Subject + verb : NPR Public Editor 'Democrats fail'? Or 'Republicans block'?

Subject + verb

'Democrats fail'? Or 'Republicans block'?

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

Journalists make a crucial framing decision in every story. They select the subject and then choose a verb to highlight what the subject did. It doesn't seem complicated, but, as two Twitter users pointed out, it informs how citizens ingest the news, particularly when the story is about congressional politics.

Many citizens don't closely follow what's happening in Congress, because it rarely creates an immediate impact on their day-to-day lives. Instead, news consumers pick up headlines in their daily news feed. As Congress becomes more polarized, the journalistic framing of these issues becomes increasingly consequential.

NPR's critics were specifically addressing abortion legislation, where a majority of Americans support maintaining the protections articulated in the Roe v. Wade decision.

Did the Senate Democrats fail to pass an abortion rights bill? Or did Senate Republicans block the bill? Both statements are true, although, as you'll see below, there's a wrinkle with making the Republicans the actor in the story, and his name is Sen. Joe Manchin.

In the wake of two mass shootings in the past two weeks, this same critique can be applied to the description of congressional efforts (or lack of) to regulate guns. Have Democrats failed to pass legislation that would do so? Or have Republicans obstructed those laws?

As journalists make these decisions, they focus on both accuracy and context. Reporters can make a headline accurate, but it's harder to make it contextual. We explored this challenge with NPR's chief Washington editor, who describes some of the nuances of headline writing when covering legislative progress or stalemate.

Journalists must find ways to get both the big picture and the small picture accurate. Balance and neutrality are important values in political coverage, but they cannot override NPR's obligation to accurately depict the truth.

We also address a radio listener who is baffled by the constant encouragement to "ask your smart speaker to play NPR." Those messages to tune in on another platform are everywhere. At the end of NPR's daily Up First podcast, listeners are encouraged to tune into Morning Edition on the radio if they want more. At the end of many NPR podcasts, listeners might hear a suggestion to download and listen on the NPR One app. What's up with sending audience members to other places? On this listener's behalf we tracked down some insights on NPR's strategy to get its news in front of the public.

We're spotlighting a great Code Switch podcast episode and Morning Edition interview with John Legend.

Finally, we are adjusting our publishing schedule for the summer. We will take next week off and then will arrive in your inbox every other week (barring holidays) after that until Labor Day, when we will resume a weekly schedule. We will still read all of your emails and tweets, so keep them coming.

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.

Democrats fail — or Republicans block?

Dan Rodricks tweeted on May 12: Instead of "Dems fail to pass abortion bill," shouldn't the headline be something like: "Senate Republicans kill abortion rights that nearly 70% of Americans say in polls they want"?

Daniel Maycock quote tweeted Rodricks, tagging our office and other NPR accounts: @NPR @UpFirst @npratc @NPRpubliceditor THIS is what I submitted earlier online. Please stop framing this in your reporting of GOP stonewalling: [It's] not Dems fault that GOP is blocking this, Voting Rights, George Floyd Policing et. all.

On May 11, All Things Considered aired a story on Senate Democrats' efforts and failure to advance legislation that would have established a federal law to protect abortion access nationwide. That story seemed to be framed in the way Rodricks and Maycock were critiquing. Its headline read: "Senate Democrats failed to advance a bill protecting abortion access nationwide."

News consumers expect the delivery of their news to be free from bias. That's especially true when it comes to political reporting, as audiences want accurate analysis and fairness. Story framing plays a big role in that.

We talked with Chief Washington Editor Krishnadev Calamur about the framing of this story.

Calamur said it would have been complicated in this case for the headline to say that Republicans blocked the measure because that wouldn't have been accurate. West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin also opposed the bill.

"I think that given the political reality of the Senate, in which the Senate Majority Leader," Chuck Schumer, "does not have the full support of his entire Democratic caucus, it makes it complicated to blame just one party for not voting for this," he said.

Far more context was in the story than could be built into the headline, he said.

Host Ailsa Chang opened the story saying: "Today, Senate Democrats tried and failed to advance a bill to require equal access to abortion nationwide. All but one of the Senate's 50 Democrats voted for it. That one Democrat was West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who sided with all the Republicans in opposition to the bill."

Details about Americans' support for abortion access were also part of the story. Congressional Correspondent Susan Davis said "most Americans in polls say they do believe women should have some level of access to abortion procedures." (NPR has done a plethora of stories covering those opinions.)

