Jan. 8, 2013: This column has been updated with minor clarifications explained below.
A Morning Edition segment last week on the decline of Kwanzaa began as a noble attempt to break with mainstream media orthodoxy and reach out to the social media generation by humanizing a reporter, flaws and all.
The resulting segment incited listener criticisms about content. But what the host and editors may have most provoked was a separate and more fundamental question about credibility — of NPR and of the guinea pig reporter involved.
Host David Greene and Chuck Holmes, a supervising editor, are convinced that they enhanced the standing of both. The complaining listeners, many of them apparently African-American adherents of Kwanzaa, claim the opposite.
Reporter Gene Demby, himself an African-American who has just joined NPR as a reporter covering ethnicity and race and was making his first appearance on air, is caught in the middle. He is hard on himself for not knowing some basic information about the holiday but is divided over the wisdom of being bared on air.
There is no clear right and wrong in this tale. Rather, it is an example of both the opportunities and pitfalls as NPR and the rest of the mainstream news media seek to evolve with the times. The under-35 who make up much of the growing social media culture — as well as some more wrinkled members from the two ideological extremes — are driving a demand to make once faceless reporters more publicly human and open about potential biases. But there are no agreed guidelines yet on how far to go.
One reason for the uncertainty is a divide over what constitutes credibility, the foundation of the news media. Without it, NPR and other news outlets are dead. Your guideline thoughts are welcome.
The Kwanzaa case at first seems deceptively simple.
The Morning Edition segment on Jan. 1 was what's known in radio as a "two-way," a conversation between the host and a guest, in this case Greene and the reporter Demby. The technique is an informal way to report and analyze the news. This particular two-way was about the changing role of Kwanzaa, which ends on the first day of the new year.
The exchange that offended some listeners came at the end:
GREENE: So on the last day of Kwanzaa, would I say Happy Kwanzaa or what do...
DEMBY: I think you're supposed to say the name of the principle of the last day of Kwanzaa. I'm not sure what that Kwanzaa principle is. But I think Happy Kwanzaa is a sufficient response for a salutation.
There is nothing wrong with a journalist not knowing something. But in a two-way with a reporter, that unknown is usually about a fact that is not public or is unconfirmed. In this case, however, Demby was presented not just as a reporter, but also as an expert and — crucially here — a personal example.
Kwanzaa, drawn from African harvest celebrations, was started in the 1960s as a way to encourage pride, community and end-of-year personal reflection among blacks. A separate principle is supposed to be used in seasonal greetings for each of the festival days between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1.
"Please check Google and you will see information about Kwanzaa everywhere," wrote Kemba Nzinga of Columbus, Ohio, in a typical email criticizing Demby's expertise to discuss the celebration. "There is even an official site for Kwanzaa. He did not talk about the principles that are the foundation of the cultural holiday. He did not even know the Kwanzaa Principle for today."
This is a middling sin in the full context of his report, but it could have been avoided altogether. The conversation with Demby was pre-recorded, and so could have been re-done or Demby's lapse could have been cut out. When Greene finished the report, he even went so far as to clarify that the greeting for that day was "imani," or faith. This was information that he, Holmes and Demby looked up following the interview.
But they purposefully aired Demby's lapse, Greene and Holmes told me, because of his value as a personal example. Demby is warm and, despite his recent arrival to NPR, well-spoken on air. As a 32-year-old example of a rising younger generation of African-Americans, his personal experience evokes the point of the segment: Kwanzaa, which was at its height of popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, is losing relevance among young blacks. And in radio, an intimate medium, evoking is far more powerful than explaining.
But should that example have been one of NPR's own reporters?
Arguably, by leaving in the lapse, the morning show was leaving the reporter as an expert out there to hang to dry. The criticisms I received suggest that among at least some listeners, the credibility of both Demby and NPR was damaged. As Darcelle Gill of Leland, N.C., wrote:
"What a way to introduce Gene Demby, a journalist of race and ethnicity, to your NPR family/audience. I was disappointed to start my 2013 to hear an incomplete description of Kwanzaa."
But Greene and Holmes strongly countered that that by humanizing their reporter, they did well by him and by NPR. As Greene, a thoughtful veteran, told me: "I would hate to draw lines and say those aren't questions and casual moments we can have on the radio. Being honest lends to your credibility."
Holmes said that in planning for the segment, "we briefly talked about whether or not we should talk to a Kwanzaa founder or to an academic." That would be the standard approach, used the week before on Tell Me More." But we thought a more vibrant option would be to talk to someone who spends his days in social media who can speak to where the community is now." Before joining NPR, Demby was a blogger on black culture at The New York Times, Huffington Post and on his own blog, PostBourgie.com.
