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What exactly is a spoiler?

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

While it's common to see a "spoiler alert" warning on top of a review, there's no universal agreement on "spoilers." It's up to every reviewer to determine which details are mere plot points and what is an actual spoiler. Reviewers often get advanced access to movies and TV shows, so they know all the details, compared to the rest of us, who see just the trailers.

When a Fresh Air listener posted on social media about spoilers and the lack of a warning in a recent review of the newest season of The Morning Show on Apple TV+, we got curious. Who decides? Are there standards? In asking those questions, we gained insight. Turns out there's a gulf between what some audience members would consider too much information and what some TV critics would flag as a true spoiler.

Read on to hear how the critic involved thinks about the difference between plot points and spoilers.

We also spotlight a follow-up to an NPR story on the environmental consequences of harvesting horseshoe crab blood for medical purposes.

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.

No spoilers, please

Ed Terpening tweeted on Sept. 18: @NPR Very disappointed by the number of spoilers in your review on the radio today of the new season of the Morning Show. No warning, laying out everything. My husband was in the shower and couldn't turn off the radio. Luckily I was in the car and was able to. Do better.

The review in question is by David Bianculli, a guest host and TV critic on Fresh Air.

Bianculli began his review of The Morning Show by catching the audience up to how the last season of the Apple TV+ series ended. He then previewed the new season, giving an overview of a backdoor deal being brokered between two characters. The review featured a couple of soundbites of scenes from the show.

We spoke to Bianculli, who thanked the audience member for listening. He disagreed with the assertion that he gave away spoilers. The dictionary defines it as information that can ruin "a viewer's sense of surprise or suspense." To Bianculli, a spoiler is something surprising. "If it was a surprise, I wouldn't want to reveal that and ruin that surprise for anyone else," he said.

He didn't think a spoiler warning was necessary for this particular review, adding that he focused on what was happening in the first 10 minutes of the first episode of the new season.

"If I'm going to be discussing the new season at all and how that compares to the previous ones, and whether it's worth watching, I've got to say something about it," he said.

In his review, Bianculli said the new season goes deep on issues such as "the infighting of corporate intrigue, the exposing of institutional racism, the overwhelming cruelty of social media postings, and in a particularly intense subplot, the attack on UBA by blackmailing computer hackers." The attack, for the record, is teased in the show's official trailer.

"I didn't say which characters were involved, what was happening. And there's some really juicy stuff in all of those," he said.

Bianculli has a guideline for how much is too much when it comes to revealing plot points and details: the less, the better. He wants to give out as little information as possible. But if he likes a show, he has to persuade people why they should watch it, too.

Working as a TV critic since 1975, Bianculli said he understands the sensitivity to spoilers, and even turns away from coverage of movies he's looking forward to.

"I am as sensitive to it as any critic that I know," he said. "And I would hope that generally I can be trusted to let you know whether you should see something without telling you too much about it so that it diminishes the enjoyment."

Spoilers are everywhere and they can be frustrating. They live on social media, podcasts and even in conversations you overhear in line at a coffee shop. Spoilers are also subjective. What some people consider a spoiler, others might consider harmless information that won't alter the viewing experience. Brief soundbites of scenes from the show, for example, could be considered spoilers. But some listeners may not mind them. Still, spoiler warnings are appreciated.

To best serve an audience, a TV critic must provide some detail and analysis. In this case, we found that Bianculli didn't divulge much and was simply doing his job as a reviewer. — 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.

The horseshoe crab bleeding industry

In June, NPR published an investigationby reporter Chiara Eisner that revealed a lack of oversight in the horseshoe crab blood-harvesting industry. The crabs' blue blood is used to test vaccines and medical devices for contamination. The number of crabs being bled has increased, and that also impacts the migratory shorebirds that eat horseshoe crab eggs. Since NPR's investigation over the summer, there have been some changes in the industry, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's announcement of a ban on horseshoe crab harvesting at a national wildlife refuge in South Carolina to protect the birds. Weekend Edition Sunday host Ayesha Rascoe recently interviewedEisner about these developments. It's a worthy follow-up to a story about an industry that affects wildlife and humans. — Amaris Castillo

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.

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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