NPR Ombudsman

NPR Ombudsman


Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Boy Scout, according to the scout "law," is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.

But he cannot be gay.

More than one in 10 boys (11 percent) in the United States is currently a Scout, according to a Boy Scouts of America 2005 study touting how scouting builds character and provides lifelong benefits. There are 2.7 million registered Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts and Venturers.

"Scouting provides youth with an opportunity to try new things, provide service to others, build self-confidence, and reinforce ethical standards," said the study. "In fact, 83 percent of men who were Scouts agree that the values they learned in scouting continue to be very important to them today."

But openly gay youth are not likely to learn those values from the Boy Scouts.

Recently, NPR ran a piece on Weekend Edition Saturday highlighting the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Boy Scouts.

"That's a century of merit badges, campfires, bowlines, half-hitches, jamborees and camporees, first aid, and community service," said Audie Cornish, the substitute host on Feb. 6. "Steven Spielberg was a Scout. And so was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Presidents Carter, Kennedy, Clinton, Obama, and George W. Bush all participated in Scouting. Half of all astronauts were Scouts too."

The story featured actor Jon Heder, star of the popular movie classic, Napoleon Dynamite. Scouting played a large role in his life. He and his four brothers all became Eagle Scouts, the highest rank one can achieve in scouting.

Cornish also interviewed Marcos Nava, head of Hispanic initiatives for the Boy Scouts of America, who works to get Hispanics involved in scouting.

But the piece never mentioned the funding controversy that erupted in the early 1990's over the Boy Scouts discriminating against gays. Or that their organization went all the way to the Supreme Court in a successful fight for the right to bar homosexuals from becoming troop leaders.

Continue reading "Boy Scout Story Should Have Mentioned Gays" >

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categories: Balance

6:12 - February 28, 2010

Thursday, February 4, 2010

[NOTE: (2-5-10) Note: I said that Allison Keyes declined to comment on her story. In fairness to Keyes, I should have said that David Sweeney, managing editor of NPR News, told me he would respond on behalf of the news department. It should also be noted that journalism is done collaboratively, and Keyes alone did not make the decision to put the story on the air. This is why Sweeney responded.]

There's a taboo not to speak ill of the dead. Or if you are going to, then at least be nuanced and even-handed about it.

And that's what hundreds said about a Jan. 28 remembrance of Howard Zinn, the activist historian who died Jan. 27.

Zinn was decidedly left of the American political spectrum and the first to say he was biased. His best-known book, "A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present," was a surprise best-seller. It told history from the point of view of those who had been vanquished or oppressed by the powerful.

Zinn, 87, died of a heart attack last Wednesday while on a speaking tour in California. NPR scrambled to get something on the air for All Things Considered (ATC) the next night.

The four-minute piece by Allison Keyes quoted three sources: two who praised Zinn and one, David Horowitz, who was harshly critical. It was the commentary by Horowitz that led Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a left-leaning media watchdog group, to initiate a campaign that resulted in over 1,600 emails, over 100 phone calls and 108 comments on Others complained on air.

Horowitz, 71, is a former leftist radical who morphed into a right-wing author and commentator in the early 1980s. He is also founder of Students for Academic Freedom, a national watchdog group that promotes tolerance of conservatives on college campuses.

Not surprisingly, he was no fan of Zinn's.

"There is absolutely nothing in Howard Zinn's intellectual output that is worthy of any kind of respect," Horowitz declared in the NPR story. "Zinn represents a fringe mentality which has unfortunately seduced millions of people at this point in time. So he did certainly alter the consciousness of millions of younger people for the worse."


"I thought it was not only disrespectful, but ridiculous--and so typical of the 'liberal' media's desire to seek legitimacy by giving credence to hateful right-wingers," wrote Laura Paskus, from Paonia, CO. "I was one of those young people Zinn influenced; he didn't expect people to blindly accept his version of history. Rather, he taught us to question, probe, seek out alternative perspectives and to always be fair."

