor issues, liability issues and ethical issues.

We understand that it can be hard to collect tape and make images and do everything else that goes into being a multi-platform journalist. Here’s what the Visuals team asks:

“If reporters think they won’t be able to handle gathering images in the field on their own, they and their editors should come to us and we’ll figure out a solution. If a story warrants original imagery, that decision and hire should be made by a photo editor on the Visuals team.”

Meanwhile, everyone should be on notice that photos taken by “my friend Buzz” or “my nephew who’s really good with a camera” will be turned down for one or more of the reasons above.

Bottom line: It’s important to remember that all assets for stories gathered in the field should be collected by NPR journalists, or NPR-commissioned journalists. The images that go with our reports are important. Think about it this way: Would you hand a microphone to that precocious niece of yours and have her do some interviews?

(Written with guidance from Kainaz Amaria, Ariel Zambelich and Emily Bogle of the Visuals team.)

(Memmos; July 7, 2015)


Proofread DACS Lines; Mistakes In Them Can End Up On Our Website # ±

Here’s a DACS line as it appears in Newsflex:

“A village of Portsoy is reviving an old seamen’s superstition by banning bananas during it’s annual boat festival. NPR’s Lynn Neary talks to festival chairman Roger Goodyear.”

Here’s the introduction to that piece, as posted on one of our transcripts pages:

“A village of Portsoy is reviving an old seamen’s superstition by banning bananas during it’s annual boat festival. NPR’s Lynn Neary talks to festival chairman Roger Goodyear.”

The DACS line was picked up and posted verbatim, including the typos.

We’ve noted before that the information in “DACS lines, scripts and Web teasers could end up as copy on our website and as language read on the air by us or a member station.”

Yes, the transcript editor should spot obvious problems and either fix or write around them. Yes, an “it’s” when it should be “its” and a confusing phrase such as “a village of Portsoy” are not the biggest mistakes we will make.

And, yes, DACS lines have to do a lot (remember to include warnings about offensive language!).

But they should be as clean and accurate as possible from the start. Remember, “your keyboard is a live mic.”

(Memmos; July 6, 2015)


When News Breaks, Keep A Couple Things In Mind # ±

Nice work by all those involved in today’s news from the Navy Yard. We did not fall into the traps that some other media outlets did. We stuck with what was known, we were clear about what was not known, and we stayed away from rumors.

A couple things to keep in mind:

– When passing along information to the lead editor(s) and Newsdesk-Eds@npr.org, please be as specific as you can about the source. For example, if the news is that the “all clear” has been given, tell us who’s saying that. A police lieutenant you just spoke to? The public information officer on the scene? The mayor’s chief of staff? Knowing that will help Newscast, The Two-Way and editors as they sort through what are often conflicting reports.

– When passing along information, be clear about what you feel “can be reported” and what “cannot be reported” (but is something you want editors to be aware of). That will also help Newscast, The Two-Way and editors as they sort through what are often conflicting reports.

Again, those are points to keep in mind. But the most important thing to take away from today is how well we did when it came to reporting solid information and staying away from thinly sourced rumors. Thanks.

Related: Our “Breaking News Playbook” is on the NPR Intranet here. Some of the names have changed since it was first posted, but the guidance remains relevant.

(Memmos; July 2, 2015)


No Exceptions: Any Clip With Offensive Language, Bleeped Or Not, Must Be Approved Well Ahead Of Broadcast # ±

There have been times in recent weeks when potentially offensive language — bleeped, thankfully — was broadcast without a discussion beforehand with senior editors. That’s disturbing given the number of reminders that have gone out concerning such language and our policy. It should not happen.

Hopefully the points that follow are clear:

1. We have a detailed “Policy On Use Of Potentially Offensive Language.” Print it and read it.

2. Any clip with offensive language must be brought to the attention of the DMEs well before air time. Basically, as soon as you think you might be using it, talk to them. They may need time to consult with Legal.

Note: It does not matter if the words have already been bleeped. Be prepared to justify their use.

a. By the way, it’s assumed show executive producers and desk chiefs will already have been consulted.
b. The standards & practices editor should also be flagged.

3. The DMEs have yea-or-nay authority.

4. DACs lines must tell stations the specific language that is in the cut, when it occurs and whether it is bleeped. Those lines must go out with as much lead time as we can give.

5. If the words are bleeped, they must be completely bleeped. No syllable can be heard.

6. We do all this because we respect our audience and know that certain language will offend many. We also know that community standards vary around the nation and that complaints to the FCC can be costly to our member stations.

7. Overall, NPR is conservative about potentially offensive language — not permissive. There’s a key line right at the top of our policy statement: “NPR has always set a high bar on use of language that may be offensive to our audience.” The words must be important to the piece.

Questions? See Chuck, Gerry or me.

(Memmos; June 16, 2015)


When We’re Asked To Remove A Photo, Here’s What We Do # ±

Occasionally, someone in a photo we have posted asks that we remove the image from our website.

Any such request must be redirected to:

–  Kainaz Amaria or another editor from the Visuals team.

–  Chuck and/or Gerry Holmes, the deputy managing editors.

In most cases, the correspondent producer or staff photographer who took the image will already be aware of the request, as will the editor who handed the report. If not, they will be drawn into the discussion by Kainaz, Chuck and/or Gerry.

Others who will be brought in:

–  Digital ME Scott Montgomery.

–  Standards & Practices editor Mark Memmott.

The executive editor, VP for News and SVP for News will be looped in too.

The issue of whether to remove an image is a serious matter. As we’ve said before when discussing requests to take down stories, we agree with the AP that:

“We are guided by a newsroom policy that says it is inappropriate to remove content from our Website. If a report is inaccurate, we will correct it and state why it has been altered. If relevant new information emerges, we will update or do a follow-up story.

“But our content is a matter of public record and is part of our contract with our audience. To simply remove it from the archive diminishes transparency and trust and, in effect, erases history. This is not a practice engaged in by credible news organizations or in line with ethical journalism.”

A key question that will be asked when such requests come in: What was the person told about how the photo or photos would be used?

It is important that people know we’re not doing stories that only go on the air. We spend time making sure they understand that the stories live on our website and that the photos we take will be there as well. And as we’ve said before:

“Kainaz Amaria from NPR’s visuals team says she has found ‘that the more transparent I am about my intentions with people in my story, the more they are willing to share their time and moments. It may sound counterintuitive, but in fact it’s been proven to me every time I step out of the office and into someone’s life. If people trust you, trust you are there to listen and learn, you’ll be surprised at the access they will offer you. … If people say, ‘Wait you are radio, why do you want my picture?’ I usually say something like, ‘Well, many of our stories go online to reach a wider audience and to get more eyeballs. Chances are if they see you, then they will connect with your story.’ ”

Kainaz and the Visuals team have considerable experience dealing with this issue. If a request comes in, they should take the lead. In most cases, it should be someone from Visuals who gets back to the person who wants a photo removed.

(Memmos; June 15, 2015)





Don’t Trust Your Mother Or The Internet # ±

The old newsroom adage “if your mother says she loves you, check it out,” applies to information on the Internet as well.

We all know this, but occasionally we get reminders of how important it is not to trust everything we see on the Web and to be sure to do our due diligence before passing along any information we get from there.

Case in point: On Wednesday, WAMU’s Diane Rehm said to Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., “senator, you have dual citizenship with Israel.” Sanders quickly corrected her, but Diane went on to say that his name was on a list of lawmakers with such dual citizenship. Sanders told her that was “some of the nonsense that goes on in the Internet.”

Diane later issued a statement saying she had gotten the incorrect information from “a comment on Facebook.”

Diane has apologized. She stated as fact something that wasn’t.

We didn’t learn something from this episode. This is a relearning.

We have an entry about this in the Ethics Handbook entitled “Give preference to original sources.” Here’s what it says:

 ”For years, NPR journalists have been cautioned by their editors that an all- too-common pitfall of fact checking is verifying ‘facts’ through second sources, such as other news media outlets, that do not have ‘direct’ knowledge about what they supposedly know. The problem has only gotten more serious as the Internet has made it ever easier to find what others have reported as ‘fact.’ That’s why we value primary sources for our facts and we check them before broadcast or publication. And we value the work of the NPR reference librarians in helping our journalists get to those original sources (to email them, look for ‘NPR Library’ in the NPR internal email address book).

“We value our own reporting and fact-gathering over that done by other news outlets. We strongly prefer to confirm and verify information ourselves before reporting. When reporting on events we did not witness personally, we seek multiple independent perspectives to get a sharper, more accurate understanding of what happened. And if we can’t verify what others are reporting, but still believe the news is important and needs to be reported, we tell listeners and readers that NPR has not yet independently confirmed the news. Too often, incorrect information is passed down from one news story to another because of the failure of the first outlet to get it right. We strive to never pass on errors in this way.”

In other words, check, double-check and triple-check those so-called facts you find on the Internet. Be very skeptical about the credibility of the sources. Get first-hand information. Go right to the original source.

Confirm with mom just how she feels.

(Memmos; June 11, 2015)


Reminders: Say ‘MURZ’ & ‘STEHF-in’ # ±

From the wide world of science: The acronym for Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is pronounced “MURZ.” Don’t end it with an “s.” You can hear how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it here.

From the wide world of sports: The star of the Golden State Warriors is “STEHF-in” Curry. Don’t be misled by the spelling of his name (Stephen). He isn’t “STEEV-in.” You can hear Curry say his name here.  

(Memmos; June 9, 2015)


Reminders On Two Names # ±

On the air, we have a habit of not pronouncing two correspondents’ names the way they do.

– Ofeibea Quist-Arcton says: off-EH-bee-ah.

We too often say: oh-FEH-bee-ah

– Leila Fadel says: FAW-duhl (“FAW” rhymes with “SAW;” it’s worth noting that many listeners hear “duhn” instead of “duhl;” that syllable is very soft).

We too often say: FAH-dill (with “FAH” sounding like “AAH” and the “dill” being hit pretty hard).

We get emails from listeners about this after almost every report from Ofeibea and Leila.

Our pronunciation guide still lives and is accessible through the internal Wiki. 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.”

(“Memmos; June 4, 2015)


False Alarms About The Queen Reinforce Why We Think Before We Tweet # ±

A BBC journalist tweeted Wednesday that Queen Elizabeth II had been admitted to King Edward VII’s Hospital in London, leading at least one other major news outlet — CNN — to tell its affiliates that the queen had been hospitalized and setting off speculation that she had died.

The queen is apparently fine and is not in the hospital. The backstory, according to the BBC, is that it was conducting “a technical rehearsal for an obituary” and “tweets were mistakenly sent from the account of a BBC journalist.”

The BBC has apologized. CNN, which tweeted the “news” without citing any source, subsequently told affiliates to “please disregard our previous tweet about Queen Elizabeth. It was sent in error.”

Poynter’s Benjamin Mullin has more here.

We should note that “there but for the grace of God go we.” But this is also a reminder of why, as the Ethics Handbook says, we do not “just spread information” we see on social media, even if it’s posted by usually reliable news outlets. We are “careful and skeptical.”

Here’s part of what we say in the handbook:

“When determining whether to pass along information being reported on social media sites by other news outlets or individuals, be thoughtful. When we point to what others are saying, in the eyes of many we are effectively reporting that information ourselves. …

“Above all, proceed with caution, especially when news is breaking and accounts vary widely about what is happening. Reach out to other sources for confirmation. And the general standard is simple: 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.

“News moves fast on the Internet, and we know that speed and accuracy are fierce rivals, so keep your guard up. Ask questions, report and engage as you would in any public setting. But remember that everything you say or do in a social media environment is effectively a public statement from an NPR journalist, so don’t pass along inaccurate information.”

(Memmos; June 3, 2015)


Guidance: If ‘We’ Are Not Part Of The Story, Keep ‘Us’ Out Of It # ±

Words such as “we,” “our” and “us” are sometimes being used in ways that they shouldn’t.

It isn’t appropriate, for example, to be discussing U.S. policy about a particular conflict and say “we” support one side over another. We — that is, NPR — report about such policies. We don’t make them or endorse them.

A news report isn’t the right place to say that “our” civil rights have been violated by the government. That’s language for an op-ed.

The Ethics Handbook offers this guidance:

“Strive to use words and phrases that accurately deliver information without taking sides on emotional or political issues.”

“We,” “our” and “us” can create the impression that a reporter has taken sides.

In some cases, the right substitute is as simple as “Americans” or “taxpayers.” Other times, it might be a couple words, such as “U.S. forces” or “the administration.”

Remember, “there’s no cheering in the press box.”

(Memmos; May 27, 2015)


Reminder: When Posting Corrections, The Correspondents/Bloggers/Editors Who Allegedly Committed The Errors Need To Be Involved # ±

There have been a couple times this week when corrections were added to Web pages without input from the correspondents or bloggers who committed the alleged infractions. In one case, we had to correct our correction because the blogger was right the first time. (On the plus side, at least we were recognized as having posted the “Holy Grail” of corrections. )

We’ve written before about our corrections process.

Other reference materials:

– A How We Make Corrections memo.

– A document called A Common Corrections Scenario.”

This note is a reminder that when we think an error has been made, the people who did the work need to be notified immediately so that they can help determine if it really was a mistake. Here’s a key step in our process:

“If you suspect an error, talk and/or send a message to the reporter/blogger/correspondent who was responsible, and the desk editor/producer or show editor/producer who handled the piece, 2-way or Web text. This is important: Include a link to the story and details about what show or blog is involved. This is also important: Make sure you cc Mark Memmott, the DMEs, Susan Vavrick and Corrections@npr.org.”

Obviously, if it’s a glaringly obvious and serious error, we need to get the digital text fixed as soon as possible and may not be able to wait for input from those who worked on the story. But they should still be notified immediately. Also, those who are on the receiving end of a message about a possible error need to respond as soon as possible.

(Memmos; May 22, 2015)


Guidance on: Coverage of books written by NPR staffers # ±

Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen has offered her thoughts here about how NPR should handle books written by its staffers.

Her post includes a note from Mike Oreskes. It says, in part:

“NPR has not had a written policy on this issue or even a consistent practice. We will now. NPR’s producers and editors will use the same standard they apply to outside books to decide whether works by our own staff merit coverage and on which of our programs and platforms. That decision must be approved by the Senior Vice President for News — that is, me.”

He adds that “for the future, NPR staff members will not appear on their own shows to discuss outside books or other works unrelated to NPR coverage.”

The Ethics Handbook has been updated here. The post includes these key points:

– The tests are the same as for any book. They include: Is it newsworthy? Is it of interest to our audience? The books desk, led by Ellen Silva, must be part of the discussion. So must the NPR News deputy managing editors.

– Staff members (hosts, producers, editors) cannot appear on their own shows to discuss “outside books.” Those are books not based on work they’ve done for NPR. In some cases, if a book is based on reporting done for NPR, they may be given the OK to talk about the book on their own show or file a report that airs on that show.

– Coverage plans must be approved by the Senior Vice President for News.

(Memmos; May 21, 2015)


Resending: The ‘NPR Policy On Use Of Potentially Offensive Language’ And Related Notes # ±

No, we haven’t had a language mishap (that I know of).

This note is just a reminder of some things because there have been questions in recent days.

– The “NPR Policy On Use Of Potentially Offensive Language” is posted here.

– As we’ve said a few times before, “if there’s potentially offensive language in a piece intended for broadcast — even if the words have been bleeped — stations need to be alerted in the DACS line. Listeners and readers online deserve to be warned as well, of course.”

– We “Bleep The Whole @#$%&*! Word.” Yes, that means no “bull.” Not even the “b.”

– As soon as you know that you might want to use some potentially offensive language, bring it to the attention of senior editors. Here’s a recent update to our Ethics Handbook:

  • Discussions Must Happen Well Before Any Broadcast:
    • If potentially offensive language is being considered for broadcast, senior editors (typically, the Deputy Managing Editors or Standards & Practices editor) must be consulted with enough lead time to allow for a substantive discussion and enough lead time to give the General Counsel time to provide guidance. If time for discussion is running short, the language must be cut from the report or “bleeped.”
    • This rule applies to acquired programs as well. As NPR’s policy on use of potentially offensive language states:
      • “In the case of programs under the ultimate direction of the Vice President for Programming, including all acquired programs, producers shall consult NPR’s Vice President for Programming or the VP’s designee as soon as possible, but in any event before the program is delivered to NPR for distribution to stations.”

(Memmos; May 11, 2015)


Guidance: ‘Same-Sex Marriage’ # ±

Our preference continues to be to say and write “same-sex marriage” or “marriages of same-sex couples” rather than “gay marriage.” In some listeners’ and readers’ minds, a “gay marriage” is between two men. In addition, the AP Style Book’s entry on the word “gay” says that “lesbian is the more common term for women.”

“Same-sex” addresses those issues.

Also, “gay marriage” is a mislabeling if one, or both, of the partners is bisexual. They are not gay or lesbian. But some bisexuals are in, or wish to be in, what listeners and readers can understand are “same-sex marriages.”

(Memmos; May 5, 2015)



Do Listen To This: A Walk Through Sandtown That Is Compelling And Instructive # ±

Nurith Aizenman’s piece today on Morning Edition is highly recommended listening.

Travon Addison, “an athletic 25-year-old with short cropped hair, a wispy beard and tattoos all over his arms,” takes her through the Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore. I won’t spoil it by giving away what listeners learned from Addison. You should definitely keep listening to the end. Addison is a compelling character. Nurith and her editors tell his story well.

There are two other things worth noting:

– We use Addison’s full name. That isn’t a minor detail. It helps the piece enormously. In stories in which key characters are not fully identified, we have to explain why. That takes time and can lead listeners to wonder what else that person might be hiding.

Nurith didn’t do what reporters at some news outlets do too often. She didn’t start with the presumption that Addison would want to use just his first name or perhaps even remain anonymous (because he had been arrested earlier in the week). She assumed he would be fully ID’d.

That is NPR’s standard. As we have discussed before, “we name names and do our due diligence.”  What’s more, “whether to go with ‘first-name-only’ needs to be discussed and explained.”

Nurith says another person she met in Baltimore — a white woman who was marching with protesters — initially wanted only her first name to be used in any story. The woman said she didn’t want to call attention to herself. Here’s how Nurith convinced the woman to give her full name: by pointing out that doing otherwise could have just called more attention to her and raised questions about why she wanted to cloak her identity.

– We seize the moment. As she headed to Baltimore, Nurith ran through in her mind the sorts of stories she wanted to tell and the voices who could be part of those pieces. Those characters included people who live in Sandtown and could talk about what happened last week and in recent decades.

Nurith heard Addison complaining about how he and others weren’t being heard from and how outsiders don’t know anything about his neighborhood and why there were riots. So she asked him to “show me your Baltimore.”

It was a simple request that produced an excellent story.

(Memmos; May 4, 2015)


Yes, Journalists Can Give To Charities That Are Helping People In Need # ±

Recent events have led several people to ask: Can journalists donate to charities that are helping people rebuild after tragedies?

Yes. But keep in mind that:

– The charity should be non-partisan.

– We do not want it to appear that NPR is endorsing one charity over another. That means @MarkMemmottNPR shouldn’t tweet about a donation he just made.

– It should not be a charity or organization that you cover or that is linked to a person, company, foundation or industry that you cover.

We can help people and remain objective.

(Memmos; April 28, 2015)


Guidance On The Words ‘Protests’ And ‘Protesters’ # ±

Please avoid referring to the people in Baltimore who have injured police officers, started fires, looted stores and vandalized properties as simply “protesters.”

Reports from Baltimore indicate that some people are taking advantage of the situation to lash out at authorities or to grab what they can from businesses. Those are not just protesters in the sense of the word that normally comes to mind.

Likewise, it is too simple to say that “protests turned violent.” That paints a picture of a peaceful gathering that changed into a rock-throwing, tear-gas flying confrontation between citizens and police. Reports from Baltimore indicate that’s not been the case in many instances.

As in other cases we’ve discussed, it’s wise to avoid labels. In this case, “protesters” is a label that’s too broad. The better approach is to focus on action words and describe what’s been happening.

On a Newscast this morning, Dave Mattingly said that “rioting [in Baltimore] yesterday injured 15 police officers. More than a dozen buildings and nearly 150 vehicles were set on fire.” He noted that the violence followed “the funeral for 25-year-old Freddie Gray.”

Korva Coleman used similar language, saying that Gov. Larry Hogan “has declared a state of emergency in Baltimore, after rioting broke out yesterday. … Some residents started fires and clashed with police.”

Morning Edition introduced a report from Jennifer Ludden with this language:

“Let’s go directly to Baltimore, this morning. That’s where people threw cinder blocks at police and set stores on fire. They did all that after the funeral for a black man who died in police custody. NPR’s Jennifer Ludden is tracking the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray. Jennifer, what’s it like in Baltimore?”


– Immigrants.

– Medical conditions.

– Teenager.

– “Victims” vs. “survivors.” (Particularly in cases of sexual assault.)

Update at 9:55 a.m. ET: 

We should also avoid saying that Freddie Gray died while “in police custody.” He had been arrested, so he had been taken into custody.  But it was a week after his arrest, and he was in a hospital, when he died. The phrase “in police custody” calls to mind someone who is in a jail cell, or who is in handcuffs in the back of a police cruiser.

(Memmos; April 28, 2015)


On Gender Identity # ±

Bruce Jenner’s appearance Friday on ABC-TV may generate news we want to report. If you’ll be involved in the coverage, it’s worth revisiting our guidance on gender identity.

The key points:

– People define their gender identities and we respect their decisions.

– We respect their wishes if they change their names.

– We respect their wishes on whether to be referred to as “he” or “she.”

– If they have been in the public eye in the past, we remind listeners/readers about their histories. Chelsea Manning’s story is a recent example.

The National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association adds that if someone, such as Jenner, “has not publicly announced a gender identity, the best practice is to refer to [them] by name rather than using pronouns.” The NLGJA has some useful resources here.

Update at 1:40 p.m. ET: Someone is “transgender.” Do not write or say  “transgendered.” There’s a good discussion of the difference here: http://www.vox.com/2015/2/18/8055691/transgender-transgendered-tnr

(Memmos; April 23, 2015)


Ben Affleck, ‘Finding Your Roots’ And Why Our Standards Point To A Different Decision # ±

The PBS-distributed show Finding Your Roots says its mission is to help people “discover long-lost relatives hidden for generations within the branches of their family trees.” But it granted actor Ben Affleck’s request that it not mention his slave-owning ancestor. Affleck says he was embarrassed by the discovery and “didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves.”

For the record, the decision made by Finding Your Roots was not in line with our standards.

Let’s keep this simple: The people we interview, the sources we use and the supporters who give us money do not shape or dictate what we report.

From the Ethics Handbook:

– “We don’t allow sources to dictate how a topic will be covered, or which other voices or ideas will be included in the stories we do.”

– “NPR greatly appreciates the financial support it receives from individuals, from foundations and from corporations. Their support is essential. At the same time, NPR makes its own decisions about what stories to cover and how to report them.”

– “Decisions about what we cover and how we do our work are made by our journalists.”

PBS ombudsman Michael Getler has had some things to say about what happened:

– “Any serious program about genealogy, especially dealing with celebrities, cannot leave out a slave-owning ancestor.”

– “This censorship should have been stopped cold and mistakes should have been admitted publicly.”

Code Switch blogger Gene Demby talked about all this today on Morning Edition.

(Memmos; April 22, 2015)


Don’t Trust, Do Verify: The Vaping Hoax # ±

Last week’s appearance in The New York Times of a “Joe Stevonson,” who turned out to be someone pretending to be a young man who enjoys vaping, underscores why it’s important to take steps to verify the identities of those who come our way via social media.

Here’s a repeat recommendation: Check out the Verification Handbook. Edited by Craig Silverman of the Regret the Error blog, it has tips and tools for verifying “user-generated content.”

Also: Don’t ignore the obvious things to do, such as a simple Google search of a person’s name, a visit to AnyWho.com and a request for assistance from our librarians and the social media team. They can help figure out if a person is for real.

(Memmos; April 20, 2015)



Gyrocopter Story Raises An Old Question: When Should Journalists Intervene? # ±

The Tampa Bay Times knew well in advance that a Florida postal worker planned to fly a gyrocopter over Washington, D.C., and on to the grounds of the Capitol.

From what the Times has reported, there seems to have been no evidence that the man, identified as 61-year-old Doug Hughes, intended to do himself or anyone else any harm. There’s also a case to be made that the Times had reason to believe authorities were keeping tabs on Hughes. The Times knew he had been interviewed some months back by a Secret Service agent. That means Hughes was — in theory — on authorities’ virtual radar. (He wasn’t, it turns out, on any actual radar this week).

It isn’t the Times‘ job, or the job of any news outlet, to be the police.

But, the many ways things could have gone badly on Wednesday aren’t difficult to imagine. We’ll set aside the Hollywood scenarios of fighter jets and missiles.


– Hughes might have fooled the Times and had nefarious intentions.
– He could have been shot.
– If shots were fired, bystanders could have been hit.
– People could have been injured during evacuations or as police responded to the scene.

At the very least, as happened, streets would be closed and traffic tied up for blocks around.

The Times‘ reporter on the story tells The Washington Post that the news outlet “spent hours and hours talking about the ethics of this,” and decided there was no need to tell authorities well before Hughes’ planned launch. The Times ended up calling the Secret Service while Hughes was in the air, less than a half hour before he landed.

Media ethicists, as the Post notes, disagree: “ ‘A news organization should be extremely knowledgeable of the potential harm’ a stunt like this could cause, said Edward Wasserman, dean of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. ‘I really question their judgment.’ ”

News outlets don’t want sources to think reporters will run to the police about just anything potentially illegal that they’re told about.

But how about this? Apply common sense and weigh the value of the story against the potential harm to the public. That will continue to be our standard.

(Memmos; April 16, 2015)


Resource: Guidelines About The ‘Morning Edition’ Book Club, Fundraising & The Firewall Between Them # ±

Because it is “essential to avoid even the appearance that fundraising in support of the Morning Edition Book Club has influenced the editorial decision-making involved in conducting the book club,” guidelines have been issued that aim to put a “strict firewall between the two activities.”

