NPR Ombudsman

NPR Ombudsman


Thursday, October 29, 2009

The National Association of Black Journalists is questioning NPR's commitment to diversity after NPR let go one of only two African American males in newsroom management.

Greg Peppers, the executive producer for NPR's newscast unit -- which has the largest NPR audience -- left his position on Oct. 16 after joining NPR in the 1980s. That unit puts out 37 newscasts a day, seven days a week. News reports say Peppers was fired, but NPR's policy is not to release information on personnel matters.

The same week, NPR announced the retirement of Walt Swanston, an African-American woman, who has been NPR's director of diversity since 2003. While it looked conspiratorial, it wasn't. She is retiring for health reasons.

In reaction to Pepper's leaving, NABJ president Kathy Y. Times wrote that her organization "is saddened to learn that National Public Radio has fired one of its few remaining black managers."

According to NABJ's figures, of the 68 people on NPR's corporate team, only eight -- or 12 percent -- are people of color. Four African Americans. Two Hispanic Americans. One Iranian American. One of South Asian descent. (NPR says those figures are incorrect but acknowledges there is a problem.)

"It is NABJ's belief that actions speak much louder than your words," said the NABJ letter on Tuesday. "It is not enough to provide internships for young people or hire them into entry-level positions. Diversity must also be reflected among the managers who decide what news gets covered and who gets to cover it."

NPR's President and CEO Vivian Schiller reacted Thursday by publicly releasing NPR's staff composition for the first time. Of the 34 people NPR identifies as executive and upper management, only 4 -- or 11.8 percent -- are people of color, according to NPR figures.

"I couldn't agree more that NPR must increase the diversity of its staff -- particularly in management and editorial," wrote Schiller in response to NABJ's letter. "I am on the record with the media and our employees, stations and board in acknowledging that NPR must take a leadership position in diversity, just as we do in high-quality journalism and digital innovation." (NPR's Diversity Policy.)

Out of 754 employees, NPR has 506 management, editorial, production and on-air positions. Of these, 114 -- or 22.5 percent -- are staff who self-identify as people of color, according to Schiller's response. More than 22 percent of the 58 programming managers are people of color.

NABJ noted that the minority population in the U.S. is about 32 percent.

At NPR, 27.3 percent of the 754-person staff are people of color, according to Schiller's letter, which might seem to nearly mirror the U.S. population. But NPR's figures also show what most staffers at NPR already know -- the highest percentages of people of color are in clerical (64.2) and administrative (30.9). Here's the chart.

Out of 32 million people listening to public radio -- not just NPR -- on 800 stations, 12 percent are African Americans and 10 percent are Hispanics, according to Arbitron for spring 2009. [These are corrected figures as of 12:15 p.m. 10-30-2009]

For NPR's flagship programs -- Morning Edition and All Things Considered -- the listenership is lower. Five percent of the audience listening to those shows is African American and 4 percent of the audience is Hispanic, according to NPR-provided data (That compares with an audience share of 18 percent African American and 25 percent Hispanic for all of radio).

NPR needs to do better in diversifying its staff, especially in management. Another concern not addressed by NABJ or Schiller is that the only on-air African American male is Juan Williams, who is not a staff employee. Over a year ago, NPR's management put him on contract as a news analyst.

The lack of diversity within NPR's management was apparent to me when I first joined NPR in October 2007. Since then, there have been diversity meetings, committees, surveys, and they all conclude the same thing: NPR must focus on diversifying its staff, especially if NPR wants to better reflect the population and continue to expand its audience.

Schiller recently put together yet another new committee to explore how to better diversify the staff. She joined NPR only 10 months ago, and I hope she has more success.

A news product that doesn't accurately reflect the changing demographics -- including ethnicity, age, socioeconomics, gender, sexual identity and politics -- of the country loses its relevance.

Continue reading "NPR and Diversity-- NABJ Says NPR Must Do Better" >

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categories: How journalism works

11:01 - October 29, 2009

Friday, October 23, 2009

Live radio is tricky. Some times reporters talking 'live' say things they instantly regret.

Just ask NPR political editor Ken Rudin, who appears on the Political Junkie segment every Wednesday on Talk of the Nation. He said something this week that resulted in a flood of instant criticism.

