What makes people question journalists? : NPR Public Editor Inconsistency

What makes people question journalists?

Inconsistency

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor
Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

Behind every NPR news story is a style guide, and a code of ethics. These tools codify an ever-growing list of standards meant to steer a journalist's choices toward clarity and fairness.

Today, we respond to two audience members who detected a lack of consistency in NPR's work. In the first, a reader noticed the term "fetal heartbeat" in a story about women crossing from Texas into Mexico to obtain abortion pills. While that term is often in the news, because it's associated with state laws, it is also misleading. And NPR has issued guidance to its journalists about how and when to use those words. That guidance was not followed in this story, and we contacted the reporter to find out why.

A Twitter user pointed out a different type of inconsistency in posts from the NPR Politics account. A tweet from this month about former Vice President Mike Pence referred to him as "Vice President Pence." A tweet from late last year about Vice President Kamala Harris referred to her as simply "Kamala Harris." Journalists often sidestep formal conventions on social media. But in this case, the incongruity, when pointed out, led to speculation about NPR's motives and values.

We also go behind the scenes on the space beat, to look at how one NPR journalist turns this vast and technical focus into accessible and compelling stories. Finally, we shine our spotlight on a cute story about the rehabilitation of the term "mama's boy."

FROM THE INBOX

Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

Isn't 'fetal heartbeat' inaccurate?

Laura Cameron wrote on May 9: In this article, I saw this sentence: "A 9-month-old Texas law — considered the nation's most restrictive — all but outlaws abortion as soon as the fetal heartbeat is detected, usually at six weeks."

Please, ask journalists to stop referring to the "fetal heartbeat" as an actual medical thing in articles discussing the new super-restrictive laws in Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Idaho and other states. NPR's own reporting tries very hard to be clear that this "six weeks point at which fetal heartbeat can be detected" is essentially medical gibberish. ...

You're right. NPR's reporting found doctors who said that "fetal heartbeat" is a misleading term. About the sound generated by ultrasound machines during early pregnancy, Dr. Jennifer Kerns, an OB-GYN and associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco, said in the story : "What we're really detecting is a grouping of cells that are initiating some electrical activity. In no way is this detecting a functional cardiovascular system or a functional heart."

NPR's former standards and practices editor Mark Memmott issued guidance on the term when it was being used in public policy discussions in Alabama and Georgia in 2019.

"One thing to keep in mind about this law and others like it: Proponents refer to it as a 'fetal heartbeat' law. That is their term. It needs to be attributed to them if used and put in quotation marks if printed," the guidance said. "We should not simply say the laws are about when a 'fetal heartbeat' is detected."

That guidance hasn't changed.

We asked John Burnett, the national correspondent based in Texas who reported the piece, why and how he chose to use the term.

"I looked at other news stories on abortion and saw that it is a widely used term," Burnett wrote in an email. "Language is a minefield in writing about abortion. ... My answer is simple: I was not aware that 'fetal heartbeat' was a loaded term. I seldom write about abortion."

He said he hadn't seen the guidance from NPR. Editors didn't flag the term.

NPR seems mostly consistent, but the use of the term without attribution or quotations in this piece was a misstep. Consistency in journalism is difficult, but ever important. — Emily Barske

Consistent use of titles

Qondi Ntini tweeted on May 13: Do you see what I see? [The tweet included two screenshots of tweets from the NPR Politics account: one from this month referring to former Vice President Mike Pence as "Vice President Pence," and another from December referring to Vice President Kamala Harris as simply "Kamala Harris," without her title.]

After seeing this comment, NPR Managing Editor for Standards and Practices Tony Cavin emailed a note to the news staff reminding them to be consistent with job titles. "These are the sort of unforced errors that we shouldn't be making," he wrote. "I have no doubt that the person who sent the tweet about Harris meant no disrespect. I'm also confident that the person who sent the tweet about Pence wasn't trying to play up his status."

It's important to note these two tweets were not sent on the same day. The Pence tweet was sent May 13; the Harris tweet was from Dec. 22, 2021. The responses to the side-by-side comparison (more than 2,700 retweets, 900 quote tweets and 18,000 likes as of earlier this week) show how annoying news consumers find such inconsistencies. Where some people saw political bias, others saw racism and sexism.

NPR follows the Associated Press Stylebook, which says that on first reference the president and vice president should get their title in front of their name, and to add the word "former" if the person is not currently in office. When tweeting, newsroom staff members frequently disregard style guides in favor of casual language and brevity.

Cavin is right to point out that these individual decisions were likely not made to advance an agenda of respect or disrespect, but instead were simply isolated choices. And he's also right to point out that these errors should be avoided. Given the informal nature of Twitter, it's likely that such discrepancies are rampant across institutional accounts staffed by multiple people. — Kelly McBride

ONE QUESTION

We ask NPR one question about how the work comes together.

What's it like reporting on space?

The universe is vast. So when NPR Science Correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce focuses on topics about space, she looks for stories with inherent news value but also human interest.

We asked her to give us a behind-the-scenes look at how she goes about her work.

The "must do" stories aren't hard to make a judgment call on, she said. For example: the status of the James Webb Space Telescope, which has been in development for decades and is a major astronomy mission. Or the first mission to try to change the trajectory of an asteroid. Or the first-ever image of the black hole at the center of our galaxy.

Beyond the big milestones, she also tries to tell stories that more broadly relate to the human experience.

"I covered an effort to do an interstellar mission," she said. "A lot of that was the scientists having to plan for the fact that this mission would go on ... past their own lifetimes. It's a story about space, but it's also a story about how people cope with their own finite time and how to set things up so that something they want to achieve can keep going after they're gone, and I think that's something people can relate to, even if they're not interested in space."

Space reporting can also intersect with social issues. Greenfieldboyce reported last year on the controversy around naming NASA's powerful new telescope after its former administrator James Webb, who some critics believe was complicit in government discrimination against gay and lesbian employees in the 1950s and 1960s.

The mysteries of space also cause unique dilemmas and disagreements that require balanced reporting. Morning Edition recently aired her story about NASA's plan to bring back rocks from Mars. Though this has been a pipe dream of scientists for many years, not all agree on what implications it could have.

Some people have concerns about whether there's "alien life in the sample and how can you bring it home without risking contaminating the earth," she said. And some people think that's "a ridiculous idea and it's just not dangerous at all."

One appeal of contemplating space is all the possibilities it represents. It's the ultimate unknown. And that can periodically be a respite from the rest of the news cycle.

"The news is often very grim," Greenfieldboyce said. "Sometimes listening to the news, it's just this nonstop horror show of murders and angry feelings and injustice. It can be demoralizing at times. Often, thinking about space and thinking about the universe is a helpful moment for people." — Emily Barske

SPOTLIGHT ON

The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

What's wrong with being a 'mama's boy'?

On NPR's website, a Weekend Edition Sunday story stopped me mid-scroll. "Mama's boy," an old, emasculating insult, is now being embraced and reinvented by a new generation of men. Arts Desk Reporter Neda Ulaby examined this apparent cultural shift for mama's boys, from being pathologized to being valued. We hear from proud mama's boys like Miami Dolphins linebacker Jerome Baker, whose search for his mother during a game got attention a few years ago. As someone helping to raise two "mama's boys" myself, I appreciate the reframing of the term. — Amaris Castillo

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall and reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Chair,
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute