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Cause of death?

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

When a famous person dies, the first piece of news is the death itself. But the second-most important question is how did that person die? Most of the time, journalists are at the mercy of family members who release statements on social media or via a publicist.

Sometimes the reason for the death is vague. When Naomi Judd's daughters announced her death, they said the cause was "the disease of mental illness." That put journalists in an awkward position. A substantial portion of the population lives with mental illness. And mental illness itself doesn't lead to death.

How is a journalist supposed to tell a complete story when the facts are clearly incomplete and the sources in the know are not available for more information? The problem was similar when Colin Powell died and his family attributed his death to complications from breakthrough COVID-19 infection, without mentioning the conditions that put him at higher risk.

In response to a reader critique about how NPR reported Judd's death, we learned how NPR covers a death of news interest, which includes ensuring that the sources are reliable.

On behalf of another audience member, we also learned why an NPR story that mentioned the existence of certain "bird-friendly" products didn't link to any of them.

And we shine our spotlight on a substantial library of NPR's reporting on abortion rights.

This won't be the last time we look at NPR's abortion coverage. We've got some feelers out to NPR leadership about their editorial strategy for covering the topic. We'll let you in on that as we learn more.

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.

What was the cause of death?

Dan Keller wrote on May 1: I was dismayed by NPR's "following the pack" in reporting Naomi Judd's death. In doing so, it violated its own ethical standard for accuracy, which says, "Accuracy is at the core of what we do. We do our best to ensure that everything we report faithfully depicts reality — from the tiniest detail to the big-picture context that helps put the news into perspective." Saying that Judd's cause of death was "mental illness" is not accurate. Mental illness in itself, in all its forms, is not a terminal illness. If she died of suicide, then that should be stated as the cause of death. It may be disturbing, but it would be accurate. Euphemism or obfuscation has no place in solid journalism and certainly not in NPR's.

This digital story directs readers to a statement from Naomi Judd's daughters, country singer Wynonna Judd and actress Ashley Judd, confirming their mother's death. It's their statement that references mental illness.

"Today we sisters experienced a tragedy," they said. "We lost our beautiful mother to the disease of mental illness. We are shattered. We are navigating profound grief and know that as we loved her, she was loved by her public. We are in unknown territory."

"The reasoning behind not revealing the cause of death was that it was not provided," Barbara Campbell, a Culture Desk editor and the editor of this story, said in an email. "Wynonna and Ashley Judd chose to express it the way they did and didn't give a location for the death, so we couldn't follow up with the local medical examiner."

Campbell added that the family's statement was placed high up in the story because the obvious question when someone dies is what do we know about this death. The statement, she said, contained all the details that had been made public at the time. A spokesperson was not made available for follow-up questions, she added.

"The reader wants more details. This is not surprising, and we would have included them if they were released," Campbell said. "The family controlled the flow of information because it was not a police case."

NPR Managing Editor for Standards and Practices Tony Cavin said NPR does not have specific standards for reporting on the death of a famous person.

"As in any other story, we report what we know," he said. "In this case, we had a statement from the family which confirmed that she had died, and we quoted from that statement. In the hypothetical case that there had been other confirmed information indicating the cause of death, whether by suicide, an accident or an illness, we would have reported it if we thought it was newsworthy. We generally only report that someone died by suicide if there's a valid editorial reason to do so."

This was a story that intended to let the audience know the facts that were publicly available, and NPR's reporting was responsible, quoting directly from Judd's family. NPR could have included an additional sentence explaining that the family was not available for comment and not releasing any other information. Sometimes explicitly telling the audience what remains unknown is an extra step that answers questions like this. But that's a delicate choice as well, because it risks sounding like a critique of the family. In this case, it seems like reporters and editors were doing their best in this breaking news situation. — Amaris Castillo

Looking for those bird-friendly products

Deborah Gaffney wrote on April 24: I saw an article that had lots of information about trying to help the declining bird populations. One way concerned buying bird-friendly products. One of those products was coffee produced in bird-friendly ways. There were at least 2 other products mentioned: chocolate and wine. However, try as I might I was unable to find either specific names of those products or where to purchase them. I would appreciate those two pieces of information. Thank you.

I reached out to Audrey Nguyen, the Life Kit associate producer who reported this story and whose voice you hear as host in the audio version. She told me the goal of the story was to help readers and listeners understand how their everyday actions can help birds survive and thrive.

"Unfortunately, I don't have specific bird-friendly chocolate and wine products to recommend," Nguyen said in an email. "I don't feel comfortable using my platform as an NPR journalist to promote specific products."

Nguyen noted that Life Kit doesn't recommend specific products. "Instead, we recommend specific strategies," she said.

We did a little searching ourselves and found that if you click on this National Zoo link provided in the story, and scroll down on the page, you'll come to another link that leads to specific bird-friendly coffee products and retailers.

Nguyen offered me a few more resources, such as this article about a bird-friendly maple syrup project in Vermont. She also mentioned a California-based chocolatier who makes what she calls bird-friendly chocolate and held an event last year about "bird-friendly chocolate harvesting practices such as agroforestry, wild harvesting, and shade growing and how they connect to some cool bird species." — Amaris Castillo

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.

A look at NPR's Roe v. Wade coverage

NPR has extensively covered abortion policy and reproductive rights as part of ongoing national reporting. But it became an even bigger focus after last week's leak of the Supreme Court's draft opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade. Here's a look at NPR's coverage and some of the pieces we recommend:

  • NPR explained what a draft opinion is, how the Casey case paved the way for abortion restrictions, what research tells us about the impact of abortion on a woman's life, and the facts around seven claims about abortion.
  • Reporter Joe Hernandez told us what could happen if Roe v. Wade is overturned, focusing on key facts and states where abortion likely would become illegal.
  • Reporter Becky Sullivan broke down what the Supreme Court justices who are ready to overturn Roe v. Wade said about the case at their confirmation hearings.
  • Rachel Treisman, Morning Edition associate editor and digital writer, reported that last week's leak was an uncommon breach of trust for the Supreme Court, but noted that in 1973, the original Roe decision was also leaked to the press before the court had formally announced it.
  • National Correspondent Sarah McCammon's Twitter thread of stories she's done during her years of covering abortion and reproductive rights shows how state policy has affected abortion access. Her Weekend Edition Sunday piece explored how religions offer mixed views on abortion.
  • Reporter Katia Riddle's Weekend Edition Saturday piece told the story of a Texas woman who took two planes and went to three states over the course of a month in order to get an abortion. — 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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