In the interest of transparency, they have been posted here.

The guidelines also been put online because they could prove useful if similar projects are launched.

(Memmos; April 14, 2015)


Let’s Toss ‘Hat In The Ring’ Into The Cliché Round File # ±

Unless Sen. Marco Rubio doffs a fedora and flings it into flag-festooned circle of red, white and blue balloons as fireworks go off and a band plays the national anthem, there is no need today to say he “tossed his hat into the ring.”

In fact, how about if we try to make it through the next few weeks or months without saying anyone tossed their hat into anything? (Unless, that is, we’re reporting about boxing — where the phrase originated.)

Editors have said until they’re blue in the face that clichés are a symptom of weak reporting and writing.

Along with “hat in the ring,” here are some  other overused campaign clichés that the AP has singled out for elimination:

ahead of – before

rainbow colors – avoid red, blue or purple for the political leanings of states. Use Democratic-leaning, Republican-tilting or swing-voting, etc.

barnstormed – traveled across a state campaigning or campaigned across XYZ.

hand-to-hand campaigning – seeking support in face-to-face meetings with voters.

horse race – closely contested political contest.

laundry list – the candidate has ideas, proposals, etc.

messaging – the candidate’s pitch to voters.

pressing the flesh – shaking hands is preferred.

rope line – the physical barrier that separates a candidate from the audience. Instead, the candidate shook hands and posed for photographs with the audience.

state nicknames – avoid them in favor of the state name.

stump speech – campaign speech at a routine appearance (or standard or regular campaign speech)

testing the waters – considered entering the race or considered running for XYZ.

took his/her campaign to – specify what the candidate did.

veepstakes – the competition to be a candidate’s running mate.

war lingo – use criticized instead of attacked, or choose a better verb to describe what the candidate is doing, i.e., challenging, doubting, etc. Also avoidable: launch an assault, take aim, open fire, bombard.

war chest – use campaign bank account or stockpile of money.

white paper – a document of policy positions distributed by a campaign.

Related: Poynter’s “15 political clichés journalists should avoid.”

(Memmos; April 13, 2015)


Please Read The ‘CJR’ Report About ‘Rolling Stone’ # ±

“The particulars of Rolling Stone’s failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail.”

That line from the Columbia Journalism Review‘s dissection of Rolling Stone‘s infamous investigation of an alleged gang rape underscores why the CJR report is highly recommended reading. It reminds us that the basics matter — a lot.

CJR concludes that “better and clearer policies about reporting practices, pseudonyms and attribution might well have prevented the magazine’s errors. … Stronger policy and clearer staff understanding in at least three areas might have changed the final outcome.” From the report:

– “Pseudonyms. [Editors] said using pseudonyms at Rolling Stone is a ‘case by case’ issue that requires no special convening or review. Pseudonyms are inherently undesirable in journalism. They introduce fiction and ask readers to trust that this is the only instance in which a publication is inventing details at its discretion. Their use in this case was a crutch — it allowed the magazine to evade coming to terms with reporting gaps. Rolling Stone should consider banning them. If its editors believe pseudonyms are an indispensable tool for its forms of narrative writing, the magazine should consider using them much more rarely and only after robust discussion about alternatives, with dissent encouraged.”

– “Checking Derogatory Information. [The reporter and her editor] made the fateful agreement not to check [a key part of the accuser's story that put three people in an unfavorable light] with the three friends. If the fact-checking department had understood that such a practice was unacceptable, the outcome would almost certainly have changed.”

– “Confronting Subjects With Details. When [the reporter] sought ‘comment,’ she missed the opportunity to hear challenging, detailed rebuttals from [the fraternity] before publication. The fact-checker relied only on [the reporter's] communications with the fraternity and did not independently confirm with Phi Kappa Psi the account Rolling Stone intended to publish. … If both the reporter and checker had understood that by policy they should routinely share specific, derogatory details with the subjects of their reporting, Rolling Stone might have veered in a different direction.”

Our Ethics Handbook deals with those points. Here is where NPR stands:

– “Don’t Create Pseudonyms For Sources Whose Names We Withhold.  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. Instead, we use pronouns and descriptions to make clear who is speaking or whom we’re referring to. (Or we may refer to him or her without using a last name, if the source is comfortable with that degree of anonymity, and the situation meets our standards for granting anonymity. … )”

– “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. … [Exceptions are made only after] careful deliberation with senior news managers.”

– “Give Sources Time To Respond. If our audience wonders what someone we report about had to say in his or her defense, and we haven’t provided that information or explained our efforts to get it, we have failed.”

Give Subjects Enough Information To Be Able To Respond Effectively. “In 2005, NPR aired a story about the new editor of the Paris Review. Former staffers of the magazine — some of whom had been let go — were heard saying that the new leader was ‘betraying the vision’ of the Review’s founder, George Plimpton. What was the editor’s response to that charge? He didn’t get the chance to say. Our interview with him was done before the critics were contacted, and the editor wasn’t contacted again. NPR subsequently apologized on the air for not giving the editor the chance to answer his critics. As Bill Marimow, then-NPR vice president for news, said: ‘If the subject of the story doesn’t know what you’re going to report, how can we be fair to them?’ “

CJR‘s analysis makes clear that several people are to blame for Rolling Stone‘s failures, starting with the reporter and extending to her editors. So here’s another reminder from our handbook:

Edit Like A Prosecutor.

“Great journalism comes in part from the collaborative efforts of reporters, editors and producers, who all play a key role in ensuring accuracy. We believe in teamwork. But good editors are also good prosecutors. They test, probe and challenge reporters, always with the goal of making NPR’s stories as good (and therefore as accurate) as possible.”

(Memmos; April 7, 2015)


For Comparison Purposes: The BBC’s Updated Guidance On Social Media # ±

(Editor’s note on July 27, 2017: Click here to go to an updated special section about the do’s and don’t's of social media.)

Because it never hurts to see what others are thinking, here’s a link to the BBC’s just-updated “Social Media Guidance For Staff.” 

There’s also a short story about it by BBC News social media editor Chris Hamilton.

You’ll find much in common with NPR’s guidance and with things discussed in previous “Memmos”:

– “Reminder: There Is No Privacy On The Web, And ‘Personal’ Pages Are Not Safe Zones.”

– “Can I Tweet That? Or Facebook It? Or Post It? Some More Social Media Guidance.”

– “Some Guidance About Social Media On Election Day.”

I can hear Stu Seidel echoing this line from the BBC: “A useful summary has always been and remains: ‘Don’t do anything stupid.’ ”

As always, Wright Bryan and the rest of NPR’s social media team are available for guidance, advice and tips. Be sure to follow their posts on the Social Media Desk Tumblr — a.k.a. the Social Sandbox.

(“Memmos;” April 3, 2015)


On The Word ‘Suicide’ # ±

We are being careful about the word “suicide” when reporting about the actions of the Germanwings co-pilot. There are at least two reasons not to use it at this time:

– His motivation and state of mind aren’t known (and may never be).

– The investigation into what happened is still in the early stages.

There’s also a case to be made that the word isn’t adequate. As Lufthansa’s chief said, if the co-pilot’s actions were deliberate, “it is more than suicide.”

Regarding what to say instead, previous guidance about avoiding labels makes sense in this case as well.

On Morning Edition, Eleanor Beardsley simply used other action words:

– “Investigators are looking at … clues as to why [Andreas Lubitz] would take 149 people on board to their deaths with him.”

– Investigators told the co-pilot’s family “that their son had deliberately steered his passengers and crew to their deaths.”

In a Newscast, Dave Mattingly put it this way:

– “Investigators say [Andreas] Lubitz deliberately crashed a Germanwings Airbus into the French Alps. … They don’t know why.”

Related notes:

– “Suicide bomber” is a phrase that’s become common usage. But keep in mind that the person with the bomb may have been forced or tricked into carrying out the act. If that appears to have been the case, “suicide bomber” is not accurate. Again, the better course is to simply describe what happened.

– “Committed suicide” is a sensitive phrase that some believe stigmatizes people. They make the case that you “commit” a crime or may be “committed” to an institution, but you do not commit suicide. “Killed himself” and “took her life” are among the alternatives.

(Memmos; March 27, 2015)


In The ‘Vast Majority’ Of Cases, Are We Sure We Should Use Those Words? # ±

What do you think when you hear the phrase “vast majority?”

Here are some of the answers I got today from 15 correspondents, hosts and editors on the third and fourth floors:

– “More than two-thirds.”

– “At least three-quarters.”

– “Above 90 percent.”

– “Nearly all.”

– “A lot.”

– “A @#$%load.”

– “A boatload.”

– “A phrase that shouldn’t be heard.”

– “An amorphous phrase that means ‘we don’t know how many for sure, but we think it’s a lot.’ ”

The Urban Dictionary, meanwhile, offers a definition that begins with this: “Possibly the most over-used, tired and tautological phrase ever to have survived in the English language.”

Thankfully, a search indicates that the phrase “vast majority” doesn’t make it into our stories every day.

But it was still heard 202 times in the past year. The odds are a bit better than 50-50 that it will be said in the next 24 hours.

That’s a problem.

After all, since we can’t seem to agree on what the words mean or when they should be put together, it seems reasonable to conclude that listeners aren’t sure either. What’s more, attaching the word “vast” to “majority” is a judgment call. Who’s saying it’s a “vast majority?” What’s the proof? Maybe it’s just a “significant” majority. Or a “sizeable” one. Or just a majority.

When possible, the best course is to use facts rather than just the “vast majority” label. Establish, for example, that
“92 percent of those surveyed agreed” and then, perhaps, talk about what such a “vast majority” means.

This brings to mind other guidance about:

Avoiding clichés.


Killing adjectives.

Precision writing and editing.

Words that get abused.

Note: My thanks to listener/reader Anne Sovik for suggesting we look into “vast majority.”

(Memmos; March 18, 2015)


Guidance: On Station Reporters & News About Their Universities Or Institutions # ±

When there is news involving the university or institution that holds an NPR member station’s license, conflicts of interest – perceived and actual – must be considered. So NPR editors ask questions:

– Is it a breaking news situation in which a station reporter could be our eyes on the ground and voice from the scene? Also is it a story that is about an event more than the institution? In recent years, this has happened most often when an institution is on lock-down because of a shooting or reports of a shooter. We would likely want to hear from a station reporter in our Newscasts and on our news magazines about what is happening.

– Is it a story that involves the institution but is not really about the institution? A recent example was the death of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith. We felt it would not be a problem for a station reporter to file an obit-type report for us. Yes, Smith was a towering figure at the university. But he was not controversial in the way that Joe Paterno, for example, became at Penn State. There wasn’t anything about his time at UNC that we felt would give the appearance of a conflict if a station reporter was on our air. Bottom line: the news was about Smith, not the school.

– Is it a story about that institution? In such cases, we consider very carefully whether it would look like there was a conflict of interest if a station reporter files for us. We err on the side of caution. We know that listeners/readers may rightfully question whether a reporter who is paid by an institution should report about it. For example, if a school’s football coach was under fire for putting a football player back on the field too soon after a concussion — leading to calls for the coach’s firing and questions about the university’s response — that is a story we would not want to take from a station reporter at the school. The Penn State/Jerry Sandusky story was another that we felt should not be covered, on our airwaves, by a reporter from the school’s station.

– Has the nature of a story shifted? Here’s an example: While a station reporter is likely the logical person to use in the first hours after a campus shooting, that reporter and his/her station probably are not the right person or place to turn if questions start to come up about the university’s response to the incident.

We can’t anticipate every possibility. The discussion above is designed to offer general guidelines and recent examples of how things have been handled. Situations will be considered case-by-case.

These things don’t change from story to story: We value and need the solid reporting that member stations provide. We start with the assumption that we want to use their reports. Sometimes we may need to say “no.” But at all times we want to talk through the issues.

We have worked with some station-based news directors and PRNDI on the guidelines above; we welcome more feedback about our thinking and this guidance.

(Memmos; March 16, 2015)


Watch What You Say: It’s National Grammar Day # ±

Prescriptivists, this is your holiday.

To mark the occasion, here are some relevant links and tools we all may (or might?) want to bookmark:

– The American Copy Editors Society’s website.

– The Common Errors in English Usage website.

– A Poynter post on “grammar pet peeves.”

– Grammar Girl’s “Editing Checklist.”

“The NPR Accuracy Checklist.”

– William Safire’s appearance on “Not My Job.” (He wasn’t asked about language issues, but it never hurts to have a laugh.)

Related: From 4 to 5 p.m. ET, Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper will be on Twitter for a #GrammarDay #ACESchat.

(Memmos; March 4, 2015)


NPR’s ‘Minor Consent Form’: Spanish Version # ±

A Spanish-language version of the “consent, authorization, release and waiver” form that needs to be signed by a parent or guardian before many interviews of minors is available to download and print here: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1680218-spanish-minor-release.html

As we noted last summer, the English-language version is here: http://apps.npr.org/documents/document.html?id=1263794-minorconsent

Meanwhile here’s a reminder, from the Ethics Handbook:

“Be sure to consider legal issues when dealing with minors (generally defined as anyone under the age of 18). An interview of a minor about a sensitive subject requires us to secure permission from at least one of the minor’s parents (preferably both) or a legal guardian. Examples of sensitive subjects include cheating, sexual activity, involvement in gangs or crime, difficult family relationships, probation violation, out-of-wedlock pregnancy or parenthood, victims’ sexual abuse and similar topics that could have legal ramifications or lead to embarrassment. An interview of a minor in a special custodial situation, such as foster care, juvenile detention, or holding facilities for illegal immigrants, requires the consent of the person who has custody of the minor. Utah also requires the consent of both the custodian of the juvenile facility and the minor’s parent.

“An interview on a non-sensitive topic (normal childhood activities, sports, book, movies, trips to the zoo, baseball and the like) does not require consent. Generally however, any interview on school premises will require the permission of the school authorities.

“In cases where there is even a hint of doubt about whether to get consent, contact our legal team (look for LegalAlert in the NPR internal email address book).”

(H/T Mandalit Del Barco)

(Memmos; March 4, 2015)


Some So-called Guidance # ±

“So-called” is a useful combination of two words. Properly used, so-called signals to listeners that the word or phrase that follows is becoming (or has become) popular or common, but is not official.

But when you’re about to say or write it, please keep some things in mind:

– Webster’s first definition of so-called is “popularly known or called by this term.”

– The second definition is “inaccurately or questionably designated as such.”

– That second definition is important. Depending on the context and tone, so-called may give the impression that we have formed a judgment about the term or words that follow. As Fowler’s Modern English Usage puts it, “so-called is traditionally used before a name or description to signal doubt about relevance or entitlement, as in ‘this so-called work of art.’ ” Cambridge Dictionaries says so-called shows “you think a word that is used to describe someone or something is not suitable or not correct.”

– Alternatives may sound more neutral. “Known as,” is one possible substitute. “Called the” is another. There are cases where a “supporters/opponents call it the …” may be appropriate.

– Alternatives may give the audience more information. That’s why “self-declared Islamic State” is better than “so-called Islamic State.”

– Alternatives will also help us with a repetition situation. We say “so-called” on the air about twice a day on average; and that’s not counting Newscasts.

– So-called should not be used before the actual name of something or a name that has moved into the history books. It’s not the “so-called Gettysburg Address,” for instance.

– Online, the word or term that follows so-called should not be put in quotes. Subsequent references also should not be put in quotes.

(Memmos; Feb. 26, 2015)


An Anonymous Editor Thinks What The ‘Times’ Did Was Funny # ±

At the end of a mildly amusing story about renovations at Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, The New York Times writes this:

“A second person who checked out the women’s restroom — and who asked not to be identified because she has always wanted to be an anonymous source — reported her findings by email: ‘Black shiny granite-y sink. Arched faucets by Sloan. Tasteful slate gray and powder gray tiles.’ “

Is “always wanted to be an anonymous source” a valid reason to grant anonymity? No, Korva. But was it OK this time? Speaking anonymously because he doesn’t want to be drummed out of the Noodge Union, an NPR editor said it felt fine, given the spirit of the story. “Always wanted to be an anonymous source” seems like a parody of the many questionable reasons the Times and other news outlets have granted anonymity in serious stories.  There’s a case to be made it worked in this rather cheeky report.

Now, will Times‘ public editor Margaret Sullivan give this line a special place in her “AnonyWatch” series?

For more about NPR’s position on anonymity and related issues, see this post from last August:

“Reminder: Whether To Go With ‘First-Name-Only’ Needs To Be Discussed And Explained”

(H/T Evie Stone.)

(Memmos; Feb. 25, 2015)


Hey, You Should Read This: We Put The ‘Superbug’ News In Its Proper Place # ±

As other news outlets shift into scare-the-pants-off-’em mode, something NPR often does very well is put things into perspective.

Jon Hamilton does that on the Shots blog with this post:

Why California’s Superbug Outbreak Isn’t As Scary As It Seems

It’s a nice example of how we can help the audience make sense of what seems like alarming news. Southern California Public Radio does a good job as well with this report:

‘Superbug’ outbreak not a threat to Los Angeles County public health

(Memmos; Feb. 20, 2015)


Analysts, Critics, Experts & Officials Agree: We Talk About Them An Awful Lot # ±

On page 33 of Jonathan Kern’s Sound Recording there’s an entry titled: “Avoid Meaningless Attributions.”

“Beware of the overused terms ‘officials,’ ‘analysts,’ ‘critics’ and ‘experts,’ ” Jonathan writes. His message: Obviously, we should push to use actual names as often as possible. But when we can’t do that, it’s often the case that other words can be found that are precise and offer relief from repetitive references to “officials say” this and “experts say” that.

The ubiquitous “experts,” for example, might be “biologists,” “historians” or “numismatists,” depending on their specialties. (Yes, Korva, we want you to use “numismatists” on the air some day.)

In some cases “officials” can just disappear from a line altogether. Jonathan’s example: Instead of writing “Ford officials say they’re coming out with a new hybrid car,” say “Ford is coming out with a new hybrid car.”

We bring this up because a look back over the past year indicates we’re not heeding his advice.

– “Officials” was heard 2,022 times.
– “Critics” was heard 1,055 times.
– “Experts” was heard 636 times.
– “Analysts” was heard 351 times.

Our guests were certainly responsible for many of the times those words were used. But NPR officials would have to concede that critics, experts and analysts are correct when they say that we’ve contributed more than our fair share. Robert Siegel can testify to that. He says in Sound Reporting that he has spent “a lifetime trying to pull ‘officials’ out of All Things Considered.”

But, But, But …

By now, every member of the Washington desk is poised to send an email that points out they often have to say “administration officials” or “White House officials” or “Justice Department officials” or some variation of those words that their sources insist on. We understand. All we ask is that alternatives be kept in the mix: “Top advisers,” “close aides” and others.

Emails are probably being drafted by the business desk (which has to deal with “analysts”), the science desk (“experts”) and others.

Dave Mattingly is surely wondering what he’s supposed to do when he doesn’t have time for even just a few more words.

Again, the guidance is to look for alternatives. After all, not only are the words overused, they can be problematic. “Experts,” for instance, is both vague and often too-readily bestowed. “Critics” can be a backdoor way of getting in the “other side” without identifying them.

Related Posts:

– Precision Writing & Editing: 5 Timeless Tips

– When Looking For The Right Words, Beware Of ‘Imagined Elegance’

(Memmos; Feb. 19, 2015)


They’re ‘Separatist Fighters And Their Russian Allies’ # ±

From Chuck Holmes:

Please use “separatist fighters and their Russian allies” to describe the anti-government forces in eastern Ukraine. Using “separatist fighters” alone could suggest that only locals are involved.

Kevin Beesley and Corey Flintoff offer the following guidance:

“Pro-Russian Separatists” could mislead our audience into thinking that most of the fighting is being done by local fighters. There is a lot of evidence that most, though not all, of the anti-government forces involved are Russian citizens – although Russia denies its military is directly involved.

So we’ve come up with another construction that we think more accurately reflects the situation on the ground:

“Separatist fighters and their Russian allies.”

As in:

“After weeks of heavy fighting, a strategic town in eastern Ukraine has fallen to separatist fighters and their Russian allies.”

(Memmos; Feb. 18, 2015)


‘Temporary Protective Status,’ Not ‘Temporary Legal Status’ # ±

From Chuck Holmes:

Please use the phrase “temporary protective status,” not “temporary legal status,” when referring to the provisions of DACA and DAPA.

Denice Rios advises that:

“The term ‘temporary legal status’ when it comes to DACA (Deferred Action for childhood Arrivals) … keeps popping up and it isn’t accurate. … We all look for easy ways to describe complicated bureaucracy. But using the word ‘legal’ even when preceded by ‘temporary’ is problematic. DACA offers some benefits, like a work permit or a reprieve from deportation, but it doesn’t offer all the benefits one would receive if one were here legally. That’s why ‘temporary protective status’ or simply offering an example or two of what the actions offer are better ways to explain DACA and DAPA (Deferred Action for Parental Accountability).”

(Memmos; Feb. 18, 2015)


Here’s Why We Use The Word ‘Islamist’ # ±

The question comes up about once a week: “Should we say ‘Islamic’ or ‘Islamist’ when referring to fighters from such groups as Boko Haram and the self-proclaimed Islamic State?”

NPR uses “Islamist.” The dictionary is our guide.

“Islamist” is a noun meaning “an advocate or supporter of Islamism” — which in turn is defined as “a movement advocating the social and political establishment of Islamic fundamentalism.”

Compound nouns such as “Islamist fighters” or “Islamist militants” describe who we are reporting about because they make the connection to the fundamentalist movement.

“Islamic” is too general. It’s just the adjective formed from the noun “Islam.”

Note: The Associated Press disagrees with us on this.

(Memmos; Feb. 18, 2015)


Bleep The Whole @#$%&*! Word # ±

If a word needs to be bleeped, no part of it should be heard. We don’t try to give listeners a hint by including a bit of the word’s start or end.

What language is offensive?

– The “NPR Policy On Use Of Potentially Offensive Language” is posted here.

– A discussion of NPR’s guidelines on the subject is here.

Two related notes:

– The rules apply to foreign languages as well.

– Don’t forget that “if there’s potentially offensive language in a piece intended for broadcast — even if the words have been bleeped — stations need to be alerted in the DACS line. Listeners and readers online deserve to be warned as well, of course.”

(Memmos; Feb. 13, 2015)


No Change In The Way We Introduce The Islamic State # ±

(Note on Aug. 19, 2015: This guidance has been mostly superseded. Go here to see our new guidance.)

Five months after we issued guidance on how to refer to the group known as the Islamic State, is it time to do away with the rule that listeners and readers be reminded that it is “self-declared,” “self-proclaimed,” “self-styled” or “known as?”

The consensus from the foreign desk editors is that it is not time to do that.

The reasoning remains the same:

– The words help distinguish the Islamic State from nations, such as the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

– Not adding the words implies that the organization is a “state,” when in fact it is not an “independent government … within defined borders.” Those are key parts of the word’s definition.

There is one tweak to the guidance. “So-called” is not one of the phrases we should rely on. It doesn’t convey as much information as “self-declared” or “self-proclaimed,” which make clear to listeners and readers where the name came from.

Related note: “ISIS” remains our style on second reference. If someone we speak with uses ISIL or Daesh, we can again remind the audience that the group is also known by those names. Also, if a show has already introduced the Islamic State in one segment, there’s probably no need to go through the “self-proclaimed/self-declared/etc.” steps again in a subsequent segment.

(Memmos; Feb. 12, 2015)


Don’t Be Careless With The Word ‘Countless’ # ±

It’s tempting to say that we’ve used one word a countless number of times.

But that would be wrong, because we can quantify it:

– “Countless” showed up 255 times in the past year on NPR.org.

– The word is in 112 broadcast transcripts from that same period.

There are two points to make about this:

– We (and our guests) use the word too much. We cannot have found that many things that qualify as countless.

– We (and our guests) often misuse the word, either because what we’re talking about can be counted or because a better word would paint a clearer picture. “Countless” just ends up sounding like a throwaway word that conveys little information.

This is the point in this post where we should go the dictionary. The adjective “countless” is defined as “too many to count; innumerable; myriad.” If you want to make the case that you’re using it as a synonym for “myriad,” please be prepared to prove that you’re speaking of an “indefinitely large number.”

A pretty good use of the word was a reference we made to the “countless other people around the world” who showed support for the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. That group could be considered an “indefinitely large number.” (Might “millions” have been a better word? There’s a case to be made that the answer is yes.)

A poor use of the word was this headline: “The Countless Lives Of Lauren Bacall.” The appreciation of her life that ran with the headline details about a dozen times she “reinvented herself.” That’s not indefinitely large.

What to say instead? A look through our reports shows that, depending on the context, more precise words would have included:

– Many
– Dozens
– Hundreds
– Thousands
– Millions
– Billions

By the way, it is not a job requirement that reporters covering the 2016 campaign always put “countless” before the words “handshakes,” “pork chops,” “county fairs,” “town halls” and “stump speeches.”

(Memmos; Feb. 10, 2015)


Guidance On The Name Of Argentina’s President # ±

She is:

–  “President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner” on first reference. We are aware that AP has been saying “President Cristina Fernandez.” Our guidance is based on input from the foreign desk, the way the president’s name is written on her Facebook, Twitter and Web pages and a conversation with the press office at the Argentine embassy.

“Kirchner” on subsequent references. Yes, AP is going with “Fernandez.” We’re not. That may mean some people we speak with will refer to her as “Fernandez.” We’ll just have to address that when it happens. You can, obviously, also refer to her as “the president.”

While we’re talking about Argentina:

We’ve adjusted the pronunciation on the Wiki for the word “Argentine.”

It’s “AHR-jen-tyne.” Not “teen.”

