Within the last day or two, an NPR correspondent or host has probably made a mistake on air. I don't know what it was, but I'm quite sure it happened.
Why? Because journalism is an imperfect craft and despite the highest standards and best intentions, mistakes can happen whether stories are produced under tight deadlines or even when the pressure is off.
No matter how hard we work to report accurately and fairly, we journalists- at NPR and across the news media- can and do get names wrong, make mistakes in news judgment, miss stories and sometimes fail to make that extra phone call. Errors of commission or omission can happen no matter how hard NPR journalists work to get you breaking news, help put the day's events in context or tell stories that may mesmerize you in ways that leave you smiling in delight.
After a year-long hiatus, NPR's Office of the Ombudsman is back in business with a weekly Wednesday column, radio appearances and talks. As the new ombudsman, my goal is to work with NPR staff to make its journalism more transparent and help explain to listeners the often seemingly mysterious way news decisions are made at NPR.
My philosophy, after 30 years as a newspaper reporter, media critic, author and university journalism professor (see my bio) is that we who work in news serve the public better when we acknowledge that mistakes are an inevitable and unfortunate by-product of news-gathering, correct the record, find ways to prevent reoccurrences and move on.
"To err is human," poet Alexander Pope said in the 1700s, adding that "to forgive, divine."
Accepting this wisdom is by no means a license to allow mistakes. A news organization's most cherished asset is its credibility, and almost nothing is more important than vigorous attention to the unglamorous, workaday basics of journalism for insuring the integrity of the product.
"Learn the principles and the mechanics will follow," said New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston in an interview with the Rochester, N.Y., Democrat and Chronicle. "Check, cross check and verify with such determination that if your mother says she loves you, check it out. Learn your subject from the foundation up so that you can make sound judgments and write authoritatively. Ask neutral questions. And when you err, forthrightly correct the record."
The best journalists know that strong news organizations become stronger by listening to their critics. "I think good journalists and good organizations are open to criticism," says Bob Steele, ethics guru at the Poynter Institute. "They should actually seek it out. When you are receptive to criticism, then there are times when you can say, 'Well, we didn't dig as deep as we should have or the reporting wasn't thorough or aggressive enough.' "
National research in 1998 showed that 78 percent of people who see corrections "feel better" about their newspaper, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Surely the same is true for NPR listeners. "While mistakes hurt credibility, corrections- handled in a consistent manner and placed where they can easily be found- help heal the public's misgivings," according to later ASNE research.
NPR news shows tend to acknowledge mistakes and air corrections during their weekly "Letters" segments. But just as newspaper readers don't always see printed corrections, listeners who caught mistakes on air don't always hear later fixes. NPR's website should be the place listeners can count on to find corrected errors. But it is not enough to simply admit or concede errors and issue a correction. NPR and all news organizations would aid their cause of journalistic integrity if they would systematically outline steps to be taken to prevent errors from happening again.
In my work, I am depending on folks inside and outside NPR to query me about how the news is produced, to point out mistakes, errors of omission and other concerns. And of course, compliments about NPR journalism are always welcome. NPR does many things well or the network wouldn't have 26 million listeners. To contact me, email me, call 202-513-3245 or write a letter to the ombudsman at 635 Massachusetts Ave., Washington, DC 20001-3753.
My office gets scores of emails, phone calls and letters every day. I or my assistants, Chantal de la Rionda and Holley Simmons, will read your emails and other communiques. I will rely on my three decades of media experience in deciding how to best respond to your queries, tips and criticisms. Sometimes, I will reply in individual emails, and sometimes discuss issues you raise in my weekly columns and other forums. There may be occasions when NPR journalists won't want to hear from me but I hope they will respect that my goal is to explain, not excoriate; that I too have reported on deadline and have made mistakes that still haunt me.
My goal is to pull back the curtain to explain the complex relationship between NPR and member stations and to show how radio pieces are put together. I will explore everything from how NPR's news programs select on-air guests, to why a host cut off a live interview, to web stories and to how NPR protects its journalistic integrity as it expands its multimedia presence. My job is not to advocate for NPR. My job is to explain NPR to the public and the public's concerns to NPR. I am counting on you to help in this endeavor.