Rudin told listeners he thinks the Obama administration is unwise to take on Fox News. The administration has gone to war against the network calling it a mouthpiece for the Republican Party.

Rudin compared the administration's boycott with Fox to President Richard Nixon's enemies list. During the Watergate scandal, the Nixon administration compiled a list of enemies. Its official purpose was to "screw" Nixon's political enemies. Notably NPR's Dan Schorr was on it.

Here's what Rudin said:

"Well, it's not only aggressive, it's almost Nixonesque. I mean, you think of what Nixon and Agnew did with their enemies list and their attacks on the media; certainly Vice President Agnew's constant denunciation of the media. Of course, then it was a conservative president denouncing a liberal media, and of course, a lot of good liberals said, 'Oh, that's ridiculous. That's an infringement on the freedom of press.' And now you see a lot of liberals almost kind of applauding what the White House is doing to Fox News, which I think is distressing."

Thursday, Rudin apologized, admitting he'd made a "boneheaded mistake."

"Comparing the tactics of the Nixon administration --which bugged and intimidated and harassed journalists -- to that of the Obama administration was foolish, facile, ridiculous and, ultimately embarrassing to me," wrote Rudin. "I should have known better and, in fact, I do know better. I was around during the Nixon years. I am fully cognizant of what they did and attempted to do."

As he noted in his apology, what the Obama administration is doing is a "far cry from illegal and unconstitutional activities."

While it was a dumb thing to say, I applaud Rudin for quickly apologizing. Journalists are going to make mistakes -- not intentionally but they will happen. Acknowledging them goes a long way to maintaining credibility.

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categories: How journalism works

1:56 - October 23, 2009

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Juan Ensalada of Denver was critical of NPR's natural gas series that ran on Morning Edition in late September; he was one of many listeners who considered it favorable to the natural gas industry. (See my piece evaluating the series.)

But when he looked at a related story on NPR's web site, he was downright suspicious.

What bothered him was a banner ad for America's Natural Gas Alliance placed at the top of the page, next to stories in the natural gas series.

ANGA bills itself as an education organization representing leading independent natural gas companies. It is currently involved in a major new advertising campaign in big-city newspapers and on TV and radio, including NPR, promoting natural gas as a "clean" energy source.

"Clearly this looks like a MAJOR conflict of interest -- that NPR took underwriting money to influence journalism," wrote Ensalada. Many others questioned the ad placement.

Ensalada is correct about one thing: It didn't look good to have the sponsorship banner on the same web page as the series.

But despite his skepticism about NPR's motives, there was no "pay for play" here.

ANGA began a sponsorship campaign on NPR's website on Sept. 17 to run through Dec. 31. It is online only, meaning that no sponsorship messages appear on NPR-produced radio programs. (If you hear ANGA ads on air, it may be because a non-NPR program or a local public radio station is running the spots independently of NPR.)

The sponsorship message was vetted to make sure it fit NPR's standards for corporate underwriting and was approved, according to John King, in corporate underwriting.

"The sponsorship deal was negotiated months before the series ran and was scheduled to appear periodically on our business pages," said Kinsey Wilson, Senior Vice President and General Manager, NPR Digital Media. "There is no relationship between editorial decision-making and corporate underwriting."

Tom Gjelten and Peter Overby, the two reporters on the natural gas series, said they were unaware of the ANGA sponsorship while they were reporting their stories. "I'd also say it's no surprise they would do this," Overby said. "Corporations and interest groups often use NPR funding credits to buff up their images."

It also may be worth pointing out that sponsors are not able to sponsor individual stories. They just sponsor topic areas or program areas, or in special cases, provide support for long-term projects like NPR's Planet Money or StoryCorps.

NPR, and other legitimate news organizations, insist there is a "firewall" between the editorial and business/advertising departments.

This is how a firewall works: NPR's corporate underwriting team sells, in this case, banners that appear on the web in broad topic areas, and guarantees the purchaser a set number of "impressions," i.e. someone viewing a web page will see the banner. (If a banner is sold for NPR's homepage, NPR can guarantee about 750,000 page views per day. The number is much smaller for most individual pages inside the NPR web site.)