(Memmos; Feb. 4, 2015)


Reminder: References To War Camps Must Be Precise # ±

To avoid any mistaken impressions about who was in charge, geographic and historic references to prisoner of war camps, concentration camps and death camps must be carefully worded. For instance, during WWII, the Japanese military held prisoners in the Philippines. Do not simply say they were “Philippine prisoner of war camps.” They were “Japanese-run prisoner of war camps in the Philippines.” Likewise, Auschwitz was not a “Polish death camp.” It was a “Nazi- (or German) death camp in Poland.” Sobibor was a “Nazi … death camp in German-occupied Poland.”

In 2011, Edward Schumacher-Matos posted about the sensitive nature of such references.  Respect and sensitivity are among our core principles.  So too, of course, is accuracy.  Both principles are involved.

(Memmos; Feb. 3, 2015)


The NPR Accuracy Checklist # ±

Mistakes happen, but lately we’ve been making too many. See for yourself on our corrections page: http://www.npr.org/corrections

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.


–  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?

–  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.


–  We own them. THIS IS IMPORTANT:  If you realize a mistake has been made, email corrections@npr.org and notify the appropriate editor or producer. Senior managers need to be told about “serious” mistakes.

–  We correct them.


  • – NAMES
  • – AGES
  • – TITLES
  • – DAYS and DATES
  • – QUOTES

(Memmos; Jan. 29, 2015)


Encore! Encore! That’s The Way To Do It! # ±

The best intros to encore reports quickly accomplish a few things. They:

– Let listeners know they’re about to hear something that’s been on the air before.

– Tell listeners why we think the report is worth repeating.

– Give listeners at least a sense of when the piece was first broadcast.

Morning Edition hit all three of those out of the park on Monday before the rebroadcast of a 2009 interview with Ernie Banks, the Chicago Cubs hall of famer who died last week.

Here is how the encore was introduced:

Steve Inskeep: “Now, let’s listen to a man who always conserved hope — Ernie Banks died last week at 83. He was a great player on a losing baseball team, the Chicago Cubs.”


Ernie Banks: “Every year I always looked at spring training as a brand-new year.”

Inskeep: “Banks was famous for saying let’s play two, so it’s fitting we will now play our talk with Ernie Banks a second time. In 2009, we met Banks in a hotel and brought an old recording of a baseball game. …”

The 2009 interview ended with Banks speaking about how as a young man he hoped to some day win the Nobel Peace Prize. Morning Edition then brought listeners back to the present with a bit of music and Steve closed with this:

“Ernie Banks in 2009. He died Friday without that Nobel Prize, but did receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. It’s Morning Edition from NPR News.”


(Memmos; Jan. 27, 2015)


Serious Mistakes Need To Be Flagged Immediately # ±

If a significant mistake is made on the air or online, these individuals need to know about it as soon as possible:

– Senior vice president for news (Chris Turpin, acting)

– Executive editor (Madhulika Sikka)

– Managing editor, digital news (Scott Montgomery)

– Deputy managing editors (Chuck Holmes; Gerry Holmes)

– Standards and practices (Mark Memmott)

– Legal (Ashley Messenger)

– Member partnership (Gemma Hooley)

– Media relations (Isabel Lara)

Use emails, phone calls, shouts across the newsroom — whatever it takes — to get word to one or more of them. They pledge to respond quickly and to take over the task of reaching others in that group if you haven’t already.

What is a serious or significant mistake? There’s no simple definition. But we all know one when we see or hear it. Examples include:

– An obscenity getting on the air (unless it was vetted and OK’d by senior editors beforehand).

– An offensive or disturbing image being posted online.

– A high-profile “scoop” turning out to be wrong.

(Memmos; Jan. 26, 2015)


Your Keyboard Is A Live Mic (Or, If You Write It They May Say It) # ±

(Editor’s note on July 27, 2017: Click here to go to an updated special section about the do’s and don’t's of social media.)

Reporters have always been told to never put anything in a story draft that they wouldn’t want to see in print. No jokes. No obscenities. No snotty comments. No half-formed theories. No “facts” that haven’t been double-checked.

If they need to create a file into which a story can later be pasted, that’s what “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” and “lorem ipsum” are for. (Look them up if you don’t know what I’m referring to or how they’re used.)

Sometimes things slip through. Romenesko tracks such mishaps.

Broadcast journalists know every mic may be live and that they shouldn’t say something they wouldn’t want to be recorded and replayed. This note is meant to draw a parallel.

The information that goes into DACS lines, scripts and Web teasers could end up as copy on our website and as language read on the air by us or a member station.

No, our drafts and DACS are not full of naughty words, snide remarks and errors. But what goes into them matters and may find its way into places you did not expect. It’s best to treat them accordingly. Your keyboard is something of a live mic.

(Memmos; Jan. 22, 2015)


Mistakes: We’re Making More Than A Few # ±

There is a reason baseball players go to spring training.

There is a reason musicians practice scales.

There is a reason experienced pilots use checklists before takeoff.

To avoid making mistakes, skills must be honed and seemingly routine steps must be repeated over and over again.

It’s the same for us.

If your report contains a name, a number, a location, a date, an age, a historical reference — basically anything that “walks or talks or acts like a fact,” as Margaret Low Smith would say — it must be checked and double-checked before being broadcast or published.

We went over this last November in a note headlined “We Get So Many Things Right; Why Do We Get Some Things Wrong?

But a flurry of errors this month, which you can read about on the corrections page, means it’s time for a reminder:

Double-down on fact-checking. We’ve gotten names, dates, numbers, historical “facts,” locations and other basic details wrong in recent days. For the most part, the errors were not made during live broadcasts. They came during pieces and posts that weren’t done on deadline. There was time for fact-checking.

Use a checklist. It’s a valuable tool. There is a classic one for reporters and editors here.

NPR has broadcast and posted some great stories so far this month. We all make mistakes. Let’s do what we can to limit them so that the wonderful work isn’t diminished.

(Memmos; Jan. 14, 2015)


The ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Cartoons And NPR’s Decision Not To Publish Them # ±

The attack on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and the murders of its cartoonists meant editors at NPR and other news organizations needed to decide which, if any, of the magazine’s cartoons they should publish.

In a Two-Way blog post and during a conversation on Weekend Edition Saturday, NPR’s thinking was discussed. The key points behind the decision not to post the magazine’s most controversial, and potentially most offensive, cartoons included:

– “Photos showing just a few of the magazine’s covers could lead viewers to mistakenly conclude that Charlie Hebdo is only a bit edgier than other satirical publications. But a comprehensive display of Charlie Hebdo‘s work would require posting images that go well beyond most news organizations’ standards regarding offensive material. At NPR, the policy on ‘potentially offensive language’ applies to the images posted online as well. It begins by stating that ‘as a responsible broadcaster, NPR has always set a high bar on use of language that may be offensive to our audience.’ ”

– “No news organization could seriously say that it doesn’t think about the safety of its journalists, when these cartoons might have been the cause for the firebombing of Charlie Hebdo‘s offices a few years back and the murder of its staff this week. But, we’re journalists. We’re willing to take risks. We know that sometimes we’ll have to. Editorially, we just didn’t think that we could post enough of the images to give you a sense of what the magazine was really like. If you only put a few, it might look like it was just little bit edgier than MAD magazine, and that’s just not the case.”

(Memmos; Jan. 12, 2015)


Do You Suffer From RAS Syndrome? # ±

At her favorite gourmet market last week, Korva went to the ATM machine, inserted her card, squinted at the LCD display, entered her PIN number and withdrew cash to pay for her RAS Syndrome therapy.

We’ll stop there.

“Redundant acronym syndrome” isn’t our most serious problem. There’s even a case to be made that saying something like “START treaty” instead of just “START” (the acronym for “Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty”) may be a helpful error on the radio (though never online). If there was a sense that adding the word “treaty” helped the listener understand what you were talking about, the redundancy would be a relatively minor mistake.

But, listeners notice when we insert redundant words. They point out that we would not say “automated teller machine machine” or “liquid crystal display display” or “personal identification number number” or “redundant acronym syndrome syndrome.”

For those listeners, redundancies are nicks in otherwise spotless stories. As Oxford Dictionaries notes in its guidance on “avoiding redundant expressions,” repetition can “give the impression that you don’t really understand the meaning of the words you’re using.”

It’s also worth noting that we benefit if we eliminate unnecessary words. Doing that makes room for other information and when you’re squeezing everything you can into a tight space, each word counts. “Precision writing and editing,” as we’ve said before, are important tools of our trade.

There are many lists online of redundancies, including those at:

The Redundant Acronym Phrase project. (Where “NPR radio” is among those listed.)

(Memmos; Jan. 6, 2015)


What Did We Say About That? A Guide To The 2014 ‘Memmos’ # ±

What did Mark annoy us about in 2014? Here are the year’s “Memmos” divided into categories:


“Don’t sign, don’t advocate, don’t donate.”

“We don’t participate.”


How we make them and display them, Part I.

How we make them and display them, Part II.

Poynter’s “most notable errors.”

They’re at the bottom of our pages.

“Why do we get some things wrong?” Our most common errors.


A well-done poll.

John Burnett’s completeness.

David Folkenflik’s transparency.

Panda triplets!

The Bill Cosby interview.

The Eric Holder scoop.

The 16-year-old in a diaper and why the photo of him was so important.



Medical conditions.


– “Victims” vs. “survivors.” (Particularly in cases of sexual assault.)


Adjectives and why we kill them.

“Alleged,” “accused” and “suspected.”

“Ambush” and “assassinate.”

“Begs the question.”

Being conversational.

Cliches in general.


Ebola; infectious or contagious?


“Farther” and “further.” There’s a difference.

“Garnish” vs. “garnishee.”

Holiday cliches.

“Imagined Elegance.”

– “Immigration” (and related terms).

“Islamic State,” then ISIS.

ISIS and al-Qaida; how to refer to their links.


“Lay” vs. “lie.”

“Persian Gulf.”

“Reticent,” “reluctant” and other words we abuse.


“Taps” and why not to talk over it.

Teenager, I.

Teenager II.

Torture I.

Torture II.

Torture III.

“The” vs. “thee.”

The word “war.”

“Victims” vs. “survivors.” (Particularly in cases of sexual assault.)

Washington’s football team.


It’s not an English-only thing.

Latest “NPR policy on use of potentially offensive language.”


AP goes short.

AP’s unfortunate “crash lands” tweet.

Guidance for Election Day.

There is no privacy on the Web and retweets may be endorsements.

When you can and can’t tweet about customer service.


Anonymity and why “first-name-only” must be discussed and explained.

First names on second reference.

More on first names on second reference.

Why we didn’t name the Ebola patient.




Advice on how to fully inform people before we interview them.

How to explain why we don’t do that.


Attribution I.

Attribution II.

An “abundance of caution” can save us sometimes.

Call “the other side” of the story.

Check things out, even our own reporting.


“For Peat’s sake,” check back with key characters before broadcast.

Get names (why we don’t put random voices on the air).

Good grammar.

It’s “Daylight Saving,” Not “Daylight Savings.”

Minor consent (and the form that needs to be signed).

Naming minors.

Never assume.

Never show stories to sources.

Online credits.


Plagiarism is “the offense that keeps on repeating.”

Precision writing and editing.

You can’t always believe what you remember.

We work in plain sight.

We’re cynical, not skeptical.


We’ve got your guidance right here.

(Memmos; Dec. 29, 2014)


Guidance On The Words ‘Ambush’ And ‘Assassinate’ # ±

When reporting about the shooting deaths of New York City police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, the word “ambush” does not apply according to the accounts we’ve seen so far. By definition, an ambush is an attack from a place of hiding. From what’s been reported, it appears the officers were shot and killed without warning. But it seems that the attacker did not fire from a place of hiding.

The words “assassin,” “assassination” and “assassinated” also do not quite fit. Drawing from dictionary definitions, The Associated Press advises that the term assassination is to be used “only if it involves the murder of a politically important or prominent individual by surprise attack.” An assassin, meanwhile, is “one who kills a politically important or prominent person.”

These were “killings.” The officers were “attacked.” They were “shot dead.” Words such as those describe what happened. We do not need to give this gunman the additional notoriety of being an “assassin.” He was a “killer.”

Newsmakers and guests will likely continue to use the words “ambush” and “assassinated,” of course.

(Memmos; Dec. 22, 2014)


Reminder: Attribute And Qualify The News About Sony And North Korea # ±

When reporting about the Sony hacking and North Korea’s possible involvement, attribution is important. We should also be careful about how we characterize the connection.

Lakshmi Singh began her noon newscast by saying “the FBI is now formally accusing North Korea of the cyber attack on Sony Pictures, saying it now has enough information to conclude that Pyongyang is responsible.” She went on to talk about what evidence the FBI says it has.

In six words — “the FBI is now formally accusing” — she attributed the news (to the FBI) and established that it’s an accusation, not a fact.

Contrast that with language we used on Thursday: “NPR has learned from U.S. intelligence officials that North Korea was centrally involved … .”

There’s attribution (to intelligence officials) but “was centrally involved” isn’t qualified. It is stated as fact.

But, again, the connection to North Korea is an accusation being made by U.S. authorities – not a fact.

(Memmos; Dec. 19, 2014)


Recommended Reading: Poynter’s Roundup Of 2014′s Most Notable Errors And Corrections # ±

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that Poynter’s Craig Silverman has put Rolling Stone ’s “campus rape” report atop his list of 2014′s biggest mistakes by the media.

“It should go down as one of the most cautionary tales of confirmation bias in journalism,” he writes of the magazine’s “campus rape” report.

Silverman details how Rolling Stone compounded the problem:

“Managing editor Will Dana published ‘A Note to Our Readers’ that acknowledged there were now ‘discrepancies’ in the account of Jackie, the woman who was allegedly assaulted. The first version of that letter also blamed her, saying that the magazine now realized its trust in her had been ‘misplaced.’ After objections, the magazine removed that line — and didn’t acknowledge the after-the-fact scrubbing. It also has not offered any real information about how the story was fact checked, where mistakes were made, and what it plans to do about it. It hunkered down and kept silent. Shameful.”

NPR’s position on errors and corrections: “We have a simple standard: Errors of fact do not stand uncorrected. If we get it wrong, we’ll admit it.”

The “How We Make Corrections” memo, which everyone has surely bookmarked, is here.

If you want to reread the note on “A Common Corrections Scenario,” it’s here.

Also, go here to see all our corrections. It pays to read through them once in a while, to learn from our mistakes and to see the way we craft our corrections.

For even more on the errors we make, see this note from last month: “We Get So Many Things Right; Why Do We Get Some Things Wrong?

Back to Poynter’s list. We’re on it.

Thankfully, NPR shows up because of one of our more amusing corrections in 2014:

“An earlier version of this story said that the methane emissions associated with livestock come from their farts. In fact, most of those methane emissions come from belches.”

With that, I’ll stop gassing on about corrections.

(Memmos; Dec. 18, 2014)


Three Thoughts About When It’s OK And Not OK To Use First Names On Second Reference # ±


– NPR’s standard style is to use family names on second reference.
– There are some types of stories and projects in which exceptions can be made.
– Minors (15 or younger) are usually referred to by their first names on second reference.

On second reference, NPR’s standard style is to refer to someone by his or her family name. There have been several pieces in recent weeks, though, where we used first names on second reference. This is a good time to round up our guidance.

– First, the traditional position. The default setting for any of our news reports is simple: We use family names on second reference. That promotes clarity and helps us maintain an objective distance from those we report about.

We’ve previously discussed why one likely 2016 presidential contender is “Clinton,” not “Hillary” on second reference.  The reasons in that case apply to most newsmakers: “There’s the matter of respect … and we don’t want to be perceived as being either for or against someone because of the way we refer to him or her. Everyone is treated the same.”

– But, back in July we looked at the types of stories that seem to lend themselves to first-name-on-second-reference treatment.  They’re personal pieces in which someone is the emotional center of the story. This week, for instance, Carrie Johnson reported about Stephanie George — a nonviolent drug offender who was “coming home to a different life.”  Calling her Stephanie on second reference felt natural. (There was also the issue of the woman’s last name, which could have led some listeners to wonder “who’s George?” In addition, the others heard in the piece referred to her as “Stephanie.” There might have been confusion if Carrie had said “George.”)

As we also said in July, some platforms and projects that focus on being conversational have room to use first names on second reference — on their blogs, podcasts and NPR’s airwaves. Planet Money is an example. (The award-winning “Planet Money Makes A T-shirt” project, it should be noted, employed a few different ways to refer to people on second reference — by family names, by full names and by first names. The references sound right to this ear.)

Something to keep in mind: Using a first name might give the mistaken impression that the reporter has developed a bias, liking or sympathy for the subject. That could be a reason to use the family name instead. Editors and producers should consider that issue and discuss it with the deputy managing editors, their designated replacements or the Standards & Practices editor ahead of time if they have any doubts.

Then there are minors. The AP’s style is to “generally refer to them on second reference by surname if they are 16 or older and by first name if they are 15 or younger. Exceptions would be if they are involved in serious crimes or are athletes or entertainers.”

That guidance applied when Malala Yousafzai was shot in 2012.  She was 15 at the time and was “Malala” on second reference.

Two years later, should we still refer to her as “Malala?” That’s under discussion. For now, “Malala” remains OK even though that goes against the AP’s guidance (which the wire service isn’t following, by the way; it continues to call her “Malala”). One major reason not to change yet is that she’s known as “Malala” around the world.

Update: Of course, if your piece has several family  members in it, there’s probably not going to be any way around referring to them by their first names on second reference. Check out how Nina Totenberg handled one such story:


(Memmos; Dec. 17, 2014)


When It Comes To Being Offensive, English Isn’t The Only Language We Need To Worry About # ±

Everyone should be familiar with the “NPR Policy On Use Of Potentially Offensive Language.” If you need a refresher, it is posted here: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1273045-potentially-offensive-language-guidance.html

There are a few things to note:

– This isn’t an “English-only” issue. The FCC’s policies and our guidance apply to offensive words or phrases in any language.

– As the NPR policy states, “there is no room for guessing. If program material depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities or organs or other potentially objectionable language, the producer must seek guidance as to its suitability. If the matter is urgent, please contact the News Duty Manager …who is available 24/7 [if you don't know the phone number, ask Chuck or Gerry]. He/she will consult with the Office of the General Counsel (OGC) and/or escalate as appropriate. In all other non-urgent instances, please work through the normal editorial process, which for these matters, should involve consultation with OGC. While all decisions on content are ultimately reserved to the editorial decision making process in the News and Programming Divisions, it would be the extremely rare case that NPR journalists would not abide by the advice of NPR legal counsel as to the use of language that may be regarded as indecent or profane.”

As we’ve said before, “if there’s potentially offensive language in a piece intended for broadcast — even if the words have been bleeped — stations need to be alerted [as soon as possible] in the DACS line. Listeners and readers online deserve to be warned as well, of course.”

(Memmos; Dec. 12, 2014)


More ‘Torture’ Guidance # ±

Do not refer to what was done as “enhanced interrogation techniques” unless you’re explaining that is the term the CIA uses for the practices it believes were legal.

Instead, use such words and phrases as:

– “Interrogation techniques.”

– “Interrogations,” as Steve Inskeep did this morning when he introduced a report by simply saying “we’re going to sort out some of the facts behind a polarizing debate. It’s the debate over U.S. interrogations after nine-eleven.”

–  ”Brutal interrogation techniques / brutal interrogations.”

On “torture”: Once again, the word can be used.


– As Robert Siegel did last April when he said there was “torture of terrorism suspects after 9/11.”

– Or by saying that “torture and other harsh [or brutal] methods” were used.

– Or by saying that detainees were “in some cases tortured.”

– Or as Steve did this morning when he said, “this week’s Senate report on U.S. interrogations is the latest stage in a decade-long debate. Americans have talked about torture in different ways, including debating whether to call it torture at all.”

– Or by introducing the fact that some of the practices were acts the U.S. has called torture when they were done by other nations.

Reminder: Though there are those who argue that the techniques were not torture in the legal sense of that word, Merriam-Webster defines torture as “the act of causing severe physical pain as a form of punishment or as a way to force someone to do or say something.”

(Memmos; Dec. 11, 2014)


Guidance: Effective References To ‘Torture’ # ±

Here are some examples of how our guidance on use of the word “torture” has been implemented in the past 24 hours. They may be helpful.

Key takeaway: A thread that connects them is that we establish that the report details instances of torture, cite examples and then get on with the news or conversations.

In a Newscast spot:

“A report released today by the Senate Intelligence Committee charges the CIA lied to lawmakers and the public about interrogation techniques it used on terrorism suspects after 9-11.  The report is based on some 6 million CIA documents. NPR’s Brian Naylor says the report concluded no useful information was obtained through the methods.

[Brian:] “The so-called ‘torture report’ says interrogators water-boarded suspects, forced detainees who had broken legs to stand for hours and employed quote rectal feeding un quote. …”

On Morning Edition:

“This is Morning Edition from NPR news. I’m Steve Inskeep.

“I’m Renee Montagne.

“What’s come to be known as the ‘torture report’ by Senate investigators … broke more new ground than expected.

“Lawmakers examined interrogations of terror suspects after nine-eleven.

[Steve:] “It was already known that interrogators used waterboarding, sleep deprivation and more.

“Senate investigators have now added to that story.

“The report, released by Democrats, contends the tactics failed to produce useful information.

[Renee:] “It says the CIA failed to tell lawmakers everything it was doing.

“And the report says interrogation practices were even more brutal than previously known.

“NPR’s National Security Correspondent Dina Temple-Raston reports on just what was more brutal.”

Also on Morning Edition, during a Two-Way with former CIA lawyer John Rizzo:

Renee: “I should warn our audience that there’s a difficult couple of techniques that I’m just going to describe in a line. One, putting a drill to a detainee’s head. Another, threatening sodomy with a broom handle. These were techniques that this report found were used. Do they constitute torture?”

Rizzo: “Well, they certainly were not authorized and they are indefensible. So, sure. I mean if those Justice Department legal opinions established the legal lines and legal limits … anything that went beyond those techniques, especially the gruesome ones that you described there, sure they would probably constitute torture.”

On All Things Considered:

Audie Cornish, to former CIA acting director John McLaughlin: “You had Senator John McCain on the Senate floor today saying torture produces more misleading information than actionable intelligence. And that is one major argument throughout this report – that there’s intelligence there that could have been yielded through other means – that some of the intelligence, using brutal techniques, was fabricated or not useful.”

Reminder: Other examples of how the word has been used include the way Robert Siegel said in April that the Senate report would address “the torture of terrorism suspects after 9/11.” Though there are those who argue that the techniques were not torture in the legal sense of that word, Merriam-Webster defines torture as “the act of causing severe physical pain as a form of punishment or as a way to force someone to do or say something.”

(Memmos; Dec. 10, 2014)


Reminder: We Can Observe, But We Don’t Participate In Rallies # ±

Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network plans to hold a civil rights march in Washington, D.C., on Saturday. The National March Against Police Violence is expected to draw a large crowd.

It’s been a few years since we issued guidance “on attending marches, rallies and other public events” and there are more than a few folks who have joined NPR since then. So this is a good time to post the guidance again.

Basically, we believe journalists can go see such events, even if they’re not assigned to cover them, so long as they don’t “participate”:

“There is real journalistic value in being an observer at public events such as a march or rally, even without a reporting assignment. But while we may observe, we refrain from actively participating in marches, rallies or public events involving political issues or partisan causes that our organization covers or may cover. Of course, the distinction between being a participant and being an observer can be subtle. But waving a picket sign or joining along in a cheer would be inappropriate. Again, we rely on your good judgment.

“Since the nature of each event differs, it’s wise to discuss these matters ahead of time with supervisors to figure out where ethical pressure points may exist or emerge. If attending such an event as an observer, take care in behavior, comments, attire and physical location not to reflect a participatory role.

“When we cover political or partisan marches, rallies or public events, we should be clearly distinguished as working in a journalistic role – identifying ourselves as NPR journalists to the people we speak with, with our NPR identification on display.”

The question will be asked: “If my job does not touch on NPR’s journalism, can I attend and participate in this or any other ‘political’ march?”

We can’t give an answer that would cover everyone and every eventuality. The best advice is to discuss it beforehand with your supervisor.

We can say that those who are in “outward-facing” positions — jobs that sometimes put them in the position of representing NPR to the outside world — should adhere to the same guidelines that our journalists follow.

Another question sure to come up is about social media. The same guidelines we spelled out before Election Day apply to marches and rallies:

“Keep in mind that what you tweet or post is going to be perceived as coming ‘from’ NPR. … Tweet and retweet [and post] 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.”

Related:The evolution of our guidance on marches, rallies and public events.”

(Memmos; Dec. 8, 2014)


When Looking For The Right Words, Beware Of ‘Imagined Elegance’ # ±

“Will someone please tell me what is wrong with the word ‘happened?’ ‘Transpired, transpired, transpired.’ It’s far more irritating than ‘begs the question’ and that’s saying a lot.”

After getting that email, I opened Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. There’s a wonderful phrase in the book’s entry about “transpire”:

“Not to be used in the sense of ‘happen,’ ‘come to pass.’ Many writers so use it (usually when groping toward imagined elegance), but their usage finds little support in the Latin ‘breathe across or through.’ “

“Imagined elegance.”

Or, choosing a highfalutin word and sounding stuffy.

Or, as Mark Twain put it, using “a $5 word when a 50-cent word will do.”

We’ve heard from emailers about many other words and phrases that can take you down the path to imagined elegance. They include:

– Incentivize
– Esoteric
– Going forward
– Ubiquitous [Which I originally misspelled as ubitquitous!]
– Epicenter
– Comes amid

You can surely  think of others.

There are times to use $5 words. Linton Weeks is a clear, concise writer. But he slips one or two $5 choices into many of his pieces. In writing about “when Thanksgiving was weird,” he described the costumes that Americans once put on while celebrating that holiday:

“Some Americans wore masks that made fun of people of other nations. … More refined revelers donned soft, ghostly, painted veils made of gauzy mesh that both disguised, and improved … a person’s appearance.”

“Donned” is the perfect word. In a post about the past, it feels just right.

