NPR's Ombudsman

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

Sometimes while screening calls during our show, I have to let a caller go because their phone has shoddy reception or we're running up against the wall and don't have enough time to put them on the air. To me, it makes sense, and seems justified at the time. But then I think about what it would be like to be that caller on the other end of my hang-up. Here you are, listening to a segment on NPR that got you excited enough to call in and offer your $0.02 live on the air, and you're greeted by a screener like me telling you, "Sorry, we won't be able to take your call. [Insert reason here.] But thanks for calling in and listening!" I can see how it could be infuriating at the most, and a little disappointing at the least.

NPR's Ombudsman, Lisa Shepard, is the one responsible for following up on listener complaints and questions. In other words, she keeps us honest, helps keep the peace. And she will join TOTN every so often to talk about some of the phone calls and emails she receives from listeners, and the ethical issues they raise. NPR received complaints that the description of what police found at the site of Deborah Jean Palfry's suicide was too graphic. What do you think?

When there is a death, be it a suicide, murder, car accident, or an act of war, how much do you want to know? How much should you know?

Comments

 

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Cheap shot on the suicide report commentary- on 2 levels. 1st, you can't avert blame by saying it was the Tarpon Springs Police Chief speaking -- cut out that part of his speech.
2nd - asking listeners how much they should know. You don't need to get an unsophisticated poll of listeners to counteract validated research standings by a human services agency devoted to suicide reduction. You ARE sounding like Fox!!!! Danger danger.

Sent by Phil Gris?? | 3:54 PM | 5-7-2008

I want to know what percentage of emails she answers? The previous ombudsman answered all my emails but she never does.

Sent by Joe Frank | 3:56 PM | 5-7-2008

In terms of war coverage being graphic enough or not, I think audiences suffer in another way. Americans are well aware today of the injuries, deaths and long-term mental effects our wars have on Americans, but we learn very little about what is accomplished on the battle field.

We rarely hear about enemy casualties or military objectives met. Likewise, we rarely hear about the violence inflicted on innocent civilians by the terrorists we are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This imbalance skews coverage by leaving the impression that our armed forces are not accomplishing anything, when in actuality we often do kill or capture many of our enemies and achieve most of our objectives.

Sent by Peter | 4:00 PM | 5-7-2008

Sadly NPR seems to be just like commercial media. Reminds me of a PBS special that the folks from the 50's TV show, Your Show of Shows with Mel Brooks and others who commented that in the early days of television those who could afford a television set, were those who made more money and thus were better educated as a rule. And as such one didn't need to spell out jokes and skits that had sexual or political innuendoes. Then as more people could afford sets that all changed and you had to dumb down to meet the attract and keep the viewer who wasn't as deep a thinker. Sadly, media today, including NPR, often seems to prove Mr. Brooks right.

Sent by MotherLodeBeth | 4:00 PM | 5-7-2008

Ombudsman led with reported concern of experts re: instigatrion of copycat suicides. Her entire discussion thereafter focused on listeners feeling offended, and journalistic values. Those are relevant of course, but way off the point.

The point was not that some listeners may end up grossed out, but that some may end up dead. That is a not insignificant point. Why was it neglected throughout the entirety of the discussion? Is the ombudsman competent?

This comment does not presume a correct answer to the question of how the incident should have been reported. That remains open for discussion. It was not discussed in your presentation. Why not?

Sent by davy B | 4:02 PM | 5-7-2008

I completely agree with the first caller on this program. My jaw dropped after hearing the topic of the discussion and the letter of concern when NPR then aired, AGAIN, the very piece of the coverage in question. Absurd! There was no need. And,in case you're rationalization of re-airing the graphic segment continues to be that for listeners who didn't hear it the first time, they needed to know what the discussion was referring to, all I can say it: Not at all. I didn't hear it the first time (and who cares, anyway?) and the letter was sufficient.

How stupid can you get?

Sent by Rose | 4:09 PM | 5-7-2008

I have to write to concur with the first caller about how shocking and inappropriate it was to lead the "ethical discussion" (about how much detail to provide about suicides because that can increase suicides) with a clip that gave the very details in question! That threw ethics out the window. To make matters worse, the response to the caller was dismissive and made it clear that neither the ombudsman nor the senior NPR reporter saw how starting that way undercut any view that NPR could have a balanced "ethical" discussion. The caller (and myself) were all for an open discussion - it was the replaying of the clip that was so out of line. Isn't there anyone at NPR who could see how this looked from the outside? I thought that's what the ombudsman is supposed to do? My station cut out to fundraise so I did not hear the end, but the letter writer mostly asked that news organizations have a policy about reporting suicide details. Besides saying that NPR doesn't have one, could we come away from all this with the hope that NPR might consider developing one?

Sent by Michael McConnell, MD | 4:19 PM | 5-7-2008

While listening to conversation RE: Suicide I think a key feature was missed the difference between "offensive " material and DANGEROUS. Loud voices during a movie are offensive but yelling "Fire" is dangerous. News should avoid dangerous reporting absoluteley and then wrestle with offensive content on a case by case basis.

Sent by Susan Diamond | 4:27 PM | 5-7-2008

I have a question about recent delegates switching support from Hilliary to Barak. Does this mean that the opposite is likely to happen, too? Why switch support in the first place. How is this helpful?

Sent by terry | 4:34 PM | 5-7-2008

I'm not sure I understand why the media has not asked Barak Obama about his faith directly in respond to the conversation about Rev. Wright, rather than focus so much on his associations with others. Could you explain this political tactic?

