WELCOME TO MY WORLD

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.

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Comments

 

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The first part of this article was so poorly written that it detracted from what may have been good in the remainder. Indeed, I gave up.

Sent by Carroll Nast | 9:58 PM | 1-9-2008

Thanks for describing so cogently the challenges of the "imperfect craft" of journalism. And kudos to NPR for recognizing the importance of transparency in its own work. With fingers pointing at the media for its pre-coverage of the New Hampshire primary, how do you think NPR's reporting holds up?

Sent by Linda Jenning | 3:22 PM | 1-10-2008

How many of NPR's listeners are interested in this sort of "media examining itself" nonsense. Not too many, I imagine. Just tell us -- quickly -- when an NPR person screws up (reporter, producer or senior executive) and what was done to correct things. Two short grafs, please. NPR "explains" itself to the public by the programs it produces. Its audience doesn'n need an NPR-appointed person to be an intermediary. All the "curtain-pulling" stuff is just parochial navel gazing (not by you, but by those senior executives at NPR who think this is important, interesting or useful.) But don't be too discouraged...your writing is just fine.

Sent by C. O. DeRiemer | 7:42 PM | 1-11-2008

The comment by Carroll Nast is a GREAT example of why the job of a journalist is so difficult in presenting news accurately and in a well-written way. I read the same column and I think the intro provided a terrific summation of the promise and peril of working in the media. Two readers; two completely different opinions.

Sent by Jon Komatsu | 8:54 PM | 1-11-2008

I am interested in how NPR decides which stories will be given greater attention and which ones will be going down the memory hole. NPRs reporting, perspectives, and solutions are framed within official rhetoric, i.e., the big books make their rounds on all the NPR shows (while other quality authors are ignored), and NPRs stories do not exist unless a government official, pundit, or accepted think tank (see Hoover Institute, Brookings, etc) confirms it.

Sent by andrew hennessy | 8:56 AM | 1-12-2008

The most serious issue facing any news correspondent is separating news from sociology. Though we lay claim to a free press, the press is as influenced by current sociology as an other aspect of society.

Examining history, one can see how journalism failed specific aspects of society.

We prefer to look back, indeed it is easier, we have achieved a distance, a separation, and we as often continue to fail, not recognizing the tools we employed to fail one group we are now employing to fail another.

Sent by Harold A. Maio | 10:01 AM | 1-12-2008

Note to Carroll Nasty -- you must be having a bad day for both judgement and temperament. I thought Ms Shepard did an excellent job of describing the parameters of her new role and her philosophy about it. And I look forward to reading more -- from her, not you.

Sent by Phil Acknell | 5:24 PM | 1-12-2008

On the Thursday January 10, 2008 Kojo Nnamdi Show, Alicia Shepard said when discussing how NPR decides how much coverage to give each candidate in the presidential election, she stated that it is partly a function of the total money raised by each campaign. "One of the ways NPR makes a decision on how to cover has to do with how much money people can raise because money is an indicator [of how much media time a candidate can buy]". If "how much money" is an important factor, I would also like NPR to do more reporting on "who or what" this money represents. Who are these donors are demographically and why these demographics drive NPR's coverage. I appreciate all the hard work of those at NPR and I feel that NPR has the best news in radio and television, but I too feel that NPR has been covering this election as if it were a "horse race". I believe that NPR has a critical role in _setting_ the public discourse for American politics not in just reacting "the money?" which may or may not represent their listeners or the voting population in general.

Sent by Robert Ware | 9:40 AM | 1-13-2008

Congratulations on the new gig, Lisa. You're going to do a great job. NPR is on the forefront of the changing world of news, and it will be part of your job to explain how it's changing and why. Good luck!

Sent by Jon Greer | 1:22 PM | 1-14-2008

I sincerely hope the new ombudsman is better at describing NPR actions than past regimes. There are some serious problems that I have written to NPR for comment or response, and received none. Major issues and questionsw I have asked have not been shown the courtesy of a reply.

Questions like: why NPR disenfranchises 9.2 million XM radio customers by making 2 NPR channels available on Sirius radio, but not XM? No answer.

Why isn't NPR's premiere ATC, ME and other programming available via XM or Sirius to NPR affiliate subscribers (like me) who live beyond the signal reach of NPR stations? No reply.

I look forward to getting answers. 19 million Americans pay for satellite radio, and NPR should serve ALL of them, and should take advantage of satellite radio to time-sift or rerun ATC and ME.

NPR in general, and the ombudsman columns in the past, have been top-heavy with editorial decisions from D.C. when this is the listener's forum.

Good luck, and thanks for listening.

