Updated with transcript -- Whether it was about physical threats to reporters, teaching media literacy, the racial balance of newsrooms or other issues, a panel of experts from CPR and NPR recently answered questions from more than 800 people at the University of Denver’s Newman Center about journalism ethics, and how newsroom decisions get made.
Adrian Florido is with NPR’s Code Switch team. He covers race, identity and culture.
Kelley Griffin is the vice president of news at Colorado Public Radio.
Elizabeth Jensen is the NPR ombudsman/public editor.
Mark Memmott is NPR’s supervising senior editor for standards and practices.
Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute is a CPR board member.
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You can listen to the full audio by clicking on the link above. We invited the audience to text us follow-up questions, and got our panel to answer them. Here’s a sampling, edited lightly for clarity and length.
Question from Diane Snyder of Englewood: I'm curious about the physical threats that reporters face these days, for themselves and perhaps against their families. How does that fear affect reporters' choices about asking the hard questions? How does NPR assist reporters who have fears for their safety?
Answer from panelist Adrian Florido: Reporters have faced verbal and, on occasion, physical threats for a long time. But there’s no question that since last year’s campaign, this has been a growing concern in light of a prevailing political rhetoric that makes easy targets of journalists.
(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)While this climate has been unnerving to many of us in the press, I have not yet heard of reporters saying it has affected their willingness to ask difficult questions just because they might be poorly received. Instead, NPR and other news organizations have taken precautions, both organizationally and in specific circumstances when safety has been a concern. NPR ran a “hostile environment training” for many of its political reporters during the campaign.
I know of at least one instance when an NPR colleague was concerned about safety before heading out to report a campaign story. Rather than go alone, this reporter took a producer along. After receiving multiple threats from supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a New York Times reporter announced on Twitter that she would stop answering phone calls from unknown numbers.
As reporters, we are often told that getting the story is important, but it should never come at the expense of physical harm. Who would have thought that this would become a consideration for reporters attending a campaign rally, or while posing questions to a candidate for Congress? It means reporters have to be more vigilant about possible threats to their safety, trust their instincts when a situation feels unsafe, and take precautions whenever possible.
Question from Tenly Williams, of Denver, about our Breaking Bread series: How did you settle on the formula of three Trump supporters, two Hillary (Clinton) supporters, and one Bernie (Sanders) supporter for Colorado Matters’ "Breaking Bread?" How do you temper the preponderance of Trump voices on the show when that does not represent the majority of our state's voters? As Adrian (Florido) alluded to (at CPR’s recent ethics panel) why is this particular minority amplified, while others go under-represented or ignored?
Answer from Kelley Griffin: We weren’t trying to reflect the percentages of election results, but rather ensure that we had people representing the main sides that took shape in the 2016 election. The next episode in the series will include more diversity as we add panelists who couldn’t make the first one, but we’re still striving to keep a balance of conservatives and liberals so neither viewpoint feels outweighed. And it’s also way too simple to say we have “conservative” and “liberal” panelists.
We’re learning that each person’s views are nuanced, and exploring that nuance, along with unexpected common ground, is the point of the exercise. We also plan to use social media to get more people talking, and we even have some civic homework in mind that any Coloradan can take part in to spur more people to talk across this divide.
We welcome suggestions -- what would you like to ask someone who voted differently from you? There are options for reaching us on our Connect page.
Question from Evanne Seelig of Broomfield: Considering the current news climate, as well as the large array of news sources of varying reliability, should media outlets have a role in teaching or promoting media literacy and critical news consumption? If so, what role, and if not, what institutions are better positioned to provide this service?
Answer from Elizabeth Jensen: It’s certainly in news organizations’ interests to see that news literacy is expanded, given the current climate, and that’s one of the roles we’ve tried to take on at the NPR Ombudsman’s office, too. Some of the ways to do this are didactic: see Steve Inskeep’s “Finder’s Guide to Facts.” But transparency -- explaining why a newsroom made a certain decision -- is also a form of news literacy; this piece on Morning Edition last January, for example, outlined why NPR did not use the word “liar” when the president falsely inflated the size of his inauguration crowd. NPR’s standards and practices editor, Mark Memmott, puts his guidance to the newsroom online for the world to see.
