Todd Hornsby, of San Antonio, TX, was driving home Monday evening, looking forward to catching NBC's Olympic coverage of the Men's Downhill event featuring Bode Miller.
"All of [the] sudden without any warning - NPR's host blabs the results without even so much as a spoiler warning! Gee thanks," says Hornsby. "Lesson learned - I'll being listening to the iPod or a CD or a music station for the afternoon commutes."
And Hornsby is not the only one.
Every two years, our office hears similar complaints about NPR broadcasting Olympic results before they are shown during television prime time coverage. Often, the time difference can affect when results are broadcast.
In the 2008 Beijing games, Olympic events took place almost a full day before the prime time newscasts aired in the U.S. Most events happen during the daytime, before NBC's 8 p.m. ET prime time lineup, making it almost impossible to avoid spoilers.
What makes things more complicated is that listeners are often automatically subjected to Olympic results when they log on to news websites.
Emily Boggs, of Greenwood, VA, keeps NPR.org as her homepage. On Wednesday afternoon, she opened her browser and the headline story about Lindsey Vonn's gold medal win popped up.
"I understand that the race happened in the afternoon and that NPR's job is to report current news," says Boggs. "However, to paste Olympic results on your main page before they have been broadcast on network television (which is the way most people watch) is just spoiling the fun."
Boggs brings up a good point: It is NPR's job to report the news. And it is NPR policy to treat sports like any other new story by reporting it as it happens.
"NPR is a news organization," says NPR's Deputy Managing Editor Stuart Seidel. "We do not hold off on announcing the news to conform to television scheduling."
Unfortunately, Mr. Hornsby didn't hear it. The show provided a similar alert when announcing Vonn's win Wednesday.
Seidel said NPR does not routinely provide spoiler alerts. "It is, however, the practice of our Newscast writers to include a line or two of copy at the beginning of a report about major sports events to give listeners an opportunity to divert their attention during the upcoming report on results," he said.
During that report, Howard Berkes informed listeners that just a few minutes earlier, Johnny Spillane won the first-ever medal for an American in the Nordic Combined event. This was breaking news (and a breaking of an Olympic record) and needed to be reported as soon as possible.
New York Times Sports Editor Tom Jolly put it this way: ""We've got a global audience [...] We've got readers around the world watching the Olympics in real time, for us to hide the results from them is preposterous."
NPR's Ombudsman Alicia Shepard agrees. "This is a news business, not an entertainment business," she said. "And, if NPR were to withhold Olympic results, listeners would question what other news was being held back too."
You can learn more about NPR's policy through the following archived stories:
Why Olympic Results Are Known Before Broadcasts
August 8, 2008
Reporting on the Olympics and the President
February 21, 2006
The Sounds of Summer
August 19, 2004
--- Caitlin Huey-Burns
Office of the Ombudsman
categories: How journalism works