Room for improvement : NPR Public Editor One story and one issue where NPR could improve

Room for improvement

One story and one issue where NPR could improve

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

Offering sincere and meaningful feedback is both an art and a skill.

Whenever we consider a critique from an NPR audience member, we closely read their notes, we look at the story or body of work in question, and we interview the journalists and editors who can give us insights about the choices they made. Then comes the hard part. We deliberate, discuss, sometimes seek additional expertise, and eventually decide if NPR journalists could have made different or better choices that would have served both the story and the audience.

Today we address a letter that questions how a reporter handled the inflammatory phrase "LGBTQ propaganda." The reporter was thoughtful in both her approach to the story and to our inquiry. After listening to the reader and the reporter, we offer our critique. Read on to see what we liked about the story and where we found room for improvement.

We also published a column this week offering our analysis of the competing loyalties that were further revealed in NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg's new memoir, Dinners with Ruth. Other journalists and experts have published a range of criticism of the book, which is a personal reflection on many close friendships Totenberg has cultivated over her 40-plus years covering the Supreme Court. Those reviews prompted a flurry of conversation on Twitter and a handful of thoughtful emails to our inbox.

Although we've addressed this issue in the past, as did a previous Public Editor, we felt that the public debate arising after the release of the book merited another response.

Read the Public Editor column to see our suggestions to NPR for tapping into Totenberg's incredible history on her beat, while being transparent about her relationships with her sources.

We also spotlight two great NPR stories. The first one explores how voters are approaching next week's election. The second is a touching story about a tribute to the Uvalde victims for Día de los Muertos.

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.

To quote, or not to quote

David Pearce wrote on Oct. 22: In the first line of your report on the parents who complained about a Michigan student's mural, the following phrase began the article: "School district officials and a high school student in Michigan have drawn the ire of parents who allege that a painted mural contains LGBTQ propaganda, a depiction of Satan and a message of witchcraft."

What I find concerning is that the phrase "LGBTQ propaganda" is not presented in quotes as an idea alleged by the parents. That the phrase is not in quotes would suggest that "LGBTQ propaganda" is in fact real and something that the parents could potentially identify. I don't believe that an LGBTQ person producing art, nor art which includes LGBTQ people is "propaganda," as that carries negative connotations. Especially as allegations of grooming and indoctrination are levied in bad-faith against LGBTQ people, NPR suggesting that "LGBTQ propaganda" is real sends a harmful message. ...

We talked to reporter Vanessa Romo about the story and why she chose to use the phrase "LGBTQ propaganda" without quotes. The story documented a debate over a mural at a Michigan middle school that empowered some and drew vitriol from others. The mural features students wearing clothing with colors that represent LGBTQ flags, which Romo notes in her story.

She told us that using the word "allege" in the lead sentence was her way of signaling to readers that the parents objecting to the artwork are the ones who believed the mural contained "LGBTQ propaganda, a depiction of Satan and a message of witchcraft." Romo said she meant to both summarize and paraphrase the parents' point of view. She did not put the term "LGBTQ propaganda" in quotes because she chose the words to describe the objecting parents' perspective.

"No parent actually used the phrase 'LGBTQ propaganda,' which is why that's not in quotes," Romo said. "But again, you're doing the same job by using the word 'allege.' And so it signals to the reader that this is a summary of events of the arguments that these parents were making at this particular event."

So why use the term "propaganda" specifically?

Romo said: "During the actual school board meeting ... parents kept talking about how this was promoting LGBTQ values. There could have been a different phrase that I used, but from [the angered parents'] perspective, this is what the artist was doing. The artist was spreading positive LGBTQ messaging, which is another way of saying propaganda."

Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines propaganda as "ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause." Some of the parents Romo heard at the school board meeting may have felt the mural fit that definition.

Romo said she covered the controversy because it's a microcosm of larger conversations going on across the country.

"I think it's my job to inform the public of the national conversation that's taking place," Romo said. "And yes, that's upsetting to some people because people feel very strongly about this particular issue as well as many other issues that I write about. But that's not a reason to not write about something. In fact, that's the reason to cover it — because people feel so strongly."

We agree that this story is a valuable one to cover. By including a variety of perspectives, Romo's story was fair. It offered a revealing view into a school controversy.

Even if some parents vehemently disagreed with the mural, "propaganda" is a loaded term. Using it without direct attribution validates the idea that LGBTQ propaganda could exist. It also projects the accusation onto the objecting parents, when they didn't use the word to describe their views. Readers can come to their own conclusions about the debate over the mural with more neutral terms. Instead of "LGBTQ propaganda," the sentence could have said "LGBTQ symbols." — 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.

Similarities in voter priorities

Political correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben's recent reporting takes the audience to Iowa to find out what's motivating voters in the state's closely watched 3rd District race for U.S. Congress. The issues the voters brought up — inflation, the economy, abortion, the state of democracy — are hardly unique to Central Iowa or the Midwest. Kurtzleben's story explains why it's significant that voters across the country have similar interests driving their choices on the ballots. — Emily Barske

Remembering Uvalde victims on Día de los Muertos

For Día de los Muertos — a holiday widely observed in Mexico to honor loved ones who have died — Morning Edition brought listeners a story from Texas Public Radio about a special display for those who were killed in the Uvalde school shooting. Reporter Jack Morgan took the audience to San Antonio's Muertos Fest, where a high school teacher and her students decorated individual classroom desks for the victims. It's a moving listen, and a reminder of the importance of NPR's efforts to broadcast on-the-ground voices. — 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