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A song choice and a verb choice

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

Questions and criticisms of NPR's reporting on the war between Israel and Hamas continue to dominate our inbox. Audience members see bias in some choices made by journalists.

Two weeks ago, we published a column that analyzed 115 NPR stories for balance and bias and responded to several audience notes.

This week, we address two more audience critiques, one about a song choice and one about a verb choice. Read on to see what we learned.

We also spotlight a deeply reported story about people with different ties to the war who have endured personal losses, yet still approach the conflict with compassion and generosity.

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.

Questioning a song choice

Carly C. wrote on Nov. 6: This was an important piece and I am glad NPR chose to air it. However, I was saddened that it closed with a soundbite from a Kanye West song. As you may have seen over the past few years, Kanye West has been brazenly antisemitic. The clip talks about NewGround's work to combat Islamophobia and antisemitism, yet closes with a song by someone who has proven that they are antisemitic and who has made horrible claims about the Jewish people as a whole. I love NPR and just ask that you please be more thoughtful with your song choices in the future.

The song in question was "No Church in the Wild" by Jay-Z and Kanye West. A soundbite of the song played at the end of an All Things Considered story about Muslim-Jewish interfaith relations amid the Israel-Hamas war. Last year, West made antisemitic remarks that were widely condemned.

Sami Yenigun, executive producer of All Things Considered and Consider This, told us an ATC staff member made an inappropriate song choice.

"The song was selected because it's a short bridge of music that we sometimes use to transition from one story to another. It was chosen for aesthetic reasons, NOT editorial reasons," Yenigun told us in an email. "In fact, the staff member who chose it didn't associate the song with Kanye West, because it is ... a collaboration with Jay-Z. This is all to say, the choice was a mistake, pure and simple. It had nothing to do with commentary about the piece before it."

The song was not included when the piece was published online. Yenigun said the music that gets broadcast for live radio often does not make it onto the website, "which was the case here."

He added that the listener's feedback is appreciated. "I've followed up with the staff member to remind them to be extremely careful and thoughtful about how music can be interpreted in context to the news," he said. "They also appreciate the feedback and will definitely keep it in mind as they program music for the news show."

We appreciate the listener's note, and Yenigun's response. It's important to consider how every element of a story will be received. — Amaris Castillo

'Killed' vs. 'died'

Imad Ahmad wrote on Nov. 5: So this is why I am beyond disturbed, disgusted by the language used in this article and I really hope this never happens again. I expect this language from CNN, FOX but not from NPR. ... In the linked article under the heading "Palestinians are suffering the biggest losses", the writer says "Nearly 10,000 people have died in Gaza..."For the unaware reader they may skim over this line and not give it a thought- but the editors and writers of this article, I must say I'm disgusted. These 10,000 people have not "died". They have been killed. They have been bombed. To not even acknowledge as the article portrays is beyond me.

NPR International Desk editor Larry Kaplow has issued guidance on this topic. Standards editor Tony Cavin told me in an email that NPR journalists are generally cognizant of their verb choices, being careful not to minimize the atrocities.

In this particular story, the words "kill" or "killed" are used five times — three to refer to the Israeli military killing people in Gaza and twice to refer to Hamas killing people in Israel. Indeed, the sentence cited in the letter also uses "killed." It reads: "Nearly 10,000 people have died in Gaza since Oct. 7, according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza, which says a majority of the killed are women and children."

The uneven use of language is often a concern in journalism, and it has been a fair focus of media criticism of the Israel-Hamas war coverage. NPR's verb choices aim to avoid this type of unevenness, and we believe the critique of this example is misplaced. A close read of the entire article reveals an even use of verbs describing the killing on both sides of the conflict.

Writers choose to use passive verbs and vague language for many reasons. Sometimes it's because they don't know who to assign agency to. Sometimes it's because they are focusing on the victims and they want to place them at the beginning of the sentence. And sometimes it's because they want to vary the words that they use.

All of those are logical reasons to write sentences that don't start with subject-verb construction. And none is an excuse for completely avoiding saying who killed whom, when it is known.

"We are making every effort to use accurate descriptive language and to refrain from anything that would appear to favor one side or another," Cavin said.

The critique of the word "died" is an important one. In war, people don't randomly die; they are killed. And journalists should be precise about that.

Given that this has been top of mind at NPR and that this article uses active verbs and, in several places, says that people are being killed and identifies the people who are responsible for the killing, this specific phrase doesn't seem inappropriate in the context of the story. — Kelly McBride

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.

Empathy amid war

We appreciated a Goats and Soda storyfrom Science Desk reporter Ari Daniel featuring four individuals with personal ties to the Israel-Hamas war. All four experienced profound loss, yet remained compassionate: Maoz Inon, whose parents died in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel; Dr. Lina Qasem Hassan, an Arab citizen of Israel who treats Jewish patients; Robi Damelin, whose son was killed by a Palestinian sniper in 2002; and Yousef Bashir, who grew up in Gaza and was shot by an Israeli soldier as a teen.

In addition to the stories of the four individuals, Daniel talked to a political psychologist about feeling empathy while experiencing trauma. We contacted him to learn about his reporting.

He said his first draft of the story focused only on Hassan, the Palestinian doctor, who lives in Israel and whose relative was killed in Gaza during an airstrike. But his editors encouraged him to include more perspectives.

In more than two weeks of reporting the story from Lebanon, where he is based, Daniel found those voices. He said all four of the sources illustrate that the war and ongoing division are more complex than just taking one side.

"There's not a lot of oxygen in the discourse for people to really get to know the other ...," he said. "This is where a lot of conflicts come from — that inability to really know the other, and humanize the other, and empathize with the other."

Daniel interviewed the sources empathetically to get them to open up about the difficulties they faced. He said that when he sat down to write the story, he hoped that sharing small details about their lives — like where Inon goes for his morning swim, the only activity that brings him peace since his parents were killed — would make the story more real to the audience.

His reporting did just that. — Emily Barske Wood

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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