The argument by Greene and Holmes is a popular one in the new media world. If you want to build a following on blogs, forums, Facebook, Twitter, and the like, you have to get personal enough that the audience feels that they know you. But what was unusual about this episode was that Demby was not online, but on public radio's flagship news show.
Prior to the lapse, Demby also talked about his own celebration of Kwanzaa as a child and of lighting Kwanzaa candles in the Catholic church that he attended. He referred to a friend of his who had written about the "psychic barrier" that blacks must overcome to celebrate a holiday that he said is "not part of the firmament of holiday celebrations."
Such self-revelation was innocent enough, but then came the lapse and the complaints, detracting from a focus on the information and underlining the danger of the technique. As late as the 1950s, not even the names of reporters were given on many, if not most, stories in much of mainstream media. Yet, now even in this column I have told you Demby's race and age, two personal details I almost never give, because, in the world of conventional journalism, they are almost always irrelevant.
But are such details about journalists always irrelevant? The new media world, correctly noting that the ideal of a perfectly objective reporter is impossible, maintains that it is thus better to know their background and their biases so that we can weigh it against their information. The demand extends to divulging the politics and policy views of reporters and editors.
I am not sure where the line should be drawn on how much to humanize reporters. I do think that politics and policy views should be excluded. Absolute objectivity may be impossible, but independence, accuracy and fairness are not. Yet, the trend to a more opinionated news media may overwhelm even that barrier. Certainly we will experience ever more voice and personality by reporters, which is not be a bad thing, though I don't think any of us want all of our news to come in first person accounts.
Let me leave the last word to Demby himself. Because of his age, he said that he comes from "smack-dab in Millennials territory." This is a generation in which race matters less and social media is king. To his credit during the two-way, he did indeed cite a Kwanzaa expert, Professor Keith Mayes of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. He also listed some of the Kwanzaa principles and summarized his own crowd-sourcing research on Twitter.
Of the lapse at the end, he said: "I'm of two minds about the decision to leave it in. The conversation wasn't pro- or anti-Kwanzaa and was meant to be kind of loose and informal, which is what I think we were all aiming for. But I should have known the principle; that bit is pretty inexcusable. It allows for an inference of dismissiveness that certainly wasn't my intention. That's not anyone's fault but my own."
I don't agree. The "fault" clearly was not his alone. It should have been made clearer to listeners that this two-way was part of an evolution in media. Still, what did come through in the interview was Demby's intelligence, sensitivity to cultural change and basic decency and fairness. So, let me, too, join in welcoming him to NPR.
Editor's Note: The characterization of Demby as a "guinea pig" is mine. Greene and Holmes said they were not intentionally trying to do something new with Demby, and I didn't think that they were. To me, the segment produced by the three of them represents a continuing drift towards greater personal baring of reporters, whether conscious or not. For clarification, I made a minor change to the last paragraph. I also rewrote the paragraph on Demby's value as a representative of his generation so that it is clear that they were delighted with his conversation, and not with anything to do with the status of Kwanzaa. – Edward Schumacher-Matos, Jan. 8, 2013
Updated Jan. 24, 2013:
Continuing the conversation, Michel Martin, the host of Tell Me More, offered the following thoughts:
I am annoyed by the characterization in your column of our treatment of Kwanzaa on Tell Me More as "the standard approach." If you, or rather the person you quoted, had listened to the segment, or even read the transcript, then you would have seen that we actually accomplished what the Morning Edition piece attempted and failed to do. We explained the holiday AND made it personal ("human," if you prefer) by inviting a person who both knew about AND had a personal connection with the holiday — and arrived at exactly the same place as Gene did which is to say, he doesn't observe it (in the case of our guest, he used to and no longer does). Social media can make it EASIER, not HARDER to find things out. For example, you can reach out on Facebook or Twittter and ask if anyone is really observing the holiday and what they are doing? Knowing something and having fun with it don't have to be mutually exclusive.
And one more thing — I think the thing that annoyed many listeners was the implication that there is something unknowable or not worth knowing about the subject. The thing about our listeners of color — in fact many people who don't fit what they believe or have been made to feel is the NPR template or "core audience" — is that they want to feel that the thing that matters to them matters enough to us to be treated with respect. One habit of mind to consider: would you treat a different subject — something you cared about — the same way? That often helps me when I'm trying something new.
And yes, we DID know the seven principles.
Habari Gani to you too.
Lori Grisham contributed to this report.