'New records' and redundant language : NPR Public Editor Everybody says it

'New records' and redundant language

Everybody says it

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

Professional news writers are trained to economize their words. They do so as a sign of respect to the audience, as well as in the name of clarity. Why make people read more words than necessary?

And yet, when we speak, we often toss in extra and unnecessary words. (See what I did there?) On behalf of an NPR audience member, we interviewed two respected editors about a particular redundancy that shows up all over the place in spoken and written language. And we got two opinions on whether this common quirk in our speech is worth the effort to excise it from our news reports.

Ultimately, we suspect it's a phrase that most people don't even notice, but those who do find it annoying. Read on to discover which group you fall into.

We address a second audience member concerned that a labor story glossed over Senate Democrats' stance on COVID vaccine mandates. The reporter on the story described why she characterized the concrete policy actions taken by Democrats and not the nuanced opinions they hold but did not legislate.

Finally, we spotlight two examples of excellent NPR journalism, a first-person photo essay about caring for a parent with cancer and Alzheimer's during the pandemic, and a podcast that explains how to enjoy art.

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.

An old redundancy?

Chuck Johnson wrote on Jan. 5: About every few weeks, I hear an NPR reporter or announcer use the descriptive term "new record." As the AP Stylebook says, "Avoid the redundant 'new record.'" To be fair, I occasionally see the same term in newspapers. I am a retired Montana print reporter. When I hear or read someone using "new record," it's like someone scratching fingernails on a blackboard. My late journalism professor at the University of Montana, Bob McGiffert, would be outraged when one of us used the term "new record."

As the AP Stylebook says, "new record" is redundant — adding "new" in front of "record" is unnecessary. We found some examples where NPR used the term new record. Here are a couple:

  • In a national story about the opioid crisis in the United States, the number of people who died in a single 12-month period was described as a "stunning new record."
  • The headline of this national story reads: "The U.S. set a new record for apprehensions at the southern border."

We asked Merrill Perlman, the copy editor for our office, and Paula Froke, editor of the AP Stylebook, about their thoughts on "new record," and style and usage guidelines in journalism.

In an email, Froke told us she agrees with the audience member. "The 'new' qualifier is unnecessary, because a record in this context is, by definition, new," she said. "Note that we have nothing against terms such as 'old record' or 'previous record.'"

If she saw "new record" in someone's copy, Froke said she would change it. She added that the Stylebook often reminds users that they can deviate from its guidance whenever they want. "Many organizations, or individual users, follow most of our style guidelines but vary from our style as they see fit," Froke explained. While there are possible exceptions, Froke said, "I can't see reason in most cases to use the redundant 'new record.'"

Perlman recalled how, in editing classes, she was taught different redundancies, like "refer back" and "new record."

"If it's a record, it's by definition new. It's, however, not the way people use language," Perlman told us. "The AP Stylebook and other places still say it's redundant. It is redundant. Is it a cardinal sin? No. I don't even think it's that much of a sin at all. It depends on the context. Everything in editing depends on context."

Whether she would lose the "new" in "new record" depends on how and where the term is used, Perlman said: "If it's in juxtaposition with the previous record, I would possibly leave it. To give a reader, 'Here's a new record versus the old record' makes it clear in their mind which one is which."

Perlman said there is always room to maneuver around the AP Stylebook. "The Stylebook is there for guidance and not to set rules," she said.

About "new record," she said: "Yes, it's redundant in many situations. And yes, it's annoying. If you didn't misunderstand it, where's the harm?"

We concur. — Amaris Castillo

An incomplete explanation?

Carol Evans wrote on Dec. 30: I just listened to this story ["Thousands of workers were fired over vaccine mandates. For some, the fight goes on"]. My issue with it is that the reporter referred to the Senate vote on the recent defense authorization bill to show that the majority of Senators voted for the bill. This was misleading. Democrats didn't support eliminating the COVID vaccination requirement for the military. Democrats voted for the bill despite supporting the requirement in order to get it across the finish line. Moreover, all heads of the military branches advocated for the importance of retaining the COVID vaccination requirement. This story fell short of the journalistic standards I expect from NPR, especially on an issue continuing to be subject to misinformation and disinformation.

On Dec. 23, President Biden signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which essentially ended the military vaccination mandate that his own administration supported. Democrats in the Senate had opposed the provision to end the mandate as part of the authorization, but voted for it anyway "to get the must-pass policy bill across the finish line," CNN Politics reported.

NPR's story, which aired on Dec. 27 and was reported by labor and workplace correspondent Andrea Hsu, centered on workers who had been fired over vaccine mandates, and mentioned some mandates that had been lifted. In the audio version of the story, Hsu said, "Congress voted to end the military's mandate as part of the Defense Authorization Act." A similar sentence appears in the digital version of the story.

Hsu told us in an email that she felt the federal government's vote to end the military vaccine mandate was a timely example to include, but it wasn't the focus of the story.

"I was simply giving examples of vaccine mandates that have been lifted in recent months, and given the large number of workers covered by the military's mandate, it seemed like an important one to include as a brief mention alongside Goldman Sachs and Tyson Foods," Hsu said. She noted that saying a vote in Congress ended the mandate seemed to be the simplest way to explain what happened.

Hsu also considered including political points of view from both Republicans and Democrats that were discussed during the legislative process. "However, in the end, my editor and I felt it was too much of a detour to take in a five-minute story focused on another set of workers, unrelated to the military," she said.

We agree with their editorial decisions. While the congressional vote was timely and worth a mention, the politics leading to the signing of the National Defense Authorization Act weren't the focus of this story. — 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.

Caregiving complexities

Photographer Lori Grinker's story of caring for her mother, Audrey Grinker, as her health declined before her death is complicated. Despite having a strained relationship from struggles dating to her childhood, Lori took care of Audrey through cancer, Alzheimer's disease and then the pandemic. Lori documented her perspectives in photos, which NPR published in a larger story on its website. The story showcases their unique journey while speaking to relatable human experiences, like caring for someone who has hurt you in the past. Lori summed up how the journey helped her process past traumas: "If she had just died and we didn't go through this, I would still have all this anger — even though she really wasn't equipped for motherhood and she wasn't a very good mother, and she was a selfish person — I don't have any of that anymore." The story was edited by Carmel Wroth; Max Posner, who wrote the piece, contributed visual editing and production. — Emily Barske

A primer on how to look at art

This week, NPR's Life Kit produced a fascinating episode on how to have a positive experience while taking in art. Digital editor Malaka Gharib speaks with an art critic, an art educator and an art historian, and guides listeners through some steps to developing meaningful connections with artworks, such as keeping an open mind and looking at the art from different angles. This episode helps people reevaluate how they interact with art and how they navigate museums and galleries. — 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