Asked And Answered: Post-Holiday Edition : NPR Ombudsman Listeners wondered how NPR chooses scientific studies to report on and why a tornado survivor was quoted.
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Asked And Answered: Post-Holiday Edition


Listeners often write about spoiler alerts—sometimes plot spoilers sneak through in reports on TV shows and movies, as careful as NPR's reporters and hosts try to be. I heard from listeners about one such unfortunate lack of a heads' up in a Morning Edition report on the "The Great British Bake Off" (don't click through the link if you don't want to know the winner of season six in the U.K.) I'm sympathetic to the reporter; the finale aired in Britain back in October and PBS is still several seasons behind, so it's hard to say NPR shouldn't have reported on this. But an on-air warning wouldn't have hurt.

Studying Scientific Studies

On to more substantive matters. Listeners also had questions, or perhaps more accurately, complaints in the form of questions. One listener who gave no full name wanted to know about a story looking at the link between deep sleep and Alzheimer's disease that ran Jan. 4 in on Morning Edition and on the Shots blog online. The letter-writer said:

"I must admit reading this article a few times because I didn't quite understand the import of the article on first read. Was there a new finding? Was there a paper that I was missing the link to? No — the article is about two researchers getting a mundane research grant of a scale that happens literally every day dozens of times ($460k/year). What's worse, the story seems to be about evidence about a link between sleep and Alzheimer's, based on a terrific 2013 paper. But alas, 2013 produced thousands of excellent papers that don't merit revisiting on a news program in 2016 apropos of nothing new happening in the field. I can't help but feel like this is just clickbait pure and simple. Alzheimer's and Sleep are super interesting topics worth discussing. The correlation between them is also really interesting. But nothing newsworthy or new was actually reported here. Biological hypotheses however are a dime a dozen and I don't understand what the criterion was to merit broadcasting this. This journalism doubles as press release rehash, and I expect more of NPR."

Having not seen much of the previous reporting on the topic, I found the article interesting. But I asked Jon Hamilton, the reporter on the story, to respond.

Hamilton had already reported in 2013 on the "terrific paper," as the reader called it. He wanted to follow up on that piece, he said, and also to explain why Alzheimer's researchers have become so interested in sleep in the past few years, which he had touched on in an August story.

The 2013 paper, he said:

"Got a huge amount of attention because it appears to answer one of the most basic questions in biology: why do mammals need sleep? The answer it offers is that deep sleep is when the brain clears out toxins that would otherwise cause dysfunction, disease, or even death. In the web version of my piece about the 2013 paper, I noted that the finding 'could help explain a mysterious association between sleep disorders and brain diseases, including Alzheimer's.'

Since then, researchers have published dozens of papers showing how toxic, misfolded proteins in the brain appear to play a central role in a wide range of neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, something I have reported on here, here, and here. Scientists have also been building a circumstantial case, described by two prominent neuroscientists here, that poor sleep can contribute the accumulation of these toxic proteins.

The missing link, though, has been research on people to figure out whether disturbed sleep patterns really can lead to toxin accumulation and brain disease. So when I heard that the scientists at OHSU (one of whom was an author of the 2013 paper) planned to do this sort of research, I thought it merited a mention, even though results are a long way off.

My story, like many science stories, revisits past research in order to show why the present research is significant. The material might have been familiar to a brain scientist, but I suspect it was new to most of our listeners and readers.

I agree that biological hypotheses are a dime a dozen. Some, though, are still worth reporting."

NPR reporters are sometimes accused of not always following up on earlier stories. In this case, Hamilton seems to me be doing an admirable job of following the thread for listeners, with appropriate cautious language that is careful not to hype a hypothesis that is just that.

Questions About A Tornado Report

My office also heard some harsh words over a Dec. 28 Morning Edition report that included interviews with Texas residents who were in the path of devastating tornadoes. This is just a portion of one letter:

"Ever since hearing the 12/28 story about the tornadoes in Texas on Morning Edition, I have been wondering why this quote was broadcast...

'SABRINA LOWE: We actually went outside and started commanding the winds because God had given us authority over the winds - the airways. And we just began to command this storm not to hit our area. We - we spoke to the storm and said, go to unpopulated places. It did exactly what we said to do because God gave us the authority to do that.'

It was startling and disappointing to hear such foolishness broadcast on NPR. What was the reasoning behind allowing such a strange statement to air?"

The quote jumped out at me, too, when I heard it on the air. I asked the newsroom about it.

Deputy managing editor Gerry Holmes edited the Morning Edition report, which came from Bill Zeeble at North Texas member station KERA. Whether to include the quote was discussed internally, Holmes said, adding:

"This story was about a population that had been devastated by mother nature and a discussion about what had happened and how residents dealt with this extreme weather. The reporter found a woman who lived through it and asked her to describe what she experienced and felt about what happened. Sabrina Lowe gave what our reporter felt was a strong statement based on her feelings and belief system. While it may sound strong, the reporter felt it well represented her view of what happened from her point of view through the prism of her own faith."

I'm going to treat as rhetorical a Facebook poster's suggestion that NPR should have investigated Lowe's claim for truth. NPR in my mind gives a fair amount of airtime (and sometimes too much) to evangelical Christian voices, particularly when reporting on politics, but listeners don't often hear expressions of faith that take the form of Lowe's. It's a big country and people see the world through many lenses. I see no reason why NPR should not have broadcast Lowe's view; listeners are free to evaluate it for themselves.

Editor's note: With the new year it's a good time to review the goals of this column, which are to give voice to listeners' concerns, whether I agree or disagree, shed some light on the newsroom's thinking, and speak out on issues involving ethics, fairness and good journalism. I speak only for myself, not NPR. Many, many more listener concerns are responded to by email; you can reach us here or on Twitter, @ejensenNYC, although it is not always possible to address Twitter queries in 140 characters (and no, I do not look forward to the possibility that Twitter will soon lift that limit).