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Why'd you do that?

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

When NPR's audience spots a flaw in the journalism, they are adept at naming it and calling it out.

We have listener and reader notes this week on two NPR stories in which the journalists stumbled. In our first analysis, a Morning Edition host had a revealing and intimate look at a Ukrainian family that fled the war, ending up in the United States. A few of the host's questions were a bit insensitive, considering the trauma the family has survived. They weren't horrible, an expert in trauma-informed journalism told us, but they weren't ideal, either.

Next, a recent brief story about the actions of an anti-abortion activist group garnered several reader objections. The digital news director who assigned the story and the reporter who wrote it agreed that it was flawed. They described what they were trying to accomplish and then helped us analyze what went wrong.

Take note, we are not just pointing out flaws, we are celebrating the humility that enables NPR's journalists to look at their work and consider how it might be stronger.

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.

Out of the question?

Ada Shissler wrote on April 14: I must say I was shocked to hear your reporter, interviewing refugees from the Ukraine war who are now in the US, ask those refugees if they felt guilty about being here, about having survived and gotten away, leaving relatives and spouses behind. There is no possible news value in such a question. It was a brutal, intrusive question ... . The interviewee had just gotten done saying she understood the reporter was trying to elicit an emotional response from her for the mic, but she had no feelings to offer him. ... Does not common humanity suggest to you why such a question is not acceptable? ...

In this 11-minute story for Morning Edition, host A Martínez takes listeners to Virginia, where a local family is hosting Ukrainian refugees Eka Koliubaieva and her two daughters, who fled to the U.S. in March.

During the interview, Martínez asked Koliubaieva, "Do you feel relief that you're here or any guilt that you're away from maybe family and friends that are dealing with this?" Koliubaieva responded, through an interpreter, "I certainly don't feel any guilt for not being there now, but I can't say I feel any relief for being here either. What I do feel is just despair."

I reached out to Martínez, to ask how this question came up and learn what his goals were in telling the family's story. In an email, he told me that Morning Edition has been interested in meeting some of the refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine since President Joe Biden's announcement that the United States would accept up to 100,000 refugees. Martinez said the aim was to introduce listeners to Ukrainians now living in the U.S. and explore as many aspects of the refugee experience as possible.

"Survivors' guilt is a common emotion among people who've lived and survived a traumatic experience," he said. "I've heard from people who have left dangerous situations, where they know people that have been left behind, that they can't help but question why they were able to leave and others couldn't. It brings up conflicting feelings. Eka said that while she certainly doesn't feel guilt, she doesn't feel relief either: 'What I do feel is just despair.' It was a powerful answer that we would have never heard if we did not ask the question."

Elana Newman, research director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, which aims to improve media coverage of traumatic events, listened to the Morning Edition story and shared her insight with us. Newman told me she thought the story was a poignant portrayal of a family in crisis, and that it did a good job of describing the experience of this Ukrainian family's shock and numbness. She also loved the warmth of the story's beginning.

Newman said that while Koliubaieva's response to Martínez was powerful, the question itself was not in line with trauma-informed interviewing.

"You usually start with an open-ended question: 'How do you feel about that?' " she said, adding that she felt Martínez's questioning was more directive. "The response that he got was beautiful, but I'm really wondering how the family took it."

It's important to mention that we don't hear all of the questions Martínez asked his sources. In his email, Martínez said there is a large amount of prep work that happens before an interview, especially if it focuses on sensitive topics. "What listeners hear on the radio is a fraction of the work that goes into producing a story," he said.

Martínez noted that it usually falls to the reporter and the accompanying team to assess what is and isn't appropriate to ask when talking to trauma survivors.

"When interviewing those who have escaped conflict, we listen closely to their words and responses to guide where the conversation is going and what question we are asking next. It's a case-by-case call you make in the field," Martínez said. "In this case, we, the team who had been getting to know this family, felt confident this was a question that would elicit an emotional response but not be re-traumatizing."

Newman expressed concern about the several "why" questions posed to Koliubaieva, saying that the construction of a "why" question infers responsibility on the person being asked. She said one of the general principles when interviewing survivors of trauma is to avoid using words that sound like blaming. " 'Why' questions are just implicitly an example of that," she said.

The boundaries that Koliubaieva set as the interviewee were significant and revealing to Newman.

"It was the first time I had heard a source really articulate, 'I know your game, and you want me to emote, and I'm not going to do that,' " Newman said. "I think this narrative really got a hold of what it's like to be in the middle of chaos, saying, 'I'm not going to emote. I'm holding on, and I'm not going to think about this stuff.' And I think that's very important because, when you talk to survivors in the midst of chaos, that's where they are."

After this story ran on Morning Edition, NPR published an expanded digital version with a generous collection of photos.

Your concerns about the phrasing of this question are valid. Interviewing survivors of trauma comes with many challenges, and to do so respectfully and sensitively requires careful preparation. Journalists must keep that in mind, and find a way to still bring a compelling story to listeners. — Amaris Castillo

Why did NPR run this story?