Continue reading "Activist Historian Howard Zinn's Obit Causes a Firestorm" >

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10:39 - February 4, 2010

Friday, January 22, 2010

NPR's Ombudsman office keeps a finger on the blog pulse, and occasionally finds items criticizing NPR that are spot on, but others that aren't correct.

That's why a recent post on, a conservative media watchdog site, raised a few eyebrows.

"It is a strange paradigm among much of the mainstream media that plummeting poll numbers are of far greater import for Republicans than they are for Democrats," wrote Lachlan Markay, the post's author. "That, at least, is the logical conclusion of the relative silence of major media outlets on the steep decline in President Obama's poll numbers compared with the decline in President Bush's."

Could it be true, as Markay stated, that NPR has neglected to report President Obama's decline in the polls?

We did some research.

It turns out that Markay's post was partially accurate. NPR did not report on the specific Allstate/National Journal poll on Jan. 15. But Markay's general sentiment -- that NPR doesn't report negative polls on President Obama -- was not accurate.

On Jan. 14, NPR's Liz Halloran reported a Pew Research Center for People & the Press survey, noting that the president's job approval ratings were at 49 percent. And that his approval rating on health care had dropped from 51 percent to 38 percent.

Days later Weekend Edition Sunday reported on a drop in the president's poll numbers:

"Ken Rudin: And now it seems like, if you look at the polling numbers - and I can give some polling numbers - The Washington Post has President Obama with a 53 percent approval, CBS 46 percent approval. These are not good numbers, certainly not as good as they were when he was riding so high back in the last spring."

And Weekend All Things Considered also commented on the shift:

"Guy Raz: [...] Originally, he was at around 70 percent approval, now down to 50 percent, just under that.
Mara Liasson: Yes. Obviously, he started at an unnaturally high level.
Guy Raz: Mm-hmm.
Mara Liasson: But being under 50 is the danger zone for presidents as they enter the midterm elections. The presidential approval rating and the unemployment rate are probably the two most significant indicators of how a majority party will fare in the midterms."

On Monday, NPR's Scott Horsley, who covers the president, reported on his sagging poll numbers.

NPR's Mara Liasson reported Wednesday on Morning Edition that President Obama, with a 50 percent approval rating, has the second-lowest national approval rating of any modern president at this point in his presidency. [President Reagan was only slightly lower at 49 percent.] In the same show, NPR's Don Gonyea noted that a new Indiana poll gave the president a 44 percent approval rating with 53 percent disapproving.

And Horsley, also did a newscast spot that day saying:

"Some of the same voter frustration and desire for change that helped propel Mr.Obama into the White House last year has now turned against the President. His approval rating has fallen from almost 70 percent at the time of his inauguration to around 50-percent. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says with double-digit unemployment, it's little wonder the public is frustrated. Gibbs says the President is frustrated too."

Polls are valuable to journalists and the public because they capture a numeric concept of public opinion. But there are so many polls conducted that not all of them will make it into the news cycle -- and the quality and credibility of polls range from excellent to poor.

Although Markay raised a provocative observation, a quick search of NPR's coverage reveals that a particular poll might not be cited, but listeners are learning about the dramatic slip in approval for the president.

-- Lori Grisham
Assistant to the Ombudsman

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categories: Balance

11:19 - January 22, 2010

Friday, January 8, 2010

For nearly two months, the animated political cartoon sat on virtually unnoticed. And then someone discovered it, was disgusted and launched it into the blogosphere -- making it a raucous rallying point for conservatives.

The conservative tom-tom was extremely impressive.

When the "Learn to Speak Tea Bag" cartoon making fun of "Tea Party" activists was published on Nov.12, there were 5 comments. By 6 p.m. this past Monday, there were 258. By Wednesday night, over 1,100 people had commented and it was still the most-recommended link on NPR's web site. On Monday and Tuesday, calls came in every 10 minutes. Over 300 wrote to me -- most of them angry.

