Wait, wait, I've heard this one
This Public Editor Newsletter published Feb. 10, 2022
Have you ever felt a sense of déjà vu when listening to a story on Morning Edition or All Things Considered? Like, maybe you've already heard this before? Not just heard about this story, but actually heard this exact story before?
It happens. NPR news shows will dip back into the archives and resurrect an old story. There's even a cute label, "Encore." One listener noticed and wondered if there had been an uptick, so we did some digging.
Another listener raised a more concerning issue: Are journalists more likely to call a fatal crowd surge a "stampede" when it happens in Africa? That's not the case, our research showed. But it is such an interesting question, we wondered if the word stampede is appropriate at all when talking about humans and not animals.
Read on to see our exploration of these audience comments.
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.
Maren Gimpel wrote on Jan. 27: It seems like there are more "encore" stories on air recently. I've noticed it, I think, in both Morning Edition and All Things Considered. I can see running these if the topic is suddenly timely again or during a super slow week, like over the holidays, but it doesn't seem like I should notice it multiple times within a week.
Your inkling seems to be right. We found several examples of encore features within the last month — from plutonium to voting rights to procrastination, and even "Don't Stop Believin' " got an encore performance.
Miranda Kennedy, the supervising senior editor for Morning Edition, talked to us about the process of deciding which stories should air again, and when.
"The managing editors ask desk editors to pick pieces they think are worth encoring, both due to quality and durability," Kennedy said in an email. "Then, show supervisors go into the list and pick from those according to what works best with the mix of elements on that day's program. In general we like to use stories that are culturally relevant, not outdated and not very specific to one timeframe."
These pieces can be particularly helpful to re-air when staff size is limited due to some members taking time off.
"We did reboot our encore policy over the 2021 holiday season — deciding to use them more frequently when we have [needs for stories], especially when NPR and member station reporters are off for the holidays," Kennedy said.
Like many industries right now, turnover means there is more expected of current staff to assist with work outside their domain until positions are filled because the show (in this case, shows) must go on, regardless of whether a team is fully staffed during any given period. In addition to dealing with staff turnover, NPR sends hosts, correspondents and other journalists to report on key issues all across the globe, which can put some team members out of pocket at the same time as others having time off. One solution to this staffing gap is to air stories multiple times.
It's a common practice in news media to reuse old stories that might resonate again. As long as it's transparent (which it is at NPR), it's a practice that serves news consumers, assuming that only a fraction of the audience caught the story the first time around. Ideally, the stories are strong enough that when listeners like you notice the repeat, it's still enjoyable, even when you heard them the first time they aired.
Although, there were three encore stories during the Jan. 25 edition of ATC, which might be a bit much. That said, well-reported pieces deserve a big audience, and airing them more than once helps ensure that, in addition to being helpful on days when many folks are working on bigger stories or taking time off. — Emily Barske
When is it a 'stampede'?
M.O. wrote on Jan. 25: I wanted to ask about the use of different words to describe the deaths at the Africa Cup game and the deaths at the Astroworld concert. It seems to me that NPR chose to use the words "crowd surge" to describe the events at the U.S.-based event, but chose to use the word "stampede" at the event in Africa. I feel that the latter connotes the movement of animals and therefore further perpetuates the dehumanization of Africans and of non-Americans. Would you please respond with your thoughts?
What you likely heard was a Jan. 25 morning newscast about the incident that began with, "A stampede at a soccer stadium in the capital of Cameroon left at least eight people dead."
The word "stampede" has a few definitions, according to Merriam-Webster. The top two for the noun are: "a wild headlong rush or flight of frightened animals," and "a mass movement of people at a common impulse."
I agree with you that it would be troubling if the word "stampede" was only applied to the Africa Cup game. But in searching, our team found other instances where NPR has used the word to describe this type of mass movement of a group of people — and they have been applied to events both inside and outside the U.S. Below are a few examples:
I reached out to several linguists for their thoughts on whether the word should be used to refer to humans. John Baugh, president of the Linguistic Society of America, thought it was appropriate.
"And the context in which I think it's appropriate is when you have the human equivalent of the same phenomena that takes place in the animal world," Baugh told me over the phone. "And in the case of the Africa Cup, they were all trying to run through a narrow opening in a small gate. I would call that a stampede. I can't think of a better word for it, actually, in that particular instance."
Misha Becker, a professor and chair of the Department of Linguistics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, looked up the word herself in the Oxford English Dictionary and found that "stampede" can be used to refer to the movement of either animals or people.
But Becker said you make an important point.
"Although 'stampede' can be used to talk about the sudden, panicked movement of a large group of either animals or people, 'crowd surge' can only refer to people," she said. "At least, as a native speaker of English, if I hear the word 'crowd' my first thought is of people, not animals. Therefore, while 'stampede' includes a connotation of animals moving, 'crowd surge' does not include this connotation and is therefore unambiguously referring to people. I would advocate for using the unambiguous term."
Thomas J. Hinnebusch, professor emeritus of linguistics and African languages at UCLA, thinks it's fine to use "stampede" in reference to people.
However, he also acknowledged a sentiment we embrace every day in our own work.
"Words, word meanings, word senses, and how people react to words are constantly in flux," he said in an email. "And whenever we set pen to paper and use words, in spite of how hard we try to be clear, unambiguous, and precise, we run the hazard of being misunderstood. There is no way to predict how the reader might react to a particular word, or set of words, because their world view, and experiences, are different from ours." — Amaris Castillo with research from Kayla Randall
From a listener who would like to give more
Rhonda Lockhart wrote on Jan. 25: I'm reaching out to make you aware that there's a massive group of listeners who wish we could give more: the poor and disabled. We aren't all uneducated or oblivious to the many important reasons it is critical that NPR continues. Many of us, myself included, often struggle to purchase groceries and medications in the same month. But that doesn't stop many of us from making small, one-time gifts to support your work. Personally WBHM is a cause I champion, though I cannot give as much as I want. Thank you so very much for your dedication and perseverance. Democracy cannot afford to lose you.
Public radio is built for everyone. The mission is to be accessible to all. It's a beautiful thing. And listeners like you are essential. — 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.
Figure skating physics
I love a good Olympics story. Aired a few days after the 2022 games kicked off in Beijing, this Short Wave episode takes you to an ice rink to learn the physics of figure skating, a sport that's high-energy but meant to look effortless. Host Emily Kwong also questions whether the sport has reached its physical limitations in terms of what's humanly possible for figure skaters within the rules of the sport. Hint: It's still up in the air (pun intended). If only I had heard this piece a few years ago, I may have saved myself from spraining my elbow while ice skating with a friend. — 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.
NPR Public Editor
Chair, Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute
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