But there is a real — not imagined — elegance to clear, simple story-telling.

Some recent examples:

– Howard Berkes’ “Delinquent Mines” reports.

– Ailsa Chang’s pre-election piece, “Sen. Mitch McConnell Has More Than Most Riding On Midterm Elections.”

– Dan Charles’ “Of Carrots And Kids: Healthy School Lunches That Don’t Get Tossed.”

– Linda Holmes’ “ ‘Grape Salad’ Is Not Minnesotan, And Other Lessons In Cultural Mapmaking.”

– Joe Shapiro’s “Guilty And Charged” series.

– Laura Sullivan’s “Red Cross” reports.

– Gregory Warner’s “Guarding The Ebola Border” story.

Every Newscast has a strong example as well. Jennifer Ludden’s report this week on a San Francisco law that mandates predictable work schedules is one. She packed a lot of information into a tight spot:

“Under the new law, companies must post schedules two weeks in advance … pay a penalty for changes made after that … and they must give part-time workers more hours before hiring someone else. Studies show the number of part-timers who would rather be full time has doubled since 2008. Chaotic schedules make it hard to arrange child-care, take classes, or hold a second job. A co-sponsor of San Francisco’s legislation is now in the state assembly and plans to propose a bill there. Advocates are also pushing for predictable scheduling laws in other cities.”

We can question some words in the pieces cited above. But the stories are mostly carried along by short, punchy sentences and good reporting. As you listen or read, you don’t stop to wonder what something means or to sigh at a malapropism (now there’s a $5 word!). The elegance of the stories is not imaginary.

Related:Precision Writing & Editing: 5 Timeless Tips.”

(Memmos; Dec. 2, 2014)


As News From Ferguson Continues To Come, A Couple Reminders On Language # ±

1. The word  ”teenager” is not banned but is to be avoided. Michael Brown was 18 and that’s the age when you’re considered an adult. “Teenager” means a younger person in many people’s minds.

Newscast skillfully dealt with the issue this way earlier this evening:


2. On the black-and-white issue: Race is not an important matter in most crime stories.

But at the risk of being obvious, the races of the officer and Michael Brown are relevant because of the tensions they exposed and the protests that followed the killing. That context is important. Shereen Marisol Meraji wove that into her report on ATC as she told the story of one mother who is proud of her daughter for protesting. The woman feels “joy” because “her neighbors and her daughter are still out protesting and asking for changes to the way law enforcement treats young black people.” She feels “sadness because an 18 year old had to lose his life to spark that.”

Carrie Johnson folded in this context for Newscast: “Protesters say they’ll keep talking about issues of police bias and militarization no matter what the jurors decide.”

Newscast handled the issue this way:


(Memmos; Nov. 24, 2014)


No, It Tisn’t The Season # ±

You know you’re going to want to do it. The temptation will be enormous.

With Thanksgiving coming up it’s time to remind everyone: Please go easy on the holiday clichés. They tend to build up like the snowdrifts in Buffalo, and we don’t want that.

– “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.

Can you play around with these holiday evergreens? Stand one on its head, as goes another cliché? Maybe. Tis the season for miracles, after all.

But let’s see if we can make these holidays mostly cliché-free.

Ho, ho, ho,

Scrooge McMemmott

(Memmos; Nov. 20, 2014)



Please Save This Reminder: Guidance May Be Just A Couple Clicks Away # ±

When stories that were hot a few weeks or months ago pop back onto our agenda, one question always comes up.

It begins like this: “What’s our policy on …?”

Variations include:

– “Do we still …?”
– “Didn’t you say something about …?”
– “Do I have to …?”

It’s good to ask if you’re not sure. Either Gerry, Chuck or I are usually available. But remember, you also may be able to find the latest guidance right from your own desk. Not every question can be answered by consulting our online resources, but many can. Here’s where to go:

– Wiki. If you’re inside the firewall, our Wiki has style guides that cover a lot of territory — from the language we use when reporting about abortion to the words that make up the acronym ZIP. There are links there to AP’s Style Book as well. It’s a good resource on topics that our guides don’t cover. If you’re inside the firewall, click here to go to the Wiki.

Note: We’re working on moving the style guides to public pages. Member stations have been asking for that.

– Ethics Handbook. You don’t need to be inside the firewall to get to our Ethics Handbook. It’s the go-to place for guidance on our values and for some case studies and it’s public. Click here to go to ethics.npr.org.

– Memmos. These notes are also public. Click here to go to them. Here’s a tip: Use the “find” box in the upper right hand corner to search them.

For instance, if you vaguely remember that there was a memmo about when NOT to use the word “teenager,” search on that word. The result? “Something To Think About: Was Michael Brown A ‘Teenager?’ Yes, But …

Or maybe you’re trying to remember how we refer to the group that’s trying to take over much of Iraq and Syria. Search “ISIS” and you’ll be led to several posts, including: “Islamic State? ISIS? ISIL? Here’s Another Reminder About NPR’s Guidance.”

Not sure if you need to get a consent form signed by a minor’s parents? Search on “consent form” and you’re taken to: “Here’s Where To Find The Latest Version Of Our ‘Minor Consent Form.’ ” The post has guidance and a link to where we’ve posted a printable form.

Wondering how many times the memmos have referred to Korva? A search shows this is the third one to do that.

Speaking of Korva, right behind the work station she uses on the Newscast desk is a white wall. If you’re the old-fashioned sort who likes it when newsrooms put spellings, key facts and other important matters up on a board for all to see, swing by. Your question may be answered right there.

(Memmos; Nov. 19, 2014)


Peruse Or Peruse? You Can Read These Notes Both Ways # ±

We’ve asked listeners, NPR.org users and the Twitter crowd (#wordmatters) to tell us about the grammar mistakes, mispronunciations and misuses of words and phrases that bother them.

They’ve given us an earful (about clichés as well). I’ll pass some along occasionally. For instance:

“@MarkMemmottNPR @MorningEdition peruse is misused often. Many think it’s synonymous with skim.”

The word’s original meaning is to read “in a thorough or careful way.” Also, to “examine carefully or at length.” (Oxford Online) British dictionaries have not wavered from those definitions.

American dictionaries, such as Webster’s, have added this in recent years: “loosely, to read in a casual or leisurely way.” That sure seems like the opposite of the word’s original meaning.

A word with meanings that seem to be in conflict; just what we need.

What to do? We know that definitions can change over time and we do want to sound conversational. But we also don’t want anyone to wonder about what we’re saying. In this case and others involving words that run the risk of causing confusion here’s some guidance: Substitute a word that’s more precise.

For example, if you mean that someone has “studied” some records, use the word studied. If you mean they’ve just given the records a “cursory” look, say that.

As always, feel free to peruse* the Ethics Handbook and  other “memmos” for additional guidance on language.

Related note: Most of the #wordmatters comments we’re getting are not complaints about what people have heard on NPR or read on NPR.org. The majority of the messages are about things people hear in daily conversations and read on all types of media.

One phrase that’s been brought up quite often is “could care less.” Many people say that when what they really mean is that they couldn’t care less.

A search by the Library staff indicates that NPR hosts and correspondents have only gotten that phrase wrong twice in the past year. We do care about about getting things right and it shows.

*Original meaning, of course.

(Memmos; Nov. 18, 2014)


Asking Difficult Questions: Scott Simon’s Conversation With Bill Cosby # ±

“I just did what I should.”

Late last night, Scott Simon tweeted that thought about the questions he posed to Bill Cosby during a conversation that aired Saturday on Weekend Edition.

This post is meant to preserve for future reference and guidance what happened and how Weekend Edition handled the situation.

Scott gave the comedian a chance to respond to accusations involving alleged sexual assaults.  Though some of the allegations go back a decade or more, they have been in the news in recent weeks. Eric Deggans reminded us today that Cosby has not directly addressed them. Cosby’s representatives have said the accusations are either not true or are due to misunderstandings.

NPR journalists believe that “to secure the public’s trust, we must make it clear that our primary allegiance is to the public.”  As we do that, we treat those we encounter with respect. If we “ask tough questions, we do so to seek answers — not confrontations.”

Here’s how Scott and the show balanced those responsibilities. The audio and full transcript of the interview are here. This part of the conversation came at the end of the interview:

SIMON: “This question gives me no pleasure, Mr. Cosby, but there have been serious allegations raised about you in recent days. [Two seconds of silence.] You’re shaking your head no. [Two seconds of silence.] I’m in the news business. I have to ask the question — do you have any response to those charges? [Two seconds of silence.] Shaking your head no. [Two seconds of silence.] There are people who love you who might like to hear from you about this. I want to give you the chance. [Five seconds of silence.]

“All right. Camille and Bill Cosby — they have lent 62 pieces from their collection of African and African-American artists to create an exhibit called ‘Conversations: African and African-American Artworks In Dialogue.’ It’s now on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art through early 2016. Thank you both for joining us.”

CAMILLE COSBY: “Thank you. Thank you.”

It is also worth noting that listeners were given a heads up about the way the conversation would conclude. In the introduction, Scott said:

“Bill and Camille Cosby have loaned 62 pieces from their extraordinary art collection to the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., for a show called ‘Conversations: African and African-American Artworks In Dialogue.’ Much of their art has never been shown in public. We spoke with the Cosbys at the museum last week, as Bill Cosby’s name was in the news for a different reason — allegations of rape and sexual assault have resurfaced against him. Mr. Cosby settled out of court in a lawsuit for sexual assault back in 2006. Several women supplied affidavits in the suit, which was settled for an undisclosed amount of money. You will hear Mr. Cosby’s response to our questions about the allegations during this interview. We sat down to speak with Bill and Camille Cosby at the Smithsonian in the midst of their art.”

 (Memmos; Nov. 17, 2014)


We Get So Many Things Right; Why Do We Get Some Things Wrong? # ±

More than 13,000 words were heard during All Things Considered‘s broadcast on Friday.

As of 1 p.m. this afternoon, The Two-Way blog had published nearly 3,300 words today.

Monday’s 9 a.m. newscast — one of 37 produced each day — clocked in at more than 1,000 words.

Those are three slices. Just think about all the information coming each day from Morning Edition, Here & Now, Monkey See, Shots, Goats and Soda, NPR Music, NPR Books, the various digital teams and other parts of this operation. Pick your cliche: mountain, tsunami, avalanche, etc.

Then consider that over the past month we’ve posted about 2 corrections a day. Compare that to the amount of reporting we did.
Pick your cliche: trickle, pint-sized, wee, etc.

Of course, as another cliche goes, one mistake is one too many. A way to avoid them is to study those we’ve made. A run through the corrections page reveals some common mistakes:

– Names. In the past month we posted 7 corrections about names. A couple were misspelled, one was mispronounced, some were just wrong. It always pays to get the person you’re interviewing to say and spell his name. In other cases, it’s wise to check public records. It’s always a good idea to give a script or Web story an extra read with particular attention to the subjects’ names.

– Assumptions. We think we know something, but we don’t. It was IBM’s Watson computer that defeated a world chess champion, right? Wrong. Remember what assuming can make you.

– Locations. This is a cousin of “names” and “assumptions.” Minneapolis and Milwaukee — we confuse them. We recently mixed up Maine and Minnesota. The same goes for Albany, N.Y., and Albany, Ore. Ask yourself: Do I have the right place?

– Numbers. Million, billion, trillion –if a word has “illion” in it, triple-check the first letter. Using the word “percent?” Please be sure you shouldn’t be saying “percentage point.” If there’s a decimal point in that figure, be sure it’s in the right place. In other words, do your math and then do it again.

– Dates. A subset of “numbers” and a close kin of “assumptions.” When was the movie Around the World in 80 Days released? It was 1956, not 1965. (Side note: Data are plural.)

– Ages. Get a person’s birth date and do the math. You may be surprised to find that someone’s miscalcuated their own age.

You’ll discover other common errors if you look through the corrections pages. The point of the exercise isn’t to make the case that we should expect to be perfect. The point is that we get so much so right every day, that it’s a shame for great stories to be tagged with corrections — especially for mistakes that we likely could catch with one more read or one more double-check.


– “Consider using an accuracy checklist.”

– “How We Make Corrections.”

(Memmos; Nov. 20, 2014)


It’s OK For Elvis, But Otherwise We Use Surnames On Second Reference # ±

The midterm elections are over, which means it’s time to start focusing on the 2016 presidential race!

I’m kidding.

I hope.

But you know there are stories to do about the potential contenders. You also know there will be the temptation to refer to at least one of them, on second reference, by her first name. It has happened a couple times in recent weeks.

We should not do that.

There’s the matter of respect. There’s the issue of whether it’s sexist. And we don’t want to be perceived as being either for or against someone because of the way we refer to him or her. Everyone is treated the same.

The acceptable second-reference alternatives include:

– Clinton.

– Secretary Clinton.

– The former senator.

– The former first lady.

– Mrs. Clinton.

Note: Yes, minors can be referred to by their first names on second reference. And then there’s Elvis, of course.

(Memmos; Nov. 6, 2014)


Precision Writing & Editing: 5 Timeless Tips # ±

Last week, a friend who’s been reading these “memmos” sent me an email that he’s held on to for 13 years. The message was written by Hal Ritter, a former managing editor of the Money and News sections at USA Today and until earlier this year the business editor at The Associated Press.

The topic: “precision editing.”

I called Hal to get his OK to share some excerpts. There are lessons here for reporters, producers and editors — whether they’re working on pieces for the Web or the radio. Just substitute some words — “listeners” for “readers;” “correspondents” for “reporters;” “pieces” for “stories” and his advice works well. It could easily be a note about “precision writing”:

“1. First, precision editing means getting it correct. Grammar, punctuation, usage and syntax are perfect. No rule is broken — or even bent. … Every day, I see verbs that don’t agree with their subjects, pronouns that disagree with their antecedents. … I see words that are misspelled. … I see prepositions used as conjunctions. And on and on and on. …

“2. Second, precision editing means squeezing every unnecessary word out of a story. I swear I can delete 15% of the words in some stories and not lose a thing. Word editing means when you see ‘away from,’ you delete ‘away.’ ‘Gathered together,’ delete ‘together.’ ‘Fell down,’ delete ‘down.’ ‘Burned up,’ delete ‘up.’ ‘In order to,’ ‘in order for,’ delete ‘in order.’ And many words, like ‘new,’ you can delete almost every time you see them. You can’t build an ‘old’ building. If you go through a story before sending it to the copy desk and challenge every word, you’ll be amazed how many you can delete. And how much crisper the writing is when you’re finished.

“3. Third, precision editing means writing for readers, not for sources. And that means getting rid of jargon or insider expressions. Language from Wall Street or Capitol Hill or Hollywood or the locker room that our readers won’t understand. Or retaining the jargon and explaining it. Completely and conversationally. Readers will thank you for doing that. Sadly, I’ve heard some reporters say that their sources will make fun of them if the reporters don’t write the way the sources talk. I say to hell with sources. Readers are the only people who matter at USA TODAY. Plus, those sources are wrong. The newspaper that does the best job of explaining jargon, completely and conversationally, is The Wall Street Journal. And The Journal‘s readers are likely to be well-versed in the jargon to begin with. A seventh-grader can read business and financial stories in The Journal and understand them.

“4. Fourth, precision editing means eliminating clichés and hackneyed expressions. Most of the time. I added that qualifier after rereading this week three wonderful pages that [Theodore M. Bernstein, long-time assistant managing editor of The New York Times] devotes to clichés [in The Careful Writer - A Modern Guide to English Usage]. Bernstein’s last sentence on clichés is this: ‘The important thing, however, as must be clear by now, is not to avoid the cliché, but rather to use it only with discrimination and sophistication, and to shun it when it is a substitute for precise thinking.’

“5. Finally, precision editing means careful attention to sentence structure. I believe that clear writing is 90% about sentence structure. What’s the best sentence structure? Simple. Subject, verb, object. One independent clause. An active verb. Little or no punctuation. The worst sentence structure? Complex. 40, 50 or even 60 words. Several dependent clauses. Lots of punctuation.”

My thanks to Hal for permission to share all that.

Someone may be about to suggest that the rules are different for radio. I would suggest that’s wrong. For one thing, USA Today‘s best stories at the time of Hal’s note were much like NPR’s and about the same length. The writing was tight and conversational. USA Today writers and editors would sweat over how many characters — not just words — they could fit on a line. Think about how much effort goes into shaving seconds off some of the pieces that NPR produces.

Also, a reading of Jonathan Kern’s Sound Reporting supports my case. Here’s some of what Jonathan says about “how to sound like a real person”:

– “First and foremost, say your sentences before you write them down; or at the very least, say them out loud after you’ve written them.”

– “Don’t use words on the radio you wouldn’t say at other times.”

– “Don’t use syntax that does not occur naturally.”

– “Use present participles — the ‘present progressive’ tense — to describe things that are going on at the moment.”

– “Don’t paraphrase actualities as if you were reading a quote from the newspaper.”

– Keep your sentence structure simple.”

– “Watch out for grammatical errors.”

– “Recognize clichés and look for alternatives.”

– “Avoid unnecessary jargon, acronyms and initialisms.”

– “Check for typos, missing words and other clerical errors.”

For those who want to read even more about proper usage, The New Yorker this week offers a piece on “Steven Pinker’s Bad Grammar.”

(Memmos; Nov. 4, 2014)


Some Guidance About Social Media On Election Day # ±

As news about the midterm elections comes in Tuesday, many of us are going to be using social media to share updates and pass along interesting bits of information. It’s going to be particularly tempting to post about turnout, about what other news outlets report from exit polls and about the results of key races as they’re “called” by one media outlet or another.

That’s all fine. But please keep in mind that what you tweet or post is going to be perceived as coming “from” NPR.

The first rule of the day is simple. Just as “there’s no cheering in the press box,” it’s not appropriate to cheer (or boo) about election results on social media.

After that, this previously issued guidance applies:

“Tweet and retweet [and post] 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.”

The important context includes making clear what information is coming from NPR and what is from other credible news outlets.

Throughout the evening, our Elections Desk will be following the AP’s lead as races are called — though there may be moments when the desk decides to issue a “stop” order and not follow AP’s decision to declare a winner. Along with NPR.org, of course, the places where NPR-produced reporting will show up include @nprpolitics on Twitter and the NPR Facebook page.

(Memmos; Nov. 3, 2014)


Timely Reminder: It’s ‘Daylight Saving’ That’s Ending, Not ‘Daylight Savings’ # ±

This is a preemptive strike:

When we remind (most*) Americans that they should set their clocks back an hour before going to bed Saturday night, can we make sure to write and say it’s “daylight saving” time that’s ending, not “daylight savings?”

That extra “s” drives some folks nuts when it’s mistakenly added (as often happens).

Meanwhile, many thanks to those who have emailed about words or phrases that we get wrong or overuse. More suggestions are welcome. We’ll keep collecting and report back. Here’s a sampling of what’s been sent in so far:

– “We reached out to.” How about “we called” or “we spoke with?”
– It was a “brutal murder.” That’s likely to be redundant. (It’s often seen with the overused “pool of blood.”)
– “The (fill in the blank) community.” Is that really the way people talk?

Watch for more.

*Yes, Korva, we know that 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; Oct. 29, 2014)


Don’t Be Reticent Or Reluctant About Flagging The Words We Overuse, Misuse Or Otherwise Abuse # ±

We’ve previously discussed how we:

Wave a lot.

Go further when we should go farther.

Can’t stop begging the question.

Lay around when we’re really lying.

Are a bunch of so-and-sos.

Each of those “memmos” has prompted emails from reporters and editors who have their own pet peeves about words or phrases that we mess up or use too often. Among the things that really bother some folks:

– “In the wake of.” How about “after” or “following?”

– “Ordinary people” and “real people.” As opposed to what?

– “Dude.” There’s really only one.

– “Translator” when we should say “interpreter.” (This is actually more of a pet peeve among some in our audience. We get an email or two a week about it. If there’s a person standing beside you who’s telling you what someone else is saying, call that person an interpreter.)

– “Reticent.” It means “habitually silent or uncommunicative; disinclined to speak readily; reserved; taciturn” and “having a restrained, quiet, or understated quality.” (Webster’s) That’s not the same as being “reluctant,” but in the vast majority of cases we seem to think the words are interchangeable.

– “Confined to a wheelchair” and other phrases that imply a judgment about someone’s condition. A simple substitute: “Uses a wheelchair.”

Words and phrases matter, of course, because we’re in the business of writing and telling stories that are compelling and clear. Getting them wrong and relying on “cliches and shopworn phrases,” as Jonathan Kern has written, just get in the way of our mission.

Feel free to send along your pet peeves. We can highlight them in upcoming notes.

(Memmos; Oct. 28, 2014)


We Wave A Lot; Perhaps We Should Stem The Tide # ±

Do a search and you’ll see that we’ve recently talked or written about:

– “A wave of” foreigners joining the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

– “A wave of” new voter ID laws.

– “A wave of” protests across the nation following the death of Michael Brown.

Those examples are from the last few weeks. In the past year, according to the Library, we’ve ridden the “wave” phrase at least 71 times on the air. To be sure, there have been many times we’ve talked about “a wave of” your smartphone or “a wave of” water. But there have also been waves of attacks, of violence and of refugees, to cite a few. A search of the phrase “a wave of” on NPR.org, which brings in blog posts , other Web text and guests’ language, produces 154 results from the past year.

A crusty editor who hates clichés once told me that they do occasionally have their place if there’s just no better word or phrase to use. But as Oxford Dictionaries warns, clichés “tend to annoy people, especially if they’re overused.”

Chip Scanlan, then with Poynter, is among many who have wryly observed it’s wise to “avoid clichés like the plague.”

Former Detroit Free Press development editor Joe Grimm has suggested they be used sparingly and only “when they fit the story precisely.”

What should you do if you feel a wave (or some other cliché) coming on? First, stop and ask if it’s really a phrase that applies to the situation. Then, as with our guidance about avoiding labels, consider substituting a fact. How many foreigners have joined ISIS? How many refugees have crossed the border? How many bombings have there been?

Now that I’ve opened this can of worms, I’ll stop fanning the flames, give it a rest and call it a day.

(Memmos; Oct. 22, 2014)


Wondering How To Say That Name? Remember, Help Is Near # ±

“Dee-law-REN-ta,” “day-lah-REN-ta” or “deh-lah-REN-ta?” (for de la Renta)

“Nuh–WEE-ehn,” “nuh-wihn” or “wihn?” (for Nguyen)

“OH-feh-bee-a,” “oh-FEH-bee-a” or “off-EH-bee-a?” (for Ofeibea)

There’s one question that comes up nearly every day: “How do we say so-and-so’s name?” The frequency means it makes sense to remind everyone about the resources available to find the answer if an in-house expert from the appropriate desk isn’t immediately available.

Our internal Wiki is a good place to start. (Sorry, readers outside our firewall, that link won’t work for you.) Right on its landing page there’s a link to our own “Pronunciation Guide.” Maintained by the librarians, it has the latest NPR-approved pronunciations.

But it doesn’t have every possible pronunciation. Mr. de la Renta, for example, wasn’t there.

The AP’s guide is a good place to check next. (Again, sorry to our outside readers who can’t get to that page without their own subscription.)

Still stumped? Consider trying:

– The “Say How?” website maintained by the Library of Congress.
– Voice of America’s “Pro-nounce” website.

The Library has other links and tips on the Wiki. The librarians are ready to help figure out the difficult cases that don’t show up on any of the lists.

Of course, it also pays to check whether we’ve ever recorded the person saying his or her own name. As the Library says, “individuals are the primary authority for the pronunciation of their own names.” In the case of someone’s death, a family member, agent or close friend could be a solid substitute. Embassies and international news sources may also be of assistance when the subject is an international figure.

A little reporting can help as well. We figured out that Broadway star Marian Seldes was a “SEL-dess,” not a “SEL-deez” after research turned up a New York Times story in which she “was quick to point out” the correct pronunciation.

Note: The bold typeface above tells you which pronunciation is correct for those three examples.

Related: Wondering how to say the name of that city, river, mountain range, etc.? The same resources can help.

(Memmos; Oct. 21, 2014)


Reminder: It’s Best To Avoid Labeling People Who Have Medical Conditions # ±

I’ll say it before others do: Sometimes, in the tight confines of a headline or in a Newscast spot, it’s almost impossible to fit in any extra words and not rely on “labels.”

But as we’ve discussed before, it is best to avoid them — especially when dealing with medical conditions.

For example, 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.”

Why do such small differences in wording matter? The Science Desk has been careful about such usages for years. But as we hear from listeners and readers each week about stories from other desks, people feel as if we’re reducing someone to a word when we label him or her. Since one of our core values is respect, we should be sensitive to those concerns.

We’re also committed to accuracy, of course. We don’t want to unintentionally give the impression that someone is “only” defined by a medical condition.

Related notes: As The Associated Press says, it’s a good idea to “avoid using mental health terms to describe non-health issues.” For one thing, those terms can be clichés: To say one thing is “a cancer on” something else, for example, is a rather tired expression. The AP also reminds us that it’s best to “avoid descriptions that connote pity, such as ‘afflicted with, suffers from or victim of.’ ”

As always, it’s best just to say what someone has.

(Memmos; Oct. 16, 2014)


A Word About The Name Of Washington’s Football Team # ±

We have not changed it significantly, but we have added to our guidance on the name of Washington’s NFL team.  Here’s an update:

NPR News does not plan to prohibit the use of the full team name. The team’s name is the name and our job is to report on the world as it is, not to take a position or become part of the story.

But, our policy on potentially offensive language states that “as a responsible broadcaster, NPR has always set a high bar on use of language that may be offensive to our audience. Use of such language on the air [and online] has been strictly limited to situations where it is absolutely integral to the meaning and spirit of the story being told.”

That guidance should be kept in mind. Here’s how:

As a network, we do not have much occasion to report on this club. When we do, we can usually refer to it simply as “Washington” or “the team” once we’ve established that we’re talking about the city’s NFL franchise. This line, for example, was on our air after the firing of Washington’s coach: “Last year the Redskins made the playoffs, this year they were only 3-13, Mike Shanahan was held to account.” We could have said: “Last year Washington made the playoffs, this year the team was only 3-13, Mike Shanahan was held to account.”

