Before we begin, a note of warning: the topic we are about to explore may not be suitable for our young listeners.
Heard this before?
These warnings regularly make an appearance on NPR programming as a cue to parents or listeners wary of graphic content that they might want to turn down the dial for a few minutes.
Jennifer Myka, a listener from East Montpelier, VT, wrote to complain about the warning after hearing Morning Edition host Renee Montagne state it before introducing a January 30 story. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reported on a women's group in Malaysia called the Obedient Wives Club that is trying to teach Muslim wives there about sex, including to act like prostitutes, setting off a bit of a furor.
I am writing because I just heard yet another warning to parents about sex in a story. My frustration centers on the fact that, nearly every day, there is a story that includes a bombing, dismemberment, stabbing or shooting. NPR fails to give warnings for any of these stories, yet for reasons that are unclear, there must be a warning for stories involving sex. This is not just a problem with Morning Edition - it is on every program I have listened to. The focus on sex as a subject for which we must protect the tender ears of babes is misguided.
What to do with graphic content is a never-ending issue, as editorial decisions are often necessarily subjective. The issue has come up in these columns in recent months, for example, on stories about former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky's alleged rape of young boys and about the Google search problem of Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum. The debate over graphic matter came up again this week in relation to a grisly Syrian video re-Tweeted by NPR's Andy Carvin.
But Myka's complaint that NPR, effectively, is prudish about sex but not violence provides an interesting twist. So, intern Stephannie Stokes in my office did a search of "warning" and "graphic" in stories aired over the last six months on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Tell Me More, Talk of the Nation, Weekend Edition and Weekend All Things Considered.
Myka was right on one thing: NPR makes these warnings regularly. Stokes's study was hardly scientific, but she found 18 stories over six months with warnings. But a review of the content of each of these stories didn't entirely support Myka's claim. Only three of these disclaimers cautioned parents because of pure sexual references. Nine others had to do with sexual violence—six of them rape and three of abuse—but this to me is more about violence than sex, though the two are intertwined in a primal, revolting way. The remaining six stories had to do with graphic war recordings, strong language, and the like.
Reporter Ina Jaffe, in a Dec. 31 Morning Edition segment, for example, gave a warning before describing a violent attack that took place at a mental institution. All Things Considered host Melissa Block notified listeners Aug. 26 that a reporter's exploration of a hospital scene in Libya might disturb listeners.
Whatever one thinks of this breakdown, Myka's concern does raise a valid question: What policy do producers follow in judging when to warn listeners? I asked the executive director of news programming, Ellen McDonnell, and she replied:
The policy is good common sense. Show producers try to be sensitive to content that could be perceived as offensive or inappropriate for some listeners. We try to do this for stories containing overtly sexual content, excessive violence or content that by its nature is offensive. As a result we try to flag listeners by saying that the subsequent story may not be appropriate or may contain sexual references or excessive violence.
In the case of the Malaysian story, I personally agree with Myka in not finding the content offensive. But NPR has a wide listener base, encompassing people of widely diverse sensitivities. Some surely feel different from Myka and me. I think that it is therefore wiser and more respectful for NPR to risk seeming prudish and err on the side of caution. Montagne was right to give a heads-up.
While such warnings may be annoying to some listeners, they are harmless. But for some sensitive listeners worried for their children or who simply want to defend their own standards, graphic content can be not just annoying or inappropriate, but also disgusting—even sickening.
Stephannie Stokes contributed to this post.
More from the Ombudsman:
Reporting On Romney's Taxes: Economics, History And Morality
War Is Hell: Andy Carvin And The Tweeting Of A Graphic Syrian Video