Sent by John McNary | 3:58 PM | 1-14-2008

A few thoughts...
* A brief intro for yourself and the return of the column would have sufficed. This did indeed go on too long, trying to impress us with your resume and your thinking and so on. Just get to it -- your work will be judged over time, not based on what you want us to think about it. Do real work, not meta-work.
* Please take a more "bloggy" approach to your writing and interactive work -- it's a mode of writing and audience interaction that NPR sorely needs. Pull back the curtain, interact and share, solicit input, be honest, be open to making mistakes yourself, admit when you just don't know, be real, be independent, be lively. Ombudsman is a serious job, but don't play the 70-year old journalism professor.
* Photos and videos and extra audio and links, please! This is the web. Show us what an editorial meeting looks like. Share a conversation you had with a journalist or editor in audio. Post photos from speaking events or from around NPR. Link to NPR stories as wlel as stuff off the NPR site. This isn't a newspaper column, so reach beyond the written word occasionally.
* Have fun. And don't listen to us! ;-)

Sent by John Proffitt | 4:25 PM | 1-14-2008

The second paragraph set the tone, and that's unfortunate. "...journalism is an imperfect craft and despite the highest standards and best intentions, mistakes can happen..." I don't care for hand-waving and misdirection. It comes off as an excuse, and reminds me of corporate PR, when officials tell employees how lucky they are that their benefits have been reduced and it's only going to cost them 10% more. It's not journalism that's imperfect, it's people. Journalists make mistakes (just like the rest of us). In general, try active verbs. They smack of clarity. Isn't that one of the first rules of good writing?

Sent by Rae Hallstrom | 9:37 AM | 1-15-2008

Comment by Robert Ware is quite good(as is Jon Greer's, welcome). I'm disturbed by NPR's (& Lehrer Newshour) lack of coverage of the Edwards's campaign. NPR should be above the MSM. It reads like media "pack mentality" - just mention Hillary and Obama's race comments, not their core issues, not platform track records and ignore certain candidates.

Sent by E. Rivers | 11:25 AM | 1-15-2008

Glad to see the Ombudsman finally communicating with the public.

Sent by KC in Lubbock | 6:14 PM | 1-17-2008

Thank you, Mr. Ware, for commenting on the NPR's political coverage. To the Ombudsman: Where can I find more info/discussion on this, as I have been increasingly disappointed in NPR's campaign reporting, ie., lack of reporting on candidates voting histories, positions, etc.?

Sent by Angelina Gregorio | 1:30 PM | 1-21-2008

"we journalists- at NPR and across the news media- can and do get names wrong... Errors of commission or omission..."

Well whatever about getting people's names wrong in interviews, why do you interrupt them-after they've just started talking - to say who they are?
You wouldn't do this in real life, when you'd simply and properly introduce them before they speak!
So why on the radio? Apart from the annoyance of the interruption, it breaks up the information flow.

Sent by Peter Douglas | 4:17 PM | 1-25-2008

I'm skeptical of the ombudsman's importance; this position has been left vacant without explanation for over a year.

I'm not optimistic, but here are two simple easy tests:

1) What are you going to do regarding Fox News' Juan Williams? His two interviews of W (NPR, then Fox) were beyond sycophantic, even by NPR standards.

Is it appropriate for an NPR interviewer to tell a President or any other politician that "We're praying for you" His second interview of W appeared insubordinate of NPR management's decision and Mr. Williams' fawning second interview on Fox seemed to justify management's decision.

2) In the first Morning Edition's story regarding the anniversary of the Dept. of Homeland Security the reporter closed the story stating that there had been no terrorist attack on the US since 9-11.

Wrong, there was a second terrorist attack; just ask the families the postal workers who were killed by anthrax.

Here's two nice and easy pitches, lets see if you really are an ombudsman or just a "fair and balanced" Tomlinson employee.

Sent by Ron Gordon | 9:33 AM | 1-29-2008

Ms. Shepard, On your Jan 9th 2008 Commentary titled Welcome to my World you write that "after a year-long hiatus, NPR's Office of the Ombudsman is back in business". Are you telling us that no one was minding the store so to speak? Who was taking care of answering the hundreds of comments, questions, complaints addressed to NPR's Office of the Ombudsman? As a listener, and supporter of NPR I find it puzzling that although my inquires to The Office of the Ombudsman had been addressed, you make it sound like there was a gone fishin' sign hung on the door of the Office of the Ombudsman until you graced us with your talent.

Sent by Marie Daurin | 4:00 PM | 2-12-2008

Three weeks and no answer to my 01/29/08 post, I believe I have my answer about how aggressive this ombudsman will be.

Sent by Ron Gordon | 8:53 AM | 2-25-2008