People in NPR's news department are not involved, directly or indirectly, in the sale or placement of messages on the radio or the web site.

"Our ad server [a computer] makes the second-to-second decisions on what banner to show on a given page view," said Bryan Moffett, Director of Digital Sponsorship Operations. "It's more complex than a simple rotation. But it's fair to say ads rotate. It's also important to remember that at any given time, hundreds of people are on our site looking at content. So what you see may not be what others see, as the ad server is making these decisions every second."

After I saw the ad periodically on the natural gas series site, I brought it to NPR's attention. Even if there were no direct cause and effect (i.e. ANGA bought ads and NPR decided to do the series, which is not the case), a viewer could reasonably perceive a conflict-of-interest.

The ad was hand-pulled from appearing on the series as of Oct. 8 at 11:35 a.m.

"Editors don't have the visibility into which ads are running where and when," explained Wilson. "And sponsorship doesn't know in advance that stories are going to be published. That's part of the church/state separation [the firewall]. Add to that the volume of ads and stories coursing through the site and I think you can appreciate how difficult it is to catch such a juxtaposition in advance."

In some cases, such as during elections, Wilson said, NPR can intentionally position or exclude sponsor messages. NPR would not, for instance, let a political campaign try to buy all the possible banner ads on the politics pages.

"But it's not practical in every instance" to monitor the ads and content, said Wilson. "So, in the spirit of the web, we also rely on the audience to help us identify these issues, as they did in this case."

This incident demonstrates two lessons for NPR. One is that, in this era of polarized politics and public skepticism about the news media, some in NPR's audience are quick to perceive, and accuse NPR of, a conflict of interest.

A second lesson, related to the first, is that NPR needs to work harder to protect its reputation by avoiding actions that could reinforce perceptions that access to its news gathering is for sale.

In this case, NPR had every right to accept underwriting ads from the natural gas industry, as long as they met the criteria. It is a fact of life that underwriting is now a important source of income for NPR.

However, NPR could have -- and should have -- made sure beforehand that underwriting ads for the natural gas industry did not appear on the same web pages as those carrying stories in the natural gas series.

categories: Conflict of Interest

4:01 - October 21, 2009

Friday, October 16, 2009

New technology has made natural gas a promising alternative in reducing the United States' dependence on other countries for energy sources. Natural gas is cleaner than other fossil fuels, and some experts say there's enough untapped natural gas in the U.S. to last 100 years.

So it made sense in late July for NPR to develop a series of reports on natural gas -- especially since the potential of natural gas was a surprise to NPR editors and to reporter Tom Gjelten, who was assigned to the project.

"For me the relevant context were the concerns about energy independence and climate change," said Gjelten, who covers national and energy security. "The intriguing question I set out to explore was whether the potential of gas from shale rock could be a 'game changer' as far as the overall energy picture."

The three-part series, which aired Sept. 22-24 on Morning Edition, gave an overview of how technology has dramatically altered the natural gas industry, explained the industry's structure, and described how unsuccessful it had been in getting breaks from Congress in the current climate change legislation.

But the series had a flaw.

The reports did not thoroughly address environmental and public health concerns about extracting natural gas using a technique called hydraulic fracturing or "fracking." This involves drilling down a mile below the surface, then shooting a million gallons of water, sand and chemicals to break up the shale and release the gas.

I was inundated with phone calls and emails about the series. Many from people in Pennsylvania and New York state, who live atop the Marcellus Shale Formation, which is rich in natural gas and stretches from western New York state through Pennsylvania to Ohio and West Virginia.

Before new technologies were developed for fracking and horizontal drilling, it was uneconomical to extract gas from this area. In recent years, however, small energy companies have opened hundreds of drilling sites in this region.

None of those who contacted me complained about natural gas as an energy source. Nor did listeners object to the basic reporting in the series. They did insist, however, that NPR left out an essential part of the story.

Via email, phone and commenting online, they said NPR should have included at least one piece about the negative side effects of natural gas drilling, such as accidents, broken pipes, leaking containment wells and toxic water spills from containment ponds. Listeners also said NPR should have mentioned that state and federal laws do not require companies disclose the chemical formulas used in fracking because they are protected as trade secrets.