There are other more deliberate ways to expand news literacy in the context of a newsroom’s output, as well. Some suggestions have been to include information boxes alongside “commentary” or “opinion” pieces and explaining how they differ from “reporting,” for example. Journalists from many news organizations (myself included) have been taking part in something called The Trust Project, out of Santa Clara University, that has grappled with questions such as these; one idea that was discussed was adding a “badge” to digital articles from news organizations that adhere to a set of best practices for trustworthy journalism.
Question from Madeline of Lakewood (she didn’t offer her last name): What are the ethical considerations around a newsroom that as (panelist) Adrian (Florido) said, is roughly 75 percent white? This is an issue in many fields and I'm curious, how does NPR/CPR handle reporting authentically on a country, region, world, etc. that contains a far greater percentage of people of color than the reporters covering the news? And how do we as white folks (I as a white woman) who manages hiring, continue to create opportunities and spaces for people of color in our own fields and organizations to ethically and authentically keep growing diversity and representation?
Answer from NPR’s Mark Memmott: I wish I could say we’re making progress on increasing the diversity of our newsroom, but the data that Elizabeth Jensen has collected show that clearly isn’t the case. I can say that we keep trying. The need to bring in people from all walks of life is an ongoing part of our recruiting and hiring processes. We want to change those numbers – to build a newsroom that better reflects the makeup of the nation.
Meanwhile, we have to tap the talent and experience of everyone who’s already here. When news breaks, for example, we have to ask our journalists of all ages, races, etc., to jump in. To bring their ideas. To bring their sources. To tell editors, frankly, what angles and stories they are missing. As Adrian (Florido) has said, when the Pulse nightclub (mass shooting in Florida) news broke, he immediately thought it would be important to have Hispanic journalists get to the scene. He knew there would be victims and witnesses from that community. It took our editors too long to realize that. We need to make it standard operating procedure that we seek out and welcome input from everyone in the newsroom.
NPR is working hard to build and reinforce a “culture of journalism” across the network. I know it may sound odd that an operation as old as NPR feels the need to talk about something as basic as “what is journalism?” But one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about working in newsrooms for nearly 40 years is that we’re constantly asking such questions.
A big part of that “culture” discussion will be about diversity – the diversity of our newsrooms, of our sources and of the stories we do. I’m very optimistic that we will make progress on all those points.
Question from an unnamed commenter: In the light of the terrorist attacks in England, I was just wondering what you see as the ethical role for journalists in balancing how much time to give the stories, how to cover it as to not give the terrorists fame, especially with releasing names before law enforcement announces, and when it might be stoking fear vs. reporting truth and accurate representations about how the community is reacting.
Answer from Bob Steele: Covering breaking news stories, whether it is terrorism, natural disasters or local tragedies is always an ethical challenge. Journalists are balancing competing principles. Journalisms’ duty is to report the truth as best as possible as quickly as possible. Journalists also have a duty to honor the principle I call “minimizing harm.” Journalists cannot prevent all harm, but they can be careful, skillful and compassionate. They can minimize harm.
In covering breaking news stories, journalists should ask two key questions: What does the public need to know? And, when does the public need to know this information? In many cases, journalists must report emerging details of a terrorism attack to alert the public to what is happening. Tell the public what you know, how you know it and what you don’t know. At the same time, journalists may hold back some details that they have not yet verified that would cause significant harm if incorrectly reported. Generally, journalists should hold back on identifying victims without official verification, barring exceptional cases when the officials are failing in their duty and journalists learn the names from reputable sources.
Yes, journalists should avoid stoking fear in terrorism situations. That said, there is already a level of fear that exists and the journalists have an obligation to skillfully and carefully report meaningful, verifiable information. Journalists have tools that can minimize the growth of fear. Reporters use careful wording and visuals as well as proper tone to tell the truth and to minimize harm.
