Journalists interviewing journalists
NPR's newsmagazine shows, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, offer a genre of news story known as the reporter two-way. This is a conversation between an NPR host and a reporter, exploring a specific event or topic. Sometimes the reporter works for NPR. Sometimes the reporter works for another news outlet.
A reporter two-way involves one journalist talking to another journalist, but there are other two-way conversations on NPR: Hosts also interview experts and sources directly involved in a story.
Today we respond to a listener who wants to hear less of journalists talking to other journalists and more from the people closest to the news events of the day. This bit of media criticism brushes against the pressures of producing daily broadcast news. It's often simpler to talk to another reporter than it is to send a journalist into the field to gather sound and produce a story. And reporters can make complex information or jargon more understandable.
While interviewing a reporter who has deep expertise is often the most efficient way to give audience members an overview of a topic, it has some downsides. Listening to two journalists talk to each other may be off-putting for those in the audience who would rather hear directly from the people being reported about. Reporter two-ways can reinforce the notion that journalists are part of an exclusive club of insiders, separate from their audience.
To explore this audience member's request, we contacted the executive producer of All Things Considered and an audio training expert at NPR to ask about the best use of reporter two-ways. Read on to see what they told us.
We also spotlight a couple of stories on a Montana public health program that encourages people to safely store their friends' guns when they're in crisis.
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.
Too many reporter two-ways?
Brian L. wrote on Sept. 1 and Sept. 6: Please stop having anchors interview reporters so frequently. NPR should only use first-person reporting. ... As a long-time and regular NPR listener I want and expect to hear from sources, not reporters as the source. ... I just finished listening to an All Things Considered story about heat at the U.S. Open in which a reporter for the NY NBC affiliate was interviewed. This is a perfect example of the problem with this approach to reporting. Why didn't an NPR reporter interview tournament officials and players about the topic to provide first-hand insights?
Reporter two-ways are on-air conversations between NPR hosts and reporters that are meant to be conversational yet authoritative, with a clear focus. It's a longtime journalism practice that NPR uses across its shows.
As the letter writer mentioned, All Things Considered early this month aired a story about the sweltering conditions in the U.S. Open tennis tournament, featuring a reporter two-way between host Juana Summers and NBC journalist Julia Elbaba. We heard a few unidentified speakers at the beginning commenting on how hot it was, and then Summers brought Elbaba on. This was an "outside reporter two-way," as it featured a reporter from outside NPR. In the interview, Elbaba also drew on her experience as a former tennis professional.
An example of a typical inside reporter two-way is a story last week on Morning Edition about House Speaker Kevin McCarthy's direction of the U.S. House to open a formal impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden. Listeners heard a clip of McCarthy's announcement and then host Steve Inskeep. "OK, let's figure out what this means with NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh," Inskeep says before launching into a two-way conversation with Walsh.
Jerome Socolovsky, NPR's audio journalism trainer on the Training team, told us that reporter two-ways can be a "very lively and listener-friendly vehicle for NPR's reporting." And they definitely can include clips of tape from sources — and often do, he added.
"When done well, the back-and-forth between a reporter and host can make for a natural conversation that, given deadline pressures, is quicker to get on air than a produced piece," Socolovsky said. "It's also easier to update with new information in a developing story."
He acknowledged that produced pieces do have their advantages, such as allowing for the development of a complex story with more sources and ambient sounds. "But there's also a lot to be said, in terms of the listening experience, for having a variety of types of segments on our newsmagazines," Socolovsky added.
All Things Considered executive producer Sami Yenigun told us that reporter two-ways can be heard in every show. He said reporter two-ways are most valuable to audiences when the reporter's expertise illuminates the issues at hand, and when the reporters themselves have spent time with primary sources and have obtained reporting that NPR can't get in a day.
Reporter two-ways are good options for some stories and less ideal for others. Multiple factors influence NPR's decision to do a reporter two-way, Yenigun said, including timing, the complexity of the story itself, and the range of opinions and voices that are needed. He shared the example of a person rebuilding their house in a hurricane-hit area as an instance where he wants to hear directly from the source. But if a story gets into policy over how buildings should be constructed in the area, Yenigun said, that adds a range of possible opinions. It can be helpful to have a reporter gather those voices and give context to them in a two-way, he said.
Another factor is access. In the case of the All Things Considered story about the heat at the U.S. Open in New York City, Yenigun said he supposed they could have found someone in the crowd who could speak for the story. "But again, the reporter can give us a long view of how people have traditionally dealt with heat at an event like this," he said.
"I agree with the commenter's impulse to talk to real people. It's something that we talk about in the pitch meeting every day," he said. "We want to get the people who are affected by the news to have a voice about the news. I want to speak to the people that the powerful are affecting. And I want to speak to the powerful themselves. I think having that is always the first impulse."
Yenigun is not sure that reporter two-ways are too frequent because, he said, "our reporters do a fabulous job."
"I'm comfortable with the mix currently but, again, I think that character-driven storytelling and sort of speaking to real people is definitely a priority for the show," he said.
It's critical that NPR shows get this balance right. Listeners often want to hear directly from sources, not just other journalists, and that should be the priority, as Yenigun stated. Still, reporter two-ways can be valuable for audience members. In an effective reporter two-way, the host comes up with key questions that NPR listeners would have about the topic, the reporter answers with what they've learned from their research, and listeners gain a greater understanding of the story.
As Socolovsky noted, varied storytelling is good for listeners. Leaning on variety helps to keep balance and avoid skewing too far in favor of one specific type of two-way. — Amaris Castillo and Kayla Randall
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.
Gun storage for people in crisis
A recent Morning Edition storyon gun safety, reported by Montana Public Radio's Aaron Bolton, was educational, relevant and solution-focused. Bolton told listeners about a public health program that encourages gun owners to offer to hold their friend's weapons when the friend is going through an emotionally difficult time.
Montana has the second-highest suicide rate in the country, the story reported, and 85% of gun deaths in the state are suicides. The story included the voices of public health professionals who are leading the campaign, but also the perspective of a gun owner whose friends have stored his firearms when necessary. The story ends with that gun owner reading a note he's left inside his gun safe, urging himself to reach out for help.
Bolton reported a second story on All Things Considered that explored the legal barriers in many states that put this type of storage out of reach. In some states, laws prevent non-family members from taking possession of a gun they don't own. In other states, suicide prevention advocates are trying to create a network of safe storage sites, only to run into legal red tape requiring background checks and other paperwork.
These two stories offered listeners practical advice, powerful sources with first-hand experience and a look at state policies that need to be refined. It was a bonus that it came from a member station. — Kelly McBride
If you or someone you know is considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske Wood, 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
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.