The 90-second animation, which creator Mark Fiore calls satire, rather summarily dismisses participants in the Tea Party movement as inarticulate, paranoid bumblers. The video "teaches" the viewer to speak conversational "tea bag."

Moderator: Finally, learning a new language doesn't have to be hard. You can be fluent in conversational tea bag in just a few short minutes. Lesson one: Don't get distracted by the confusing words of other languages.

Character: I think the public option and the competition it would foster would really -- socialist, socialist.
Moderator: Good, very good. Lesson two: If you're having trouble understanding the words of others or being understood yourself, use teabag's stronger, more descriptive words.
Character: "Nazi, Nazi, Nazi."

It's actually not that funny -- especially to those on the right, including members of the Tea Party movement, which is populated by passionate Americans who don't like the direction President Obama is taking the country.

"The cartoon is a perfect caricature of what NPR looks like to conservatives: liberals snidely imagining conservatives to be monosyllabic clods who can't make an argument beyond name-calling," said Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the conservative Media Research Center. "Conservatism is 'satirized' into a form of political retardation."

Continue reading "Loud Protests on NPR's 'Tea Party' Cartoon " >

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12:46 - January 8, 2010

Friday, November 6, 2009

An American Jewish Committee study nine years ago revealed that American Jews, for the most part, are undisturbed by mixed marriages.

But the same can't be said for Jews in Israel. A 2007 poll found that more than half of Israeli Jews equate intermarriage with "national treason."

NPR ran a story on Morning Edition last month about a Jewish vigilante group in Israel. It centered on a 31-year-old Jew named "David" (not his real name) who along with others patrolled a deserted parking lot in the settlement of Pisgat Ze'ev near Arab-majority East Jerusalem trying to keep young Jewish women away from Arab men. Freelancer reporter, Sheera Frankel, went along.

Missing from the story, however, was an explanation of the kind of societal racism -- on the part of both Jews and Arabs -- that might have helped listeners better understand what's behind the vigilantism.

Racism is a daily fact of life in Israel, as it is in any multi-ethnic society. The story told a tale of one small aspect of the seemingly eternal conflict between Jews and Arabs. But it failed to put that tale into the broader context of how Jews and Arabs perceive each other, which is a major factor in why the conflict perpetuates.

"The point of the story was to shed light on a group of self-styled vigilantes who were both racists and sexists and who were trying to prevent normal youthful fraternization that crossed racial lines," said foreign editor Loren Jenkins. "The story wasn't racist but it depicted racists -- the settler vigilante groups -- and their racist actions in hunting down bi-racial couples."

But many listeners found the story racist, offensive, one-sided and said that it promoted stereotypes and did little to further understanding of the region.

"The story never addressed the racist reasoning behind the vigilantes' efforts, nor did it attempt to elicit the thoughts and feelings of the young couples being harassed by the vigilantes," said Lynn Hirshman, of Black Hawk, CO. "There definitely needs to be some balance here."

Continue reading "Jewish Vigilante Story Misses the Mark " >

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3:05 - November 6, 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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3:50 - October 16, 2009

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

There was no doubt that Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts had died if anyone listened to NPR in the days after his death late on Aug. 25 from brain cancer. Between Aug. 26 and 30, NPR ran 53 stories.

Before Kennedy even died, NPR had 7 in-depth stories already prepared, according to David Sweeney, NPR's managing editor. "From shortly after he was diagnosed with brain cancer, we worked up a list of stories both for the air and online," said Sweeney. "We also worked to produce a couple of obits that would reflect his life, in all its aspects."

Media saturation on the Kennedy story was not unique to NPR. A report released Tuesday by the Project on Excellence in Journalism noted that Kennedy's death was the No.1 story last week. "Indeed, his passing generated more coverage than that of any other political or celebrity since the PEJ News Coverage Index began in January 2007," said the report.