"You can't have a major three-part series on natural gas and never mention in more than a few lines the environmental hazards," said Judy Abrams, of Ithaca, NY. "All of us kept waiting for the other side of the story. The extraction process is extremely dirty. Fracturing is done with water laced with chemicals."

In fact, while the series was running, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection ordered one natural gas company to stop all well fracking in Susquehanna County after three separate spills in less than one week. The company was told to address safety concerns after spilling 8,000 gallons of a toxic mixture into a wetlands area and a creek causing a fish kill.

After a lengthy rule-making process, on Sept. 30 New York State environmental officials issued regulations on gas drilling to address concerns about the impact on New York City's drinking water.

Some NPR listeners were quick to accuse NPR of shilling for the natural gas industry. These listeners drew a connection -- a false one in my view -- between the series and a sponsorship campaign that began on Sept. 17 by an industry lobbying group, America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA). The perceived connection was reinforced by ANGA sponsorship banner ads appearing on the series' web presentation. (More on the sponsorship issue in my next piece.)

Much of the intense criticism came after Gjelten's first piece on Sept. 22, which garnered 255 comments, mostly negative. "If one went to a public hearing and listened to the natural gas representatives, they would sound like that first piece," said architect Buck Moorhead, of NYH20, an anti-drilling group in Manhattan."No acknowledgement of cumulative negative impacts of toxic chemicals on our drinking water, air quality and public health."

But NPR editors said the intent behind the series was not to provide a one-sided report. Gjelten, the lead reporter, said he set out to do an overview of the shale gas industry and its potential impact on America's access to energy.

"Our stories focused on the prospect that recoverable natural gas reserves are far greater than imagined even a few years ago due to the potential of shale gas," said Bruce Auster, NPR's national security editor, who worked on the gas series. "This is a big development, with implications both for U.S. energy security and climate change. So this was the focus of our stories."

Yet, he said NPR recognizes that there are downsides to extracting natural gas from shale. "That is why we raised the water contamination issue on the air in the final segment of the series," said Auster. "We also offered a detailed examination of the issue in a separate web piece. And NPR aired -- in May -- a separate piece on precisely this issue. We feel that the level of coverage was appropriate."

After the reaction to the first day's story, Gjelten did a web piece on environmental concerns about fracking. It was posted Sept. 23. On the last day of the radio series, Sept. 24, Gjelten gave a brief description to Morning Edition listeners of some of the environmental concerns about how fluids are used to fracture the shale. (This was recorded before the series aired.)

"The concern is that that might cause some contamination of drinking water supplies," Gjelten said. "There are chemicals that are used in that water. Now, the natural gas people say that that can be dealt with by tight regulation, very close monitoring of the pipe itself and the dispose of the wastewater. But that is a concern."

That mention covered two minutes out of 24 devoted to the series on-air. (Gjelten also briefly mentioned environmental concerns in the Sept. 23 piece.)

His more detailed online piece about environmental issues was commendable, but it highlights the limitations of NPR's online content. While about 7 million listen to Morning Edition each day, Gjelten's online piece received only 5,432 page views after three full weeks, according to NPR's audience research department. (It would have helped if on-air hosts had alerted listeners to Gjelten's online piece.) Research shows there were 69,782 page views for the entire series.

The initial goal of the series was ambitious. Brian Duffy, then NPR's project editor, said NPR wanted to explore how new technology was opening up once cost-prohibitive energy reserves; environmental fears, and the geo-political implications in Europe, where the new technology could reduce its near-total dependence on Russia for natural gas.

But once the series reached the air, listeners heard almost nothing about the last two elements.

During the planning process, Duffy asked the Science Desk to assign a reporter for the environmental piece, but was told no one was available. Duffy said he reached out to ProPublica, a non-profit online investigative news outfit, which has reported extensively on water contamination in drilling areas. But nothing came of it. Nor could he find a Europe-based reporter free to cover the geo-political angle.

UPDATE: ProPublica's managing editor, Steve Engelberg, called to say that while nothing came of talk about partnering with NPR on the natural gas series, it wasn't because of any lack of interest on ProPublica's part in pursuing the story or working with NPR. "We'd love to work with NPR," he said.

