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How NPR decided whose voices to include in stories on the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago

Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

In the week after the FBI searched former President Donald Trump's home, NPR and other newsrooms faced a common challenge: With the government silent, the loudest voices speaking publicly about the search were Trump and his defenders.

Some of their statements were false. Some espoused deep-state conspiracy theories. Almost all of it was opinion and speculation.

While the imbalance of available information and commentary was particularly sharp in the first five days after the FBI executed the search warrant, NPR's chief Washington editor Krishnadev Calamur said the dynamic is something his team faces every day. The Washington Desk has developed a strategy, he said, for discerning whose voice gets into NPR news reports.

"The story is the story," he said. "The FBI searched the premises." Immediately after that happened, there was a vacuum of information. The FBI and Department of Justice made no information available, which is typical in an ongoing criminal investigation.

Reporters and editors had to determine what to include in those first stories about the search.

Here's how Calamur described making those choices:

  • First, journalists ask if the opinion of a speaker or source is helpful in advancing the public's understanding of the story.
  • Next, they look at the motivations of the speaker. Reporters try to determine which of the many speakers offering their opinions on the matter have any foundation or expertise to do so. "We ask why people are saying what they are saying, and if we use it, the smart way to cover those reaction statements is that we provide context for the listeners," he said.
  • If information is determined to be false, the team first asks if that in itself is part of the news. If it is, they are careful to package the statement in a way that the audience clearly knows the information is not true. "Ignoring disinformation doesn't make it go away," Calamur said. "If it's being amplified elsewhere, we might want to set the record straight."
  • When influential or powerful figures weigh in with opinions or promises to take specific actions like changing a law or calling for special investigations, NPR journalists report those statements as a way of informing the audience.
  • Finally, when reporting on a criminal investigation, journalists seek a reply from the target, in this case the former president, in the name of fairness.
  • These guidelines are a critical tool that journalists at NPR use to avoid amplification of disinformation and distortions. When journalists include information in their stories, they should ask whether they are promulgating an incomplete understanding of the situation by giving too much weight to information that they know to be wrong or out of context. We heard from several audience members who believed some NPR stories on the search at Mar-a-Lago were guilty of just that.

    On Aug. 9, Colin Oatley tweeted, "@NPR hourly news briefs today are singularly devoted to amplifying the voices of conspiracy theorists regarding the FBI search of Trump's residence."

    The next day, Menen Kim tweeted, "Today NPR failed to report the facts behind the search at MAL — u chose instead to report Trump as a victim & amplify his deluded supporters."

    With the help of the Public Editor team, I looked at 31 stories published over the first five days after the search. I did not find stories that included blatantly extraneous statements and opinions that could be perceived as amplification.

    Instead, I found a few borderline examples of statements that didn't really advance the story, but had other journalistic reasons for being included in the report. In almost every case, the reporters and editors who crafted the stories took clear steps to add appropriate context in ways that minimized the impact of disinformation and corrected for any false equivalency.

    One of the first stories about the search to appear on NPR's website the evening of Aug. 8 quotes a statement from Trump's political action committee that Mar-a-Lago was "under siege, raided, and occupied by a large group of FBI agents." The story reports that Trump asserted that Democrats intent on thwarting his next run for president were behind the action.

    In a story about a possible crime, it is a basic tenet of journalism to allow the target of the investigation to respond to the implications that they broke the law. The first Trump statement served as a confirmation that the search happened, even if it did not include a response to the possible charges. NPR followed the assertion that Democrats were behind the investigation, an opinion for which no evidence has surfaced, with context, including a statement from the White House denying any advance knowledge.

    Offering further context to the accusation of political motivations, NPR journalists reported that criminal search warrants must be signed by a judge who reviews the investigative evidence that law enforcement officers present as probable cause.

    Including a White House statement and the search warrant procedural information fulfills the journalistic obligation to be fair and gives audience members the information they need to judge the legitimacy of the search.

    In addition to the "under siege" statement, that story also quoted House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's threatening a congressional investigation of U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice, suggesting that the DOJ overstepped and was acting with political motivations.