Question from Ben Atkison, of Broomfield: There seem to be many actual fake news or propaganda websites out there outside of the legitimate "media" that present information as factual news. These articles are then posted and shared on social media. It seems that the people that spread these articles virally lack the capacity to judge a source as legitimate. This has led to echo chambers where the internet has allowed for supposed validation of any and every idea- anything from anti-vaccines to global warming to flat Earth believers. What can we do to stop this?
Answer from Bob Steele: I don’t think there is any way to prevent people from spreading content that is false or harmful. Even before social media, we could not prevent folks from verbally spreading “rumors and falsehoods” at the local café or barber/beauty shop. There is a great deal we, as citizens and news consumers, can do when facing viral lies or insanity. First, we should make sure we are wise consumers ourselves, choosing content sources that offer authenticity and credibility. Second, we should enter the public discussion and the social media arena offering valid sources. We cannot eliminate the schlock. We can offer critical thinking, insight and valid journalism.
Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner and there is something going on with what people think of the media these days.
Annie Ruiz, a Trump voter [Plays recording] : I think the media looks at Republicans and paints them as these crazy people.
Donald Trump [Plays recording]: And I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news. It's fake. Phony. Fake. A few days ago, I called the fake news “the enemy of the people” and they are. They are the enemy of the people.
People chanting [Plays recording]: Tell the truth. Tell the truth. Tell the truth. Tell the truth.
Greg Gianforte: I'm sick and tired of you guys. The last time you came here, you did the same thing. Get the hell out of here. Are you with The Guardian?
Ben Jacobs: Yes, and you just broke my glasses.
Greg Gianforte: You, the last guy did the same damn thing.
Ben Jacobs: You just body-slammed me and broke my glasses.
RW: A range of voices from campaign season and the early months of a new administration. All voices critical of the news media. Well, we've come to the Newman Center at the University of Denver, here with an invited audience to confront the dilemmas that reporters and editors face every day. We're going to take you behind the scenes to learn how these dilemmas are resolved, or not resolved. So let's meet our panel. NPR reporter, Adrian Florido, is a reporter for Code Switch, a team that covers race, identity, and culture. Welcome to the program.
Adrian Florido: Thank you.
RW: Kelley Griffin is vice-president of news for Colorado Public Radio. Hi, Kelley.
Kelley Griffin: Hi.
RW: Elizabeth Jensen is NPR's ombudsman. She prefers the term 'public editor' and in that role she serves as a liaison to the public, investigates significant concerns and offers her independent assessment of NPR's performance. Hi, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Jensen: Hello.
RW: Mark Memmott is NPR's editor for standards and practices. He's in the newsroom helping set and interpret the network's ethics policies. Good to see you, Mark.
Mark Memmott: Good to be here.
RW: And Bob Steele was long-time head of the ethics program at journalism's premier thinktank, the Poynter Institute. Bob edited NPR's ethics guidebook. He now lives in the Denver area where he is also a member of CPR's board of directors. Hi, Bob.
Bob Steele: Hello, Ryan.
RW: I want to start with a lightning round and get your views on a few ethical issues that journalists and their editors face. And we'd actually like the audience to weigh in, as well, with a show of hands. Here we go. This is a social media dilemma. Congress is considering changes to the healthcare law, which critics say could make it harder for people with pre-existing conditions to get care. A reporter has a brother with a pre-existing condition. The brother writes a well-reasoned argument about why the plan is a bad idea, and the reporter wants to share this on his or her Facebook page. So, audience, with a show of hands, should the reporter share the brother's post? Yes, raise your hands. No, raise your hands. All right. Far more many nos, I believe. What do you say, Bob Steele, to this?
BS: I think the reporter has a competing loyalty, creates conflict of interest, and the reporter should not share the Facebook post.
RW: Mark Memmott, ethics chief for NPR.
MM: I'll disagree. You know, I'll apologize ahead of time that a lot of my answers may begin with 'it depends'. Two or three years ago, I would've agreed with Bob completely, but recently, you know, we've been talking to the staff a lot about the way to tweet, the way to post things on Facebook. And there might be a way for that reporter to note my brother has this condition, here's what he has to say about it, without making it appear as if he was representing CPR or NPR or any media organization. I mean, journalists do have a right to have lives as well.