ProPublica has published 41 stories and worked with WNYC exploring the environmental concerns surrounding natural gas.

What drew many listener complaints was that the topic was billed as a series. NPR's listeners then had a reasonable expectation that they would learn about all important aspects of the issue in a multi-part report.

"It made it worse that there were three parts," said Ken Campbell, radio manager for public radio station WSKG, in Binghamton, NY, which sits atop the Marcellus Shale formation. Campbell fielded complaints from local listeners who are personally concerned about the impact of gas drilling. "That rubbed it into our listeners that their concerns were ignored because it was covered so extensively but with a limited point of view. With that much time you'd think they would cover all aspects."

The ultimate question is: Did this series give a reasonably complete and balanced view of issues concerning domestic drilling for natural gas?

The answer is no. While it did draw attention to an energy source that is not widely known, NPR failed to provide a full picture of the implications of the latest natural gas drilling technology -- and that would include failing to cover the geo-political aspects.

The environmental concerns are real. According to ProPublica, courts and state and local governments have documented more than 1,000 cases of water contamination associated with natural gas drilling. Someone who heard only the radio stories, however, would have learned little about this aspect. Moreover, the fact that NPR ran a story about the environmental concerns in late May does not excuse leaving this aspect out of the series.

"Should we have covered the issue more thoroughly? Certainly," said Duffy, who left NPR's news department in late August. "This was a situation where we couldn't get all the bases covered because we had furloughs [caused by NPR's budget cuts] and vacation issues and changes in personnel. The story absolutely did need an environmental component. I won't disagree with that. It's a shame we just couldn't provide it."

But it's not too late. C Hagstrom made a good suggestion in a Sept. 23 comment. He lives in the ground zero area of Pennsylvania gas development.

"I can tell you first hand that there are real problems with the current approach to development," wrote Hagstrom. "NPR has the chance to do the right thing by running a piece that covers the downside to a very invasive and potentially harmful environmental process."

NPR has vast resources within the 800-member public radio stations. Some stations in areas with shale gas are already diligently covering the environmental and economic aspects of the story. WSKG producer Crystal Sarakas, for example, has done several programs on the topic and follows it closely. WNYC has covered this extensively and so has WDUQ in Pittsburgh.

Since NPR could not devote one of its own reporters to this aspect of the story, NPR should have reached out to one of its station partners to work together on this series. This approach also would have dovetailed with NPR CEO Vivian Schiller's intention to create a stronger and more connected network, by tapping into the knowledge and talent at public radio stations.

Here's a U.S. Department of Energy primer on modern shale gas.

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categories: Balance

3:50 - October 16, 2009

Thursday, October 15, 2009

NPR posted new guidelines Thursday to help its staff make use of the wide array of social media tools and still maintain NPR's credibility. Take a look at the guidelines and feel free to weigh in.

Why now?

"We've actually been working on this for a while," said Ellen Weiss, NPR's senior vice president for news. "But the truth is that through the Knight education, we have been training and encouraging our staff to use social media and this has raised all sorts of new questions. Many of these questions are addressed in our ethics code, many aren't. So I decided to pull together a small working group and develop some guidelines to help the staff."

These guidelines are mandatory for everyone in News, Programming, Digital Media, Communications, Legal divisions and officers of NPR, according to Vivian Schiller, NPR's CEO and president.

"And anyone using NPR-issued equipment or writing from their NPR email address (or providing that address for response) must also adhere to them," Schiller wrote in an email to staff. "But even if you fall outside those boundaries, you'd be smart to review the guidelines and follow them. NPR is first and foremost a news organization, which means staffers from Finance to Facilities represent the face of NPR's journalistic integrity."

Mark Stencel, managing editor for digital news, also wrote on Thursday about NPR's social media habits.

What do you think? I've already picked up grumblings among some staff -- who are not in news --who feel some parts of the guidelines are too restrictive and infringes on their right to a personal life outside of the office.

But I'm afraid I come down with Schiller on the need for NPR to at all costs protect the network's most valuable asset -- its credibility.

You might also want to read Michele McLellan of the Knight Digital Media Center's take on NPR's social media guidelines versus the Washington Post's. Here's something on the New York Times as well. This is clearly new territory and new organizations are tredding carefully.

