When NPR journalists write books
Newsrooms have extensive policies designed to manage the many conflicts of interest that come up every day. Journalists are prohibited from supporting political candidates. Advertisers are prevented from influencing the news report. Reporters can't accept fees for speaking gigs from companies or industries they cover.
The list goes on: All side hustles and freelance jobs must be disclosed to a supervisor. Sponsors are disclosed in relevant news stories. Journalists can't invest directly in companies they cover.
All these guidelines are meant to ensure NPR's independent news judgment and to protect the public perception that NPR is making decisions solely on behalf of the audience.
When it comes to covering the books that NPR hosts and correspondents publish on the side, the practice of interviewing those authors and covering those books presents a conflict of interest that listeners notice.
Today we respond to a listener who wondered about NPR's policies and boundaries when it comes to offering valuable airtime to its own.
NPR's policy states that the only staff-written books that merit coverage are those that would be of interest to the audience even if they weren't written by someone from NPR.
However, it's rare to find a book published by an NPR host or correspondent that failed to garner an interview on one of NPR's shows.
There's a circular logic behind these decisions that undermines the first principle of the policy. The audience is interested in NPR's top talent, newsroom leaders tell us, therefore the audience is interested in the books the hosts and journalists write.
Read on to see our response to this latest inquiry from a listener. We also spotlight a new installment of the Embedded podcast, which turns the microphone over to a team of competitive cheerleaders in Buffalo as they document their year that followed the mass shooting just blocks from their gym.
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.
The advantage of being an NPR author
Philip Young wrote on April 8: I'm writing about Scott Simon's interview of Mary Louise Kelly on her new book. I've always found it strange when a NPR staff member writes a book and then gets an interview on an NPR show. It feels like a major conflict of interest. Do other news organizations do this? I haven't noticed. A while back Steve Inskeep was interviewed about a history book he wrote. More recently, Ari Shapiro was interviewed about his book. I feel that this really doesn't reflect well on the organization, and hope that it comes to an end. Authors should earn reviews from sources that won't automatically give them a warm embrace.
Other audience members have questioned NPR's practice of allowing staff to be interviewed about their books on-air. In 2015, a previous NPR public editor, Elizabeth Jensen, wrote a column about this practice when listeners criticized the decision to have Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep interviewed about his history book on the show by one of his co-hosts, Renee Montagne.
"NPR should not be featuring a host's book on his or her own program," Jensen wrote.
In response to Jensen's column, NPR updated its ethics handbook policy to better govern how to handle staff-written books. The guidelines said, "NPR's producers and editors use the same standard they apply to outside books to decide whether works by our own staff merit coverage and on which of our programs and platforms. That decision must be approved by the Senior Vice President for News. ... NPR staff members will not appear on their own shows to discuss outside books or other works unrelated to NPR coverage."
Producers and editors are instructed to ask: Is the book newsworthy or otherwise of interest to the NPR audience?
In recent months, Mary Louise Kelly was interviewed about her memoir by Scott Simon for Weekend Edition Saturday and Ari Shapiro was interviewed about his memoir by Steve Inskeep for Morning Edition.
Since the policy on coverage of books written by NPR staffers was implemented nearly a decade ago, we contacted NPR standards editor Tony Cavin to revisit it. Cavin said this policy is still in effect, although he believes the process may have slipped lately.
"I think the current policy works well," Cavin said in an email. "The key points are to treat books by NPR staffers as we would any other book, all interviews are approved by NPR's Senior VP for News (currently Edith Chapin) and not to allow hosts to be interviewed about their books on their own shows."
NPR publishes its standards so that listeners with questions can find the policy. However, he added, "there is no firm line that says 'this book would be of interest to our audience.' It's an editorial call which means no matter how transparent we are there will always be room for second guessing."
Cavin clarified that not every book written by an NPR host receives an on-air interview, "only those books that we think might be of interest to our audience," he said. There have not been any discussions between him and NPR leadership about updating or expanding the current policy.
Every prominent newsroom faces this same challenge. The former New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote about it in 2013, affirming that The Times makes its decisions "based on newsworthiness or the likelihood of reader interest." And adding, "Those are hard to pin down or define, but editors know them when they see them."
In 2015, she addressed the conflict of interest when Times writers use their platform to promote their own books, cautioning, "Writers and their editors need to guard against self-promotion or the appearance of it."
The New Yorker editor David Remnick told us, "we generally don't review 'our' own," meaning writers who are on staff. "Occasionally we excerpt books by staff members. But reviewing books by our reporters and writers is more problematic for all the reasons you can imagine."
NPR's policy, as written, puts the audience first. But when that policy is put into practice, it seems to give an advantage to NPR authors over all others. That creates an appearance of favoritism that causes some in the audience to doubt NPR's loyalty. — Amaris Castillo and 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.
Following a Black cheer team after a mass shooting
Last year, a white supremacist murdered 10 Black people at a supermarket in a predominantly Black area of Buffalo, New York. The mass shooting devastated the community, including members of a cheerleading team from a nearby gym. Last week, NPR's Embedded published the first episode of "Buffalo Extreme," a podcast centered on the Buffalo All-Star Extreme (BASE) team. "Buffalo Extreme" is an important series that follows community members as they work to heal and piece their lives back together and grapple with the terror they experienced. The new series is narrated by a former team member, 19-year-old Na'kya McCann. In the episode, McCann introduces listeners to the many personalities that make up BASE's world: coach and founder Ayanna Williams Gaines, cheerleaders and cheer families. It's significant that McCann is the host of this podcast. Having her tell this story is a meaningful example of community journalism. — 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.
NPR Public Editor
Chair, Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute
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