Headlines about the team (on the few stories we might post about the club that aren’t about the name controversy) can be a difficult issue. “Seahawks Crush Redskins” can be changed to “Seattle Crushes Washington.” But “Giants Crush Redskins” can’t become “New York Crushes Washington” because a reader wouldn’t know if we’re referring to the Giants or the Jets.

Again, we are not prohibiting the use of the full team name. At times, it will have to be used – particularly when reporting about the controversy. At times, it may sound awkward to refer to the club as “Washington” or “the team.” Clarity in our reporting is vital. In some cases, achieving that clarity will require using the team’s name (for instance, to distinguish the club from Washington’s other sports teams). Guests will surely use the word Redskins during interviews.

But we can also be sensitive, avoid overuse of the word and use alternatives – as we would with other potentially offensive language.

(Memmos; Oct. 10, 2014)


Sometimes ‘Out Of An Abundance Of Caution’ Is Also The Right Way To Report # ±

Chuck Holmes sent out a guidance note last evening that read, in part:

“Two reports emerged Wednesday, one from Dallas and the other from Los Angeles, of people placed under medical care as a precaution because of possible exposure to Ebola. Neither is a confirmed case of Ebola.

“We can report what we know about these instances, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we should. As the disease spreads and the CDC take precautions like airport screenings, it is likely that more people worried about possible symptoms and concerned about possible contact with the disease will seek diagnosis and medical care. We’re likely to see more of this in the days and weeks to come. …

“These instances bear watching. But until the CDC confirms a case, they do not warrant more than a passing mention in our coverage, as Jeff [Brady] did of the Dallas deputy in his ATC piece tonight. And Eyder [Peralta] may mention the cases in a Two-Way blog post he’s working on the very phenomenon of the spreading public concern over Ebola.”

That’s a way of thinking about how to approach coverage that we can copy and paste into our planning in other situations. What Chuck was saying, in essence, was that developments need to be put into context — and sometimes that context will lead to a decision by NPR not to turn something into “breaking news” even if some of our competitors are.

We’re likely to hear again, it appears, that “out of an abundance of caution” somewhere in the U.S. someone is being tested for Ebola. Hopefully, there will be few if any cases confirmed. Treating each report of someone being tested as significant news could make listeners and readers feel as if the disease is sweeping the nation when in fact that’s not the case.

The teams that have been covering the Ebola news have been layering context and perspective throughout their reports. They’ve applied NPR’s standards and practices to a complicated and difficult story. Thanks.

(Memmos; Oct. 9, 2014)


On Why We Didn’t Join The Rush To Name The Ebola Patient # ±

Just before 1 p.m. ET today, NPR confirmed the name of the man being treated for Ebola at a Dallas hospital. This post is about why we didn’t cite news reports of his name last night or for much of this morning.

It was 9 a.m. ET this morning — more than 15 hours after other news organizations began reporting the news — when NPR determined it could tell its audience the name of the Ebola patient being treated at a Dallas hospital.

Here’s what Chuck Holmes said in a note to editors:

“The name of the patient in Dallas — Thomas Eric Duncan — has been widely reported. NPR has not confirmed the identity, but we now feel confident enough in the reporting of others, including the AP and The New York Times, to allow mention of the name on our air and online with attribution.

“We should attribute to media reports when using his name. And when possible, we should cite the sourcing in those reports – Liberian government officials and members of the patient’s family, including his sister who was quoted by the AP.”

Other organizations made a different decision. In the first minutes after the news broke, many worked fast to craft stories that revealed the man’s name, citing the AP and Times reports.

Online and on the air we often quickly report about other news organizations’ scoops — after weighing the credibility of the outlets and the importance of the information.

As NPR correspondents tried to get independent confirmation, why did we hesitate to say what others were reporting and why did it feel to editors like that was the right call? The main reasons should help guide our thinking in other situations.

1. We never want to get anything wrong. But there are some things we really, Really, REALLY don’t want to get wrong. Naming the first person to have “brought” Ebola to the U.S. is certainly among them. That individual is going to have this news follow him the rest of his life. His family and friends will be affected as well. Yes, citing other organizations is not quite the same as saying we’re reporting something ourselves. But it’s pretty darn close.

2. Someone’s health is highly personal information. We were concerned about whether the man’s sister had his permission to release his name.

3. Names are basic facts that belong in stories. The audience expects to hear and read them. But, it’s also true in this case that the man’s name wasn’t going to mean much, if anything, to a national audience at this point of the story. Of much more interest: why was he in Liberia; what did he do while he was there; what route did he take when flying to the U.S.; whom did he come in contact with after falling ill? We could start to relay information about him, and get important details to our audience, without stating his name.

4. It did not appear, based on what officials were saying, that there was an immediate need for the public to know the man’s name so that those whom he encountered could be alerted. Officials said he would not have communicated the disease to anyone while he was traveling. They said they had identified the people he had been with since arriving in Dallas.

What led to the decision that we could mention the news?

1. As Chuck wrote, the patient’s name was being widely reported. Basically, not acknowledging the news had become pointless.

2. News organizations, including NPR, had been pressing officials. Those officials had not disputed the reports.

Recap: What types of questions did we ask in the first minutes and hours after the news broke?

1. How important to our audience is this man’s name at this moment in the story?

2. Can we confirm the news ourselves?

3. If we can’t confirm it, how confident are we in the reporting done by others?

4. How much more serious are the potential consequences from being wrong than the potential benefits from being right?

(Memmos; Oct. 2, 2014)


Without Further Ado, Here’s A Reminder About When To Use ‘Farther’ # ±

Did the “White House intruder” make it further or farther than was first thought?

Despite what we’re hearing members of Congress say this morning or what has been said on our airwaves a couple times, the intruder made it farther than was first reported — not further.

Think of it this way:

If it’s clear you’re talking about distance, you’re focusing on how far someone or something has gone. Some grammarians say either word can be used, but the trend in recent decades has been to suggest that farther is the better word in such cases.

Further is the right word when you’re not discussing distance. For example: “Memmott always takes these grammar discussions further than he should.”

There are all sorts of situations where things aren’t so obvious. If you’ve read 25 more pages of a book than your partner, are you farther or further along? There’s a measurement involved, but it’s not a distance. The guidance in that case is to use further.

Listeners raised the further/farther issue. As some of our other recent notes about language underscore, some in the audience listen very carefully. We usually find they’re right to have been concerned:

– Listeners Are Begging Us To Bag ‘Begs The Question’

– Garnish? Garnishee? Garnisheed? We’re Not Buying Into This Parsleying Of Our Words

– I Won’t Lie To You, We Get Lay Wrong A Lot

– If You See An Adjective, Kill It — Or At Least Ask Whether It Should Be Allowed To Live

– The? Thee? Who Knew? A Listener, That’s Who

(Memmos; Sept. 30, 2014)


More About Corrections, How We Make Them And How We Display Them # ±

Earlier this year, we made “bottom of the page” our standard home for story corrections. Having them at the top wasn’t feeling right, as we said, because “most of our errors, thankfully, are of the variety that do not significantly detract from the meaning of our reports.”

But, we do not want to hide our mistakes. We’ve been doing more of them on the air and have been more consistent about telling listeners where corrections can be found on our website.

We’ve added a “corrections” link to the topics list on the front of NPR.org. This month, we also put “corrections” links at the top of the show pages for All Things Considered (including WATC), Morning Edition, Weekend Edition Saturday and Weekend Edition Sunday.

But wait, there’s more.

Click on those “corrections” links and you’re taken to another new feature: The main corrections page can now be sorted by “all stories” or by show title. It’s an added level of transparency.

This is a good moment to point to our earlier guidance about how we handle corrections. Click here to read it.

Also worth flagging:

– The “how we make corrections” memo.

– The “common corrections scenario” primer.

Finally, I’d like to suggest it’s worth taking time once in a while to read through our corrections.

First, you get a sense of the mistakes we make most often — incorrect titles, incorrect dates and mathematical miscalculations, to name a few. Knowing what may trip you up could help you avoid a fall.

Second, you’ll get a sense of how our corrections are written and how we try to be consistent and transparent in the way we fix mistakes whether they were made on the air or online.

(Memmos; Sept. 29, 2014)


The Eric Holder Scoop And How It Rolled Out Across Platforms: Something To Emulate # ±

Carrie Johnson’s scoop this morning on the upcoming resignation of Attorney Gen. Eric Holder played out perfectly on the air and on NPR.org. This isn’t the first time we’ve managed to do that. It won’t be the last. The timeline alone is well worth documenting.

– 10:40 a.m. ET: As Carrie goes on Morning Edition to talk with Steve Inskeep about the news, The Two-Way posts a report she had prepared in advance.  The headline hits NPR.org’s homefront. Tweets pointing to The Two-Way post start to pop up.

– 10:41 a.m. ET: The news is posted on NPR’s Facebook page.

– 10:43 a.m. ET: NPR’s “breaking news” email arrives. The news hits other NPR social media outlets, including Tumblr.

– 11 a.m. ET.: Carrie’s pre-recorded spot leads Newscast.

– 11:10 a.m. ET (approx.): Carrie is back on Morning Edition.

– 12:05 p.m. ET: Carrie is on Here & Now to add more.

Kudos to Carrie for the scoop and to everyone who helped coordinate the roll-out of the story.

(Memmos; Sept. 25, 2014)


Guidance: The ‘War’ On ISIS # ±

President Obama calls it a “campaign against extremism.”

NPR, though, does use the word “war” when reporting about the U.S.-led military strikes aimed at the self-proclaimed Islamic State. We’re not alone, as you’ll see in reports from The Associated Press and other news outlets.

The definition of the word guides us: “war — 1. open armed conflict between countries or between factions within the same country; 2. any active hostility, contention, or struggle …” (Webster’s)

Military forces from the U.S. and other nations are now part of an “open armed conflict” between factions within Iraq and Syria, and there is clearly “active hostility” in those countries. The situation differs from what’s happened in other nations where the U.S. has aimed strikes at organizations said to be training terrorists.

Here’s an example of how we’ve used the word, from an introduction heard during All Things Considered:

“We’ve been reporting, today, on the series of airstrikes the U.S. and Arab countries conducted overnight in Syria. After weeks of attacks on the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, in Iraq, these are the first U.S. air attacks on the group in Syria. And it marks a major expansion of the U.S. led war on ISIS.”

The words “on ISIS” are important. They distinguish the current campaign from the earlier war in Iraq. If the al-Qaida offshoot called the Korasan Group is targeted again, that could make it advisable to say “war on militant Islamist fighters in Syria and Iraq” or some variation of that phrasing. But at least for now, most reports will likely focus on ISIS.

Obviously, war isn’t the only word that applies. Other words and phrases can be used: attacks, campaign, military campaign, air strikes, bombing runs, military conflict and so on.

It’s also clear, as Greg Myre explores on the Parallels blog, that there are good reasons to add context:

“With the airstrikes in Syria, the U.S. has now bombed seven Muslim countries since the 9/11 attacks and the lines between a full-fledged war and counterterrorism have been blurred. The current efforts contains elements of both as a broad, open-ended military campaign that also targets a specific terrorist group.”

Related “memmos”:

– Islamic State? ISIS? ISIL? Here’s Another Reminder About NPR’s Guidance

– Guidance On The Word ‘Execute’

(Memmos; Sept. 24, 2014)


Listeners Are Begging Us To Bag ‘Begs The Question’ # ±

Every time someone says on NPR that something “begs the question,” we get complaints from listeners.

They point to the phrase’s original meaning — to “pass over or ignore a question by assuming it to be established or settled” (Merriam-Webster).  The LawProse blog notes, for example, that you’ve begged the question if you say a defendant is guilty “because he is charged with a crime.”  That’s ignoring the fact that being charged isn’t the same as being guilty. You’ve engaged in a circular argument — the defendant is guilty because he’s been charged and he’s charged because he’s guilty.

But over time, “begs the question” has been increasingly used when the speaker means to say that a question has been raised. That’s where we and other news outlets go wrong, listeners say.

A typical example (from Time): “All of the hype surrounding the shiny new additions to the Apple product line beg the question: What happened to the hype surrounding the last shiny new iPhones we ran out to purchase a mere 365 days ago …?”

This misuse of the term is by no means a new issue. Check out this New York Times post from 2008: “Begging the Question, Again.”

In the past year, the library’s Candice Kortkamp tells us, “beg” or “begs the question” was heard on NPR 11 times. Correspondents or hosts accounted for five of the instances. Four of those five staff-generated cases were in scripts or recorded conversations, not during a live two-way. Only one person, Massachusetts Attorney Gen. Martha Coakley got the “begs the question” reference right.

It’s worth noting, as we said last week in the semi-controversial “memmo” about garnish vs. garnishee, that English is a living language.

The Grammar Girl points out that “when thousands of people use a word or phrase the ‘wrong’ way, and almost nobody is using it the ‘right’ way, it’s a clear sign that the meaning is changing.”

The case could be made that we could give in to the crowd and go begging, so to speak.

But there’s also a simple solution. Substitute the word “raises” for “begs” and you’ve not only avoided inciting the grammarians, you’ve also used a word that makes the point more effectively.

Plus, while rhetorical flourishes are nice, it is NPR practice to speak and write clearly. Perhaps, you might say, to avoid unnecessary garnishing.

(Memmos; Sept. 22, 2014)


Don’t Always Believe What You Remember # ±

There are several reasons to read this New York Times Magazine piece:

How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics

Political junkies will be interested. Journalists will enjoy a look back at a key week in their profession’s recent history. History buffs like “what ifs?” and Matt Bai’s account has them.

What’s also worth noting is how the story reminds us that we shouldn’t necessarily trust our own memories.

For instance, Hart’s famous “follow me around” quote inspired the Miami Herald‘s reporters to stake out his townhouse, right?

Wrong. Bai writes that the quote hadn’t been widely reported yet and that the Herald‘s team hadn’t heard about it when they began watching Hart. Their investigation had been prompted by a tip, not Hart’s supposed “challenge.”

How about the famous “Monkey Business” photo? It finished off Hart’s campaign, right?

Wrong. “The photo didn’t surface until nearly three weeks after Hart suspended his candidacy,” Bai reports. “It was a final indignity, to be sure, but it had nothing to do with his decision to quit.”

An NPR.org search indicates we’ve gotten details of the Hart story wrong a few times — including here (a  slight mix-up on the timing of Hart’s departure from the campaign), here (a photo caption that doesn’t quite get the chain of events right) and here (a line that makes it sound like it was the news media that caught Hart on the “Monkey Business”).

Other news outlets have had miscues as well — including here and here.

If my memory is correct, it was President Reagan who turned a Russian proverb — “trust, but verify” — into a signature phrase of American politics.

But I’m trusting my memory. I should verify as well. The Times Magazine piece is a reminder of that.

(Memmos; Sept. 19, 2014)


Garnish? Garnishee? Garnisheed? We’re Not Buying Into This Parsleying Of Our Words # ±

Several things should be said about this week’s reports from Chris Arnold and ProPublica’s Paul Kiel. Their stories about debt collection and the seizure of people’s wages and bank accounts have been illuminating, compelling and at points heart-breaking.

Millions Of Americans’ Wages Seized Over Credit Card And Medical Debt

With Debt Collection, Your Bank Account Could Be At Risk

Some listeners, though, can’t get past the way we sprinkled the word “garnish” into the reports.

“This may be a minor thing, but I am a stickler,” writes one of the dozen or so people we’ve heard from so far. “Basically, [the story's] headline is saying that millions of Americans had parsley (or some other garnish) thrown at them. This has always been a tricky bit of grammar, not many people realize there is a huge difference. Please use ‘garnishee’ or ‘garnisheed’ when speaking of wage garnishment.”

As has been noted before (“I Won’t Lie To You, We Get Lay Wrong A Lot“), “many in NPR’s audience (radio and online) pay very close attention to our grammar.”

But, English is a living language. In this case, the critics are trying to enforce a rule that no longer applies. Our go-to dictionary (Webster’s New World College, fourth edition) says “garnishee” is now rarely used as a transitive verb in the U.S. “Garnish” is the verb to use, Webster’s says.

This note isn’t meant to be a dictum about the use of the word garnish. It is intended to remind us about the close attention listeners and readers pay to the words we use. We may disagree with their opinions, but we can admire their dedication and learn from their messages.

Plus, their emails do add some flavor to our day.

(Memmos; Sept. 16, 2014)


Islamic State? ISIS? ISIL? Here’s Another Reminder About NPR’s Guidance # ±

(Note on Aug. 19, 2015: Go here to see our latest guidance on how to refer to ISIS/Islamic State.)

If you need a refresher about what we call the Islamist fighters in Iraq and Syria who are dominating the news these days and why they’re being referred to in different ways, Morning Edition and the Parallels blog have valuable background:

ISIS, ISIL Or Islamic State: What’s In A Name?

The blog adds a line about our foreign desk’s guidance regarding what to say on the air and online:

“NPR’s policy is to initially call the group ‘the self-declared Islamic State’ or some equivalent phrase, use ISIS in later references and, when necessary, explain that ISIL is another widely used acronym.”

That language was based on our internal Wiki entry:

“ISLAMIC STATE OF IRAQ AND SYRIA: On first reference, we refer to the group as the ‘self-proclaimed Islamic State’ or the militants/extremists/fighters ‘who call themselves the Islamic State.’ On second reference, it is acceptable to refer to them as ISIS. If in a report a person is heard referring to them as ISIL, we should note that is also a widely used acronym for the group.”

How does this play out?

Thursday during the 5 p.m. ET Newscast, Juana Summers’ spot from the Capitol was introduced this way:

“When President Obama outlined his strategy for combatting the threat from the so-called Islamic State, he vowed that there would be no U.S. ground troops involved. But as NPR’s Juana Summers reports, many Republicans have criticized the strategy President Obama outlined Wednesday night. They’re calling on him to lay out a more aggressive plan for military action.”

All Things Considered followed the Newscast with this:

“We begin this hour with a closer look at one element of President Obama’s strategy to take on the so-called Islamic State.”

The second ATC piece that hour was related and began like this:

“Secretary of State, John Kerry, is in Saudi Arabia today to drum up support for President Obama’s strategy to against ISIS.”

“Wait a minute,” you say, “that last one didn’t start with ‘so-called’ or ‘self-described’ or some other modifier to the name ‘Islamic State.’ Doesn’t that go against our guidelines?”

Well, there’s a reason we call them guidelines — not rules. We had just told listeners twice that this is the “so-called Islamic State” we’re reporting about. Yes, some listeners didn’t hear those references. But many, if not most, did. There’s room for cutting to the second reference — ISIS — in that case.

There’s something else about that second ATC report that’s worth noting. Jackie Northam smoothly set up listeners for the “ISIL” reference they were about to hear:

“State Department spokesperson Marie Harff says there’s more than just the military component to battling ISIL, the alternative acronym for the militant group.”

As always, we’re open to discussing reasons to adjust our guidance.

(Memmos; Sept. 12, 2014)


Peat, We Hardly Knew ‘Ye — But We Can Learn From Our Brief Time With The Wee Kitty # ±

He was the captivating kitten in our story Tuesday about distillery cats. Peat, as we reported from the Glenturret distillery in Scotland, had “the killer reflexes of a champion mouser.” When our microphone came near, he pounced.

Our reporting on Peat and other whisky cats had been done more than three weeks before the broadcast.

Sadly, as we were telling our audience about Peat, he was being mourned by those who knew him. The kitten was struck by a vehicle on Monday. He “passed away [that day] in the arms of distillery manager, Neil Cameron,” according to Aberdeen’s Press and Journal.

We didn’t find out about his death until the distillery announced the news Wednesday.

It would not have occurred to this editor to call up the distillery on Monday or Tuesday to inquire if Peat was still prowling the grounds. But it does seem reasonable to suggest that a call or email to give the distillery a heads up that the piece was going to be broadcast might have led to our hearing of his passing. (It’s also reasonable to suggest that the distillery should have called us.)

Conversations with correspondents this morning confirm that it’s routine, especially when the reporting was done weeks or even months earlier, to check back with key characters before a report is broadcast or posted. Obviously, it could be awkward to ask if someone’s still alive (“hey, has Peat used up any of his nine lives yet?”). A simple, “I wanted to let you know my story’s scheduled to run tomorrow,” could be enough to get the conversation going and alert us to something we need to know.

This note is just a reminder that it’s a good idea to do that — for Peat’s sake.

(Memmos; Sept. 10, 2014)


Do Not Assume, Because You Know What That Will Make You # ±

July 29: Sports Illustrated‘s Peter King writes on the MMQB blog that officials from the NFL and the Baltimore Ravens “have seen” the surveillance video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée.

The implication was that those officials had watched the tape and concluded that a two-game suspension was enough punishment for Rice.

Today: King writes that “earlier this summer a source I trusted told me he assumed the NFL had seen the damaging video that was released by TMZ on Monday morning of Rice slugging his then-fiancée. … The source said league officials had to have seen it. This source has been impeccable, and I believed the information. So I wrote that the league had seen the tape. I should have called the NFL for a comment, a lapse in reporting on my part. The league says it has not seen the tape, and I cannot refute that with certainty.” [Bold added.]

As you’ve probably heard, the newly surfaced video has led the Ravens to cut Rice from the team and the NFL to suspend him indefinitely.

King may have been right all along. But he can’t prove that.

Let’s keep this simple. There’s nothing vague about the word “confirm.” It means the person we’ve spoken to knows for a fact that something has happened. There’s no room for “I think so,” or “that’s what I hear,” or “they must have.” In most cases we require more than one such source — independent from the other — to confirm a key fact before we go with it.

We do all this, as you know, because “when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.”

H/T to Brian Naylor.

(Memmos; Sept. 8, 2014)


Showing Stories To Sources? This Reporter Did. We Don’t. # ±

The Intercept broke the news this week that on at least two occasions in 2012, when he was with the Los Angeles Times, reporter Ken Dilanian sent drafts of stories he was working on to the CIA’s press office. The Intercept has also posted copies of emails from Dilanian to the CIA press office.

Dilanian (who is now with the AP and worked at USA Today before joining the LA Times), tells The Intercept that sending the drafts to the CIA was a mistake. “I shouldn’t have done it, and I wouldn’t do it now,” he says. “[But] it had no meaningful impact on the outcome of the stories. I probably should’ve been reading them the stuff instead of giving it to them.”

David Lauter, Tribune’s Washington bureau chief and Dilanian’s former boss, says the company’s news outlets “have a very clear rule that has been in place for quite a few years that tells reporters not to share copies of stories outside the newsroom. … I am disappointed that the emails indicate that Ken may have violated that rule.”

The AP says it is “satisfied that pre-publication exchanges Ken Dilanian had with CIA before joining AP [in May] were in pursuit of accuracy in his reporting.”

Here is what NPR’s Ethics Handbook says about sharing with sources:

“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.”

This is just the latest in an occasional note to highlight something from our handbook by discussing a problem encountered by another news outlet.

(Memmos; Sept. 5, 2014)


Corrections: Fresh Guidance About How We Make Them # ±

Who do I talk to about a correction?*

That question gets asked at least once a week or so. Given that, it seems like a good idea to dust off, freshen and resend the Chuck Holmes/Gerry Holmes memo from earlier this year about “How We Make Corrections.”

As you’ll see, some of the names have changed and some of the steps have been tweaked a bit. But the process remains basically the same.

Click here to see the memo. May I recommend saving a copy to your desktop and perhaps printing it out as well?

Also posted: “A Common Corrections Scenario.” It also might be worthy of saving for future reference.

If you spot any mistakes in those memos (wouldn’t that be ironic?), please let me know.

(Memmos, Sept. 3, 2014)

*Yes, “whom do I talk to …?” or “to whom do I talk …?” would be the grammatical ways to go. They’re not, though, the way the question gets asked.


So, Can You Guess How Many Times We Started A Sentence This Way In One Week? # ±

A recovering blogger is not someone who should point fingers when it comes to grammar.

It should also be noted, as Grammarist.com has pointed out, that it’s not necessarily true that it’s wrong to begin a sentence with the word “so” or any other coordinating conjunction.

What’s more, while we do want to speak and write well, we also want to “sound like America.”

But (to use another such conjunction), we do start our sentences with “so” an awful lot.

During the week of Aug. 17-23, NPR reporters, hosts, member station reporters and freelancers began sentences with the word “so” 237 times during broadcasts of Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Weekend All Things Considered.

According to librarian Sarah Knight, who did the research for us, the usage cuts across genders and ages. David Greene believes he may be our most frequent “so” sayer, but he’s certainly not alone.

This isn’t a new thing. Four years ago, The New York Times wrote that during one “dispatch on National Public Radio last month … a quarter of the sentences began with ‘so.’ ”

There’s a case to be made that we’ve been influenced by the people we meet and we’re just reflecting the way Americans speak. Three years ago, University of Delaware English professor Ben Yagoda wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education that, “I’m an NPR power-listener, and so is to NPR interviewees as dude is to fraternity brothers.”

Should we do something about  this?

Fast Company columnist Hunter Thurman recently argued that starting sentences with “so” can undermine your credibility. Thurman made the case that “just like a speaking coach will tell you not to fill empty space with ‘um,’ you should avoid framing your answer as a rehearsed pitch by starting with ‘so.’ ”

Rutgers University communications professor Galina Bolden, however, told Business Insider that a “so” sentence “communicates that the speaker is interested in or concerned about the recipient.”

The bigger issue for us may be the repetition. Perhaps the thing to do is be aware and try this: If you feel the urge to write a “so” into your story or questions for a two-way, resist. Find another way to start that sentence.

Instead of:

“So, tell us exactly what you saw.”

Just say:

“Tell us what you saw.”

Or instead of:

“So, here’s how the incubator works.”


“Here’s how the incubator works.”

And so on.