NPR News Social Media Guidelines

Social networking sites, such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter have become an integral part of everyday life for millions of people around the world. As NPR grows to serve the audience well beyond the radio, social media is becoming an increasingly important aspect of our interaction and our transparency with our audience and with a variety of communities.

Properly used, social networking sites can also be very valuable newsgathering and reporting tools and can speed research and extend a reporter's contacts, and we encourage our journalists to take advantage of them.

The line between private and public activity has been blurred by these tools, which is why we are providing guidance now. Information from your Facebook page, your blog entries and your tweets -- even if you intend them to be personal messages to your friends or family -- can be easily circulated beyond your intended audience. This content, therefore, represents you and NPR to the outside world as much as a radio story or story for does.

As in all of your reporting, the NPR Code of Ethics should guide you in your use of social media. You should read and be sure you understand the Code.

What follows are some basic but important guidelines to help you as you deal with the changing world of gathering and reporting news, and to provide additional guidance on specific issues. These guidelines apply to every member of the News Division.

First and foremost -- you should do nothing that could undermine your credibility with the public, damage NPR's standing as an impartial source of news or otherwise jeopardize NPR's reputation.

* Recognize that everything you write or receive on a social media site is public. Anyone with access to the web can get access to your activity on social media sites. And regardless of how careful you are in trying to keep them separate, in your online activity, your professional life and your personal life overlap.

* Use the highest level of privacy tools available to control access to your personal activity when appropriate, but don't let that make you complacent. It's just not that hard for someone to hack those tools and make public what you thought was private.

* You should conduct yourself in social media forums with an eye to how your behavior or comments might appear if we were called upon to defend them as a news organization. In other words, don't behave any differently online than you would in any other public setting.

* While we strongly encourage linking to, you may not repost NPR copyrighted material to social networks without prior permission. For example, it is o.k. to link from your blog or Facebook profile to a story of yours on the NPR site, but you should not copy the full text or audio onto a personal site or Web page. You may accomplish this through the NPR API or widgets that NPR provides to the public under the same terms of use as apply to anyone else.

* Remember that the terms of service of a social media site apply to what you post and gather on that site. The terms might allow for material that you post to be used in a different way than you intended. Additionally, law enforcement officials may be able to obtain by subpoena anything you post or gather on a site without your consent -- or perhaps even your knowledge.

* Remember the same ethics rules as apply offline also apply to information gathered online.

* Journalism should be conducted in the open, regardless of the platform. Just as you would do if you were working offline, you should identify yourself as an NPR journalist when you are working online. If you are acting as an NPR journalist, you must not use a pseudonym or misrepresent who you are. If you are acting in a personal capacity, you may use a screen name if that is allowed by the relevant forum.

* You should always explain to anyone who provides you information online how you intend to use the information you are gathering.

* When possible, clarify and confirm any information you collect online by later interviewing your online sources by phone or in person.

* While widely disseminated and reported, material gathered online can be just as inaccurate or untrustworthy as some material collected or received in more traditional ways. As always, consider and verify the source.

* Content gathered online is subject to the same attribution rules as other content.

* You must not advocate for political or other polarizing issues online. This extends to joining online groups or using social media in any form (including your Facebook page or a personal blog) to express personal views on a political or other controversial issue that you could not write for the air or post on

* Your simple participation in some online groups could be seen to indicate that you endorse their views. Consider whether you can accomplish your purposes by just observing a group's activity, rather than becoming a member. If you do join, be clear that you've done so to seek information or story ideas. And if you "friend" or join a group representing one side of an issue, do so for a group representing the competing viewpoint, when reasonable to do so.

* Realize that social media communities have their own culture, etiquette and norms, and be respectful of them.

* If you are writing about meetings and gatherings at NPR -- always ask first if the forum is on or off the record before distributing information or content about it.

And a final caution -- when in doubt, consult with your editor. Social media is a very dynamic ecosystem so don't be surprised if we continue to revise or elaborate on our guidelines at a later date. In the mean time, we welcome your feedback.

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categories: How journalism works

10:01 - October 15, 2009



Alicia Shepard

Alicia Shepard

NPR Ombudsman

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