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The promises journalists make

Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

In the deluge of stories coming out of the war in Ukraine, what sticks with you? What do you remember? For us, it's the stories of the people who are still in harm's way.

When Ukrainians faced with the potential takeover of their hometowns by Russian invaders stop to describe their survival, it leaves a lasting imprint. When Russians chronicle their efforts to protest their own government's actions, it conveys courage.

The journalists who bring us these voices take great care to tell these stories without making a bad situation worse. They will often conceal locations, or full identities, in order to protect their sources, or their sources' families, from the danger of occupying forces.

A listener wrote in to ask whether NPR had let down one such source — a human rights advocate who was documenting the protests within Russia. We looked into the promises that were made (and kept).

Another listener advocated for NPR to embrace the metric system. We disagree.

And finally, this week we've got a question about NPR's Collaborative Journalism Network and a spotlight on a 1A show about media literacy.


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.

Naming sources

Shirah Hecht wrote on March 20: Did I just hear NPR interviewer NAME the Russian journalist promised anonymity at the top of the story??? ... I listened to the ENTIRE interview, aware that he wanted to stay anonymous. ...

At the start of this Weekend Edition Sunday story, host Elissa Nadworny introduces Leonid Drabkin as the general manager of Russian human rights media project OVD-Info. Nadworny said NPR was not disclosing Drabkin's location to protect his personal safety. There was no mention of granting anonymity.

We reached out to Evie Stone, supervising senior editor for Weekend Edition, who confirmed via email that NPR did not promise Drabkin anonymity, but did promise to withhold his location for safety reasons.

Here are two other examples, among many, of NPR making accommodations for sources in the thick of this war:

  • This month, on All Things Considered, NPR Justice Correspondent Ryan Lucas reported on Russian missiles striking a Ukrainian military base near the Polish border. He met a Ukrainian woman named Ola who lived in an area that had been blocked off by the Ukrainian military. "She's worried about her safety. She didn't want to give her last name," Lucas said.
  • Host Mary Louise Kelly started a Feb. 28 Consider This from NPR episode with the story of one Ukrainian teen: "A 16-year-old named Damien — we're using first names only here for safety reasons — he's one of the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who have fled their country over the past few days for neighboring Poland."
  • In covering Russia's invasion of Ukraine, it's important that NPR journalists balance the audience's need for information with careful reporting that does not lead vulnerable sources to danger or harm. NPR has been transparent with its audience about the promises made to sources. And, more importantly, NPR's journalists are careful to protect sources who fear repercussions. — Amaris Castillo

    Using metric figures

    Henry Knoepfle wrote on March 9: I fully expect standard news outlets to use US customary units, but when I read the NPR Style Guide's entry on metric units, it was too much! Style Guide: metric system: Always convert metric figures. Add within square brackets if part of a quote. I mean, NPR stations are typically at universities and other places of higher learning, and their audiences tend to be more scientifically savvy. The argument may be that Americans don't understand or use the metric system, but that to me smacks of a self fulfilling prophecy. ...

    Since NPR generates news for a primarily American audience, using the metric system in reporting just wouldn't work.

    NPR's Managing Editor for Standards and Practices Tony Cavin doesn't see a need to change the style guide either.

    "I have not issued specific guidance [on metric figures] nor have I seen the need to," he said in an email. "We use measurements and numbers to help our audience understand stories. If we use measurements and numbers they are not familiar with, it would defeat the purpose."

    Because Americans largely use units like inches, yards, pounds and gallons, news stories should, too.

    We can find caveats to the style guide, but few journalism rules come without exceptions. We see this in sports coverage. The headline "Erin Jackson takes gold for the U.S. in women's 500 meter speed skating" would have been inaccurate and confusing if it had been converted to "546.807 yard speed skating."

    The Associated Press typically includes both metric and locally accepted figures in its news copy because it's a global outlet, according to the AP Stylebook, which NPR uses. "Use the figure widely accepted in the location of the dateline, then the conversion in parentheses after the original figure," the guidance says.

    Many AP stories are edited by the news organization that publishes the story to match the audience. But occasionally you'll see a story that retains the original AP style.

    For example, we found this sentence from a March 12 story: "The National Weather Service said 7 to 12 inches (18 to 30 centimeters) could be expected in northern areas of Pennsylvania and New York with winds gusting as high as 45 mph (72 kph)."

    This is important for the AP's global audience, but not so much for NPR's predominantly American consumers. — Emily Barske


    We ask NPR journalists one question about how their work came together.

    How does NPR's Collaborative Journalism Network operate?

    Member stations operate independently from NPR. Their leaders decide which news stories to cover, and how.

    But you could be tuning in to your local station — for me, Iowa Public Radio — and hear Morning Edition or All Things Considered pieces on a regular basis. That's how member stations deliver national news to their audiences.

    In addition to the national stories heard locally, more is at play when it comes to how your local stations work with NPR leaders.

    NPR manages the Collaborative Journalism Network, which seeks "to reach new audiences and dig deeper into the issues of the day — at the local, regional and national levels." It executes that through ethics guidance, topics teams, regional newsrooms and an investigations team, Managing Editor for Collaborative Journalism Kenya Young told us.

    In a January NPR memo, Young announced that a nationwide working group of public media leaders is creating a Network Standards and Practices Handbook. When complete, this will be an additional tool addressing the standards and ethics concerns of member stations in conjunction with existing tools like the NPR Ethics Handbook, the NPR Style Guide and individual stations' guides. (Our Public Editor team is often citing guidance from those sources in our ethics analyses.)

    "The big message I want to get across is that NPR is not the end-all, be-all when it comes to editorial standards and practices," Young said. "But we do know that the stations look to see how we are handling a story and what direction we're going so that we're consistent and seamless in our coverage across public media."

    This will confer stations more ongoing guidance that's already being offered to NPR journalists, such as how to pronounce the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.

    "We want to avoid [a listener] hearing something pronounced one way in Morning Edition and pronounced a different way in the midday show," Young said. "There's just a level of editorial excellence and standardization that we'd like to see across the board."

    The Collaborative Journalism Network encompasses eight topic teams — including education, politics and a newly formed team for race and culture — made up of reporters from member stations and led by NPR editors. This helps reporters stay abreast of trends across the country and develop expert sources. And sometimes it leads to content — like a roundtable discussion of reporters from around the country weighing in on current events.

    The Stations Investigations Team, also a part of the Collaborative Journalism Network, bridges the gap between local reporters and NPR resources that may be needed for investigation, such as data analysis or records requests. Stations can also bring forward issues that are discovered locally that may be having a national impact — such as reporting on FEMA denying many assistance requests in the Western wildfires.

    "There are times when particularly good reporters are able to assess that they have a story right in their neighborhood or in their backyard and realize it may be a much bigger story, but they just don't have the resources to make that happen," Young said. "And while it would be a very fine local story for them, being able to tap in with our investigation team ... elevates the story to a whole other level."

    In a future newsletter, we'll explore how NPR determines whether to air or publish the work of member stations. — Emily Barske


    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.

    Media literacy — we're here for it!

    I'm pretty passionate about media literacy — that's probably not at all surprising coming from a journalist who works on the NPR Public Editor team. So I was excited to see media literacy covered as part of a 1A series called In Case You Missed It, which digs into topics from audience members about what they wished they'd learned in school. Both guests mentioned the need to better understand media as consumers, but also to understand it as producers (because in the age of social media, we're all producers). The guests advocated for critical thinking skills to be taught as a unit and integrated throughout the curriculum in schools. The piece is worth a listen, especially for educators and caregivers wanting to teach kids about media literacy. — 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
    Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

    Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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