"This is the reality of the political gridlock we're living in," Calamur said. "I think people react to single headlines that float across ... Twitter and they go off on a frenzy, but I think larger stories usually include that context because it's important context."

The context of who blocked the bill would have been hard to succinctly write in a digital headline, although it may have been possible. Perhaps it could have read "Senate Republicans, Manchin, block bill to protect abortion access," because Manchin has become a recognizable thorn in the side of Democrats' efforts to pass progressive legislation.

Special attention to this framing is important because there have been issues beyond abortion where the votes on proposed laws fall almost exactly along party lines. But this headline, as it was published for this bill, didn't seem to have inherent bias, especially given the context provided right in the opening of the story and throughout it. — Emily Barske

What smart speaker?

Rebecca H wrote on May 13: I am curious about why NPR stations across the country so often encourage listeners to "tune in on your smart speaker" when it seems likely that the majority of listeners are tuning in either via traditional FM radio (perhaps in their cars) or via a regular old website stream from a phone, tablet, or computer.

It strikes me as odd enough that I have sometimes wondered whether this is the result of a subtle sponsorship from Amazon, Apple, or Google!

One of the reasons I love radio as a medium is that it's such an open platform. It's easy for anyone to "connect" to without expensive hardware. Smart speakers, on the other hand, are expensive specialty devices made by a small number of large companies. For this reason, "radio" seems socially neutral (or even positive) in a way that "smart speaker" does not.

This is something I have been wondering about for a long time. ...

In seeking an answer to this question, we heard from several people at NPR and gathered one common thread: NPR wants to meet its audience members on different platforms, and wants them to know that NPR's content is available on smart speakers.

"Most listeners know they can access NPR programming on their local NPR station but much fewer people know they can access all of that content, and more from the public radio world, on their smart speakers," Sergio Romano, Senior Creative Lead at NPR, told me in an email. "With fewer and fewer Americans owning a radio and smart speaker adoption continuing to rise, voice-enabled devices are essentially replacing radios in the home. Stations are encouraging their audiences to listen on this other platform in an attempt to meet them where they already are."

Romano was the senior copywriter behind this guide on how to listen to NPR on your smart speaker.

Tayla Burney, NPR's director of networking programming and production, said these promo messages are "absolutely not" a result of any sponsorships with the big tech companies named. In an email, NPR's Chief Communications Officer Isabel Lara noted that NPR specifically uses the general term "smart speaker" so as not to promote any particular brand or device.

At NPR, Burney manages a team that creates promotional assets, including short-form audio and fundraising messaging for Member stations. Her team also gives guidance to their NPR colleagues and produces stand-alone spots, some of which may tell listeners to ask their smart speakers to play NPR.

Burney said it's a fair point about radio being neutral and smart speakers maybe being out of reach for some audience members because of their high costs.

"Our core commitment to being available to our audience on radio is something that I don't expect we'll ever waver on," she said. "I don't think this is about exclusivity as much as meeting people where they are as their habits change, but we are committed to our radio audience."

She continued, "I think one of the core central tenets of public radio is that our content is free and available to all, thanks to the support of those who do contribute. I don't think that meeting some of our audience that might be migrating to these higher-cost platforms means that we're leaving our core listening audience on radio behind in any way." — Amaris Castillo

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.

Eternal debt

A recent Code Switch episode explored utang na loob, the Filipino concept of eternal debt to others who do a favor for you. Host Gene Demby and guest host Malaka Gharib, an editor on NPR's Science Desk, brought listeners into the complexities of this value. We learn about the good intention behind utang na loob, and hear from Filipino Americans who struggle when it has been used against them in what they believe is an exploitative way. This episode is nuanced and meaningful. Thank you, Code Switch! — Amaris Castillo

John Legend's activism

Morning Edition talked to John Legend, an entertainer who's won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony — but not about music. The performer has become ingrained in the movement to change the criminal justice system and support progressive prosecutors who are running for office. Political Correspondent Juana Summers asked if, through activism, he had heard stories from the currently or formerly incarcerated that made him more passionate about advocating for criminal justice reform. He said he didn't need activism for that, because he saw the ramifications of the system firsthand with family members while he was growing up. Summers gives us a look at why he's championing the cause, including additional digital content, but it's also worth the listen to hear his take on current events and what he thinks could be done to transform the system. — Emily Barske

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