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When covering disagreements in public life

Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

Journalism bears a heavy responsibility when covering stories about profound disagreements in public life.

We often use the metaphor of light and heat. Great journalism provides light, illuminating an issue so that people can see it more clearly. When it comes to stories about issues on which people are deeply divided, journalism that isn't excellent intensifies the heat of the situation.

Journalists get things right by choosing reliable sources, nailing the facts, using an appropriate tone or voice in the writing, including proper context, and then ensuring that the best headline, photos, graphics and social media teases are in place.

When readers believe that journalists have come up short in small ways, especially if the story is about a polarizing topic, they question the news organization.

Today we respond to NPR audience members who commented on a recent story about a public school football coach who will return to work after the Supreme Court upheld his right to pray on the field at games.

The reporter shared his thoughts with us on several choices he made, including the photo, the words that described the dispute and a reference to another famous case of kneeling on a football field. Read on to see our analysis.

We also spotlight two examples of great NPR journalism, a Morning Edition story on a possible uptick in evictions, and a podcast series on Lionel Messi's last run at a World Cup trophy.


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.

Reporting on high school football coach Joseph Kennedy

Some NPR audience members took issue with the framing of a short digital story about Joseph Kennedy, a high school football coach in Bremerton, Washington, who took his right to pray on the football field after games to the Supreme Court. The Washington school district placed him on paid leave in 2015 when he refused to stop praying at games. School officials believed those prayers could be seen as an official endorsement of religion in violation of the First Amendment. He's now being reinstated to his former position, following a Supreme Court ruling in his favor. The story ran on NPR's website under the headline, "High school football coach who led prayers on the field will get his job back."

To share the story, NPR tweeted on Oct. 27: "Joseph Kennedy, the high school football coach who insisted on leading prayers on the field, will be reinstated to the position he lost in 2015 after the Supreme Court ruled in his favor."

Michael Morrison tweeted in response, "He didn't 'lose' the position and why do we get to hear the right wing point of view but not the school's? This article and headline is misleading." Morrison then pointed to a Seattle Times opinion column about Kennedy's case.

Real Benisons also replied to NPR's tweet, saying, "Setting aside the misstatement and equivocation in your tweet, why not show how the football field prayers looked? Instead you show the heroic solitary hero pose."

We talked with digital reporter and producer Bill Chappell, who reported the story, to hear his perspectives on these audience members' comments as well as our own Public Editor team questions.

Language to describe Kennedy's leave

Chappell wrote in the story that "Joseph Kennedy will return to the position he lost in 2015." In an email, Chappell said that he combed through several public documents searching for the most accurate words to describe Kennedy's case.

He reviewed the school district's emails and messages about the matter to see what they said at the time Kennedy was placed on leave. He also read what the two sides had said in the media since the Supreme Court's ruling.

"My editor and I were careful not to say Kennedy was 'fired,' as that isn't accurate," Chappell told us in an email. "But it's also true that the coach was barred from his position on the sideline, and that when Kennedy was placed on administrative leave, he could no longer perform the job he had been hired to do."

Chappell continued: "The joint stipulation says Kennedy 'is to be reinstated to his previous position as assistant coach' with the team. Knowing that the two sides argued vehemently over language — they acknowledged not being able to reach a more comprehensive agreement because they 'disagree on the specific wording' — it struck us as significant that they agreed on the term reinstated' rather than saying Kennedy would simply return or be rehired, for instance. How could you be reinstated, we wondered, to a job you never lost?"

Chappell found further support for that wording in the Supreme Court's syllabus for the case, which noted "petitioner Joseph Kennedy lost his job."

At the time of the Supreme Court decision, NPR previously reported: "Near the end of the season, after Kennedy repeatedly refused to stop his public praying, the superintendent placed Kennedy on paid administrative leave. Kennedy did not apply for a new contract the following year." Even if it was not right away, Kennedy did indeed "lose" his job.

