A few weeks back, a reader wrote the Ombudsman Office with "a small simple gripe." He had a thought about a story and wanted to get a comment to the NPR journalist who wrote it. He couldn't figure out a way to do that, noting that he uses no social media channels. "I e-mail, that's all."
He concluded: "Please allow for some sort of 'contact via email' access."
We get similar complaints regularly. NPR has a robust Contact system, which offers a menu of multiple options for contacting all its programs and podcasts. And NPR hosts regularly share their Twitter handles on air.
But unless you know an NPR journalist's email address, there's no way to contact them one-to-one online, other than via social media, because NPR doesn't make its journalist's email addresses public. Twitter works well for some people, but it's not particularly designed for nuanced or private conversations, and many other people don't use it. NPR got rid of commenting on stories two years ago, citing in part the reality that discussions about NPR stories had already moved in large part to Facebook. But again, some people don't use that platform at all.
In an era when trust in media outlets overall remains low, many news organizations are bolstering their transparency and accountability to their audiences. That's one reason NPR has an Ombudsman Office. Making it possible for listeners and readers to reach reporters directly is another way to foster trust.
Unfortunately, for security reasons, we are largely beyond the days when news consumers could just stroll into a newsroom and give their feedback in person. But local reporters are often quite tied into their communities and regularly hear from their readers, viewers and listeners, and thus remain accountable to them. Perhaps that is one reason why trust in local media outlets is higher than trust in national news organizations. (Another reason may be that local citizens sometimes can see for themselves if a story is true or not, unlike when they are judging a national news report, where they must, yes, trust the journalists to be their observers.)
Some national newsrooms, including the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, make it easy to contact the authors of stories via email with one click. (Notably, both also still allow comments at the end of stories.) Many reporters like getting direct feedback, it should also be said.
On the other hand, NPR employees I've talked to cite a variety of reasons for not making email addresses public. Many of these make sense to me. NPR reaches more listeners on average each day than those who read the print versions of newspapers such as the Post and the Journal, although both papers do have very broad online exposure. Most national television news organizations do not publicly post email addresses, either. The fear at NPR has always been that the sheer volume of listener and reader emails could overwhelm the journalists and make it harder for them to get their work done.
There are also concerns about harassing emails and email campaigns that advocacy groups sometimes launch, which can flood an inbox with hundreds or even thousands of emails. Unfortunately, not everyone who wants to contact a reporter has the benign intention of simply wanting to share a thought or pass on a tip.
Justin Lucas, NPR's senior manager for audience and community relations, oversees the Contact system, which has a fairly clear interface (choosing from multiple options as to where the email should go and filling in a few boxes). And he points out that his team's goals are "very much in line" with that of the Ombudsman Office, "to make certain that the voices of NPR's audience are heard and that their concerns and questions receive attention."
To be clear, if someone, say, chooses Morning Edition or All Things Considered on the form, that email will go directly to the show's audience email inbox, where it is read. So feedback is getting directly to the shows, even if the responses come from Lucas's team.
His department, he says, can also make sure any concern that is misdirected gets in front of the right person. Not all listeners know where their concerns should go, for one. It's a problem very particular to radio. I can attest that some people assume, for example, that newsmagazine hosts are making every decision about their programs, when there's actually a large team that assembles the shows, from selection of topics and guests to the music played in between segments. Or listeners confuse the hosts, and reporters, thinking one person said something when it really was another.
Lucas said that despite the extra steps of filling out the contact form, all substantive emails that come in for a certain show or person ultimately reach their intended place. His team then responds directly to, on average, nearly 800 emails each week.
Both Lucas and Mark Memmott, NPR's standards and practices editor, said they worry that if listeners and readers email journalists directly, NPR might lose the ability to discern broad trends in the feedback that NPR gets through its Contact system. That kind of institution-wide knowledge, if you will, is more valued than perhaps listeners and readers realize.
Lucas asked, "Where's the accountability?" if a journalist gets a direct email and doesn't respond or pass it on. Lucas's team, on the other hand, can see the concerns and bring them to, say, Memmott. "We look at what the feedback is and make sure everybody who should see it sees it," Lucas said. (That's also a reason NPR no longer offers the option of calling Audience Relations with a complaint. If it's in writing, Lucas and his team can more easily make sure the newsroom sees it.)