    Additional context would be helpful here. For audience members to judge McCarthy's assertion that the search was illegitimate, they also need to know that he offered no evidence to back up his claim.

    None of these statements were amplified the following morning in the first story to go on a radio show. In this two-way conversation on Morning Edition, national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reported what she had learned from her sources as well as what Trump had publicly confirmed, without quoting any of the hyperbolic rhetoric.

    This web story on the release of the search warrant reports that FBI agents seized top secret and classified documents from Trump's Mar-a-Lago home. The story includes Trump's claim that all the documents taken had been declassified. The text points out that he also claims to have been cooperating with the FBI. Again, this is a crime story and Trump deserves the right to respond.

    This story serves as a fact check to Sen. Rand Paul, who called for the repeal of the Espionage Act, one of the crimes named in the search warrant. The story starts with Paul's tweet that the law was originally used against dissenters in World War I in a violation of First Amendment rights. While the story provides significant historical context, it also gives Paul's politically opportunistic argument more space than it deserves.

    As I was looking at NPR's approach, I reached out to a frequent critic, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen.

    "It's got a number of tough calls," he said of the reporting environment on the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago. "When there's an information vacuum, it's especially important not to default to a reflex."

    One common journalistic reflex for many journalists, including those at NPR, is the simple conflict narrative, Rosen said. Although this is a criminal investigation, which requires the voices of those being investigated, it's also a political story. Allowing the political conflict to stand in or assume equal weight to the possible criminal accusations would be a false equivalency.

    The simple conflict is between the Department of Justice and Trump. Critics of the search have a lot of opinions about its legality and the political motivations behind it. When those opinions are included in stories about the search, they should not be framed as the logical counterargument and given the same weight as the search itself or the court documentation.

    "It's a very comfortable place for journalists," Rosen said, "when you have a story that fits into the template of two sides competing with each other with the journalists in the middle, mediating the two sides."

    Rather than do that, journalists must be particularly choosy as they strive for fairness. Yes, let Trump and his representatives respond to the implication that he broke the law. But don't repeatedly quote his supporters declaring falsehoods or speculating on ideas for which there is no evidence.

    Where one audience member sees a false equivalency, another might see an attempt at inclusion and fairness. That's why it's just as important for journalists to analyze statements from Trump and his supporters to determine whether they are a defense against the accusation or political rhetoric.

    Tony Cavin, NPR's managing editor for standards and practices, told me that the journalists in the newsroom discuss strategies for avoiding false equivalency and amplifying disinformation every week.

    "A number of politicians have concluded [that because of social media] they have far more leeway to say things that are untrue," he wrote in an email. "Which means finding a way to report the news and report what newsmakers say without falling into false equivalency or inappropriate amplification is getting increasingly difficult."

    Calamur added that his team was much less interested in what House members were saying in the wake of the search warrant and much more interested in the silence from the Senate leadership.

    He added that he and his team have developed their guidelines organically, by covering politics through two Trump campaigns and one term as president.

    But he's never written down this strategy for avoiding amplification during the era in which politicians have mastered the art of using social media to plant disinformation. "I should just write it down," he said.

    Identifying practical strategies for selecting information that belongs in news reports and techniques for avoiding the amplification of disinformation and false equivalencies is a worthwhile investment. Creating a written memo would enhance the conversation among journalists who are separated by job duties, time zones, experience levels and work shifts.

    Widely sharing the Washington Desk's standards would create a consistent approach across the entire news organization and benefit other journalists in the public radio network.

    Consistent standards are highly important to audience members. After all, if news consumers see a single story that they feel amplifies disinformation or perpetuates false equivalencies, they may judge all of NPR.

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

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country's leading voices on media ethics. Since 2002, she has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute, a global nonprofit dedicated to excellence in journalism, where she now serves as its senior vice president. She is also the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at Poynter, which advances the quality of journalism and improves fact-based expression by training journalists and working with news organizations to hone and adopt meaningful and transparent ethics practices. Under McBride's leadership, the center serves as the journalism industry's ombudsman — a place where journalists, ethicists and citizens convene to elevate American discourse and battle disinformation and bias.
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