This nuance about Kennedy's contract could have been repeated in Chappell's piece because it clarifies Kennedy's role in the events leading to the Supreme Court decision.

Photo selection

Kennedy's participation in private prayer was central to the Supreme Court's decision to rule in his favor on First Amendment grounds. Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat suggested that the basis of the ruling is misleading given that many students joined the coach in his public display of prayer. We asked Chappell why he selected the photo showing the coach in solitary prayer for his story.

"It was the most recent photo of Kennedy I could find on our wire photo services," he said. "It shows him holding a football, kneeling seemingly in prayer, outside the Supreme Court — three things that are central to this update on the story."

In our view, the picture, which comes from the photo service Getty Images, works well with the story. The caption could be clearer. It describes the coach as "taking a knee in front of the Supreme Court," but it would be nice to know if it was posed, or if the photographer spontaneously captured the coach praying on the steps of the Supreme Court, with his football in hand.

How the story was categorized

We wondered why the story appeared to be categorized under "politics" on NPR's website, rather than "law" or "national" like many other Supreme Court-related stories.

Chappell thought the story had elements of politics, law, sports and national news (and it does appear on those four section pages), but NPR's site requires a primary topic that's displayed for the audience.

"I opted for 'politics' because Kennedy's case was highly politically charged and involved the separation of church and state — a key point of discussion in current U.S. politics," he said.

While the story does briefly cover Kennedy's appearance at a rally for Sen. Ted Cruz, we think its primary topic would best be labeled as "law," since the legal case and its aftermath are the main focus.

The Colin Kaepernick reference

We also wondered why the story included a line at the very end about Colin Kaepernick kneeling as part of racial injustice protesting. The line read: "If you're wondering: quarterback Colin Kaepernick famously kneeled in protest on an NFL football field for the first time the following September."

Chappell said, "In roughly a 12-month span, both Kaepernick and Kennedy were at the heart of highly politicized stories about kneeling on football fields — issues that have been argued over for years since. I try to anticipate people's curiosity, and because many people need reminders of precisely when things happened in the 'Before Times' (pre-pandemic), I ended this short news story with a brief reference to Kaepernick, noting that his on-field protest came later."

Chappell is right that both cases have captured national attention, but the reference to Kaepernick needs further context. Without it, readers are left missing a deeper exploration of the connection between two unique cultural stories.

In summary

This report was brief, but the responses to it and questions about it illustrate how closely readers observe and digest every detail in a news story. Whether it's the words, photos or categorization, the audience is rightfully paying attention, and it's important for journalists to think critically about how those choices will be perceived. — Emily Barske


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.

Looming evictions

On Morning Edition, Danielle Kaye reported that tenant protections put in place during the pandemic are set to end in Los Angeles County at the end of the month and the city of Los Angeles will also end its protections at the end of January. The number of evictions per year in the county dropped significantly at the height of the pandemic. But now the area's population of at least 69,000 people experiencing homelessness could see a major increase. The story looks ahead to what may happen next year if nothing is done to stop an issue that plagues LA and many other cities across the country. — Emily Barske

La Última Copa / The Last Cup

NPR and Futuro Studios teamed up to produce a five-part narrative podcast series in both English and Spanish on Lionel Messi's last chance at winning a World Cup trophy for his home country, Argentina. The story is narrated by NPR's Jasmine Garsd, who is from Argentina. Garsd weaves Messi's journey with her own story of leaving home and trying to return. It was quite the risk to time the release of the last episode after the conclusion of the group stage, as there was no guarantee Argentina would emerge to the knockout round of the tournament. (After a shocking loss to Saudi Arabia in their first game, Argentina has won every other game and is scheduled to play Netherlands in the quarter final at 2 p.m. ET Friday.) It was additionally risky because Messi's story is hardly untouched. To succeed, Garsd would need to find a way to add new details and make it newly relevant. She did both, through shoe-leather reporting back in Argentina and masterful writing and editing. — Kelly McBride

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.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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