(Memmos, Sept. 2, 2014)


I Won’t Lie To You, We Get Lay Wrong A Lot # ±

What are the most common emails to our corrections inbox? (Besides those accusing us of favoring one side or the other in whatever is the hot debate of the day.)

They’re the ones that go something like this:

“Thanks for the reporting! Please apprise [insert name of NPR staffer here] of the difference between ‘to lay’ and ‘to lie.’ It should be ‘if everybody is lying low’ not ‘laying low.’ “


“Thanks for the reporting! Please apprise Mr. Clapton of the difference between ‘lie down’ and ‘lay down.’ It should be ‘lie down Sally’ not ‘lay down Sally.’ “

Many grammarians have posted about lie vs. lay. The University of Kansas has guidance under the headline “You’ll lay an egg if you don’t lie down.”

Arizona State has guidance and a practice exercise here.

The Associated Press begins its style guide entry this way:

“The action word is lay. It takes a direct object. Laid is the form for its past tense and its past participle. Its present participle is laying. Lie indicates a state of reclining along a horizontal plane. It does not take a direct object. Its past tense is lay. Its past participle is lain. Its present participle is lying. When lie means to make an untrue statement, the verb forms are lie, lied, lying.”

I bring this up for two reasons.

1. We get on average several emails a week about it.

2. It underscores something: Many in NPR’s audience (radio and online) pay very close attention to our grammar. While it’s true that we want to sound conversational and that some grammatical rules are being bent all the time across the nation, it does offend some of our most dedicated fans when we get things wrong.

Note: This is a bad thing for a Standards & Practices editor to admit — I’m not a grammarian. I’m in the camp that needs to look some words up every time I use them (principal? or principle?). Or, I turn to some of the better linguists in the room. There’s somebody who can help on each desk, show and online team. The librarians are here for us too.

There, I’ve put  my cards on the table. (Notice how I avoided the whole lay vs. lie issue there.)

(Memmos; Aug. 29, 2014)


Reminder: Whether To Go With ‘First-Name-Only’ Needs To Be Discussed And Explained # ±

There’s been a flurry of appeals to the Standards & Practices editor and the DMEs in recent weeks about identifying someone we’ve spoken to by a first name only.

At least once, a first-name-only got on the air without being discussed with either the DMEs or that S&P scold.

There’s not really a distinction between a first-name-only and anonymity. So this passage from our guidelines applies:

“If a reporter and editor know ahead of time that a key interview can only be done if the source is granted anonymity, they must have a conversation in advance with a senior editor and make the case for granting it.”

Senior editor = a supervising senior editor, a DME or the Standards & Practices 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.

Another important set of words in that passage: “key interview.” (Note: We realize that sometimes it isn’t known ahead of time that a person won’t want us to use a full name. In that case, the discussion about whether to use information from that interview will obviously happen afterward.)

We should be very sparing in our granting of such status and the appearance of first-name-onlys in our reports. Listeners and readers expect us to identify the people we interview. Among the questions to consider:

– Is the person going to be in danger if we use a full name?

– Is the subject sensitive and among those that could come back to haunt the person because the story will live on the Web forever?

– How hard have we tried to get others with equally good stories who have no problem with the use of their full names?

If after a discussion it’s decided that we should grant first-name-only (or anonymous) status, then we have to agree on the language that tells listeners and readers why we’re doing that. We should always explain why someone isn’t being fully identified. It might be because:

– She fears retribution from police.

– He’s concerned his chronic condition could make employers wary of hiring him.

– Her family doesn’t know about what happened.

– He would only discuss his medical condition if his full name was withheld.

You get the idea. It’s also the case that:

“NPR does not name individuals who are the alleged victims of sexual assaults. There are exceptions at times – such as certain instances when such an individual goes public with his/her identity – and NPR editors will judge these instances on a case-by-case basis.”

Related reminders from the handbook:

No offers. “Occasionally in the course of our reporting, a source will agree to share information only if it’s not attributed to him or her. Journalists should use their good judgment to determine whether the information merits such a decision. However, we do not begin our quest for interviews by promising to keep a source anonymous or off the record. Our goal is to get as much information as possible on the record.”

No pseudonyms. “When we decide to withhold a source’s name from a story, we don’t invent a pseudonym for that source. Again, our job is to present factual — not fabricated — information.”

(Memmos; Aug. 28, 2014)


Campaign-Time Reminder: ‘Don’t Sign, Don’t Advocate, Don’t Donate’ # ±

(Editor’s note on July 27, 2017: Click here to go to an updated special section about the do’s and don’t's of social media.)

Labor Day Weekend means summer is almost over and that the 2014 campaign is about to really get going. So it’s time to remind everyone (and make sure new folks are aware) that as the Ethics Handbook says:

“We’re not advocates. We may not run for office, endorse candidates or otherwise engage in politics in a participatory or activist manner. … We should not sign petitions or otherwise contribute support or money to political causes or public campaigns. Also: we don’t put political signs in our yards or bumper stickers on our cars.”

And remember, there is no privacy on the Web. Posting on Facebook or Twitter or another social media site that you support a political cause or a political candidate is the virtual equivalent of putting a sign in your front yard.

On a related note, there’s also a lot happening (as there often is) on the National Mall and other places around the nation. So here’s another reminder:

“There is real journalistic value in being an observer at public events such as a march or rally, even without a reporting assignment. But while we may observe, we refrain from actively participating in marches, rallies or public events involving political issues or partisan causes that our organization covers or may cover. Of course, the distinction between being a participant and being an observer can be subtle. But waving a picket sign or joining along in a cheer would be inappropriate. Again, we rely on your good judgment.

“Since the nature of each event differs, it’s wise to discuss these matters ahead of time with supervisors to figure out where ethical pressure points may exist or emerge. If attending such an event as an observer, take care in behavior, comments, attire and physical location not to reflect a participatory role.”

There’s more in the handbook, including a discussion of “the evolution of our guidance on marches, rallies and public events.”

(Memmos; Aug. 25, 2014)


Guidance On The Word ‘Execute’ # ±

Several listeners and readers have told us it’s wrong to say that James Foley was “executed” or to use the word “execution” when reporting about his death.

They have a point.

According to Webster’s, someone is executed if they are “put to death as in accordance with a legally imposed sentence.” An execution is the putting to death of someone “in accordance with a legally imposed sentence.”

The AP advises that “to execute a person is to kill him in compliance with a military order or judicial decision.”

Saying Foley was executed, by definition, would mean his death was “in compliance” or “in accordance” with orders from a recognized court, government or military. Saying Foley was executed would imply that the Islamic State (or ISIS) is an entity that can legally carry out such sentences.

In this case, it’s better to say Foley was “killed” or “beheaded” or “murdered” (“the unlawful and malicious or premeditated killing of one human being by another”).

Note I: Yes, the AP seems not to have followed its own guidance on this issue. And yes, “murdered” is a powerful word that should be used judiciously. In this case, though, the video evidence supports use of the word.

Note II: Another word to think about when discussing the Foley case is “captured.” When an Israeli soldier was missing recently, we discussed why it was wrong to say he had been “kidnapped” (a word that applies to civilians and to crimes) and was better to say he had been “captured” (a word that applies to combatants on a battlefield). In Foley’s case, the opposite is true. He was not a combatant. It’s not a major problem to say Foley was “captured,” but it’s better to say something like he was “taken hostage” or “kidnapped.”

(Memmos; Aug. 22, 2014)


Something To Think About: Was Michael Brown A ‘Teenager?’ Yes, But … # ±

Webster’s New World College Dictionary is clear: “teenager … a person in his or her teens.”

But check out this headline: “AP Decides Not to Refer to Brown, 18, as ‘Teenager.’ ” (Richard Prince’s Journal-isms)

“Many outlets continue to refer to [Michael Brown] as a teen or teenager. Now that we know his age, let’s be specific without using a term that can be left up to interpretation.” (AP Managing Editor Lou Ferrara)

Basically, the wire service says that once you’ve reached 18, you’re an adult and that to most people a “teenager” implies someone younger than 18.

We’ve used the words “teen” and “teenager” often when referring to Brown.

Should we?

After conversations with a dozen or so editors on various parts of the 3rd floor, it’s clear there are two basic views. There’s a slight majority in favor of No. 2:

1. By definition, Brown was a teenager. So the word applies. He was 18 at the time of his death and it’s just a fact that he was a teen. We can use the words “teen” and “teenager.”

2. But words come with connotations. For many listeners and readers, a “teen” is a youngster or a kid. We could be influencing the way they view the story by introducing that word. We should avoid it.

By now, you may be asking: “What’s the alternative?”

The most common suggestion is “young man.” That also comes with connotations — though they seem to be more appropriate ones in this case. Brown was old enough to vote. He had graduated from high school. He could have gone into the military. As AP might say, he had entered adulthood.

Would we refer to an 18-year-old soldier killed in Afghanistan as a “teen” or “teenager?” Probably not unless we were doing a profile and it felt right to say he was “still in his teens.” But I suspect we’d be more likely to use the phrase “young man.”

The best guidance in this case and others like it that may come along seems to (as it has in other situations) come back to avoiding labels.

So, perhaps we should say and write that Brown was “the 18-year-old shot and killed by a police officer.” Or, that protests continued over the “shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.”

Are we banning the words “teen” and “teenager” for 18- and 19-year-olds? No.

Might we decide sometime that a 17-year-old should be described as a “young woman” or “young man?” Yes.

But is it best to avoid labels and to consider them carefully before using them? Yes.

(H/T to Hansi Lo Wang.)

(Memmos; Aug. 21, 2014)


Hey Did You Hear How We Handled That? Volume III: Polling # ±

We report about polls all the time. We dig into them in various ways. On Morning Edition and in the Ed blog today, Cory Turner highlighted the importance of examining not only the results, but how the questions were asked.

The two surveys he dissected reached different conclusions about the level of support for Common Core.

Cory made a convincing case that it was the way the questions were asked that created the differences.

“Can a majority of Americans oppose and support the Common Core?” he concluded. “In a word: yes. Because, when it comes to polling, a word can make all the difference.”

Read or listen to his report to see how he told the “tale of two polls.”

The piece is a reminder to all of us, especially as the 2016 presidential campaign draws near, about how important it is to go beyond the results when it comes to reporting about polls. Among the tools out there that are worth consulting is the National Council on Public Polls’ “20 Questions A Journalist Should Ask About Poll Results.”

Other valuable materials online include: Poynter’s “Resources for Covering Political Polls.”

One related thought from this former economics editor who has a pet peeve: Don’t fall into the trap of confusing percent and percentage points. Click here for more on that.

(Memmos; Aug. 20, 2014)



Can I Tweet That? Or Facebook It? Or Post It? Some More Social Media Guidance # ±

(Editor’s note on July 27, 2017: Click here to go to an updated special section about the do’s and don’t's of social media.)

Digital strategist and social media team member Mel Kramer writes:

“It’s really good to be able to contact companies on Twitter if, for instance, you need to change a flight or are having an issue with your electrical bill. You should do this! (It’s much easier than contacting customer service almost all of the time.)

“Remember, though, that your messages are public. So, since we cover such companies, it’s important to make sure your posts on their social media accounts are as polite and respectful as you would be if you were addressing them on the air. You don’t want to be open to accusations of bias later on.

“I’ve recently seen several journalists from other news organizations publicly berate companies on Twitter —  and just wanted to send out this reminder that we can correspond, but not berate.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the social media universe, there’s the question of whether we can post on our personal (but still public!) pages about the things we “like” or the good deeds we’re doing for charities.

The short answer is yes.

The longer answer, of course, comes with a “but.”

For instance, are you going to be in a charity run that raises money for cancer research? Of course you can tell folks about that on Twitter, Facebook or other sites.

But it’s wise to make clear that it’s you — not NPR — that’s doing the good deed. NPR can’t be seen as endorsing one worthy cause over others.

And if your job involves covering the cause or issue that the fundraiser is about, it’s best to steer clear of public pronouncements — and actions — that imply you’ve chosen one organization over another.

There’s lots of grey area here. The handbook has guidance about “whom to turn to” when questions arise.

In particular, it suggests “for advice specific to social media environments, email SocialMediaTeam@npr.org. … Of course, you can always … actually talk” to the social media team as well.

(Memmos; Aug. 19, 2014)


If You See An Adjective, Kill It — Or At Least Ask Whether It Should Be Allowed To Live # ±

This line in a Newscast spot today …

“An investigation continues into the bizarre accident that claimed the life of 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. at a dirt track in western New York.”

… led to a discussion in the newsroom about the advice (from Strunk & White and others) to write with nouns and verbs, not adverbs and adjectives.

The adjective that drew our attention was “bizarre.”

First, we agreed it wasn’t the right word to use. As NPR and other news outlets have reported, it’s not unusual for stock car and dirt track drivers to confront each other. Sometimes it happens on the track. The result in this case was tragic, but the events that led up to it were not unusual. So “bizarre” had to go.

Then Kathy Rushlow said that “verbs, not adjectives,” is a good rule to keep in mind. Her comment reminded me of what one of my first editors did 30 or so years ago as he butchered improved my copy. He hated adverbs that ended in “ly” and killed every one. My stories never seemed to suffer.

But it’s worth noting that there’s been some pushback from grammarians in recent years.

Linguist Geoffry Pullman called Strunk & White’s advice about avoiding adjectives and adverbs a “mysterious decree.”

He’s pointed out that Strunk & White even violated their own rule:

” ‘Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs,’ they insist. … And then, in the very next sentence, comes a negative passive clause containing three adjectives: ‘The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.’ “

On the Grammar Underground blog, writer June Casagrande suggested that there are “adjectives and manner adverbs that are worth keeping.” They are, “the ones that add new information.”

“The ones that should go are usually the ones that contain value judgments,” she adds. “They tell readers how to feel about something rather than giving them the facts and letting them decide for themselves.”

So: “Mark wears an obnoxiously loud shirt when he bikes.”

Might be better this way: “Mark wears a bright white shirt decorated with Grateful Dead logos when he bikes.”

(Memmos; Aug. 14, 2014)


Panda Triplets! Or, How To Make A Great Introduction # ±

If you didn’t catch it on the air, take a moment to listen to the introduction on Morning Edition today to a report about panda triplets born in China:

Steve Inskeep: “This is the introduction of a news report, in which part of our job is to interest you in the story that follows.

“In this case, we got one word for ‘ya.


David Greene: “Better still; two words.

“Panda triplets!

“Weeks after birth, they’re still alive. NPR’s Frank Langfitt reports from China.”

In Sound Reporting, Jonathan Kern writes that:

“The host intro is one of the most important — if not the most important — parts of a radio story. It is the equivalent of a newspaper headline and lead paragraph rolled into one — the ‘hook’ that is going to grab the listener’s attention. …

“Because the intro is so important, the writing should shine — it should give the host an opportunity to connect with the audience and sell the reporter’s story. As [former] NPR Senior Vice President Jay Kernis puts it, ‘During a lead is when hosts become hosts. … Let them have their moment on the stage, in the best possible light, in front of the most captivating set.’ “

Based on Jonathan’s guidance, there are two words for that intro: well done.

(Memmos, Aug. 13, 2014)


UPDATE: The Latest ‘NPR Policy On Use Of Potentially Offensive Language’ # ±

A search today for NPR’s latest guidance on the use of potentially offensive language revealed that we hadn’t posted the most recent version.

So, here’s a link to where our latest language about such language can be found. It was written earlier this year:

NPR Policy On Use Of Potentially Offensive Language

The biggest change from the previous document is the addition of a lengthy section on “Entertainment and Music Programming.”

Fair warning: As we might say on the air and online, “some of the language in the document will be offensive to many readers.”

The section of the Ethics Handbook that deals with “using potentially offensive language” has been updated with the new link.

This is a good time for a reminder, because one slipped through the cracks on us last week: If there’s potentially offensive language in a piece intended for broadcast — even if the words have been bleeped — stations need to be alerted in the DACS line. Listeners and readers online deserve to be warned as well, of course.

Clarification: No offensive words were heard in the piece referred to above. The words were bleeped.

(Memmos; Aug. 11, 2014)


Reminder About The Word ‘Torture’ # ±

As you may have heard, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet wrote Thursday that “from now on, The Times will use the word ‘torture’ to describe incidents in which we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information.”

His post about the Times‘ position on use of that word is here. It came a week after President Obama’s “we tortured some folks” comment.

This is a good time to refresh our memory on NPR’s position. As with many such guidelines, it’s on our internal Wiki.
Here’s what Ellen Weiss wrote on Nov. 13, 2009. I’ve added some bold for emphasis:

“Contrary to some commentaries, NPR did not ban the word ‘torture.’ Rather, we gave our journalists guidance about how to avoid loaded language about interrogation techniques, realizing that no matter what words are chosen, we risk the appearance of taking one side or another. We asked our staff to avoid using imprecise descriptions that lump all techniques together, and to evaluate the use of the following descriptions, depending on context, including: ‘harsh’ or ‘extreme’ techniques; ‘enhanced interrogation techniques;’ and specific descriptions, such as ‘controlled drowning.’ We specifically advised them that they may use the word ‘torture’ when it makes sense in the context of the piece.

In the years since Ellen’s note, debate over the word has continued and we’ve applied the guidance. For example, here’s Robert Siegel this past April:

“Today, the Senate Intelligence Committee moved a step closer to publishing parts of a report about the torture of terrorism suspects after 9/11. Lawmakers voted to send the report on to the White House and to CIA. The CIA will determine how much of the five-year-long study can be declassified. And President Obama could be called upon to referee any dispute of how much of the report sees the light of day.”

Here’s Tom Gjelten in May 2013:

“[President] Obama banned those interrogation techniques on his second day in office. But he has largely avoided the debate over whether torture in some cases has produced valuable information. … The program did not ‘work,’ the [Senate] committee said, in the sense that the ‘brutal’ interrogations — the torture — produced no information, no leads, of any use in tracking down terrorists.”

We’re constantly discussing and reviewing the language we use. Our guidance on use of the word “torture”  comes down to the issue of whether it “makes sense in the context of the piece.” The Times says the test is whether “we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information.” I would think that if NPR is confident interrogators “inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information” that is the sort of context our guideline suggests is relevant.

(Memmos; Aug. 8, 2014)


Here’s Where To Find The Latest Version Of Our ‘Minor Consent Form’ # ±

Click here to see (and print if you need to) a copy of the latest form for obtaining “consent, authorization, release and waiver” before interviewing minors. We’ll be placing it on the Wiki too.

Here’s a reminder, from the handbook:

“Be sure to consider legal issues when dealing with minors (generally defined as anyone under the age of 18). An interview of a minor about a sensitive subject requires us to secure permission from at least one of the minor’s parents (preferably both) or a legal guardian. Examples of sensitive subjects include cheating, sexual activity, involvement in gangs or crime, difficult family relationships, probation violation, out-of-wedlock pregnancy or parenthood, victims’ sexual abuse and similar topics that could have legal ramifications or lead to embarrassment. An interview of a minor in a special custodial situation, such as foster care, juvenile detention, or holding facilities for illegal immigrants, requires the consent of the person who has custody of the minor. Utah also requires the consent of both the custodian of the juvenile facility and the minor’s parent.

“An interview on a non-sensitive topic (normal childhood activities, sports, book, movies, trips to the zoo, baseball and the like) does not require consent. Generally however, any interview on school premises will require the permission of the school authorities.

“In cases where there is even a hint of doubt about whether to get consent, contact our legal team (look for LegalAlert in the NPR internal email address book).”

(Memmos, Aug. 7, 2014)


‘This Story About You Is Going To Be On The Web Forever And You May Come To Regret That’ # ±

The note about “How To Explain Why We Won’t ‘Take Down’ A Story” prompted several emails suggesting it would be helpful to offer guidance on what to say to people — before we interview them — about the fact that our stories go on the Web as well as the radio.

There’s a case to be made that some people who have come to regret speaking to news outlets did not fully understand that what they said will live on indefinitely thanks to the Web. Perhaps if that had been made clear to them they would have declined to be interviewed, been more careful about what they said or at the very least would have had no reason to object later.

After sampling opinions from various parts of the newsroom, it’s obvious there is no magical sentence that works in all situations and it’s clear that long explanations are not always necessary, possible or helpful.

This note is not intended to cover reporting done in war zones or situations when stopping to have a long conversation about the long tail of the Web isn’t safe or practical. Getting the permission of parents or guardians to interview minors is also a separate subject (and we make it clear when we get such consent that the material will be on the Web).

With those caveats in mind, we obviously start conversations that hopefully will turn into interviews by identifying ourselves.  As the handbook says, “journalism should be done in plain sight.”

But as for what to say after we introduce ourselves, rather than try to come up with a one-size-fits-all approach, here are some thoughts.

– Nell Greenfieldboyce comes at the issue as someone who reports about complicated and often sensitive subjects. “If the person is talking to me about, say, their child’s health, I really caution them,” she writes. “I point out that years in the future, someone could search on their child’s name and read this story. Are they really OK with that?

She suggests that in sensitive situations it may be wise to say something like this:

“Before we start, I have to ask you: you know you are being recorded, right? And that I am a radio reporter and the reason I am recording is that I may use part of this tape in my broadcast radio story, just like a newspaper reporter uses a quote? And you should know that we also put our stories up on our website, so this isn’t just for radio, but the audio will go online and there will be a story with it, and you may be quoted by name and your voice may be used. Are you OK with all that?”

Nell adds that she knows “there is a concern that if we fully inform people, they will not want to talk to us. I find it’s just the opposite, that the more I try to talk to sources about the effect on them, the more firm they are in their conviction that they want to talk and the more they trust me.”

– Jon Hamilton also deals with sensitive subjects. He writes that:

“In 2012 I did a story about a guy named Christopher Stephens, who had taken part in an NIH trial of a drug called ketamine for severe depression. We talked about the implications of his story (and photo) being on the Web forever and, after pondering it, he agreed to use his name. The interesting twist came when I did another ketamine story later that year. The website wanted to run one of the photos of him that we already had on file. Legally, we could have. But I tracked him down and got his approval anyway. I wanted to know whether his mental health status had changed and whether he wanted another web reference that would never go away. He gave his permission to use the photo.”

(The BBC devotes a section of its editorial guidelines to the issue of using “archive material involving illness, death, emotional trauma or intimate personal revelation” and the need to “minimise possible distress to surviving contributors, victims and relatives.”)

– Pam Fessler’s reporting on poverty takes her into some very personal places. “I’m often profiling fairly vulnerable people who laying out a lot of personal stuff,” she writes. Pam makes it clear that her report will be on both the radio and the Web — “and that it could expose them to lots of uncomplimentary on-line comments.”

– The Web needs photos. Kainaz Amaria from NPR’s visuals team says she has found “that the more transparent I am about my intentions with people in my story, the more they are willing to share their time and moments. It may sound counterintuitive, but in fact it’s been proven to me every time I step out of the office and into someone’s life. If people trust you, trust you are there to listen and learn, you’ll be surprised at the access they will offer you. … If people say, ‘Wait you are radio, why do you want my picture?’ I usually say something like, ‘Well, many of our stories go online to reach a wider audience and to get more eyeballs. Chances are if they see you, then they will connect with your story.’ ”

Now we come to the situations in which long explanations aren’t needed or might be counterproductive.

Are you trying to book a conversation with a senator? Her press secretary should already know that the interview will be on the radio and the Web. Many people we speak with, in fact, probably only need to be told that the story will be on the Web as well as on the air and that we’ll be glad to send them a link. If it seems to surprise them that we put stories on the Web, the conversation may need to be extended. But otherwise, if the subject isn’t sensitive, they’ve been informed.

Then there are the situations where it’s obvious what reporters are doing and where the people they’re talking to are very familiar with what’s going to be done with what they say. Don Gonyea’s been in a lot of coffee shops. The folks in Iowa, for example, know that if it’s caucus time the guy with the microphone who has come to their table wants to talk politics. Don tells them who he is, who he works for and asks if he can speak with them for a report he’s doing. If the answer is yes, he gets their names first and then starts asking questions. He’s not hiding anything, Don says, but he suspects that a long windup about how names and voices may be on the Web for the foreseeable future could just get in the way of the conversation and wouldn’t be news to media-savvy (and media-weary) Iowans.

So, there’s no “you must say this” dictum. Just be aware that some situations and some people require longer conversations about the potential lingering effects from the reports we do. It comes down to respect, and as the handbook says:

“Everyone affected by our journalism deserves to be treated with decency and compassion. We are civil in our actions and words, avoiding arrogance and hubris. We listen to others. When we ask tough questions, we do so to seek answers — not confrontations. We are sensitive to differences in attitudes and culture. We minimize undue harm and take special care with those who are vulnerable or suffering. And with all subjects of our coverage, we are mindful of their privacy as we fulfill our journalistic obligations.”

(Memmos; Aug. 6, 2014)


How To Explain Why We Won’t ‘Take Down’ A Story # ±

This is now one of the most common messages received by newsrooms:

 ”I’m mentioned in a story on your website. Please remove it or remove any mentions of me from it.”

The reasons tend to be:

 ”I’m no longer the same person.”

“I don’t want future employers to see it.”

“I didn’t know it would follow me forever.”

The Standards & Practices editor stands ready to field such inquiries (and to coordinate with our legal counsel if necessary). Here’s how we’ll generally respond. The guidance may prove helpful if you’re ever button-holed by a former source. The wording is based on language suggested by the Associated Press Media Editors:

“We are guided by a newsroom policy that says it is inappropriate to remove content from our Website. If a report is inaccurate, we will correct it and state why it has been altered. If relevant new information emerges, we will update or do a follow-up story.

“But our content is a matter of public record and is part of our contract with our audience. To simply remove it from the archive diminishes transparency and trust and, in effect, erases history. This is not a practice engaged in by credible news organizations or in line with ethical journalism.”

(Memmos; Aug. 4, 2014)


Guidance On A Sensitive Subject: Victims/Survivors Of Sexual Assault # ±

We’re going to be doing more reporting in coming weeks and months about sexual assaults on campuses, the way the cases are handled by universities and legislation that’s working its way through Congress.