RW: Kelley Griffin, how would you decide this as head of the newsroom at CPR?
KG: I would say no, because I would ask that reporter to think about if you then cover that issue and have to talk to people on either side, if somehow they know that you seem to have endorsed your brother's essay, can they trust you to be seeking the facts fully or are you coming at it with an opinion? So I just would be very leery of taking that step, because I so value the ability to come at stories independently.
RW: Okay, next question, and this is a real-life example, Kelley Griffin. You're an editor and a freelance reporter offers you a story about a new university chancellor. But it turns out the reporter's wife is a professor at that school. Audience first, yeah, yes, would you take that reporter's story? Okay. And no. Many more 'no' hands. Where did you land, Kelley Griffin?
KG: I said no. I, it felt like if we ended up with an interview with the new chancellor, that might have not had a hard-hitting aspect because it simply didn't, but somebody found out, well, his wife works there, he's probably just buttering him up. It could lead to an impression. And this guy's a really good reporter and it's never really about whether the reporter can set aside their biases. It's about whether people might perceive they have biases that they can't set aside. So we just said no, let's not go there, we have other people who can do the story and that seems safer.
RW: Elizabeth, as ombudsman, public editor, your job is to explain and, if necessary, critique decisions made by editors. Where would you come down on that?
EJ: It's not an automatic 'no' for me. I think that you need to look at the circumstances. Was it a profile that was pretty straightforward? Was it a critical piece in which case I absolutely would've, would've agreed with Kelley. If you went ahead with the piece, you would need to disclose it so there absolutely would have to be some transparency around that. Transparency can't solve every problem of perceived conflict of interest or real conflict of interest, but at least goes a little bit down the road of making it clear sort of what those concerns are.
RW: You certainly couldn't be accused then of having hidden that connection, yeah.
EJ: Exactly. Right. A lot of it is you don't want to be blind-sided by someone coming back at you and raising that issue.
RW: All right, last question in this lightening round, not an easy one. Should journalists vote? What does our gathered audience think? Yes, raise your hands. Oh, my goodness, overwhelming support for voting journalists. I'm not going to even ask the no, that's how resounding this was. Bob Steele, your thoughts on that?
BS: Definitely journalists should vote, should participate in democracy as citizens. I've always believed that journalists should be very cautious about registering for a political party, however. Voting is in the secrecy of your own casting of the ballot. That, I think, is not only a right, but a responsibility of citizens.
RW: What do you think, Mark Memmott?
MM: That's where we are, as well. We're not going to ask somebody to give up that right. If I may, can I make the argument that some do make that you are showing your bias just by walking into the ballot. I just can't see that.
RW: Adrian, how have you decided this for yourself?
AF: I vote. I vote. I don't often speak publicly or even privately about who I voted for. I certainly don't endorse publicly any candidate and I'm not registered with any political party. Although I will say that during the campaign season, I was doing some reporting in different parts of the country that, it wasn't campaign reporting, but I was coming into contact with folks from different sort of places on the political spectrum. And I noticed that people, I would notice that they would use coded language to try to find out where I stood on things, you know what I mean?
RW: Yeah, give me an example.
AF: I was in Iowa reporting on a story about immigration in a largely-white town that has a growing immigrant community. And when you go in as a brown reporter, asking questions about things that people assume you're going to have a certain sort of opinion about, you'll notice that people are a little bit reluctant to speak openly. People don't want to be perceived as racist or intolerant. So I would notice that people would sort of try to get at how I felt about something, who I'd voted for, and I actually started to, this might be a little bit radical and I don't, Mark, don't get me [crosstalk].
MM: That's all right. You can do that.
RW: Let's not have this result in a firing.
AF: But I would-- but I started to be a little bit more open with people about the way that I felt about things. In a couple of instances, I actually did tell people who I voted for, because they asked me. And I would find that when you sort of pretend to be a blank slate as a reporter, people tend to trust you a little bit less because this idea that you are a blank slate is absurd, of course. Everyone has biases and opinions. But I found that if I was more open about who I was with people, they were more willing to speak openly about me, as long as I assured them that I was going to do my journalist's duty to report on whatever they were saying as fairly as possible.