JR Lauderback wrote on April 6: Has NPR verified the claims these people are making? If not, you are willfully amplifying the kind of deliberate misinformation & mischaracterization historically used to demonize women & to deny them equality and their constitutional rights. How could you possibly consider [it] fair & impartial reporting to repeat, without evidence, investigation, or verification, the astounding claims ...?

Jeffrey McWain wrote on April 6: I'm just curious why a story with zero verification of the details is the top story on your website? I was alarmed by the headline and clicked only to find the only evidence of 115 fetal remains is the claims of an anti-abortion group. What gives? ...

The reporting behind this story came primarily from a press conference hosted by Randall Terry, founder of the anti-abortion activist group Operation Rescue along with the founders of a Washington D.C.-based group called Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising.

The 52-minute press conference was streamed live on YouTube and featured several activists describing how they convinced a driver to turn over medical waste, containing 115 fetuses, as well as video and photographs of several of the fetuses.

The NPR news report avoided the most sensational elements of the story, but still lacked a clear journalistic focus.

As a result, it fell short of providing the audience with context or facts that would advance their understanding of the particular incident that is under investigation or the role these events play in the nationwide debate on legal abortion.

Given that breakdown, we wanted to know how the story came to be on NPR's site and how NPR might improve its process.

NPR Director of Digital News Saeed Ahmed told me that he had seen news of the press conference and assigned the story, but that the final product was not what he envisioned. "When five fetuses were found in an apartment belonging to an anti-abortion activist, the news made national headlines — and for good reason: It was an out-of-the-norm discovery. We ran an AP story on our platforms," he said.

When Ahmed assigned the story to the NPR reporting team known as the Newshub, he said he imagined the subsequent story would be framed something along the lines of, "The strange case of the fetuses found in a D.C. apartment just got stranger."

The reporter who wrote the story, Deepa Shivaram, said that she initially shared Ahmed's ideas. "To me, this is a story that shows you what some people in the anti-abortion movement are doing," she said. "It does kind of put a marker in how crazy this has become."

But looking back at it, Shivaram said she would do several things differently. She would do more reporting, put more context at the top of the story, and ask stronger questions about whether the story should be reported at all.

The resulting story ran 275 words. There was a denial from the medical waste company that it was involved in transporting material from abortions and no comment from the clinic. Ahmed listed several shortcomings on the story that published:

  • "It did not clearly lay out for readers why the story mattered — that this was the latest baffling turn in an already unusual story."
  • "It did not answer why the group would take 115 fetuses in the first place. This quote from the group's founder at the news conference, if included in the piece, would have offered some motivation: 'Pro-life Americans will not stay silent in the face of such aggressive and barbarous violence.' "
  • "It did not say whether police were investigating the group's claim."
  • The Newshub is a small team of general assignment reporters that staff NPR's website around the clock to ensure that the public radio network is reporting on breaking news.

    And it ensures that NPR's digital platforms have a constant tick of fresh news to attract readers. The Newshub is designed to find stories the audience will be interested in, that are not being covered by other news desks at NPR. Their editorial judgment is influenced by metrics — analysis of what topics resonate with particular demographics. Those metrics suggest that audiences are highly interested in hot-button social topics like abortion.

    "We do some quick turnarounds," Shivaram said of the Newshub. "That can put you in a mindset of 'I'm just trying to write this story,' rather than ask all the questions."

    When a story with holes in it gets published, it's often a failure of the entire process, including story framing, reporting and editing. On the phone, Ahmed told me that he expects reporters to reshape and refocus stories as the reporting develops. And editors are expected to challenge reporting that doesn't clearly serve NPR's audience.

    Ahmed and Shivaram both acknowledged that had the team slowed down, just a bit, to have a conversation about the purpose of the story, NPR would have done more reporting or simply scrapped the story.

    While it's important to respect and respond to signals from the audience, NPR's promise is to create journalism that will help citizens better understand the world. Was there an opportunity to do that with this story? It's possible, but it would have required significantly more reporting and a frame that goes beyond simply reporting on something shocking. Strange and unusual stories have their place in the news lineup, but when those elements are combined with a polarizing topic, journalists risk sounding glib or being flippant. The writer and editors here deserve credit for avoiding that pitfall.

    "Sometimes a story that should require more thought gets turned into just another story and that's where you get tripped up," Shivaram said.

    That system didn't fully kick in and prevent this flawed story from being published. Readers noticed. — Kelly McBride

    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.

    Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack

    I've always said I don't really like baseball unless I'm watching it in person. The atmosphere — namely the snacks — make it worth it. So I was definitely the target audience for a Planet Money piece from 2016 that re-aired last week following the opening of the 2022 MLB season. Hosts Nick Fountain and Robert Smith looked at the game happening inside the stadium but off the baseball field: the food and beverage vendors working on commission. "You think the baseball players want to win? Wait 'til you see the fastest hot dog vendor in the world," Fountain said. And you'll have to listen to the end to see just how many hot dogs got sold, even on a cold weeknight. — 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
    Chair,
    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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