NPR said Friday that it discovered that a longtime freelance contributor, Danielle Karson, had recycled sound bites in more than two dozen reports that aired from 2011 until recently. NPR has handled the discovery, which was made by a producer and an editor, quickly and transparently, as it should. There is one mystery: Why did no one whose quote was re-used complain to NPR? One reason may be that newscasts are ephemeral because – unlike NPR’s newsmagazines – they are not transcribed online. I understand the logistical and financial reasons that they are not transcribed, but perhaps this is an argument in favor of NPR changing that policy. The statement about what happened is below, followed by a statement from Karson.
NPR this week discovered ethical violations in many reports prepared for it by freelance journalist Danielle Karson, who has filed radio stories for NPR since the early 1980s. NPR is no longer accepting reports from Karson and its investigation into her work continues. Here is what is known so far: In at least 30 reports filed for NPR’s Newscasts since 2011, Karson reused clips from interviews that she had previously included in other reports. Listeners would have thought those persons were commenting on the day’s news when in fact the comments had been made months or sometimes years earlier. That was misleading and not in line with NPR’s editorial standards. Most of Karson’s reports for NPR were short stories about widely reported news – economic indicators and weather events, for example. So far, the investigation has not turned up evidence that Karson got the basic facts wrong in any report. Freelance journalists, as the term implies, are not full-time employees of news organizations. They are paid by the story, photo, or video, depending on their areas of expertise. NPR requires the freelancers it works with will uphold the standards it has set for its own journalists. Karson’s reuse of materials was not in line with those standards. One example of what was done:
- On Dec. 6, 2014, she filed a report about storms in California in which an interviewee was heard saying that “the rainfall basically collects all of our urban slobber and drains it out on to our beaches; and that creates significant water quality problems.”
- She went on to file three more reports for NPR with that same piece of audio – on Dec. 24, 2015; Jan. 23, 2017; and May 9, 2017. The reports concerned other storms and their effects on California. But there were no indications in those subsequent stories that the audio was taken from a previous interview.
It is a bedrock journalistic principle that news reports should never mislead an audience. Reusing old clips and letting it seem as if they were new violates that principle and violates NPR’s editorial standards. In addition, it is unfair to the persons interviewed to portray them as commenting on events when in reality what they said was about something that had happened months or years earlier. Karson’s actions, which go back at least as far as 2011, went undetected for so long in part because the reuses were sometimes months or years apart. Also, the editors and producers on NPR’s Newscast desk work in shifts around the clock. No one editor or producer worked with her consistently and would have been in a good position to spot the problem. It wasn’t until this week that a producer and editor who had recently worked with Karson on a story realized that the reporter was trying to reuse some material. That prompted the ongoing review of reports Karson has filed over the years. Because of the large volume of material, that investigation will take some time. It will include the less frequent, longer reports Karson filed for other NPR radio programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Some of those reports were done in the early 1980s. NPR is also reviewing the small number of online reports that include material contributed by Karson. NPR has informed Karson of its findings and the investigation. NPR is also informing Member Stations, some of which may have independently assigned and published reports from Karson. NPR journalists and the freelancers who file for NPR will be briefed and reminded that transparency and honesty are among NPR’s core principles and must be safeguarded. A review of procedures is underway to protect against something like this occurring again. NPR is reaching out to those individuals whose comments were reused to apologize. In its Ethics Handbook, NPR says it aspires to produce content that meets “the highest standards of public service in journalism and cultural expression.” This content did not live up to those standards and NPR apologizes for that. Chris Turpin, NPR’s acting senior vice president for news and editorial director Sarah Gilbert, NPR’s acting vice president for news programming Mark Memmott, NPR’s standards & practices editor
Karson told me by email:
“As you might imagine, I’m heartbroken I will no longer work with the talented producers and editors I’ve known for years. They bring a special commitment to their jobs because working in public radio is more than punching a ticket; it’s a labor of love. It never gets old. How could it? Every story is a learning experience. The process often begins with knowing little to nothing about an issue (earthquake alert sensors; shark behavior during El Niño). But after researching the subject so one can ask reasonably intelligent questions in an interview, the brain makes room for a new pocket of knowledge! But actions have consequences when they disrespect the bond with the public. It’s been an honor and privilege being part of the public radio family for two-plus decades.”