RW: I want to talk about the experiences of another NPR reporter, Asma Khalid, who covered the presidential campaign. She's Muslim and usually wore the Muslim head covering, the hijab, while she worked. After the election, Khalid wrote an essay about her experiences. She described an assignment. She had followed a canvasser campaigning door-to-door for Hillary Clinton. Khalid and the canvasser were talking to a woman on her front page. Out comes the woman's mother, who demands that Khalid get off her property and eventually the mother goes back in the house, but she's still yelling.
Asma Khalid [Plays recording]: “There's a Muslim on my front porch. It's ridiculous,” she shrieked. If I had been alone, this is the point where I would have just said “thanks” and walked away, but I was following a canvasser, and she had more questions to ask, so we stayed. And, again, I did nothing. Because I could do nothing. I had a badge around my neck and a microphone in my hand, so to prove my own humanness seemed like the inappropriate thing to do as a journalist in that moment.
RW: Mark Memmott, is Asma Khalid bound by journalism ethics not to respond when someone attacks her based on her religion?
MM: I wouldn't quite describe it as bound by journalism ethics. She was trying, in the best way that she could, to do her job, to not put herself into the middle of the story, not become part of the story. You know, we often talk in the newsroom about how we don't participate in the news. We report about the news. We observe the news. And it was a real struggle for her throughout the campaign. There were many moments where she didn't want to continue and she had long talks with her editors about, should I continue, should, or should I report about this now, should I wait until later. It was a very tough campaign for her, as you might imagine. But she stepped back and said, no, I'm here to do my job. I'm here to cover this story and not put myself into the middle of it.
RW: Adrian, do you agree that, as a reporter, Asma should have been in the background in the moment?
AF: I think in that moment, in that particular moment described, yes, because she was there observing an interaction that didn't involve her. She was there to record. If it had been sort of a one-on-one interaction with someone who then decided to attack her for being Muslim, I think that would be a different situation. I've had people get so caught up in sort of the language and the rhetoric of this moment that it's often easy to forget that reporters are people who have lives and who are making judgment calls every day. As long as we're willing to sort of recognize our mistakes and be open about the process and get that across, I think readers and listeners, I hope people would be more receptive to who we are.
RW: Elizabeth Jensen, I have to think that you have something to add here, as someone who so often fields complaints and what the tenor of those are and if it's different than it was in the past?
EJ: Oh, absolutely. In the last six months, the civility with which people reach out to my office has gone down. You know, the emails are certainly attacking. We did get a few emails about Asma's piece and my personal opinion was that it was, it was exactly what we were talking about earlier. It really peeled back the curtain, if you will, and showed, it showed the reporter as a human being, but also, frankly, it spoke to her professionalism and how she was able to do her job.
RW: But didn't it then make her the story? I mean, you said, Mark, that her job was not to make herself the story. She did, she just delayed it.
MM: She did. She delayed it until after the election so that someone out there wouldn't be basing their opinion of all Trump voters on one misguided, troubled woman who was yelling at her. A very conscious decision on the part of Asma and her editors.
RW: And, Mark, just take us into the NPR newsroom a little bit. Paint a picture of what that looks like day-to-day. So you're in the scrum, if you will, and you're having conversations with reporters and the shows, Morning Edition, All Things Considered. I know you're in contact with Fresh Air.
MM: So, yes, every day, there are things that come up. It could be as routine as do we need to bleep this word or not. Those are my favorite conversations, by the way. And it, but it could be more serious discussions about, okay, what is the language we should be using around what the president said today on Twitter. What is the language we should be using around the immigration debate so that we're not labeling people. We're using action words to describe what's happening to them. There are many editors and it's a collegial group where we get together and we talk through these things. My job is basically as a resource to try to keep the conversations going.
RW: I remember we contacted you, I think, on how to describe those who don't espouse the idea that climate change is anthropogenic, is human-caused. And there's been a lot of careful crafting of what that language is. And I know that one inclination NPR has is rather than create a label, describe.
RW: To be as accurate. Say a bit more about that.
