Internal Contradictions on NPR? NPR's Jeffrey Dvorkin, the organization's ombudsman, addresses recent comments from listeners, including apparent contradictions in the facts as reported on different NPR shows, and recurrent debates over language issues in reporting on the Middle East.
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Internal Contradictions on NPR?

Sometimes a report airs on one NPR program that contradicts what was reported by another program. When programs are produced in different cities, this may be a failure to communicate among the far-flung units. But when it happens inside the same building in Washington, D.C., it is less tolerable.

Inconsistencies make NPR sound confused. They are a disservice to the listeners because audiences don't know which version is correct. They also indicate that the producers and managers at NPR aren't listening to stories for which they may not be directly responsible.

That's not how the public listens to NPR. Many of them listen to almost everything that airs. They are quick to point out any contradictions from one NPR program to another.

Some recent examples:

'Killings' or 'Executions?'

Aaron Allen notes that NPR continues to refer to the deaths of hostages in Iraq and other places in a variety of ways. Specifically, Mr. Allen objects to calling the murders "executions." The word, in itself, has enormous journalistic power because it has connotations of both legality and brutality:

Why doesn't NPR state that captives, hostages, victims are KILLED (no judgment meant) or SLAIN (if possible outrage is intended)? Subtle, but it will deflect (those) who might want to pick a point in this! After all, in journalism, we 'kill' a story - not 'execute' it, don't we?

Mr. Allen (who clearly has some journalistic experience) refers to "killing" in this instance as a bit of newsroom jargon — meaning when a story is not used.

NPR's Managing Editor Barbara Rehm, agrees with Mr. Allen: "We should drop 'execution' and call the beheading a killing, murder, etc."

But the term "execution" is still heard on NPR.

'Transfer of Sovereignty'

John Quigley writes that NPR has been inconsistent about the so-called "transfer of sovereignty" in Iraq:

(On June 26), Renée Montagne interviewed a State Department person about Iraq. He referred at one point to "CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) sovereignty" that was now being ended. Ms. Montagne at one point referred to sovereignty being transferred.

I had thought that NPR had figured out that these sovereignty references are incorrect. Some weeks ago (All Things Considered, April 26), Robert Siegel did a very good interview with Professor Hurst Hannum of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy on the issue of whether the U.S. or the CPA had "sovereignty" in Iraq. Hannum explained, correctly, that sovereignty at all times has rested in the people of Iraq, and that the U.S., or the CPA, as occupant(s) do not have sovereignty.

The error is more than technical. The Administration has used this terminology, even though its lawyers know it is wrong, to make it enhance the standing of the interim government, while at the same time making us look good by doing a favor for Iraq (giving them back their sovereignty).

All Things Considered seems to have this one right. Perhaps you could suggest that Morning Edition talk to All Things Considered.

'Terrorist' or 'Militant'

And one of NPR's oldest alleged inconsistencies — the use of the words "terrorist/terror" as opposed to "militant" — has come back in Julie McCarthy's reporting, according to Dr. William Bilek:

While NPR continues to stubbornly insist on labeling those who target and murder innocent Jews in Israel as "activists," or "militants," McCarthy's report this morning (June 29) on kidnappings and murders of (non-Jewish) foreigners in Saudi Arabia was replete with repeated references, (in her own words, not quotes,) to "terrorists..."

If I am wrong, please explain to me, and to your listening audience, where we err. Otherwise, either immediately change your policy, or have the intestinal fortitude to clearly take the stand that NPR continues to hint at, and skirt around.

Dr. Bilek is incorrect. In McCarthy’s June 29 report from Saudi Arabia, she refers to "terror" and to the "militants" who commit murder and other acts of terror.

In fact, McCarthy has been consistent in her reporting over the past few months. In a report from Cairo on Morning Edition on June 16, McCarthy also refers to Egyptian efforts to combat "acts of terror" committed by Palestinian "militants." Other searches through the archives show that McCarthy has tried to balance the two words so as not to appear to be on one side or the other.

Dr. Bilek is right in one aspect: NPR needs to be consistent — if terrorism exists in Saudi Arabia, it also exists wherever civilians are targets of indiscriminate killings — including in Israel or the Palestinian Territories.

The problem is in the use of the terminology itself.

'Soft On Terrorism?'

Many listeners like Dr. Bilek insist that NPR implicitly condones acts of terror each time the word "militant" is used instead of the word "terrorist." "Militant" is, I agree, unnecessarily euphemistic. Pro-Israel critics insist that avoiding the stronger word has the effect of being "soft on terrorism."

Some journalists resist using "terrorism" because that word has been used by some pro-Israeli activists to condemn the Palestinian movement overall. There is an unspoken concern that to use the term "terror" or "terrorism" in this way might tend indicate support for the policies of the Israeli government.

Consistency May Not Be Enough

This is a journalistic and linguistic mine field for journalists who can never use the right words to placate both sides at once. The result is an apparent inconsistency about which term is more acceptable, or at least, less flammable.

When it comes to the Middle East, some journalists are on the defensive because the definitions have become so politicized. According to many of my fellow ombudsmen, there is a sense inside many American newspapers that the pro-Israeli side has been successful in chilling coverage of the Middle East, specifically by insisting that when journalists choose words, they choose sides. This sense of pressure exists inside NPR as well.

One problem for listeners and journalists alike is the over-reliance on simplistic adjectives to describe the perpetrators. "Militant" vs. "terrorist" is a dualism that reduces the enormous complexities of the issues to journalistic shorthand.

Find Another Word

Here's a possible solution: what if reporters and editors avoided these descriptive pitfalls and wrote the story straight? A recent introduction on Morning Edition (6/29) used these descriptions in a standard newspaper writing style:

One of Saudi Arabia's most wanted militants has turned himself in, the first senior suspect to surrender under a one-month government amnesty announced last week. Foreign nationals have been the targets of a wave of terror attacks. The Saudi royal family recently held an unprecedented question-and-answer session with the country's expatriate community, aimed at calming fears about security in the kingdom. From the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

When it might have been:

One of Saudi Arabia's most wanted has turned himself in. He's the first senior suspect to surrender under a new amnesty program. Americans and others have been the targets of recent attacks. The Saudi royal family has just held an unprecedented session with foreigners in the country. The aim? To calm fears about security in the kingdom. From the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

That introduction is more suited to a crisp radio style and sounds a lot less "flammable." NPR should encourage a style that avoids nouns-as-adjectives altogether — or as often as possible.

It is a style that might reduce some listeners' impressions of bias and inconsistency at NPR. But when it comes to the Middle East, many people will always consider language as a weapon.