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Distill, Describe, Defuse

Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

Every day, journalists distill complex and sometimes confusing proposals crafted by elected lawmakers into a few succinct phrases. It's a true skill, one that reporters employ every single time they cover a new law traveling through Congress or any of the state legislative bodies. You also see the fruits of this skill when you hear or read a story that explains the work of a government agency like the CDC, or even a court ruling. One of the critical functions of journalism is turning obtuse bureaucratic-speak into plain language.

And it is not without peril. Today we are addressing the words journalists choose as they take on this very important journalism task.

Politicians use new legislation and new initiatives to score political points or take a jab at their opponents. They slap provocative titles on top of bills, or over-complicate their reports to make their work seem more significant.

Journalists weed through all of that to tell you what's truly significant or interesting. Where an elected politician might choose words that play to a certain ideology, a journalist has to say it in a neutral way. Repeat the political rhetoric and the journalism no longer serves the audience, but instead amplifies one point of view.

Journalists are faced with similar choices as they whittle down vast amounts of material for short news items. What elements belong in the news report? What words most accurately describe those elements?

When an NPR listener challenged the choice of words in a recent newscast, it gave us the opportunity to hear what the newscaster was thinking as she wrote her copy.

This also seemed like a good time to look at how NPR addresses provocatively named legislation. Whether it's a nickname like the bill in Florida that opponents have called "Don't Say Gay" or the formally named "Texas Heartbeat Act," words can be political weapons that must be defused in order for the journalism to be useful.


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.

Defining disability

M. P. wrote on April 6: This morning (4/6/2022), I heard a newscast at the top of the hour mentioning research into "long COVID," which it defined as a condition that may prevent people from working (I paraphrase). ... It would have been much better to simply say that the condition can cause disability, rather than implying that economic function is the only aspect of disability that matters.

Newscasts are designed to give listeners a quick look at a handful of news headlines. Each newscast is five minutes long and designed to brief you on up to 10 stories. In the 6 a.m. newscast on April 6, NPR newscaster Korva Coleman said, "President Biden has launched an effort to find out more about long COVID. It's a multisymptom condition that can stop people from working. Biden's new directive urges federal agencies to lay out the best ways to treat long COVID, and to protect the insurance and jobs of people who have it."

Coleman was discussing a multifaceted announcement the White House released the day before. Biden administration officials defined long COVID as a "complex condition that can affect multiple organ systems." The announcement lists several initiatives to deliver high-quality care and make services available for people experiencing long COVID, bolster health insurance coverage for long COVID care and strengthen support for workers with the condition.

The administration added that it wants to raise awareness of long COVID as a potential cause of disability.

I reached out to Coleman about the decision to center long COVID's impact on work in the newscast.

"The listener is quite correct that instead, I could have said that long COVID may cause disability and chosen not to focus on COVID's effect on employment," Coleman told me via email. "This was not to lessen the devastating effect on people with COVID who do not work, or to suggest that the illness is something that may be seen only through an economic lens. I took this angle to highlight that part of the multi-pronged White House strategy is specifically to protect insurance and jobs for people who have the ailment; this is reflected in the latter part of the copy."

Coleman noted that NPR has consistently covered many aspects of the coronavirus across all platforms through the pandemic, including long COVID.

"I saw this as an opportunity to examine the topic differently and engage listeners' attention," she said. "I wanted to ensure listeners were aware of this work aspect, in addition to all NPR has reported about the illness. The story was very brief — just 17 seconds long."

For each installment, newscasters curate a variety of headlines to give listeners a quick sample of the day's stories. As they make choices about what information to cover, they are often looking for news that hasn't been center stage yet.

"Given many angles of long COVID that NPR has already covered, I used 17 seconds to mention a fresh angle," Coleman said. "It is true I could have written a longer story to say disability, but then I would have had to include additional copy to further introduce the concept of disability also affecting employment. This would have required additional time in the newscast, and that means something else would have had to be dropped. I did not wish to eliminate other stories I had included in the newscast, such as on Ukrainian hospitals being bombed or deadly tornadoes hitting Southern states, as they were lead stories that morning."

Your concern about defining disability only in terms of people's ability to work is a meaningful one. NPR's coverage of long COVID has been thorough.

Coleman's specific choice to focus on the impact of long COVID on one's ability to work — particularly in the context of the Biden administration's announcement — was valid, especially in view of all of NPR's other work on the topic. — Amaris Castillo


We ask NPR one question about how the work comes together.