MM: Well, it's the issue of not using labels on people. People don't deserve to be labeled. Let's describe what they believe. Does this person doubt the science and why? On the, you know, in the immigration debate, it's come around a lot. You know, the term 'illegal immigrants', no, let's describe it as people who are in the country illegally and for gosh sakes, let's get rid of the word 'aliens'. You know, they're not illegal aliens. These are people. Let's put the, let's put the people first and then use words, action words to describe it. And part of it is just so that people will hear the rest of the story or read the rest of the story on our digital platforms. They won't stop at that label and then wonder, ooh, have they take a position on whether this person is a climate change-denier or skeptic. Why not describe, with action words, what they actually think?
RW: Let's take a closer look at the issue of sources and credibility, with a specific case. So this happened during a live Morning Edition interview. Host Rachel Martin was talking to an advisor to President Trump, Sebastian Gorka. The president had issued an executive order limiting immigration from seven countries. The courts blocked it. In the interview, Martin asks Gorka about White House claims that the judiciary lacked the authority to rule on this order. In his answer, Gorka said, judges often make bad, even dangerous decisions in cases like this.
Sebastian Gorka [Plays recording]: Just last year in 2016, a Senate subcommittee said there have been seventy-two, seventy-two people from the seven countries listed on that executive order who have been convicted of terrorist offenses in the United States since September the 11th.
RW: Alright, that was live. The first time the interview aired, Rachel Martin went immediately on to ask another question. But in versions that aired later in the morning, because Morning Edition repeats, she added a statement, so let's listen to the amendment.
Rachel Martin [Plays recording]: Let's take a moment to examine that claim. Mr. Gorka is referring here to a report from the Center for Immigration Studies, which is a group that advocates for less immigration to the U.S.. The Washington Post has fact-checked this report and they found that while some of the seventy-two people on the list were convicted of providing material support to terrorists, it also included people who were convicted of passport or visa fraud, not terrorism-related offenses. They found that it earned a “three-Pinocchio's” rating out of a possible four, which means the Post found there to be significant factual errors in that claim.
RW: So, essentially Gorka's statement went unchallenged in the first airing and a fact-check was added later. Take us behind the scenes, Mark. How was the decision made to add that fact-check? Who made the decision? And eventually, I suppose, the consequences of this might end up in your lap, Elizabeth, so I'll get you to chime in, as well.
MM: Well, before a live interview like that, producers and the editors and the hosts try to prepare as best they can for every possible answer that the guest may have to the questions they ask. In the ideal world, Rachel would've known right away that the Washington Post had fact-checked that and would have come right back at Mr. Gorka and challenged him live on the air. So, first feed, first edition of Morning Edition goes out, it usually dawns on people pretty quickly, either through Twitter or emails we get or the producers who are listening to the show, that, ooh, we should've checked that. So they do. And if they can, and they had time to do it, they get Rachel to then, we call it 'retrack' and slip in that sort of editor's note in the middle for the second and third feeds of the show. And in the ideal world, we'd also put a note on the page. I can't remember if we did on that one, one the dot com page.
RW: Elizabeth is shaking her head no.
EJ: You did not. You did not.
RW: That is to say the web can become a place to make a correction, somewhat permanently, if there's an error made on the air. Elizabeth, weigh in on this for us.
EJ: This is an issue that I've been dealing with quite a bit in my office because NPR, in particular Morning Edition, has been running quite a few live interviews. There seems to be somewhat of a coordinated strategy on the part of, particularly politicians on both sides of the aisle to make talking points and not all the information is accurate. It's not possible for the host to be up to speed on—
RW: To know everything.
EJ: To know everything and to know every single report that's going to be rolled out in the middle of an interview. So, in this case, by retracking and adding that editor's note for the re-broadcast, I think they made the best of a bad situation. There were still several million, probably, listeners who heard the original and who did not get the benefit of hearing the correction, if you will. That's where an editor's note, I think, on the website can help, assuming that those listeners actually go back and look at the website and, of course, many of them don't.
RW: But don't you think, Bob, that people are so quick to ascribe ill intent to errors that when there's an error, so much is projected onto the intention of it?