On Wednesday, Aug. 26, Morning Edition ran 6 stories on Kennedy -- covering 34 minutes. To put that in perspective, Morning Edition produces 1 hour and 14-minutes of editorial content each day after newscasts, breaks and funders are taken out.

Tell Me More devoted 19 minutes to Kennedy. Talk of the Nation devoted 48 minutes to an NPR special on remembering Kennedy. By late that afternoon, half the stories (45 minutes) on All Things Considered related to Kennedy's passing. Total programming time across two hours of ATC, excluding newscasts, breaks, funders, is approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes.

NPR also pulled together an hour-long special that went out to stations Wednesday evening. And that's just on-air coverage. More was written on

But on that first day, in the 23 on-air stories, only one mentioned the name Mary Jo Kopechne and 5 mentioned Chappaquiddick.

Kopechne was the young woman who Kennedy left to drown on July 18,1969 after the car he was driving plunged off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island. Kopechne, a former campaign worker, was in the water for eight or nine hours before Kennedy reported the accident to the police. While Kennedy was deemed responsible for the drowning death, he never served time in jail. (See 1988 New York Times investigation exploring what happened at Chappaquiddick.)

NPR's Brian Naylor did tell the Chappaquiddick story during a 9-minute obit for Morning Edition. But the focus was on how Chappaquiddick and the death of Kopechne derailed Kennedy's presidential ambitions.

"An effort to draft the youngest Kennedy for the White House was short lived at the Democratic convention of 1968, and his presidential aspirations were dealt a blow a year later when in July of 1969, his car went off a small bridge on the Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick," said Naylor. "Kennedy swam to safety, leaving behind the young woman who was a passenger in his car. The woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, a campaign worker, drowned. Kennedy later called his actions indefensible. He was found guilty of leaving the scene of an accident, but his sentence was suspended and he remained popular in Massachusetts, where he was reelected to the Senate the next year."

Some listeners were unhappy with what they perceive as hagiography while downplaying the darker chapters in Kennedy's life.

"In your story on Ted Kennedy your reports vacillate between naming the young woman in the Chappaquiddick accident and just calling her a 'young campaign aid.'" She had a name and her name should always be used," wrote Laurel Barton, of Seattle. "It was Mary Jo Kopechne. It is disrespectful and degrading to refer to her as just a 'young campaign aid.'"

Michael Whitaker of Beaufort, SC added, "I work at a chemical plant in Savannah and mention of Ted Kennedy's passing brought up nothing but negative comments, particularly about his murder of Mary Jo Kopechne and how he was able to cover it up. I'd like to hear more from her family."

More complete coverage of Kennedy's foibles appeared on Talk of the Nation on Aug. 26. The now-famous island was mentioned 10 times in a 48-minute segment that more fully explored what happened at Chappaquiddick.

"Chappaquiddick was mentioned in stories where appropriate and we made a consistent effort to reflect in show two-ways and subsequent pieces the flaws and failings in the Senator's life and career," said Sweeney.

Kennedy may have been a great legislator. He may have been a wonderful uncle, a terrific father, a faithful friend and rejoiced in his second marriage, but there were warts too. He got kicked out of Harvard for cheating. He was known in his younger years for womanizing and drinking too much. In 1991, he was carousing with his son, Patrick and nephew, William Kennedy Smith in Palm Beach. Later that night, a woman accused Smith of raping her. Smith was tried and later acquitted.

Not everyone loved Teddy Kennedy. He was a complex man with a family history that defies belief when all the tragedies are strung together. To accurately portray any man or woman, it is just as important to fully include what is unpleasant or unflattering -- especially since those events for Kennedy went a long way toward shaping who Teddy Kennedy was when he died.

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1:20 - September 2, 2009

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Listen to that report," said Robert Daly of Hollywood, FL, "and ask yourself if you can distinguish between it and an Obama administration press release?

NPR is famous for trying to find creative ways to tell stories and explain difficult concepts. My favorite may be when host Robert Siegel asked a farmer to actually put lipstick on a Virginia pig. But not all attempts work as well.

