I'll Take Spoilers For $2,000, Alex : NPR Public Editor Spoiler alert or spoiler? Some 'Jeopardy!' fans aren't happy with NPR.
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I'll Take Spoilers For $2,000, Alex

Game show host Alex Trebek rehearses his lines on the set of the "Jeopardy!" Million Dollar Celebrity Invitational Tournament Show Taping on April 17, 2010 in Culver City, California. Amanda Edwards/Getty Images hide caption

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Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

Game show host Alex Trebek rehearses his lines on the set of the "Jeopardy!" Million Dollar Celebrity Invitational Tournament Show Taping on April 17, 2010 in Culver City, California.

Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

When is a "spoiler alert" not a spoiler alert? One clue: when the alert is actually a spoiler itself.

When reviewing or reporting on movies, TV shows and the like, NPR's arts desk and the newsroom overall are generally quite good about not revealing plot endings. Or, at least, they give listeners and readers a heads up that a spoiler is coming (so they can turn off the radio or not read the article).

Thus on Monday, when news came out early in the day that James Holzhauer had been dethroned on Jeopardy! after his phenomenal 32-win run, NPR prepared a report for All Things Considered that — because it would air before many viewers had a chance to see the game show episode for themselves — included a warning.

Host Ari Shapiro told All Things Considered listeners: "Spoiler alert — if you are a 'Jeopardy!' fan and you're planning on watching tonight's episode, you might want to turn your radio down for the next two minutes." (Of course, a careful listener might have guessed that this spoiler alert suggested Holzhauer's remarkable run had come to an end.)

Over at the hourly newscasts, staffers also debated what to do in reporting the news. Executive Producer Robert Garcia said, "I decided that while it was a good story, it wasn't that incredibly urgent. We ran the first spot at 11 p.m. ET after Jeopardy! had aired across the time zones."

Online readers, including those who follow NPR on Facebook and Twitter, had no such luck. The headline for the NPR.org story shared there just before 8 p.m. ET (mid-show in some time zones and hours before the show aired in others) read: "Spoiler Alert: There's A New 'Jeopardy' Champion In Town."

As some unhappy Jeopardy! fans let NPR know in the comments and replies Monday, this "spoiler alert" defeated the purpose. The problem (if it's not obvious): The spoiler itself is in the headline. "Worst spoiler alert ever," wrote one disgruntled Facebook commenter.

Terence Samuel, an NPR deputy managing editor, called the headline "kind of a mechanism to deliver the news, not so much a serious warning." He noted that by the time NPR's story was published, news of Holzhauer's dethroning had been widely reported elsewhere, starting Sunday, when an apparently pirated clip of the episode began to leak.

"He had had a long run and it was news," Samuel said. "It was a story that was much bigger than the show itself. He had become this cultural phenomenon and when it was over it was big news and we treated it, I think, in context."

Given how widely it had been reported, he said, "We didn't really think we were spoiling anything. The spoiler alert had become part of the meme of the day."

"We're sorry that it happened," Samuel added, "but we don't really take responsibility for ruining it for everyone." And he said, in the context of the day's news (the Virginia Beach shooting, the president's London trip, the federal disaster bill, violence in Sudan), "this didn't feel like the most crucial decision."

The newsroom is, of course, right to report news as it happens. For example, the newscasts generally report on major sports scores as they come in, and without spoiler alerts (to the dismay of some fans who tape games to watch later). The main exception is for the Olympic games "that will be rebroadcast on TV later and may have considerable interest and appeal," Garcia said. For those, "we don't go crazy with spoiler language, but we do make it clear in our intro that we are headed toward scores; folks are going to have a good 15 seconds or so to decide whether they want to hear the rest of it."

Still, in the Jeopardy! case, I'm with the fans. As Samuel said, the story was indeed hard to escape by the time NPR posted that headline on Facebook and Twitter, at least for those who are heavy news consumers. But why spoil it for those who aren't?