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Small details, big meaning

Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

Reporters know that small details bring stories to life for the audience. Journalism professors are fond of saying, "Get the name of the dog."

Why? Details are revealing. It says so much about the owner if the dog's name is "Cujo" or "Scooby."

Journalists occasionally latch on to a detail they believe is significant, though they too often forget to tell the audience what that significance is. Sometimes, the reporting in the story does not demonstrate that a certain detail is meaningful.

When a car plunged over a cliff in California earlier this month, an NPR reader wondered why it was important to say that the car was a Tesla. As we did our research, we realized there could have been many reasons the journalist found that detail to be significant. Read on to see how one NPR editor justified including that piece of information, as well as our response to it.

We also spotlight two captivating stories from NPR journalists. In the first, the Planet Money team tells us about a 22-year-old entrepreneur working on a solution to a problem posed by artificial intelligence. In the second, Morning Edition explores the science of swing in jazz music.

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.

Name-checking Tesla

In response to the NPR digital story under the headline "Tesla driver is charged with intentionally plunging his family off a California cliff," John Frederiksen wrote on Jan. 4: The fact that the car involved in this incident happened to be a Tesla is arguably the least important part of the story. Despite this, "Tesla" is the first word in the headline, and the text of the article opens with "A Tesla driver". Would this story have been any less newsworthy if the car had been a Honda Civic? In which case, would the headline have been "Civic driver is charged..."? It's one thing if the author mentions later on that the vehicle happened to be a Tesla. Writing the story as it appeared, however, places unnecessary emphasis on the brand of car, rather than the driver and his actions. The incident is newsworthy, not the particular car involved.

News that a family of four survived after being driven off a cliff next to the Pacific Ocean sparked a lot of public interest when it broke early this month. Dharmesh Patel, the driver of the car, was later arrested and charged with attempted murder and child abuse.

NPR was not alone in its decision to point out that the vehicle was a Tesla. Local and national outlets did the same.

We asked: Why put Tesla in the headline and opening sentence of this particular story?

"Because Tesla's autopilot or auto-driving system has caused some very serious accidents ," Fernando Alfonso III, acting director of digital news, said. "And because it was uncertain whether that played a role in this incident, we felt it appropriate to include the manufacturer."

This story answers those questions with a quote from official sources stating that the driving mode did not appear to be a contributing factor to the crash. But there are other reasons to name Tesla as the car brand.

Alfonso said that when reporting on car crashes, he believes journalists should "include the manufacturer more often, to start to create more of a record in the face of the public of incidents like this."

Is the Tesla brand itself more newsworthy than other car brands? Possibly. The electric carmaker conveys status the same way other luxury car brands do, like Lexus, Cadillac or Mercedes. Any recognizable high-end car brand might have made the headline.

On the other hand, name-checking Tesla in the story solely because its CEO, Elon Musk, is at the center of many controversies would be irrelevant, as that had nothing to do with this crash.

Ultimately, it's helpful to let the audience know the intended significance of a detail. For instance, if the point is to question the technology, then the officials' statement ruling out the driving mode as a cause of the crash could have been closer to the headline. If the point was to signal status, the audience needed to know why that was relevant here.

When journalists ask and answer the question "Why should we care that the car was a Tesla," they remove stumbling blocks that might trip up the audience. — Kelly McBride and 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.

Combating misuse of ChatGPT

In its newsletter, Planet Money talked to 22-year-old Edward Tian. He's creating his own technological innovation to combat misuse of an artificial intelligence tool called ChatGPT, which, after only being given a few prompts, is designed to produce coherent writing that's at times indecipherable from human writing. "Humans deserve to know when something is written by a human or written by a machine," Tian told Planet Money. This story stands out among others that have been written about ChatGPT because it offers a nuanced approach to both the potential dangers and solutions of the revolutionary technology. The subject, and Planet Money's conversational tone in the newsletter, are well worth a read. — Emily Barske

"What is this thing called swing?"

Morning Edition aired a story reported by NPR science editor and correspondent Maria Godoy that set out to understand the swing component in jazz music. "Swing is a feel," according to Christian McBride, a jazz bassist and host of NPR's Jazz Night in America. Godoy interviewed Theo Geisel, a theoretical physicist whose team had expert musicians listen to different versions of jazz recordings to detect timing nuances in swing. Geisel said the musicians in their study picked up on a difference in the timing when the soloist began playing after the rhythm section. This is a fun story that goes behind the scenes on the science of jazz. — Amaris Castillo

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske, and copy editor Merrill Perlman 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 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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