NPR frequently uses a device common to most journalism: a credible person is interviewed and his or her ideas become part of the story. This person plays the role of outside expert who makes an argument to support or oppose the subject under discussion.
In the interest of balance, a report usually presents experts from at least two sides of the issue. This allows the reporter to have a disinterested role in the story.
Good Reasons to Interview Experts
There are valid reasons for this practice. First, an expert whose bona fides add insight and legitimacy to the reporting bolsters the veracity of a point of view.
Second, it gives a perspective that the reporter believes to be significant and necessary to the story.
Third, in radio, different voices add aural texture to the report. Such reports are valued more highly than those that subject listeners to only one, uninterrupted voice -- reports written and read by the reporter alone.
Few such reports are successful. Nina Totenberg's reports from the Supreme Court are a notable exception (where tape recordings of the proceedings are not permitted).
Some experts have obvious credibility. Little explanation is needed for why they have been included in the story. These include Nobel laureates and other scientists or artists who are well known and whose authority is widely acknowledged.
Experts Who Are also Advocates
But increasingly listeners object to the use of so-called experts whose pedigrees may be less than apparent. Some feel that the inclusion of an "expert" has become a radio reflex and is not necessarily a matter of journalistic substance.
On March 3, NPR's Kathleen Schalch reported on Sen. Ted Kennedy's efforts to raise the minimum wage. Schalch quoted Kennedy and Bill Samuels from the AFL-CIO, who also supports the proposal.
The report also said that certain business groups oppose raising the minimum wage. Schalch quoted Craig Garthwaite from the Employment Policies Institute as an example. Schalch described the Institute only as a "Washington-based think tank."
Nowhere in the report was it noted that the institute receives funding specifically from the fast-food and low-wage hospitality industry or that the institute is run by the public relations firm Berman and Co., which has strong ties to the Republican Party. Some listeners complained that NPR was presenting a lobby group as a disinterested party to the discussion.
Who Funds the Experts?
Schalch told me:
I actually spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out how to identify this group. I asked them "are you industry funded?" and "aren't you primarily industry funded?" to which they replied that they were funded by individuals and foundations too. They wouldn't even concede that they were funded "primarily" by industry groups. If I had not been on deadline (as it was I was here until 1 a.m.) I would have tried to spend more time ascertaining how they get their funding but I ended up identifying them the way they identified themselves. I think this listener is right and it would have been better to be more specific. I did try to tie his statements with "business groups" in my writing.
Bill Marimow is managing editor for national news at NPR. I asked him if he also thought it was a problem at NPR News.
I do think it's an important issue, and it is a problem on those occasions when we quote a partisan think tank but fail to give our listeners sufficient information about their advocacy role.
I also believe that it's very important that we provide listeners ample information so that they clearly understand the backgrounds of the groups we're interviewing. For instance, if we're doing a piece about the value of coal as an alternate source of fuel and we quote a group -- let's call them "Clean Coal Coalition" -- which is funded by the coal industry, it's critically important in my opinion that our listeners know that.
On a subject of controversy, I've always believed that we should examine and dissect what I call the "two poles of the possible truth," meaning the positions taken by both staunch advocates and ardent opponents. That does call for interviews with partisan people or groups. But equally important, reporters should strive to find unquestioned experts on the subject, who are well known as impartial and apolitical sources of expertise.
I suggested (perhaps somewhat puckishly) to Marimow that NPR might try an experiment: avoid all experts for a week. It might, I thought, have a salutary effect on NPR's journalism.
As to a one-week moratorium, Jeff, I think that might contort the news. My preference would simply be to emphasize the importance of giving our listeners all the pertinent information we can about the people or groups we're quoting. That's good journalism.
Atlanta Courthouse Killings and Gender Identification
The recent killings in an Atlanta courthouse brought a few heated comments about the role of crime reporting on NPR. Some listeners worried that NPR might be moving toward tabloid journalism in giving this story the prominence that it did.
Following the murder of a judge's husband and mother in Chicago, I think it was a good decision to cover the Atlanta story as well.
However, NPR frequently mentioned the gender of the courtroom guard who was overpowered and shot with her own gun by the fugitive. That evoked strong reactions from many listeners.
The implication was that the female guard inadvertently contributed to the murders and the escape of the prisoner simply by dint of her gender. That remains an unproven assumption. NPR's repeating that it was a female guard who was overpowered seemed to play on some stereotypes of "the weaker sex."
I think that the listeners are correct: the gender of the guard is irrelevant to the story (unless and until proven otherwise) and mentioning it implies that the reporter believes women are unfit for jobs in law enforcement.
Reporting on the Powerful
Does journalism have an obligation to support the small against the powerful?
A recent posting about NPR on www.artnet.com is provoking that argument.
On Dec. 27, NPR ran a story on the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It concerned an ownership dispute of a painting by Egon Schiele, entitled "Portrait of Wally."
The painting was stolen by the Nazis from a Viennese family, which had been seeking the return of the painting for years. The NPR report implied that the painting was part of MoMA's permanent collection and that MoMA had sided against the family in the ownership dispute. The report also included some sharp criticism of MoMA from a variety of sources. One critic decried the "greed" of MoMA.
After being contacted by MoMA, NPR aired a clarification of the story. The artnet.com story suggests that NPR caved into pressure from a powerful cultural institution. Sounds like a classic story of big cultural institution running over the rights of dispossessed owners of great art, right?
But the story is more complicated: the original report did not, in my opinion, fully and accurately present all of the facts. Nor did it present MoMA's position on the ownership question. The painting has been in federal custody for years, and MoMA's position is that the Austrian courts must decide the painting's legal owners, since the painting was in the United States only as part of a loan arrangement.
Most important, in an issue of journalistic fairness, the report did not give MoMA a chance to respond to specific and direct charges leveled against it by numerous critics. The original report was wrongly framed, and NPR was right to air a clarification in early January.
Nevertheless, many listeners -- encouraged by the blogosphere -- have concluded the worst: that NPR was pressured by MoMA to recant.
The "small vs. the powerful" is a recurrent theme that makes for the dramatic story, and is often true, but it helps if it is buttressed by the truth.
Or as Bill Marimow might say, "that's good journalism."