Is it a legislative nickname or political spin?

Journalists must clearly and efficiently convey what legislation is about without getting sucked into the political rhetoric of those who are pushing for or fighting against the proposed laws.

Sometimes legislative nicknames are helpful, like the infrastructure bill, which was formally known as the "Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act," and the COVID relief bill, which was named the "American Rescue Plan Act of 2021." Sometimes the formal name actually describes what the bill is about, like the " Emmett Till Antilynching Act," so the nickname, the antilynching bill, was almost the same.

The most controversial legislation is the hardest to deal with. For instance, the recently passed Florida law limiting what school personnel can teach or discuss on issues of gender and sexuality is formally named the "Parental Rights in Education" bill. That title doesn't sum up the new legislation. Opponents call it the "Don't Say Gay" bill, which sums up their objections in a pithy simplification. That nickname has stuck, in part because it's short and it rhymes.

To convey the political nature of the phrase, NPR will often add a caveat like, "so-called" or "dubbed by opponents." But sometimes in headlines the newsroom just puts quotes around " Don't Say Gay."

For comparison, The Washington Post sometimes uses the nickname in quotes in the headline and sometimes uses the phrase, "bill restricting LBGTQ discussion." Fox News has used "Don't Say Gay" in quotes in its headlines, but recently started pointing out that using the nickname is indicative of media bias.

At some point, a legislative nickname becomes effective because that's what many people are using. When a nickname is used by all sides, even though one may use it to convey support and one to convey disapproval, it achieves a recognition that makes it hard to avoid. "Obamacare," a nickname for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, certainly rose to that status.

Tony Cavin, NPR's managing editor for standards and practices, issued specific guidance for journalists covering the Florida law governing classroom materials and discussion about gender and sexuality. "If we use the label, 'Don't Say Gay,' we should attribute it and put it in quotes," Cavin wrote to the newsroom. "It shouldn't be in NPR's voice."

In an email to me, Cavin pointed out that this sensibility also applies to official bill names that convey political rhetoric. "An example would be the 'Texas Heartbeat Act' which outlawed most abortions after about 6 weeks of pregnancy," he said. "Opponents of that bill argue that the use of the word 'heartbeat' at such an early stage of pregnancy is misleading. In a case like that, if we use the name we should make clear that it is the official name of the bill."

Sometimes the nicknames and the official name are the same political spin, like the "Build Back Better Act," which was a $1.75 trillion piece of legislation (stalled out in the Senate), that would have funded many things, including universal preschool, four weeks of paid parental leave for everyone, an expansion of Medicaid and the creation of affordable housing. Most of the time NPR journalists simply called this the Build Back Better plan or bill, describing it as a central part of President Joe Biden's legislative agenda, and sometimes indicating that the bill includes a lot.

In this round-up, Senior Editor and Correspondent Ron Elving describes the bill as, "the big social and climate agenda bill." White House Correspondent Asma Khalid called it "the big social safety net package," in this two-way. This gets at the related problem when covering legislation: Unless you are a news junkie who follows legislative bills closely, you have to hear or go dig up the one story in which NPR or another newsroom provides an overview of the bills.

There's no one-size-fits-all answer here. But there are a couple of helpful guidelines:

  • Describe bills in neutral, accurate terms that help the public understand what a proposed piece of legislation would do.
  • It's not always possible in a headline, but in the body of every story, journalists should provide enough details about the legislation in question so that listeners or readers understand what's in the bill.
  • Add links or additional direction to a source where news consumers can find all of the details, including the full text of the bill.
  • Avoid nicknames and official names that convey political rhetoric.
  • If a bill becomes so widely known by a politically charged name that it would be confusing to use another, make it clear where the name came from. — Kelly McBride

    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.

    "What's in a Name"

    On Morning Edition, we met Aria Young, a New York University sophomore whose audio story about her Chinese name and the cost of changing it was awarded the grand prize of NPR's College Podcast Challenge. When she was 16, Young was asked to pick an English name before leaving her native Shanghai for Lancaster, Pa., to continue her high school education. So she abandoned her name, Yáng Qìn Yuè, for Aria Young. Her name, Young said , was "too hard for the English tongue to pronounce." In "What's in a Name," she asks: "Why do we throw away our beautiful native names when we move to America?" We also hear Young's Asian friends talk about the names they left behind and what they mean. It's a powerful story about identity — the ones we are born into, and the ones we build. — Amaris Castillo

    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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