Are NPR Reporters Too Involved in Their Stories?

There is a long-standing journalistic tradition that mandates reporters restrict themselves to the role of dispassionate and disinterested observers. In short, they must not project themselves on the events they cover.

Does Reporting Change The Event?

Some say that the very act of observing and reporting an event changes it. In my opinion, that is a risk worth taking and, for the most part, journalists try to keep themselves out of a story in order to assure accuracy and objectivity. However, not everyone plays by this rule. Some have achieved reputations as investigative reporters or as advocates for causes, (Woodward/Bernstein and Nicolas Kristof, to name a few), while others appear to do so out of self-interest or to give the story a heightened sense of dramatic impact (Bill O'Reilly and Geraldo Rivera come to mind).

Many stories these days evoke strong responses from audiences, and journalists seem more engaged generally. That has sparked some concerns among those who write me as to whether NPR reporters are as studious nonpartisan as they should be.

Two recent incidents occurred where NPR reporters may have crossed that line and put themselves into the story.

Getting Angry At the Army Corps of Engineers

The first occurred in a two part series by NPR's David Kestenbaum on the causes of the levee failures in New Orleans. It aired on All Things Considered on May 19.

It was excellent reporting but, according to some listeners, it was marred when Kestenbaum used an emotive word rarely uttered by an NPR reporter. It happened when Col. Murray Starkel of the Army Corps of Engineers, was asked the following question(emphasis mine):

KESTENBAUM: You hear people who are really pissed at the Corps. What do you say to those people?

Listener Charlie Leteer was one of a number who wrote to complain:

My ten-year-old grandson was riding with me (when I heard it). If he had used that language, we would have had a discussion. I frankly didn't appreciate the "up-to-date" reporter's attempt at whatever he was trying to emphasize. I expect more from NPR. (My grandson said "that should have been a 'beep.'" But then he is apparently smarter than the average reporter.)

"Anger and Outrage"

Alison Richards was Kestenbaum's editor on the story:

It was editorially important and journalistically honest for listeners to hear Kestenbaum pushing to get an answer from Col. Murray Starkel, the second-in-command for the New Orleans District of the Army Corps. This was one of the few times the corps has publicly acknowledged some responsibility for what happened, and apologized.

Second, in a world where many such interviews are heavily 'stage managed,' I thought it was particularly important for listeners to hear that this was a frank and uninhibited exchange.

Third, while David's language might have been less than 'polite', and I accept that, it also reflects the rawness of the anger and outrage people in New Orleans feel. What happened there was not pretty in any sense.

I think Kestenbaum and Richards are wrong in this instance.

There may be legitimate rawness and anger in New Orleans, but that is not an appropriate reportorial response. I think that the public radio audience is, (in general), not easily shocked, and they are able to handle harsh language but only when it is contextual and comes directly from the people being interviewed — not from the reporter.

When it comes from the mouth of a host or a reporter, the audience is understandably less tolerant. I think listeners expect NPR journalists to remain in their role as neutral observers, even in something as fraught with emotional elements as the Hurricane Katrina disaster. The situation is terrible enough without a reporter seeming to torque the story.

Although the use of one slightly disturbing word did not impair Kestenbaum's good journalism, it was, in my opinion, distracting, unnecessary and unjournalistic, and should have been removed before it aired.

"A Reporter’s … Involvement"

The second instance of a reporter blurring the lines between observer and participant is more complex.

On Morning Edition on May 23rd, correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reported the harrowing story of a family from Central America attempting to reach the U.S.-Mexican border at great personal risk.

Listener Gary Aveck noticed one line in Garcia-Navarro’s report:

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Using a borrowed cell phone, 32-year-old Honduran Patti Aguirre calls her brother in Virginia.

That got Mr. Aveck wondering whether it was the reporter's cell phone and if so, whether the role of the dispassionate observer had been breached:

…what I am discussing involves acts of human kindness that people want to do for others in need. On the other hand, when do any such acts (generous or otherwise) become part of the story, either because they affect actions relevant to the report, or because they indicate a level of the reporter's emotional/personal involvement with the subject that might indicate a favorable personal bias and which would otherwise remain invisible.

When is any of the above something that should be disclosed so that the listener is able to evaluate it?

"Not Biased … Human"

Garcia-Navarro thinks there was no such blurring of the boundaries in this instance:

Actually, I was doing the story with … James Hider (who's normally the Baghdad bureau chief for the Times of London) and he handed them the phone when Patty asked if she could call her brother.

But let me tell you how I feel about these things. I appreciate the listener's concern over 'bias' — but journalists frequently lend their phones to refugees, civilians and soldiers (in Iraq, it's pretty common). We often have a means of communication when others do not … [This] doesn't make us biased, [it] makes us human. Are we supposed to deny them a phone call if they ask?

The more important question in my mind is ... had I given them the phone myself, should I have included it in the story? I didn't set up the scene, I didn't ask her to make the call, I didn't prompt her on what to say, it was an authentic moment that showed how torn she was. I think it's fair. And finally (as you can see I have strong opinions on the matter!) I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding on what bias is.

As journalists we do not check our humanity at the door, what we must do is try and give an accurate representation of what is happening before us to the best of our ability, leaving aside our prejudices. I tried to do that with this story.

Thanks for forwarding the letter, [it] made me think and I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

No "Compassion-ectomy" Required

I think Garcia-Navarro is right in this. Perhaps it would have been useful if she had indicated whose cell phone it was but overall, I think that pure journalistic neutrality is more suited to the college classroom than in the real world, although it does cause listeners, viewers and readers to wonder if we are forced to have a "compassion-ectomy" in order to do our jobs. There is a different degree of empathy in Garcia-Navarro's response from Kestenbaum's use of the word "pissed." It is always a balancing act to ensure that the reporter doesn't go too far (or doesn't hold back too much) in conveying his or her personal empathy. That's the critical role of the editor — the second set of ears — back in the newsroom, always making sure that reason and passion are suitably combined.

Brava to Garcia-Navarro and to editor Didrik Schanche for this powerful piece of journalism.

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