And Lucas said, "What if five different shows got a couple of complaints about this one guest? We don't know what the larger trend is if there's no one looking at all the feedback that's coming in. That entire bigger picture is lost."
Memmott said, "As clunky as the system is I often find it helpful to see what people are hearing or thinking because we may learn something that we need to know." He worries, he said, that "if people are sending emails directly to the reporter or host, are we as an institution always going to know, here's what people are complaining about, praising, critiquing?" If it comes to the Corrections inbox or Audience Relations, he said, "then we as an institution, it's almost like there's a semi-independent brain looking at those and seeing what's going on."
Still, he agreed, the system is "not perfect."
Despite those compelling arguments I still think NPR should find an additional way to make its journalists more directly accessible. The feedback would be more immediate than going through my office or Audience Relations, for one. (That's why I also try to remind listeners and readers that the fastest way to bring a factual error to NPR's attention is to use the Corrections form and not to email my office; that Corrections link goes directly to either Memmott or a deputy managing editor on duty.)
NPR, after all, is a public media outlet and it values that connection with the public. That connection is already fostered through the NPR member stations nationwide, which do a generally strong job of audience engagement, from what I've seen.
NPR constantly reinforces the message that most of its journalists ARE accessible, but in fact only those using Twitter can contact them directly, while others need to use a mediated system with an extra layer. In my opinion, that sends a subtle message that NPR values less those who choose not to use social media. Often that means older audience members (some of whom don't even use email, but that's another issue). It doesn't value their feedback less, but that is sometimes how the message is received.
One option would be to give NPR journalists a public email address that is separate from the ones they use for their business work. In this case, a reporter on deadline and seeking input via e-mail from sources wouldn't have to also sort through listener concerns about a previous story.
Another option would be to adopt the system used by some of NPR's blogs, such as Goats and Soda, which publish a general email address (in addition to being reachable through the Contact form). These are not individual email addresses for reporters, but they involve fewer steps than the Contact form. They land in the same inbox as using the Contact form, but Audience Relations does not see them, which would make it harder for NPR to discern those broad trends. Still, I'm guessing that enough listeners and readers would still avail themselves of the Contact Us form. Such a step would be adding options, not taking them away.
Malaka Gharib, deputy editor of Goats and Soda, said the volume of emails received through the direct email address is not overwhelming. There are some spam emails and some trolls, she said, but "more often than not it's people who really have a question to ask," she said. The team also gets valuable story ideas that way. "It's more helpful than distracting," she said.
Yet another option would be to include a "Contact the Author" button at the bottom of each online story that would go into the Contact system but take the guesswork out of how the reader can make sure her or his comment is going to the right place.
If any more direct option is implemented, then NPR would also need to make sure that someone has responsibility for responding to the substantive emails; that is where the Contact system shines, in making sure emails are acknowledged.
One Area Of Agreement
Finally, my office gets regular complaints that listeners can't figure out how to voice a concern or ask a question about stories that are in the top and bottom of the hour newscasts, or are posted online without any radio counterpart. The Contact form gives options divided by shows and podcasts. But since the elimination of several online blogs earlier this year, there has been no online-only option to choose. And "Newscasts" are not an option that is offered, either.
In reality, this matters less than listeners and readers might think. Under the current system, all the emails are read by Lucas's team and if someone chooses "other" or writes in the wrong program option, the email simply gets re-directed to the right department. "People don't always know how to contact the best person for their needs," Lucas told me. "What we're able to do is actually make sure the feedback gets to the right place."
But Lucas said he agrees that there should be a less-confusing way of sending feedback on online stories and newscasts.
The good news is that NPR is working on that. Lucas is overseeing a revamping of NPR's entire Contact system and other issues are being looked at, as well, including a better way to pitch stories to NPR.
If you have thoughts on other changes that you'd like to see Lucas consider, I'll pass them along. Just email OOffice@npr.org or... select Contact the Ombudsman here.