This week, April Fulton, an editor on the science desk, attempted to use an analogy of an airplane to explain what the Obama administration means when it talks about a "public plan" for health insurance.

Fulton suggested substituting the words "public airplane" for "public plan."

"President Obama wants all Americans to get to Healthyville," Fulton said in her piece for Morning Edition on July 7. "Right now, there are many ways to get there, including flying on big, fancy air carriers. They offer leg room and complimentary drinks. Maybe there's an in-seat TV and a hot towel if you can afford it. The trouble is, it's getting more expensive to travel, and some people can't afford to travel at all. So the president wants to create, say, Government Air, which will offer you a ride in a public airplane." (SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING AIRPLANE SOUND)

But unfortunately, while the attempt was laudable, the piece came across as one-sided, leading some listeners to conclude that NPR was editorializing in support of the Obama plan.

"I am done. I've had it. For years I have defended NPR from the complaints of my conservative friends," wrote Robert Daly of Hollywood, FL. "Listen to that report and ask yourself if you can distinguish between it and an Obama administration press release?"

Not only did the Ombudsman's office receive emails, but there are 125 comments to date below the story -- and most comments are critical.

This was a case where better execution and explanation were needed for what NPR was trying to do.

The goal was to explain in a simple analogy what the public plan involves, since the term is swirling around now without much explanation, said Anne Gudenkauf, NPR's senior science editor. "This was simply an explainer, describing what the administration's proposal for a public plan is," she said. "Like a glossary. Or a dictionary entry."

Gudenkauf said the science desk plans to run a series of pieces like Fulton's that will explain in simple, easy-to-grasp terms some of the arcane language involved in the health care debate. The airplane analogy is the first of several to come.

The main problem with Fulton's story was that it was not clear to listeners what the piece was attempting to do -- especially since it followed two fully-reported health care stories on Morning Edition. One discussed new rules surrounding stem cell research and the other was on Congress's self-imposed deadline to get a health care bill passed before the August recess.

Then came Fulton's airplane analogy, without much explanation of how it was different from the two previous news stories.

Fulton's piece said that if there's a public airline, then private airlines are likely to lower prices. She acknowledged that private airlines would protest and complain that if the government steps in, they'll be forced out of business.

"The president says not to worry," Fulton said in closing her piece. "Like good capitalists, the current carriers will start cutting their prices to attract customers back, because if demand is high for lower prices, the market will produce lower prices. And then perhaps the cost of health care stops skyrocketing into the stratosphere, which was President Obama's hope all along."

It's easy to see how some listeners might interpret that as an endorsement of the administration's proposal. Gudenkauf said it most definitely was not, but she acknowledged that the piece wasn't set up well. The introduction should have made it clear that this was a so-called "explainer" of a complex topic.

"I would have liked the intro to more strongly suggest what the piece was," said Gudenkauf, acknowledging that did not happen. "It was not a journalistic examination. It was not an analysis. It was an explanation. We needed to make it more clear that this is what the public plan means to the Obama administration."

Often, when NPR does explainer pieces, they are two-way chats between a reporter or expert and a show host. But this format was different, using an unfocused analogy. And because it was not clear what the piece was trying to convey, it came across as a reported piece that involved only the administration's side, without any representation of opposing views. Hence the criticism.

Gudenkauf said she has learned from this.

"I read every one of those comments and I care very much what people are saying," she said. "If we didn't do a perfect job this time, we'll try to do it better next time."

Continue reading " An Attempt to Explain 'Public Plan' that Didn't Fly" >

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6:18 - July 8, 2009

Thursday, July 2, 2009

How much is too much coverage?

Michael Jackson died a week ago, and as of today, NPR-produced shows have aired about 265 minutes (or 4 hours and 41 minutes) on the pop icon -- not including the newscast coverage which initially was round-the-clock.

In addition, there were numerous blog postings, videos, photos, photo galleries, timelines, and even the transcript of the 911 call.

