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Two stories under one headline

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

One of NPR's most popular podcasts is Up First, which takes three stories from Morning Edition and packages them into a 12-to-14-minute daily product. From that podcast, NPR creates a daily newsletter that condenses a couple of stories and other items into a bite-sized news summary.

As a curated news product, Up First matches the thoughtfulness of NPR's flagship morning show with a busy consumer's need to digest stories quickly.

The nature of a digest product means that serious stories about wars and suffering are often adjacent to lighter fare. And writing a single headline for multiple stories is tricky. Headlines are meant to do two things: First, they convey what's in the text that follows. Second, they entice the reader to actually read what follows.

Today, we address a note from an NPR reader who was taken aback by one such headline.

Another audience member wrote that sometimes NPR hosts and guests speak too fast for listeners to comprehend. That made us wonder if there is an ideal pace for spoken news. So we did a little research and asked two hosts how they monitor their own pace.

Read on to see what we learned.

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.

A dissonant headline?

Sara Knudsen wrote on Nov. 2: I'm not sure Gaza and Food[s] that Boost Weight Loss ... should really be in a headline together. Just a tad thoughtless considering the starving people in Gaza.

The referenced headline belongs to the online version of the Nov. 2 Up First newsletter from NPR: "More evacuations from Gaza planned; foods that boost weight loss." This headline was adapted from the original subject line of the email delivered to subscribers: "Hundreds more evacuations planned for foreigners in Gaza; eating fiber can boost an Ozempic-like hormone."

The Up First newsletter is designed to give subscribers a summary of important news stories and a way to find the complete stories if they are interested.

Here are some examples of Up First newsletter headlines from the last two months as they appeared online:


Suzanne Nuyen, an engagement editor who writes both the newsletter and its headlines, said in an email that the headlines are meant to highlight multiple, often unrelated, stories. "We structure headlines like this because the Up First newsletter isn't about just one thing," she said.

"We work on the subject line for the newsletter together," Nuyen said. "On Nov. 2, it was: 'Hundreds more evacuations planned for foreigners in Gaza; eating fiber can boost an Ozempic-like hormone.' There isn't as much space online for a headline, so this subject line doesn't fit."

The headline for the online version of the newsletter was trimmed to meet the character limitations. It was whittled down to "More evacuations from Gaza planned; foods that boost weight loss."

Nuyen said that engagement editor Danielle Nett and Newshub editor Carol Ritchie look at the headlines and discuss them together. Morning Edition digital editor Majd Al-Waheidi edits the newsletter.

"I write the headlines and send them to Danielle and Carol for approval," Nuyen said. "On this day, Carol asked if 'foods that boost weight loss' would fit because I needed help cutting out a few characters to make the headline short enough to publish. I also send the final draft of the online newsletter to Majd before I publish it."

Nuyen said that she chose those two topics because they were two big stories from that day, and that the newsletter strives to tell readers what they need to know in the morning.

"This could be a lighter story, service journalism or enterprise stories," she said. "We try to balance the hard news of the day with these offerings when appropriate." She said that the article the headline refers to shows how eating high-fiber foods can boost levels of a hormone that Ozempic mimics. "It's less about weight loss and more about the science behind another aspect of why eating high-fiber foods is beneficial for your health."

Nuyen's "perspective on this headline makes sense to me; it felt more like a scientific study than a random pick," Al-Waheidi told us in an email. Nuyen added that the story in this case didn't feel like a light pick or a lifestyle piece, but more of a science and health story.

Al-Waheidi said the reader's concern is "incredibly valuable." And Nuyen said the audience member has a valid critique.

She and Al-Waheidi consider "a lot when we are writing subject lines, headlines and even when we are looking at what order stories are featured in," Nuyen said. "We don't want to come off as flippant or insensitive by putting two stories with wildly differing tones next to each other."

While the piece seemed to focus on science, Nuyen said, "perhaps this did not come across clearly in the headline, because of the character count restriction."

We agree that the reader's critique of the headline is valid, and appreciate Nuyen's and Al-Waheidi's explanations of their process.

It's not always easy to convey scientific information in the confines of a headline, especially when that science is about nutrition and health. It's also tricky to curate unrelated stories into a single news product. Editors must be aware of how the proximity of the stories will be perceived by consumers.

When headlines are designed to summarize multiple topics, and those topics are unrelated, readers may find them to be dissonant at times. In this case, putting the effects of war in Gaza next to a story relating to weight loss created dissonance.

Given the nature of the Up First newsletter and its objective to capture stories of the day, the seeming incompatibility of topics in the headlines may sometimes be difficult to avoid. That's why carefully curating the featured stories is important. — Amaris Castillo

ONE QUESTION

We ask NPR one question about how the work comes together.

How do NPR hosts figure out their speech pace?

In September, we heard from an audience member who expressed frustration about the pace of speech among NPR's hosts and guests. Ben Kaufman wrote: "My wife is 78, I'm 85. We're news junkies in the prime donating years after decades of unbroken support in Cincinnati. ... We lose some of what they say because of the speed with which they speak. It sounds as if they are jamming more and more words into less and less air time."

This note made us wonder how NPR hosts think about their speech pace.

A 2015 study published in Media Psychology explored how speech rate and density affect comprehension of radio news. The Journalist's Resource, from Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, summarized the findings: "News that is delivered too slowly fails to gain a listener's attention while news that is delivered too quickly produces 'cognitive overload.'"

We asked several NPR hosts how they figured out their speech cadence and pace for a national audience. Two responded.

A Martínez, one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First, said in an email that there's an average read rate in the software the show staff use to write scripts, but that his "natural pace tends to be a little quicker."

"My speech pace and cadence depends on what I'm reading," he said. For example, Martínez cited "returns," which are 30-second stories that air each hour.

During returns, Martínez said, "I make sure to leave myself a few seconds of space in the copy within the 30 second time allotment so that I don't rush through any details or tone that I intentionally want the listeners to pick up on. And then usually, the last line of the return is a punchline that I want to make sure stands alone before I say 'It's Morning Edition' so I make sure the copy ends with a beat of silence before that."

Martínez gave us an example of how he formats the words he plans to say on air:

"Most of the time, when I write a lede (or return) ...

... I'll format it this way on the page ...

... where I break up the sentence ...

... into smaller quick thoughts ...

... to avoid sounding like I'm reading a long sentence."

He said that he slows himself down as much as he can when there are numbers in his script, or even writes a few more words to draw attention that he's about to say some numbers. That way, "people can hear the difference between say, million and billion."

During his first few months at NPR in 2021, Martínez said that some listeners would ask him to slow down. But that hasn't happened much at all lately, he added.

Rachel Martin, a founding host of Up First and a former host of Morning Edition, told us she doesn't think about the pace of her speech.

"I just talk how I talk," she said in an email. "My goal is to sound as natural as possible and if that means some people think I talk fast, then I guess I do. But I have never had a problem with people understanding what I'm trying to convey."

We appreciate the comment that sparked this question, as well as the hosts' thoughts. Speech patterns and habits are highly personal and make each voice heard on NPR unique and genuine. NPR takes care to ensure that hosts can both be themselves and be understood. — 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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