There will probably be several words or phrases that we have to consider carefully as the stories develop.

This came up this morning: “Rape victim” or “rape survivor?”

Here’s how we approached the question. The process may provide guidance not only on this particular issue, but on how to think about others that come up.

– First, we have to be careful about referring to someone as a victim or survivor before there’s evidence (police reports, medical reports, etc.) about what happened. Bear in mind that if there’s a victim/survivor, that means we’re telling our audience that there’s an attacker or attackers. We don’t want to be prejudging. When such stories begin, we’re typically dealing with allegations, not verdicts.

– Second, as we’ve said in other cases (immigration, for example), it’s best not to put labels on people. It is better to focus on acts. So, rather than declare that someone is a survivor or a victim, we should describe what happened or what has been alleged. That simplifies the issue. She’s not a “rape survivor” or “rape victim.” She is a young woman “who was raped” or whom “police say was sexually assaulted in her dorm room.” Again, though, be careful not to prejudge.

– But, if there’s a need to choose, we look at the definitions of the words. According to our go-to dictionary, (Webster’s New World College Dictionary), in this case both words apply:

Survivor: “person or thing that survives; specif., a person who has survived an ordeal or great misfortune.”

Victim: “someone or something killed, destroyed, injured, or otherwise harmed by, or suffering from, some act, condition, or circumstance.”

– We could stop there and use either. However, one of our core values involves “respect in sensitive circumstances”:

“NPR journalists show sensitivity when seeking or using interviews of those affected by tragedy or grief.”

That doesn’t mean we automatically refer to people by the terms or words that they want to be called. On matters that are politically charged, we do not adopt the language of one side over the other’s. But we are sensitive to those who have been seriously injured. And if either word is correct, the sensitive choice is the one that respects their feelings. Many of those who have been sexually assaulted make a forceful case that they are not just victims, they are survivors.

So, on this issue, the guidance would be: a) try not to “label; b) either word is correct; but c) “survivor” is more sensitive to those we are reporting about.

(Memmos; July 31, 2014)


Guidance On Ebola: It Is Infectious And Contagious # ±

Morning Edition asked today for “a review of CONTAGIOUS versus INFECTIOUS. … The wires are not consistent; a rule would help.”

The issue arises because of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

In the case of this disease, and especially this outbreak of it, both words apply.

There’s some background in this CDC news briefing from earlier this week. It’s worth noting that the CDC says Ebola does not become contagious (“very communicable”) until symptoms appear in those who are infected. That point has clearly been reached. The World Health Organization, meanwhile, refers to Ebola as “a serious, acute and extremely contagious disease.”

The CDC also has definitions of the differences between “infectious,” “communicable” and “contagious” posted here, which should be helpful when it comes time to cover other diseases.

As always, the Science Desk is available to consult on such issues. (Thanks, Joe Neel, for your help today.)

(Memmos, July 30, 2014)



‘Hey Eyder, The Two-Way’s Half A Decade Old’ # ±

Every day there’s an unexpected question or two. Today it was whether it sounds right to say something happened “half a decade” ago or that someone spent “half a decade” in a job, rather than simply “five years.”

“Half a decade” doesn’t sound right to these ears. It’s just not conversational. (Before someone asks: no, I don’t think I would have tried to edit out “four score and seven years ago.”)

As the headline on this note suggests, The Two-Way launched in 2009. I can’t imagine telling someone that the blog’s been around half a decade. When it hits 10 years? Maybe then it will feel right to say the Two-Way’s a decade old.

Now, this isn’t a note about banning “half a decade” (which a search shows we’ve said or written more than 50 times). It’s also not about what seems to be an NPR habit of measuring things in decades, rather than years.

This is just a reminder that, as Jonathan Kern suggested in Sound Reporting, we should sound (and read) conversational. “You are not giving a lecture; in fact, as far as that listener is concerned, you’re not even reading a script,” Jonathan wrote. “You’re just talking.”

We do this well every day, of course.

Many here are thinking of Margot Adler. Last night on All Things Considered, Robert Siegel said this about her style:

“She could do a story about nature walks through Central Park that so many other reporters – if they did it – they would skirt at the edge of cliche at every turn. … When she did it, it was fresh, and it was honest, and it was insightful. And the people were wonderfully real. She had a terrific feel for the place she came from.”

It’s easy to find examples of Margot’s work that reinforce Robert’s and Jonathan’s points about being conversational. Take this excerpt from an August 2013 piece she did on the New York Botanical Garden:

ADLER: You enter the garden through a gate with rules etched in stone. In Padua, they are in Latin. Here, they’re in English, like don’t pick the flowers, don’t stray from the path. Inside, there’s Pacific yew, where taxol, used in chemo treatments for cancer originally comes from. There’s aloe and foxglove. And looking at some of the maps of the larger exhibit, I notice a place for marijuana. Do you have any here, I ask Long?

LONG: The state of New York didn’t mind too much. They thought it was probably be all right, but I think it would have been illegal in the eyes of the federal government. So we didn’t want to put our staff in that position.

ADLER: So you can read about it in the wild plants exhibit, but there’s none to look at. Visitors to the garden are looking and smelling. Gregory Long asks me to smell some valerian, which was often used as a sedative and sleep aid.

LONG: Have a whiff of that.


LONG: It’s marvelous.

ADLER: Oh, it’s very subtle, actually. Mm.

(H/T to Michael Cullen for his question today.)

(Memmos; July 29, 2014)


Was Using A First Name On Second Reference The Right Way To Go? # ±

It felt more natural, editor Joe Neel says, to refer to Lissette Encarnacion as “Lissette” on second reference, not “Encarnacion,” in the broadcast version of Monday’s Morning Edition report about the debate in New York State over whether “housing counts as health care.”

Encarnacion was the emotional center of the piece. Her story — of suffering a traumatic brain injury and a decade of homelessness that followed — was used to spotlight how providing a home for some Medicaid recepients may in the end save states money.

Reporter Amanda Aronczyk, from WNYC, says there was discussion during the editing and that “because Lissette Encarnacion was telling a personal story, using her first name seemed appropriate.”

Though the broadcast version of the story used Encarnacion’s first name after she was introduced to listeners,
NPR.org’s editors changed the references in Aronczyk’s script from “Lissette” to “Encarnacion” before publishing the story in the Shots blog.

The NPR.org team was following NPR’s style. Like The Associated Press, we generally use last names on second reference. The typical exception comes when the subject is a juvenile.

So, for example, Trayvon Martin was “Trayvon” on second reference, while George Zimmerman was “Zimmerman.”

It’s our style, that is, except when it isn’t. Planet Money, in its conversational way, often uses first names on second reference.

Linton Week’s The Protojounalist blog has adopted first-names-on-second-reference as its style.

The Two-Way typically uses first names on second reference when it’s talking about NPR correspondents. We had a sad reminder of that today.

Those are platforms and projects with unique styles that are doing some experimenting and focus on being conversational.

Let’s get back to today’s case — a news report that opens with a human story. Referring to her as “Lissette” rather than “Encarnacion” did sound natural. And when the story is about someone who has suffered a traumatic injury, been homeless for a decade and still faces many struggles, the formality of the last name might seem harsh.

Aronczyk (or should I say Amanda?) adds that “while there is a larger debate to be had about who should be eligible for subsidized supportive housing, that was not the focus of this story and Lissette Encarnacion’s story was not intended to sway the listener on whether or not she was a worthy recipient.”

But — and there’s always a but, isn’t there? — might the way we referred to Encarnacion also add to the empathy listeners have for her? Also, couldn’t using her first name leave the impression that the reporter has developed a liking or sympathy for the subject? Are those impressions we want to give, even inadvertently, in this case? The state’s decision to spend Medicaid dollars on housing is not without its critics, as we report.

You may have figured out by now that this note isn’t going to end with a “thou shall never use first names on second reference” declaration. And I’m not saying that it was clearly wrong to refer to Encarnacion as Lissette.

The guidance is more like “thou shouldn’t … except after some discussion.” The exceptions should be rare. We do not need to add to our procedures, but it never hurts to talk first with Chuck, Gerry, their designated replacements or the Standards & Practices nudge.

(Memmos; July 28, 2014)


A Sixth Grader, A Science Experiment And The Web’s Wild Assumptions (Or, Why We Check Things Out; Even Our Own Reporting) # ±

It seemed like an innocently sweet, feel-good story:

Sixth-Grader’s Science Fair Finding Shocks Ecologists

Weekend All Things Considered talked with Lauren Arrington and her dad about the girl’s science project. She studied lionfish and their ability to survive in water with low salinity. The experiment had attracted attention in the scientific community that studies lionfish and other invasive predators from the sea.

NPR wasn’t the first news outlet to report that Lauren had added to what’s known about lionfish. But our headline, the tone of our report and the way we characterized her accomplishment added to the buzz about her work.

Then a scientist from Florida went on Facebook to say that his name and his work on lionfish had been “intentionally left out of the stories.” Zack Jud said he didn’t want to “disparage the little girl,” but that he felt he deserved more credit for discovering that lionfish can live in estuaries.

We started getting emails and comments raising questions about whether Lauren’s work was original. It seems that hundreds of people, or more, saw Jud’s Facebook post and jumped to the conclusion that he had been wronged.

We put our own Alan Greenblatt on the case. His reporting, which included discussions with a spokeswoman for the university where Jud is a marine scientist (Jud is referring media inquiries to the school), Lauren’s father and considerable research into the research that’s been done on lionfish, leads us to the conclusion that Lauren’s work was original. What’s more, her project credited Jud for his work.

Jud was a student in Professor Craig Layman’s lab at Florida International University.

Layman, who is now at North Carolina State, has written papers with Jud. The professor lays out the timetable of Jud’s work and Lauren’s project in a blog post here.

The professor’s conclusion: “Lauren had made a contribution to science. One can argue the magnitude of this finding, but a contribution regardless.”

Layman has critical words for those of us in the media, though: “It is my opinion that this story has been blown out of proportion. ‘Ground breaking research’ is a bit of a stretch. Did it ‘shock ecologists?’ Not really.”

Layman’s criticism leads naturally to our role in all this. We take readers’ concerns about our reports seriously. When questions are raised about the accuracy or tone of our stories, we take a look at what we’ve done. And as the Ethics Handbook says:

Mistakes are fixed in a timely manner.”

So, the headline on our story has been changed to “Sixth-Grader’s Science Project Catches Ecologists’ Attention.” We’ve also removed one sentence: “But no one knew that they [lionfish] could live in water salinity below that.” And we’ve added an editor’s note to explain what we’ve done.

As you know, transparency is also one of our our core principles.

(Memmos; July 24, 2014)


Another Cautionary Tale: AP’s Unfortunate ‘Crash Lands’ Report # ±

9:50 a.m. ET. AP moves this BULLETIN and tweets it as well:

“Dutch military plane carrying bodies from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash lands in Eindhoven.”

The key words: “crash lands.”

9:53 a.m. ET. WTOP cuts and pastes that into its own tweet:

“ALERT: Dutch military plane carrying bodies from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash lands in Eindhoven.”

The station also reads that on the air.

9:59 a.m. ET. AP sends out a fix:

“CLARIFIES: Dutch military plane carrying Malaysia Airlines bodies lands in Eindhoven.”

WTOP also “clarifies” online and on the air.

We should always remember that “there but for the grace of God go we.”

We do and will make mistakes. But this is yet another reminder of why it can be so important sometimes to pause — not just before reporting, but also before tweeting and retweeting. (And, in this case, the importance perhaps of looking up at the TV and the live broadcasts of the plane landing?)

Politico’s Dylan Byers calls AP’s bulletin “the most poorly written news alert ever.”

The comments below AP’s original tweet, as you might imagine, include some rather critical remarks.

(Memmos; July 23, 2014)


Some Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 Guidance, Specifically About The Word ‘Crash’ # ±

We’ve had several emails from listeners who believe they heard us refer to what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 as only a “crash.”

“I feel that the use of the word crash in this case is ambiguous at best and in my mind relaxes and deflects responsibility,” one person writes.

“I am dismayed and disturbed by the way that this disaster is referred to as a ‘crash,’ ” says another. “The passengers were murdered, not merely killed. Call it what it is.”

The emailers’ basic point: The word “crash” applies when a plane comes down because of bad weather, mechanical failure or perhaps pilot error — not when it is shot out of the sky.

After looking through scripts from Newscast and the shows, it would seem that some listeners who were offended didn’t hear the words that quickly followed about what brought the plane down. But in at least one case, it wasn’t until half-way into a nearly 4-minute long conversation that we mentioned what caused the “crash” we had referred to in the introduction.

The long gap between the reference to a “crash” and the mention of what caused it makes the listeners’ concerns understandable.

Here’s some guidance, based on conversations involving several editors and a look through various approaches:

As we’ve said in other instances, it’s usually best to convey actions. So, instead of simply calling it a “crash,” describe what happened.

Dave Mattingly began a Newscast spot today this way: “FIVE DAYS AFTER THE SHOOT-DOWN OF MALAYSIA AIRLINES’ FLIGHT 17 OVER EASTERN UKRAINE …”

On Morning Edition, Steve Inskeep introduced a piece with these words: “A train arrived [today] in Ukraine’s second largest city. Its cargo was the remains of hundreds of people. They were killed when a Malaysian passenger jet was shot down last week.”

On The Two-Way, Eyder Peralta referred at the top of his post to “the downed Malaysia Airlines plane”

So, does the word “crash” have a place in this story? “Crash site” is being commonly used to describe the scene. Listeners and readers would certainly understand what we mean when we say that. But Didi Schanche offers this thought: “Wreckage field” or “debris field” are more accurate since it appears the plane did not crash in one piece — but, rather, broke up in midair.

(Memmos; July 22, 2014)


A Reminder: Call The ‘Other Side’ # ±

There have been a couple instances in recent days when we reported something that one person said about another person or organization — and they weren’t words of praise — without even telling listeners or readers whether we had checked with the “other side” and given them the chance to respond. The critical words went unchallenged. (These were not reports from any war zone, by the way; the stories were “domestic.”)

Please keep an eye on that. As we remind everyone in the Ethics Handbook:

“To tell the truest story possible, it is essential that we treat those we interview and report on with scrupulous fairness, guided by a spirit of professionalism. We make every effort to gather responses from those who are the subjects of criticism, unfavorable allegations or other negative assertions in our stories.”

For a look at how we deftly handled a case where the organization under scrutiny did not respond to repeated requests for comment, check this earlier note:

Hey Did You Hear How We Handled That? Volume I: ‘Completeness’

Reminder: We’re posting these “Memmos” even before Romenesko has a chance to get them.

(Memmos; July 16, 2014)


Here’s Why Explaining Why We Published A Photo Of A 16-Year-Old In A Diaper Was Important And Valuable # ±

If you haven’t had a chance yet, consider taking the time to read Thursday’s post in the Shots blog that’s headlined “Why We Published A Photo Of A 16-Year-Old In A Diaper.”

And be sure to read down into the comments thread. This is a case when the comments are an important part of the story — not because many of them contain words of praise for NPR, but because there are powerful stories there. The thread is also a wonderful example of what can happen when we respond to the things readers and listeners are saying about our work (in this case, some were critical of our decision to post the photo) and go on to explain our thinking. We brought out emotions and stories that otherwise might have been missed.

Shots co-host Nancy Shute sends along some background:

“Over the Fourth of July holiday, NPR ran a series on caregiving that originated with Capital Public Radio in Sacramento.  The Shots posts generated a huge reader response, with tens of thousands of comments and likes on Facebook and NPR.org.

“Weekend associate producer Camila Domonoske noticed that one photo, of 16-year-old Justin Lee being carried by his father to the shower, was sparking passionate debate. Justin was wearing a diaper. Some readers said the photo deprived him of his dignity. Others said it captured the burden of caregiving and a father’s love for his son.

“ ‘If the CPR photographer, Andrew Nixon, were interested in talking about his experience working with the family, or if anybody on our end wanted to write about photo selection and disabled subjects more broadly, I think it could make for a great blog post,’ Camila wrote in an email to Shots.

“Great indeed. Meredith Rizzo, who edited the photos, interviewed Andrew and wrote a Q&A of their conversation for Shots.

“We thought long and hard about the headline, discussing it among editors on the science desk, with the home page editors and with Mark. In the end we decided it was best to be straight up with readers about the controversy. So, we settled on ‘Why We Published A Photo Of A 16-Year-Old In A Diaper.’

“The post sparked a big reader response. But what was most notable was the high quality of the comments. No trolls here. The first comment, a candid description of what life is like for parent caregivers from someone with a 49-year-old brother who is a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy, had 1,011 ‘likes’ as of Friday morning.

“The lesson I learned from this is that if we open the door to readers and are transparent with them about our journalistic practices, they will respond. Respect engenders respect.”

Thank you, Camila, Meredith and Nancy.

This sort of response to the audience and our followup clearly touch on several different principles discussed in the Ethics Handbook:


(Memmos, July 11, 2014)



Reminder: There Is No Privacy On The Web, And ‘Personal’ Pages Are Not Safe Zones # ±

(Editor’s note on July 27, 2017: Click here to go to an updated special section about the do’s and don’t's of social media.)

“If you wouldn’t say it on the air, don’t say it on the Web.”

That’s been the basic guidance for quite a few years.

In reality, Twitter and other social media sites allow us to show more of our personalities than we might on the air or in a blog post.

BUT, though the words may be on “personal” Twitter or Facebook accounts, what we say can reflect on NPR and raise questions about our ability to be objective.

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?”

Here’s a bit more from the Ethics Handbook:

“We acknowledge that nothing on the Web is truly private. Even on purely recreational or cultural sites and even if what we’re doing is personal and not identified as coming from someone at NPR, we understand that what we say and do could still reflect on NPR. So we do nothing that could undermine our credibility with the public, damage NPR’s standing as an impartial source of news, or otherwise jeopardize NPR’s reputation. In other words, we don’t behave any differently than we would in any public setting or on an NPR broadcast.”

Also, despite what many say, retweets should be viewed AS endorsements. Again, from the handbook:

“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.”

(Memmos, July 8, 2014)


Long Live Objectivity # ±

Here’s something (subjectively) seems well worth reading:

Impartial Journalism’s Enduring Value.”

“Impartial journalism,” AP standards editor Tom Kent writes, “is a profession. That means exercising a skill that’s separate from personal beliefs. Doctors may not like their patients’ politics, but they don’t kill them in the operating room. Lawyers eloquently defend even the sleaziest clients. Journalists who seek to be impartial should be able to cover people and events irrespective of personal feelings.”

“Clearly,” Tom adds, “journalists with personal beliefs that are truly going to affect their stories or photos should disclose them.”

But to those who argue that reporters need to disclose all their opinions and every detail about their lives, Tom says: “Ultimately a journalist’s credibility rests not on what he says about his beliefs or his past, but on the correctness over time of what he reports.”

Here’s his conclusion:

“There’s room out there both for defenders of impartial journalism and those who continue to insist it should be replaced by opinion-with-transparency. In a world that already has enough intolerance and polarization, we should keep testing and improving all approaches to journalism instead of slamming the door on techniques that retain significant value.”


(Memmos, July 7, 2014)


‘Can We Go With It?’ Maybe Not, Because ‘One And One And One’ Isn’t Always Three # ±

Reuters moves an alert — “Defense official: senior Taliban official killed in drone strike.”

The Associated Press says — “Pentagon official: Taliban official killed by drone strike in Pakistan.”

CBS pushes out a short story — “Top Taliban leader dies in Pakistani drone strike.”

The question arises in our newsroom.

“It’s on both wires and CBS, can we go with it?”

No. At least not based on the information we have so far. What we’re looking at, in this not unusual scenario, is likely one source who has spoken to different news outlets.

What we want, ideally, is our own on-the-record confirmation — and not from that same person who has spoken to the wires, but from others who are in a position to know.

If that’s not possible yet and the news is of such importance that we decide it needs to be reported, we still want to see multiple news reports that are based on multiple sources who are in a position to know.

Then, we “attribute, attribute and attribute some more.”

Can you come up with a scenario in which we report something that’s coming from just one source or one news outlet? I suppose. But it has to be really important news. And we don’t do that without considerable discussion involving the executive editor, the deputy managing editors, the standards & practices editor and others.

Might The Two-Way post about the report or reports before we air something? Yes. But, again, that would only happen after discussion among the top editors. And the blog would make clear to readers what we know, what we don’t know, where the information is coming from, what we’re doing to confirm it — and that if the story changes, we will update immediately. The blog has the space to do and say things that Newscast, for instance, doesn’t.

(Memmos, June 18, 2014)


On ISIS And al-Qaida # ±

(2:36 p.m. ET) After further discussion and very welcome feedback:

“Splinter” isn’t working for us either. AQ is claiming that ISIS never was one its affiliates. So it’s problematic to say that ISIS has split from AQ.

If we don’t like “inspired” and we don’t like “splinter,” what do we do?

First, consider whether there’s even any need to mention AQ. It’s very possible no reference is necessary.

Second, if AQ needs to be mentioned it’s likely going to be about how AQ has denied any ties to ISIS or to say that both organizations are on the State Department’s list of “foreign terrorist organizations.”

Third, simply describe ISIS for what it said to be: a group of Sunni “militants” or “extremists” or “radicals” or “fighters” that wants to create “an Islamic empire, or caliphate, across the Middle East.”

(12:56 p.m. ET) After discussion with the foreign desk:

Please don’t refer to ISIS as an “al-Qaida inspired” group. That makes it sound to many of us as if ISIS and al-Qaida are still connected.

If you feel you need to mention them together, a better way to refer to ISIS may be as “an al-Qaida splinter group.” That gets at the notion that they once were linked or at least in agreement, but are no longer.

Suggestions for even better alternatives are welcome.

(Memmos, June 18, 2014)


The? Thee? Who Knew? A Listener, That’s Who # ±

This note is NOT a directive to change the way you say “the” (unless you want to after reading on).

It’s JUST a reminder about the close attention some listeners pay to what they hear.

An email came in today that reads, in part: “I have noticed that a lot of the younger generation tends to pronounce ‘the’ the same way always. … [But] it is customary, and so much more pleasant sounding, to pronounce ‘the’ when followed by a word beginning with a vowel sound, as ‘thee.’”

Apparently, this listener heard us say “the” on the air when she thinks it should have been “thee.”

She would say, for example, it’s “thee apple fell from the tree,” not “the apple fell from the tree.”

I don’t remember being told about this in elementary school, but others here do. Our preferred dictionary backs up the emailer:

the: before consonants usually thə, before vowels usually thē.”

NPR hosts and correspondents try hard to say words correctly and we give all sorts of guidance about pronunciations.

Still, a “thou must say thee” prime directive seems like overkill. As Jonathan Kern’s Sound Reporting says, radio reporters “need to be themselves, and to read with the same intensity and cadence and music in their voices that they exhibit outside the studio.” Thinking too much about the way to say “the” might mess things up.

But the email underscores how even the littlest of things matter to listeners and readers. The big things, of course, matter a lot.

Now, about “nil” vs. “zero.” …

Maybe we won’t go there.

(Memmos, June 16, 2014)


Persian Gulf and Kurdistan # ±

Two questions came up over the weekend because of news events.

  1. What do we call that body of water between Iran and Saudi Arabia?
  2. What is Kurdistan?

Our Wiki has style guides for radio and digital (there are some variations) and a note that “for general style questions not addressed here, NPR.org follows the AP Stylebook.”

I don’t see any indication that we’ve issued any rulings of our own. So after a quick consult with the Hub, AP’s guidance applies:

“Persian Gulf –  Use this long-established name for the body of water off the southern coast of Iran.

“Some Arab nations call it the Arabian Gulf. Use Arabian Gulf only in direct quotations and explain in the text that the body of water is more commonly known as the Persian Gulf.”

Kurdistan – (Source: Webster’s New World College Dictionary: kʉr ´ di stan , stän place region in SW Asia inhabited chiefly by Kurds, occupying SE Turkey, N Iraq, & NW Iran.”

(Memmos, June 16, 2014)


New Guidance On Immigration # ±

(Update on July 25, 2017: Please see this post for additional guidance.)

Our original post:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat in Tuesday’s primary has brought the immigration issue into the news again because of the role it played in the outcome of that race. His opponent accused Cantor of supporting “amnesty” (which Cantor denied). Pundits say Cantor’s defeat means there’s no chance Congress will take up immigration legislation this year.

As we discussed the news today, it became apparent that our guidance on the use of terms such as “illegal immigration,” “illegal immigrants” and “undocumented immigrants” has not been consistent.

Here’s some new guidance for both on-air and online references.

Like The Associated Press and The New York Times, we believe “illegal immigration” is an acceptable term when we’re reporting about the issue.

In other words, if we’re referring to a general class of actions that include entering the  country without going through Customs or staying in the country past a visa’s expiration — the types of things at the core of the debate over immigration policies — “illegal immigration” can be used when discussing the issue.

But we avoid phrases such as “illegal immigrant[s]” and “undocumented immigrant[s].”

How come?

First, we can’t always determine if a specific person or even a group is or is not in the country legally or without documents. So the first words in those phrases — “illegal” and “undocumented” — are assumptions that may not be accurate when used that way.

Second, the words “illegal” and “undocumented” are labels that are being applied by those on both sides of the debate. It is generally best to avoid labeling people, especially with terms that partisans have chosen. We determine what words we use, not those who have agendas.

The better approach takes a few more words. Instead of simply saying these are illegal immigrants, we should describe the kinds of things they’ve done — “overstayed visas,” “scaled fences  at the border to get into the U.S.,” “paid a smuggler to be driven here in the back of a produce truck,” or perhaps simply “people who are believed to have entered the country illegally.”

What about “undocumented?” It’s the word that some advocates favor. But as the AP notes, “it has a flavor of euphemism.” It’s not always accurate either. Many of those who are in the country illegally have some sort of documentation — passports, expired visas, drivers’ licenses, Social Security cards, school IDs, etc.

Another word to avoid: “aliens.” The Times calls it “sinister-sounding.” Websters suggests that in this context an alien is someone who “bears political allegiance” to another country — which in many cases would just be wrong when describing this group of people.