BS: Well, I think that's true. We are often, as individuals, way too judgmental of others, whether it's physicians or attorneys or teachers or insurance agents. And when we bring our own judgment to the fore, we often ascribe motivations to people that are just not appropriate and not fair. I don't go a day where somebody doesn't say to me, 'ah, the journalists, they obviously don't care, they lie intentionally, they don't want to tell the truth in their reporting'. And I think that's a false claim. Journalists are imperfect, but I think it's wrong to ascribe those motivations of negativity to journalism and the way in which it's often done. Adrian said earlier that journalism is not a science and I think that is exactly right. It's an art, and there are times when we have to backpedal. Ideally, you do that in real-time, but that is impossible to do all the claims and statements in real-time. And I think this is a very good resolution to it. The key is to make sure that the on-air and the online content reflects the consistency of it.
RW: Kelley Griffin, head of news at CPR, it seems to me that the distinction between a live interview and a taped one is really critical here, because that first error aired live.
KG: Right. When we can, we do a taped interview with guests who have very controversial views and it's very nuanced, just so that we can take a little more time and stop and check something if we need to. That's not always possible. So the other things we do, as Mark mentioned, with NPR, we do extensive pre-interviewing and researching to know what this person could be expected to say. Another thing I really like, and I think journalists could us it more, is if you just ask more "how do you know that", and I think we don't do that enough. And, with politicians, because I've heard them cite things and I think, if we asked them how they knew that, I don't know that they could tell us. And if, or they could, but either way, you're giving the audience some information about the veracity of what they're saying. The other thing that we do is have, Loud and Clear, which is our listener feedback so that if people raise stuff that we didn't even catch afterwards, like you guys did in this case, it's a way to flag that. We'll follow up. We'll find someone else to do another interview. So we also look for opportunities to deepen the discussion about what maybe came up wrong in an interview.
RW: Adrian, you were nodding your head. I want to give you a space to interject if you so desire.
AF: I just, I really like the idea of asking simple questions that often clear a lot of this stuff up from the get-go. It's a live interview. It's harder enough if it's a taped interview or it's an interview you're doing out in the field and someone makes a claim that sort of raises a red flag for you. I mean, it's very easy to say, can you show me? Or, what do you mean by that? And those are often questions that if someone is intentionally sort of misleading you, we'll [inaudible], we'll signal to them that they're being subjected to the skepticism that they should be, right? And often, I think they'll rethink kind of what they're saying.
BS: Of course that's always one of the best questions ever asked in a newsroom of an editor asking reporters, "how do you know that?" Yeah, there's a term sometimes used in journalism, “prosecutorial editing” and good editors ask that and look the reporter in the eye to make sure. And there are times where reporters have missed a beat.
AF: Yeah, reporters say, oh, yeah, why'd you have to ask me that?
RW: Right. And if the answer is common wisdom, it's not acceptable, I'm guessing. A question on a related note from a member of our audience, this was submitted in advance. It's from Beth Arnold. She lives in Centennial, south of Denver, and she asks, "With the constant swirl of rumors and leaks coming out of the White House, what process do you use to vet information prior to reporting it to your audience to ensure a reliable, ethical portrayal of facts?"
MM: You're all looking at me. Well, we have a process that has helped a lot called “reportables.”
RW: Say that word again?
MM: Reportables. They're notes that go out to the staff from the editors who are involved in a particular story. So, for instance, story breaks, guidance will go out in this reportable note to the staff that basically will say, yes, we're aware that this is being reported, but here's the sourcing, we don't have it yet, we're not ready to report this.
RW: That is to say, you wouldn't even go to air and say other sources are reporting this.
MM: Not, not, not at that point. Now, there may come a time where if, okay, it's showing up not just on Twitter but it's the New York Times and they, they're citing three sources and AP is citing four and Washington Post has a couple more, and they all are coming from different places. Well, you start to apply judgment. We still may not report it, but if it's that widespread, we might at least have to make note of it. But we'll also say, "NPR has not independently confirmed and will keep digging on it." So that, that has saved us in many times from getting out ahead of our skis and reporting something that we shouldn't have.