The West Coast bureau in Culver City is jokingly known as the Michael Jackson Bureau.

Some listeners say they'd like NPR to stop because they've had enough.

"While Michael Jackson's death is a major event in the pop music world, surely the wall- to-wall coverage can be delegated to Access Hollywood and the gossip magazines," wrote Carol Gendel of Rancho Bernardo, CA. "There is still a war in Iraq, Afghanistan, political uproar in Iran - in other words, real news to be reported."

Gendel is not alone. A study by the Pew Research Center indicates that 64 percent of the people polled said the coverage was "too much."

The Ombudsman's office decided to chart NPR's coverage since Jackson's death on June 25 in the late afternoon.

Here's a link to all Jackson stories.

NPR's Neda Ulaby and the arts desk got a full-blown Jackson obit on the air during the first taping of All Things Considered.

"He was unquestionably either the most popular entertainer in the world or one of the most and one of the most unusual public figures on the scene in decades," said Steve Drummond, NPR's national editor. "It was a straight-up monster news story. He's been around since the 1960's and millions of our listeners grew up with him and watched him fall apart in front of our eyes. It certainly doesn't mean we are not covering the Bernie Madoff sentencing or the developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

And if you think the coverage is over, you would be wrong. NPR's Avi Schneider wrote a piece today on all the outstanding questions.

"Frankly, we'll continue to cover it because it's a story with big unanswered questions involving the custody of his children and tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake," said Drummond.

Generally, when a major figure like Jackson dies, about a week is enough coverage. I, for one, am not interested in who gets custody of Jackson's kids.

Update: The Project for Excellence in Journalism released a report on July 8, 2009 documenting the coverage of Michael Jackson by the news media. Read the study or view the full report.

Continue reading "Too Much Michael Jackson? " >

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categories: Balance

6:38 - July 2, 2009

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

It's a shame that NPR is accusing one side but not equally going after the other," said John Visser. "How many times do you think I have had to walk through public areas where there are signs that say, 'God hates fags?'

Dan Savage and his 11-year-old son were listening to Morning Edition in Seattle when a segment on gay marriage came on that angered Savage and upset his son.

"I heard a piece that basically said gay people are horrible monsters," said Savage, who is gay, married for 15 years and blogs at The Stranger. "What my son takes away is that his family is being attacked. What I took was that gay people are not allowed to protest a violation of their civil rights."

Savage immediately wrote a post attacking NPR. Soon it went viral, and emails (348 so far) and phone calls started pouring into my office.

At issue was NPR reporting on California's gay marriage controversy. Until last November, gay marriage was legal in the state. But on Nov. 4, voters passed Prop 8, a ballot issue that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman. On March 5, gay rights supporters went to the state Supreme Court hoping to overturn Prop 8.

NPR's coverage plan for the morning of the legal challenge was a 9-minute package with two stories to help listeners better understand this highly emotional issue, said Philip Bruce, national desk editor for California.

The package opened with a so-called "two-way," where host Steve Inskeep interviewed San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, a vocal advocate of same-sex marriage rights.

The Newsom 4.5-minute interview was followed by a story, of equal length, by NPR reporter Karen Grigsby Bates. It explored the angry backlash some Prop 8 supporters felt from gay activists after their financial support was made public. This is the story that infuriated Dan Savage.

"There are individuals who gave money to the Yes on 8 Campaign for religious or personal reasons," began the intro to Bates' piece. "Many then found themselves targeted by angry gay-rights advocates. And a few paid a big price for voting their conscience."

NPR was attempting to present both sides, but problems with the package hurt its effectiveness -- especially in the web version on

On air, the segment paired two stories back-to-back and used language making it clear they were a package.

But the web presentation was much less clear. The two stories were not visually connected. There is a link at the bottom of Bates' backlash piece to the Newsom interview, but not vice versa. There needed to be more to visibly tie them together. To make it worse, the Morning Edition page on that day highlighted only the Newsom interview. (These problems still aren't corrected.)