Finally, we do not refer to the group of people as “illegals.” Again, that’s labeling without giving context.

To summarize:

– “Illegal immigration” is acceptable when discussing the issue.

– “Illegal immigrant” and “illegal immigrants” are to be avoided.

– “Undocumented immigrants” is to be avoided.

– “Illegals” is not acceptable.

– “Aliens” is not acceptable.

How this guidance could be applied:

On the air today we said: Immigration “was a big issue in the race. Conservatives simply didn’t believe Cantor’s claims that he opposed amnesty for illegal immigrants.”

Another way of saying that: Immigration “was a big issue in the race. Conservatives simply didn’t believe Cantor’s claims that he opposed amnesty for anyone who may be here illegally.”

Yes, we are making things a bit more difficult and it might seem like we’re parsing words too carefully. Suggestions of better alternatives are always welcome.

Related note: We realize our headline writers face a particularly tough challenge when dealing with stories about this issue. The key may be to focus on the issue, not the individuals, when crafting headlines.



Newscast asked for “wrong way, right way” scripts. Here we go:

Wrong way.

Immigration policy is on center stage again after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat Tuesday in his Republican primary. NPR’s Mark Memmott explains why the Virginia congressman’s surprising loss has put the issue back in the political spotlight:


College professor Dave Brat accused Cantor of favoring amnesty for most illegal immigrants. Cantor said he DOESN’T support forgiveness for illegals. But Brat’s charge stuck — he beat Cantor by more than 20 percentage points. Analysts say it was the illegal aliens issue that sank Cantor.

Now, House Republicans are expected to put legislation aimed at overhauling immigration policy on the backburner, says Republican pollster Frank Luntz:

“The GOP is going to hit ‘pause.’ ”

But Democrats may seize on any GOP reluctance to take up the issue, says Democratic pollster Mark Mehlman:

“Any delay is not going to please Hispanic voters.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security, there are about 11 million illegal immigrants in the nation.

Mark Memmott, NPR News


Right way.

Immigration policy is on center stage again after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat Tuesday in his Republican primary. NPR’s Korva Coleman explains why the Virginia congressman’s surprising loss has put the issue back in the political spotlight:


College professor Dave Brat accused Cantor of favoring amnesty for some who are in the U.S. illegally. Cantor said he DOESN’T support that. But Brat’s charge stuck — he beat Cantor by more than 20 percentage points. Analysts say it was the amnesty accusation that sank Cantor.

Now, House Republicans are expected to put legislation aimed at overhauling immigration policy on the backburner, says Republican pollster Frank Luntz:

“The GOP is going to hit ‘pause.’ ”

But Democrats may seize on any GOP reluctance to take up the issue, says Democratic pollster Mark Mehlman:

“Any delay is not going to please Hispanic voters.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security, about 11 million people are in the U.S. illegally.

Korva Coleman, NPR News

(Memmos, June 12, 2014)


On Not Talking Over ‘Taps’ And Other Sensitive Sounds # ±

Everyone’s thoughts would be appreciated on this:

Over the weekend a piece on WESAT had, in the show’s first feed, a brief bit of “Taps” playing underneath while the NPR correspondent described the scene in Normandy.

A producer thought there might be a problem, and our “Style, Grammar & Usage” Wiki confirmed there was:

TAPS music: Do not talk over ‘Taps.’ If you use the beginning bars, please fade down and out. You may start speaking on the fade but do not allow it to stay under you as you read your lines. If you use the final bars of taps, please be sure to end speaking before you bring them up. Do not use as a bed under your read. (Dave Pignanelli, 11/11/11)”

We devote a section of our Ethics Handbook to “Respect.” The guidance on “Taps,” which came after listener input, is in line with our concern about showing proper respect. Military personnel know that when “Taps” is played, they are to “render a salute from the beginning until the conclusion of the song. Civilians should place their right hand over their heart during this time.” Silence is expected.

The question is, are their other types of occasions or ceremonies that might lead us to refrain from talking over the sound?

– The reading of names on 9/11? We have talked over them.

– The choir at a service for victims of the Boston bombings? We’ve talked over them too.

I’m not suggesting we need a list or some sort of rule. But as I said at the top, thoughts would be welcome.

(Memmos, June 11, 2014)


Why We Aren’t Cynical — But Are Skeptical # ±

If you haven’t a chance yet, it’s worth taking the time to listen to and read about Somaly Mam and the “slippery truth” beneath her story.

Start with the conversation All Things Considered had last week with journalist Simon Marks. He discusses the cover story he wrote for Newsweek.

As he reported, Mam “is one of the world’s most compelling activists, brave and beautiful, and her list of supporters is long and formidable.” She fights against sex trafficking in Cambodia and has won praise from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “and actresses Meg Ryan, Susan Sarandon and Shay Mitchell, as well as New York Times Pulitzer-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof.”

But it also appears, Marks reported, that “key parts of her story aren’t true.” That, in turn, has raised questions about the pieces done by Kristof and other journalists — who reported as fact the tales Mam told of being forced into prostitution and the accounts from some of the young women she claimed to have saved.

Margaret Sullivan, the Times‘ public editor, wrote this week that Kristof “owes it to his readers to explain, to the best of his ability and at length, what happened and why.”

Kristof has said he is “reluctant to be an arbiter of her back story when I just don’t know what is true and false among the conflicting statements. I am continuing to poke around.”

The subject line on this note contrasts being cynical with being skeptical. Editors have said for years that journalists should not be cynics — distrustful, sarcastic or mocking. But journalists should be skeptics — doubters who check things out, ask more questions and try to poke holes in stories.

Or, as our guidelines suggest, we do not “just spread information.” We are “careful and skeptical.”

(Memmos, June 6, 2014)


Corrections Have Moved To The Bottom Of Our Pages # ±

The switch was thrown this morning and corrections are now appearing at the end of our stories and posts. All of those from the past have been moved as well.

A couple things from last month’s email about this change are worth repeating:

– This isn’t happening because we think mistakes are minor matters. But experience has shown that most of our errors, thankfully, are of the variety that do not significantly detract from the meaning of our reports.

– Major mistakes (in the judgment of editors) will be flagged with an editor’s note at the top of a page.

– We may also experiment with adding a short note near or at the top of posts and pages to say something like “this story has been updated.”

– This doesn’t change the process of identifying mistakes and making corrections. The memo that Chuck sent around earlier this year — “How We Make Corrections” — still applies.

(Memmos, June 4, 1014)


Quick Guidance Note … On Naming Minors # ±

The case of the two Wisconsin girls who are accused of stabbing another 12-year-old has again raised the issue of whether to name minors accused of such crimes.

We agree with AP’s thinking:

“AP does not name juveniles accused of crimes unless there are overriding needs, such as warning the public about dangerous situations, e.g., a manhunt. In exceptional cases, juveniles charged as adults for particularly serious crimes may be named in news stories, but only after clearance by senior AP editors.”

In the Wisconsin case, the girls have been charged as adults and their names have been reported. But it seems clear their attorneys will push to have the case moved to juvenile court. This is an instance where we conclude that they’re too young to automatically start naming them just because they’ve been charged as adults. Also, we don’t believe a national audience is necessarily interested in the names of these girls.

The key words in the guidance are that such juveniles ‘may’ be named, but ‘only after’ consultation with senior editors.

In a post or story, please add language to the effect that “though the girls have been named in some news reports, NPR is not doing so because of their ages.” You might also say something like “NPR only reports the names of minors charged with crimes after careful consideration of the information’s news value.”

(Memmos, June 4, 1014)


Hey Did You Hear How We Handled That? Volume II: Transparency # ±

In Part One of his reports on “turmoil at the Times,” David Folkenflik said this on the air today:

“Jill Abramson would not comment for this story — but she told several associates that her rapport with Sulzberger was fraying. In recent performance reviews he had given her poor marks for alienating other senior editors.

“This story relies on interviews with two dozen current and former colleagues and associates of Abramson and Baquet. Those interviews yield a portrait of Abramson as a brilliant, brusque and occasionally brutal news executive.”

Online, David reveals more about the reporting process:

“Through an associate, Abramson declined to comment for this story, which relies on interviews with two dozen current and former colleagues and associates of Abramson and Baquet. Almost none were willing to speak on the record, as they either still work at the newspaper or still have professional ties to one or more of the figures at the heart of the controversy. In addition, Sulzberger asked senior editors not to speak about what happened — even with their staffs — and told journalists there not to go looking for answers, though his paper has provided some coverage.

“Nonetheless, those interviews yield a complex portrait of Abramson as a brilliant, brusque and occasionally brutal news executive.”

A case can be made that it would have been good to include some of this line — “almost none were willing to speak on the record, as they either still work at the newspaper or still have professional ties to one or more of the figures at the heart of the controversy” — in the on-air report. But the Morning Edition audience certainly got the message: David spoke to many different individuals who were in a position to know about Abramson and did his best to get her to talk as well.

The language both on-air and online delivers on one of the goals outlined in our guidelines:

“Describe anonymous sources as clearly as you can without identifying them.”

The language also delivers when it comes to our goals regarding transparency.

“We reveal as much as we practically can about how we discover and verify the facts we present.”

Part Two of the reports is due on All Things Considered later today.

For another look at transparency when it comes to why we felt we had to grant some anonymity, see Ari Shapiro’s recent Morning Edition piece “Corruption In Ukraine Robs HIV Patients Of Crucial Medicine.” He introduced listeners to “a pale middle-aged man with blue-gray eyes. The man asks us not to use his name. He was already fired from one job when his boss learned that he has HIV.”

None of this  means that it’s open season and anonymous sources should suddenly start popping up all over. Click here for our guidelines on their use.

(Memmos, May 30, 2014)


We Name Names And … Do Our Due Diligence # ±

Some news outlets put unidentified folks on the air or in their stories saying things like “that tornado sounded like a freight train” or “them politicians are all alike” or “reading Memmott’s notes is worse than going to the dentist.”

NPR doesn’t do that (mostly). If we talk to people for a piece that will be broadcast and/or put on the Web, we get their names, ages, occupations, hometowns, etc. If there’s a strong reason for giving anonymity, we have guidelines to follow and we have discussions before doing so.

The same guidelines should apply when it comes to using comments we see on social media.

Case study:

A Newscast spot Wednesday about the death of Maya Angelou included quotes from two tweets by individuals we didn’t try to identify.

Now, this wasn’t the worst infraction in the world. They were words of praise. The messages were in line with many others posted on Twitter.

But, there really is no difference between the unnamed person in the street and the unnamed person on Twitter or other social media. We don’t know anything about the tweeters. We don’t know if they really believe what they wrote. We don’t know their ages. We were basically putting information from random, anonymous individuals on the air.

Using tweets or other things we find on social media that way puts us on the old slippery slope:

If we quote an anonymous tweet in a spot, why not use an anonymous voice? If we can do this when they’re words of praise, why not when the tweets are attacks?

It’s worth noting, as well, that in the Angelou spot we probably could have characterized the tone of the Twitter conversations and cited some tweets or comments posted by people whose identities we could report because they have been verified.

Which leads me to three pieces of hopefully helpful information.

– First, check out the Verification Handbook. It’s a relatively new site edited by Craig Silverman of the Poynter Institute. There are tips and links to tools for verifying “user-generated content” such as Tweets and emails, and for verifying images and videos.

– Second, check out Twitter’s  best-practices page, which has guidance on “filtering mentions for verified users.”

– Third, Pam Fessler offers some advice about things she does to check the stories and people she encounters when reporting about poverty:

“It’s something I worry about a lot because I use so many personal stories in my poverty   reporting. … So I try to make sure that most of the people I profile have been referred to me by someone else who I  trust for one reason or another (caseworkers, etc.).

“I also find it helps to talk to people several times — and for long interviews, in their homes if possible — because I’ve learned on this beat stories change the longer you talk with someone. This gives me a better idea what to believe or not to believe.

“But it’s certainly not foolproof. So I almost always Google the names of people I profile and then create a Google alert for that name while I’m writing and producing the  story, just in case there’s some last-minute development (like an arrest).”

 (Memmos, May 29, 2014)


Alleged, Accused, Suspected: When Can We Stop Using Those Words? # ±

The murders Friday night in Santa Barbara have once again raised questions about whether we need to keep using words such as “alleged” or “suspected” when reporting about a now-deceased person who has been identified by authorities as the killer.

Here’s my take:

At some point — and we reached that fairly quickly in this instance — it just makes common sense to stop inserting those words.

And as long as we properly attribute what we’re reporting, in a case such as this we don’t need to keep saying and writing things such as “alleged.”

Several constructions could be used, including:

– “The young man who went on a killing spree in Santa Barbara, identified by authorities as Elliot Rodger … ”

– “Elliot Rodger, who police say killed six people before taking his own life …”

– “The young man who investigators say murdered six people Friday in California before killing himself …”

Some questions to ask before any shift in language:

– Has the person been positively and publicly identified as the killer by proper authorities?

– Have authorities ruled out the possibility of someone else being involved?

– Were there many witnesses? (In other words, did dozens or more see this unfold?)

– Is there considerable video evidence? And, as in this case, a long manifesto?

– Has the inevitable confusion that comes when such events happen been resolved? Often, for example, witnesses and authorities initially get things wrong — including the name of the person responsible.

This is not to say that it necessarily hurts to be cautious and slip in an “alleged” or “suspected.” But as we’ve discovered now several times, at some point it begins to raise more questions in listeners’ and readers’ minds if we keep using such words when it’s become obvious that the person responsible has been identified and is dead. A reasonable consumer of our news might wonder if we’re implying he didn’t do it.

What about a person who’s still alive, such as the young man who will be tried for the Boston bombings? He has not been convicted. Obviously, we can’t declare he’s guilty. That’s for a jury to do. We can keep referring to him as a suspect and report about what he’s alleged to have done. But common sense applies there as well. We might say, for example:

– “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who goes on trial today for the Boston bombings …”

– “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who federal prosecutors say conspired with his brother to …”

– “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who could receive the death penalty if he’s convicted of …”

– “Prosecutors say Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother …”

A related note: It isn’t accurate to refer to Elliot Rodger only as a “shooter.” Police say his first three victims were stabbed to death.

But editors here have also been discussing whether “shooter” is even the right word to use about those responsible for mass murders involving guns. I’d like to hear whether you think it can sometimes sound like too “light” a description for such a person or whether it’s one of several words — including “gunman,” “attacker,” and “killer” — that can work interchangeably.

(Memmos, May 27, 2014)


Who Are You? Who, Who, Who, Who? (Or, How NPR Was Blogging Before There Were Blogs) # ±

In at least one way, NPR’s sort-of been blogging since before the Internet was created. After all, isn’t a two-way with an author or a reporter or a government official something of an audio blog post?

When we begin and end those conversations, we tell listeners about the person we’re interviewing. Here’s how Audie Cornish did it Wednesday during a two-way about tensions between the U.S. and Russian space programs:

At the top: “For more on what this means, we turn to John Logsdon. He’s the founder of and professor emeritus at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.”

At the end: “That’s John Logsdon. He’s founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. Thank you so much for coming in to speak with us.”

I bring this up because we need to make sure we tell our online audience who is writing for us.

Staff bylines should automatically link to their NPR.org bios (bugs in our system may prevent that from happening in some cases, we’re going to work on that).

But NPR staffers who don’t have online bios and any outside contributors need to be described on the page or post where their work appears. In most cases, the best way to handle it will be a note at the end of the page.

Here’s an example of what to write, from a recent Code Switch post:

Camila Domonoske is an editor and producer at NPR. Her writing on literature, culture, politics and history has appeared on NPR, The Washington Independent Review of Books, The New Republic and The Nation. You can find her thoughts about poetry, bikes, baking and cat videos on twitter (@camilareads) and tumblr (camilashares).

Wright Bryan suggests putting a horizontal rule between the text and bio, as in this 13.7 post:

In cases where someone becomes a regular contributor, the way to go would seem to be to create an online bio (as we’ve done for regular on-air contributors) and link the byline to it. Otherwise, just be sure to paste that person’s description at the bottom of each page.

We can experiment, of course, with putting the bios higher up.

If any questions come up about how a contributor should be described, especially if that person has some concerns about how much should be said, please see Chuck Holmes, Gerry Holmes, Scott Montgomery or me.

(Memmos, May 22, 2014)


Plagiarism: The Offense That Keeps On Repeating # ±

Saying it has “discovered multiple instances of plagiarism by Marie-Louise Gumuchian, a former CNN news editor,” the cable news network said today that it has terminated her employment.

Poynter has done some digging and reports that most of the material Gumuchian allegedly lifted came from Reuters, where she previously worked.

What do we say about plagiarism? Let’s go to the handbook:

“Plagiarism – taking someone else’s work and intentionally presenting it as if it is your own – is theft. … Our standard is to make clear to our audience where the information we bring them comes from.

“That means no material from another source should ever be included verbatim, or substantially so, without attribution. This includes material from Associated Press reports. We do not, for example, produce news ‘spots’ or other pieces that closely resemble wire service stories. NPR’s standard is that our writing should be our own. There is no excuse for writing that repeats the wire stories that we use word-for-word, or nearly so.

“It also means that whenever we present someone’s words verbatim in text, we encase them within quotes or, in an audio report, make it clear that we are using the source’s wording. If we paraphrase for space or clarity, we transparently credit the source of the ideas. And we don’t lightly edit quotes just to avoid putting them in quotes; we use brackets, ellipses and other signals to make clear we’ve changed what someone said.”

There’s also good material in this Poynter piece: “How to handle plagiarism and fabrication allegations.”

(Memmos, May 16, 2014)


Hey Did You Hear How We Handled That? Volume I: ‘Completeness’ # ±

We’ve said this about “completeness”:

“We do our best to report thoroughly and tell stories comprehensively. We won’t always have enough time or space in one story to say everything we would like or quote everyone we would wish to include. But errors of omission and partial truths can inflict great damage on our credibility, and stories delivered without the context to fully understand them are incomplete. Our journalism includes diverse voices that reflect our society and divergent views that contribute to informed debate. When we find that we can’t deliver all the answers to important questions, we explain what we don’t yet know and work to fill any gaps in our reporting.”

I deliberately bold-faced that last sentence. You’ll see why in a second.

Check out how John Burnett and Morning Edition handled the completeness issue Thursday in this piece: “U.S. Border Patrol’s Response To Violence In Question.”

John was following up on his report from two weeks ago about the U.S. Border Patrol’s use of force along the border with Mexico. The voices we heard from included a lawyer for families who have sued the Border Patrol, an Arizona Republic reporter who has investigated the incidents and an analyst with an immigrant advocacy group.

And what about the Border Patrol? John got to the agency’s former chief of staff, who offered perspective on the “very difficult environment” in which the agents work. Then — and here’s where our guidance on explaining to listeners what we’re doing to get questions answered — he made it clear that we have tried and will continue to try to get the agency to talk to us:

“Customs and Border Protection is considering a standing request by NPR to interview a top agency official regarding use-of-force policy.”

Steve Inskeep then wrapped things up this way:

“As John mentioned, we’re still working to schedule a talk with a top Border Patrol official. Tomorrow, we hear from two border congressmen pushing the agency for greater accountability.”

That strikes me as very simple, direct, helpful language. We told listeners we’re doing what we can to get officials to discuss this with us and that we’re staying on the story. I know we do this kind of thing all the time, but just thought it’s worth reminding ourselves how important such efforts are.

As the headline on this post  implies, I’d like to pass along more examples of interesting and effective ways we’ve handled various issues, on-air and online. Send me your thoughts.

(Memmos, May 15, 2014)


AP Goes Short: Most Stories Will Be Capped At 500 Words # ±

Back in the day, if I was speaking to a journalism class I’d start with this:

“I’m from USA Today, so I’ll be brief.”

It always killed. Seriously! Maybe the kids just laughed at how lame that line is.

Such memories may be why my interest was piqued today when Krishnadev Calamur sent along a story headlined “New AP guidelines: Keep it brief.”

The AP’s editors have decided that the news outlets the wire service supplies “do not have the resources to trim the excess to fit shrinking news holes.” So, the AP is telling its correspondents to keep most stories between 300 and 500 words.

There’s also a case to be made, AP’s executive editor Kathleen Carroll tells The Washington Post, that the wire service should be “more disciplined about what needs to be said.”

This does raise the issue of whether some stories might lack some context.

But Poynter is using the news to remind readers about Roy Peter Clark’s book How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times. The introduction is posted here. Clark cites Scott Simon as one champion of tight writing:

“Consider these historical and cultural documents:

    The Hippocratic oath

    The Twenty-third Psalm

    The Lord’s Prayer

    Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18

    The preamble to the Constitution

    The Gettysburg Address

    The last paragraph of Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech

“I once exchanged messages with NPR’s Scott Simon, who shared this important idea, which he learned from his stepfather: If you add up the words in these documents, the sum will be fewer than a thousand, 996 by my count. Show me any number of pictures as powerful as those seven documents.”

Our Ethics Handbook doesn’t specifically say “keep it short.” It does, though, go on at some length about excellence in storytelling. There’s good advice there from Jonathan Kern, who suggests that since it’s our job “to make the complex clear,” we need to distill information for our audiences.

With that, I’d better stop. I’m at 344 words.

(Memmos, May 13, 2014)


One Story, Several Ethical Issues # ±

Wednesday’s note about those free tablets that Chrysler offered to reporters generated several suggestions from folks about other recent stories I might want to share.

Here’s one from The Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin:

Damn Right I Taped Kerry’s ‘Apartheid’ Talk

Rogin explains how he came to record the secretary of state’s theoretically off-the-record speech in which Kerry warned that Israel could become “an apartheid state.”

Here’s a quick walk-through three things I spotted and what our guidelines say about such situations. Feel free to flag others that I missed.

Rogin: “I got a tip from a source that Kerry would be speaking at the Trilateral Commission meeting at the Mandarin Oriental hotel. … The State Department had disclosed Kerry’s appearance there and marked it ‘closed press’ in their daily scheduling note, but had not disclosed the location. … At about 2:30, the time of Kerry’s scheduled remarks, I walked over to the meeting room, walked straight to the front entrance of the room, nodded politely to the staffer at the door (she nodded back) and entered along with dozens of other people who were filing in. …

“Nobody ever asked me who I was. I didn’t have a name tag but many of the invited attendees weren’t wearing theirs so nobody thought anything of it. As the approximately 200 attendees got settled in for the Kerry speech, I found a seat in the corner, opened up my laptop, placed my recorder on my lap in plain sight, turned it on, and waited for the fun to begin.”

NPR guidelines: “Journalism should be done in plain sight, and our standards are clear. When we are working, we identify ourselves as NPR journalists to those we interview and interact with. … As the expression says, ‘rules are meant to be broken.’ But only highly unusual and extremely important situations would compel us to be less than open. Our foreign correspondents are most likely to confront such issues. … But rather than focusing on theoretical exceptions, the point to remember is this: We do not deceive and we do our work in the open. …

“There could conceivably be a story that’s so important we might consider the use of a hidden microphone because we exhausted all other ways to get the information. But only the rarest of circumstances might merit that decision. Some of the questions we would ask include:

“Is the story of profound importance?

“Are lives at stake?

“Can the information be obtained any other way?”

Rogin: “I finished up a story from the room, and attributed Kerry’s remarks to ‘an attendee,’ because there I was. Once I got home and had a chance to listen to the tapes, I sourced Kerry’s remarks to a recording obtained by The Daily Beast.”

NPR guidelines: “We must always give our audience a sense of how we’ve developed the stories we deliver. We never hide our reporting behind opaque evasions such as ‘NPR has learned.’ ”

Rogin: “I will admit to one ethical indiscretion in the reporting of these stories. While I was waiting for Kerry to get to the meeting, I partook of the lunch buffet and made myself a plate of pork loin, chicken, and a very nice rice pilaf. Professor Nye, my apologies. Please send me a bill.”

NPR guidelines: “In instances such as conferences and conventions where food is provided as a convenience for the press as a whole, it’s acceptable to partake.”

Rogin’s free lunch may not be that big a deal, though I do wonder if legally that might have been his most serious misstep.

He doesn’t address in his piece what he would have done if he’d been challenged at the door or asked to leave. You might also have noticed that he says he had his laptop open and his recorder in “plain sight,” which he might argue is roughly the equivalent of declaring he’s a reporter.

Meanwhile, it’s important to note that Kerry’s role in this story is a serious subject. He is, after all, a public official. Should he really expect his comments in front of hundreds would be off-the-record?

We could also debate whether any journalists — Rogin says others were there — should have agreed to the off-the-record conditions and been in attendance.

But our guidelines about openness and opaque evasions are designed to protect NPR’s credibility. We would not have done what Rogin did. Right?

Have a good weekend. Thanks for reading along and thanks for the many  questions you’ve asked and the interesting issues you’ve raised this week. Keep them coming.

(May 9, 2014)


Free Laptops, Big Shrimp And #Ethicsschmethics # ±

So, I said I’d send out a note every once in a while. And since I’m suffering a bit from blogging withdrawal, here goes. I hope you’ll indulge me for just a minute.

Emailer ‘MGeewax@npr.org’ pointed me to a tweet from Automotive News journalist Nick Bunkley:

#Chrysler has tablet computers set out for all reporters. “The tablet is our gift to you.” #ethicsschmethics

That led me to this post today on Jalopnik:

“Fiat Chrysler Offered Every Journalist A Free Tablet Yesterday”

I recommend reading both the piece and the comments section (yes, comments threads sometimes do add value). In this case, the postings veer into the world of free shrimp. Some are pretty funny. But several also get into some interesting ethical issues.

Skeptics may say this sort of thing happens all the time and that this note is just an excuse to point to our Ethics Handbook and in particular its section on “how to handle gifts, speaking fees and honorariums.” What? Me? Resort to a shameless plug?

But seriously, folks. If you see or hear things you think might be worth sharing, send them along.

Don’t expect to get a free tablet in return, though. (Sorry, Marilyn.)

(Memmos, May 7, 2014)