On 'Morning Edition': An Effective 'Warning' To Listeners : Memmos Standards & Practices Editor Mark Memmott writes occasional notes about the issues journalists encounter and the way NPR handles them. They often expand on topics covered in the Ethics Handbook.
NPR logo On 'Morning Edition': An Effective 'Warning' To Listeners

On 'Morning Edition': An Effective 'Warning' To Listeners

When there is disturbing or offensive content in a report, this question gets asked: "What's our style for warning listeners?"

There is no one style. Sometimes, "this report includes offensive language" is enough because there are only a few such words. Other times, a more substantial advisory is needed — when a story includes sounds of suffering or painful accounts of personal trauma, for example. We use our judgment to determine how much is necessary and what to say.

On Morning Edition today, there was an advisory that's worth spotlighting because of the key information it got across in just five words. It was in the introduction to a report about the man who has admitted killing a Minnesota boy in 1989 — a case that led to a 1994 federal law about sex offender registries. Here's how the introduction went:

"After almost three decades, Minnesota parents — whose 11-year-old son was abducted — finally know what happened. And we should tell you now, this story, which lasts about three minutes, will be disturbing to some listeners. A man arrested last year on child pornography charges admits he kidnapped and killed the boy."

Saying that this report about a child's murder would last about three minutes was a simple but powerful way of showing respect to our listeners (an NPR core principle). Most notably, parents with children nearby would know that they might want to turn down the volume or switch stations for a little while. We weren't sounding scary or shocking. It was conversational — as if a friend was speaking. And we were indirectly inviting them to come back.

Have we given listeners that time of warning before? Yes.

Are you suggesting we do it all the time? No.

What is being suggested is that some types of reports — especially those that parents might not want their children to hear or that might disturb particular groups of vulnerable people — might merit a mention about how long they'll last.

It's a friend doing someone else a favor.