Once postings attacking the backlash story began pinging around the blogosphere, many went to to hear it. Quite a few who called me after visiting the website did not know about the accompanying Newsom interview.

Jeffrey Katz, a top Digital News editor, notes that the stories were packaged together on's home page on March 5. And, he says, the story pages should have been linked to one another. "The way we routinely do packages like this is to have a link to related stories either at the bottom of a story page or in an inset box near the top," Katz said. "That it wasn't done this time was an oversight."

Bruce takes responsibility for not working closer with NPR's web staff.

"I've learned a big lesson from this," said Bruce, who edited the segment. "Whenever I'm associated with something like this where we are going to do half on one side and half on another, I'm going to make sure what appears on air is also presented in the digital world in a comparable fashion. We got cherry-picked frankly."

But there is another problem. The two pieces really aren't balanced in my judgment, though Bruce disagrees. "While there may be people who have criticisms," said Bruce, "I feel what we put on the air was essentially fair."

In the Newsom interview, host Inskeep did what a good journalist should do: challenging the mayor by asking questions from the opposing perspective. A listener got both Newsom's reasons for overturning the ban and a feel for the opponent's position. The interview also was relaxed, with banter and laughter between Newsom and Inskeep.

Bates' story took a different approach. Her assignment, she said, was to find people against same-sex marriage who felt they'd been penalized for their beliefs. She did a reported piece with interviews and sound bites; the piece conveyed emotion, and thus, I think, had more power than a two-way conversation between a host and a politician.

Her story focused on four aggrieved Californians who donated money to the Yes on 8 campaign. One was a restaurant manager who quit after gay rights activists boycotted her restaurant -- some hurling ugly comments at customers.The piece also included the Yes on 8 campaign spokesman.

Many who complained said the story should have noted that boycotting is a legitimate, time-honored form of protest, and that those opposed to gay rights can be equally vicious.

"These people who gave money and supported Prop. 8 have the nerve to expect us to say, 'Hey, no problem. Strip us of our rights. We will still patronize your establishments.' " wrote Scott Eizenger. "No! We will hit you in your pocket books."

John Visser of North Carolina said sometimes gay rights activists do go too far. "But it's a shame that NPR is accusing one side but not equally going after the other," said Visser. "How many times do you think I have had to walk through public areas where there are signs that say, 'God hates fags?' "

But, by far, the biggest criticism was that the backlash piece did not quote a gay rights activist. The piece opened with a sound bite of a demonstrator and quoted a man who said he refused to eat at a restaurant owned by Prop 8 supporters. But it did not give either man a chance to explain his views.

"I kept waiting for the reporter to interview one of the protestors or anyone from the gay community in order to explain why they were so angry," emailed Robert Wright. "But not one voice was allowed along these lines."

Bates pointed out that NPR had spent more air-time reporting on opposition to Prop 8 activities because initially the Yes On 8 people were less accessible. She saw this piece as a chance to balance things out, noting that it was intended to follow the Newsom interview.

"I do understand that people outside NPR don't listen to radio the same way we do at the network," she said. "If I'd known there wasn't going to be some linkage between the two in the introduction I would have included a point of view from the LBGT (Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender) community in my piece."

Bates said she has no agenda. Bruce, her editor, said she "has pushed to make sure this incredible civil rights story remained on our air."

Even so, the piece would have been more effective, more balanced and less subject to criticism had she included a gay rights viewpoint.

This episode also illustrates that it's increasingly important for NPR's editors and reporters, when conceiving pieces, to take into consideration that the audience is consuming programming on several platforms -- not just radio -- and that they listen in hit-or-miss ways.

"We've listened," said Bruce, of all the criticism. "We are not going to back away from covering things that will make people on both sides angry. But we are going to make a greater effort to make NPR's trademark of balance and fairness apparent regardless of the platform."

categories: Balance

5:04 - March 18, 2009



Alicia Shepard

Alicia Shepard

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