That was wrong : NPR Public Editor How NPR handles mistakes

That was wrong

How NPR handles mistakes

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

Corrections are a critical part of the news process. Today, in response to a listener letter, we looked into a mistake that wasn't clearly addressed.

You can't produce a constant flow of news without making mistakes. When newsrooms explain their errors to the public, studies show, they generate trust. On top of that, describing and fixing errors also helps journalists learn more about what went wrong with the reporting and production process, making it less likely that the failure will happen again.

Most of the time NPR does a much better job with corrections than many other newsrooms. NPR policy calls for correcting all errors. The software they use to publish content online has a feature that appends corrections to stories. And all corrections are listed on a single page, each of them explaining the error and linking to the story in question. This comprehensive system for admitting and explaining mistakes is a model for other newsrooms. We often wonder why it isn't more widely adopted.

But as we looked into this one mistake that was caught by a listener, we discovered a shortcoming in NPR's process. Read on to find out what we learned and to see our recommendation for making the corrections process even better.

We also spotlight two great stories, one about a wave of ennui sweeping over American workers and another about the retirement of a legendary baseball announcer for the LA Dodgers.

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.

A newscast in need of a correction

Sean Kinane wrote on Oct. 13: I thought I heard NPR headlines just say the jury recommended the death penalty for Nikolas Cruz. Did I hear correctly, because my understanding is that has not been announced. 11:01am ET. Will you issue a correction [to] this newscast?

Our team listened to the newscast in question, which aired on Oct. 13 at 11 a.m. In it, NPR newscaster Korva Coleman said, "A Florida jury has just recommended the death penalty for the gunman in a mass school shooting. Nikolas Cruz admitted he shot 17 people to death at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018."

That was incorrect. The jury recommended life in prison for Cruz.

Robert Garcia, executive producer of NPR newscasts, said that there was uncertainty at the time and a wire service that NPR depends on got it wrong.

"To my knowledge, the 11 a.m. newscast occurred as the verdicts were being announced and there was considerable confusion as the clerk of the court read them, including a report from a major wire service that there had been a death penalty verdict on one of the counts," he said in an email. "After the 11 a.m. newscast, at 11:20 a.m., we were waved off of the wire service report by one of our producers."

According to Garcia, the erroneous report came from Reuters. In searching Reuters' tweets on the trial verdict, we found one with a correction posted shortly after 11 a.m. that Thursday.

"By 11:45 a.m., the entirety of the verdict was in and it was clear and the newscast was accurate at noon with the life sentence," Garcia said.

Newscaster Lakshmi Singh reported the correct information at 12 p.m., saying, "A Florida jury is recommending that the gunman behind the 2018 mass shooting at a school in Parkland should spend the rest of his life in prison."

Garcia said a correction was not issued at noon "because in the time leading up to the newscast, we were still uncertain what portion of the Reuters report was mistaken and why."

"At noon, we reported the sentencing verdict accurately and regret that at the time, we did not have the clarity to make an informed correction," he said.

Newscasts provide a quick look at a handful of headlines. In this case the wire service made the error and NPR broadcast it to its audience. Still, it would have been helpful and fitting to issue a formal correction.

In fact, NPR has a robust and transparent corrections page for noting most errors. However, mistakes that happen in the newscasts are not cataloged. Why is that? Because the newscasts are ephemeral. They live online for a short time and then disappear.

In most cases, errors in the newscasts are corrected in the very next newscast, which is the most likely place to catch listeners who heard the mistake. But that didn't happen this time. There's no reason those same errors shouldn't be noted on the corrections page, as well. It would be a second place for listeners to turn when they suspect they heard wrong information. — 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.

Productivity and the economy

Employers have many metrics for measuring employee productivity within their organizations. But what does that productivity, or lack thereof, mean for the U.S. economy when you holistically review everyone in the labor force together? In a recent story, NPR's Stacey Vanek Smith explored how productivity is measured as an economic indicator. The piece offers a worker's perspective and economists' thoughts to help explain the ennui looming over the job market. — Emily Barske

Goodbye to a veteran sports broadcaster

Morning Edition host A Martínez brought listeners a stellar profile of Jaime Jarrín, the Spanish-language voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers since 1959. At 86, the radio play-by-play broadcaster is retiring. His last game was Saturday, when the Dodgers lost their third game to the San Diego Padres, bringing their season to a close. Martínez took listeners to Jarrín's childhood in Ecuador, where he fell in love with radio at 10 years old. It's evident that the journalists behind this story crafted it with nuance and care. — Amaris Castillo

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske and copy editor Merrill Perlman 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