Sent by terry | 4:44 PM | 5-7-2008

I am still waiting to hear the conversation that took place on air today regarding the suicide death of Deborah Jean-Palfrey; a co-worker told me about it when she came in. What she told me is that one of the issues on NPR's part is how to make the story "interesting enough" to keep listeners involved. The CDC has published guidelines for the media in regard to reporting on suicide in order to prevent contagion and utilize the tragedy as a "teachable moment". I am including a link in the hopes that you will read the recommendations and take them into account. Those guidelines specifically ask that the death not be reported in graphic detail. As far as trying to make the story more "interesting", how about a segue into education about the connection between suicide and mental illness? Part of my job on a Crisis Line in Oakland County is suicide prevention and education. While suicide is a scary topic for so many, I find that if you just give people permission to talk about it they are willing to discuss it at length. Since there are so many myths to be debunked regarding suicide, and since it really is a wide-spread problem, my bet is that if NPR chose to talk about it, people would listen.
http://www.sprc.org/library/sreporting.pdf

Sent by Shawn Force | 4:57 PM | 5-7-2008

When there is a violent death, I want the media to refrain from explicit commentary which may lead to copycats. I believe the media, including NPR, has an obligation to become more informed about copycat phenomena.In the cases involving mass homicide of strangers followed by suicide, I have come to believe that the the shooter should be withheld as a preventative measure against future killers/suicides seeking a fame they will not find in life. I have not come to this opinion without a lot of serious thought. My son was on the second floor of Norris Hall at VT at the time of the 4/16/07 attack; he survived physically uninjured in the one class the killer failed to enter though he shot through the door. I deeply believe that the "right to know" must be somewhat sacrificed to limit some types of tragedies.

Sent by Faylene Macko | 7:05 PM | 5-7-2008

Incredably Stupid,

The replay of the sheriff comments regarding the death the D. C. madam.

Lawrence Arrol
Colonel (R) united States Army

Sent by Lawrence Arrol | 7:30 PM | 5-7-2008

i think your host with the manner you dealt with the ethics is such a stupid manner as pointed out by a caller and then his response to the caller has lost me. I doubt that if he is this person that I heard tonight, i think that it is unlikely that he is anywhere near to what is the truth and understanding of an issue that he reports. Has he been this dumb all this time? Reporting the story that is being complained about by replaying it is nuts. Really. Sorry you have lost me as a listner. there are alot of other radio shows to listen to.

Sent by lynfrank | 9:35 PM | 5-7-2008

I heard the reply to your suicide program comments and your announcers just didn't get it. Even when a man called and said, "you are doing it now, replaying the comments on suicide to give an example of what not to say on air about suicide". You are so interested in getting the story and the ratting that you refuse to admit that you are out of line and out of humanity. I think that if you could just ask your self one question before you report on death issues, "How would I want this reported if this person were my child?" No matter what age the person is. We all have parents though some are no longer living. But as parents surely we can be brought to some level of humanity when we think of others as some ones child. If you have children you may be put in this position some day. If you are unwilling to do this then go into another profession. I was very much disappointed in your lack of sensitivity and your unwillingness to see what you were doing. Shame!

Sent by Glenna Auxier | 10:35 PM | 5-7-2008

I missed the description of Palfry's suicide on Monday, but completely understood the issue prior to hearing the repeat police description. I agree with the first caller in today's program that replaying the interview while in the midst of discussing its inappropriateness was unnecessary to say the least. Acts of war, car accidents, etc. are not intentional as in the case of suicide. Those who would be inspired to commit suicide by a graphic story such as this are emotionally incompetant individuals and I feel the case of reporting on suicide should be the exception. Descretion should be used because it is such a sensitive matter. Your program is both intelligent and inspiring yet I was disappointed by your lack of discretion in this matter.

Sent by Elle Tant | 11:00 PM | 5-7-2008

You really ought to validate this "blog" by contributing something yourself. Many of today's comments virtually begged for a simple, sincere, thoughtful response, giving some hint whether you "got it" or not.

Is it the case that neither host nor guest (especially "guest" such as ombudsman) nor producer has some moments to reflectively respond to direct queries? Can you not continue the dialogue at least through one round? It is otherwise ridiculously abbreviated, and makes you appear arrogantly detached.

Sent by davy B | 4:24 PM | 5-8-2008

So much for that.

Sent by davy B | 2:21 PM | 5-9-2008

Terry Gross' show last night (30 June 2008) was very disturbing, not for the charges leveled by Mr. Hersh , but for the irresponsibility and lack of journalistic ethics that brought her to host this subject. She does not appear to have considered the consequences of unveiling the details of a covert activity; putting real Americans and our allies' lives at risk, as well as potentially creating the self-fulfilling prophecy of tragic failure. If Mr. Hersh 's story is an invention or exaggeration, she has handed the vicious regime in Tehran a propaganda tool to explain away internal discontent and justify brutally cracking down on dissidents.

Mr. Hersh noted that the President followed the law; requesting and receiving Congressional Leadership approval. He also said the story came from those that are opposed to this lawful action. Consequently, the only information presented is slanted to their advantage. Yet she made no attempt to question their credibility or to challenge the details; instead amplifying Mr. Hersh 's somewhat paranoid rant against the current administration. Mr. Hersh said he had to protect the identity of those who had leaked classified information to him, while admitting that they did not have the moral courage to standup themselves and object publicly. Instead they can now quote his story as a source without repercussion, while those who's lives are on the line are now in ever greater danger because of it.

In my opinion she showed a total lack of journalistic balance. I found her show, the guest and her conduct as host to be offensive and disgusting.

Sent by Ed Keay | 10:58 PM | 7-1-2008