EJ: An example I like to think of is when Justice Scalia died, it was reported on Twitter. There were a couple newspapers that were reporting it on their websites. NPR didn't move a story for forty-five minutes after that and I was monitoring it all, sort of waiting to see when the story ran. The New York Times also did not report for forty-five minutes, and I was impressed by that. So I got complaints in my office from people saying, oh, you were late on this story. Well, NPR was following a process. The process involves confirmation and duplicate sources and you wait and you follow the process. So, I don't think the audience was ill-served by waiting that forty-five minutes to get the news.
RW: I wonder if NPR learned the hard way. I recall the reporting of the death of Gabby Giffords.
MM: Yes, I can, I can briefly go through that, if it helps. The day she and the other people were shot, obviously everybody is scrambling on the story. And a local reporter from an Arizona station called the sheriff's office. Sheriff's deputy picks up the phone. I think the conversation went something like this, you know, what are you hearing? Sheriff's deputy says, I hear that she has died. Second reporter in Washington is talking to congressman in Washington. Congressman in Washington says, yes, I heard that she has died. We went on the air and said that Representative Giffords had died and she hadn't. We made a number of mistakes there. The deputy in Arizona really wasn't a reliable source. "I've heard that." No, that's not a reliable source. The congressman in Washington certainly wasn't a reliable source. Two, two un—
RW: I think that means you need to expound, perhaps.
MM: Can I retrack that? The congressman in Washington didn't have first-hand information. Two bad sources do not make one good one. They don't make any good one. That was a, that was a painful lesson. It reinforced that we needed this kind of reportable process in place. So, I mean, nobody meant to do that. People were working hard to try get a, get a story. It would've been much better to have been second or third or fourth, rather than to be first and very wrong.
RW: We had another question from Lara Hussein, and Lara asks, "Is there support for creating a journalist credential or licensure as a means of establishing who is a trained journalist and reestablishing credibility within the profession?"
BS: Well, certainly journalists needs to be as skilled and as smart as the possible can. The road to credentialing and licensing is one that is exceptionally dangerous.
RW: But doesn't every profession that doesn't want to be licensed say that?
BS: Perhaps. Perhaps. And I'll let those other professions argue for themselves. Journalism is distinct in the role it has in a society. If we were to move towards licensing in any form or credentialing, that it is quite possible that a government agency at some level would step into that role in some fashion and that would impinge on the role of a free press.
RW: So inherently the tension that must exist between the press and the government means government regulation becomes dangerous.
BS: I believe it does.
RW: Adrian Florido, should you have a license to practice?
AF: To practice journalism? I don't-- I mean, you don't even need a bachelor's degree.
RW: Oh, I overspent on an education then, okay.
AF: No, I don't think so. I mean, you know, we're in a, we're in an era right now where the government considers journalists the enemies of the people, right? And so, how could you possibly have a system that, that was looking out for the best interests of listeners, readers, and the public, right?
RW: Kelley Griffin?
KG: We do have codes of ethics, which we use to govern ourselves and they're on our websites and these are things that we say we will abide by and you can hold us to it. And it's things like how we'll treat sources, the balance in our reporting, not having a conflict of interest, our commitment is to the truth. We don't, you know, ally ourselves with people or organizations in the community. So all these things are guiding principles that we abide by and I always think that is, one, as you look across all the ways you can get “news” with the quote marks, look at the organization that's presenting it and do they commit to codes of ethics that reflect these journalistic qualities? That's one way as a consumer, you can, you know, decide if it's a valuable source for your news.
RW: President Trump himself has made several public misstatements. In fact, the New York Times has sometimes used the word “lie” in its headlines. Mark, what is NPR's policy on calling something a lie, no matter whose mouth it comes from?
MM: We have not banned the word, but we think, and our dictionaries tell us, that the word “lie” does have an intent component. You have to be able to read that person's mind to be understand whether they are deliberately lying, whether they are deliberately misleading you or they are deliberately giving you misinformation. Or, are they just trying to obfuscate? Or are they just, their conversation is going in five different directions and you don't know exactly what it is they said? So we have, again, this goes back to something we were talking earlier about, labels. We've tended to try to focus on action words. You know, is that statement supported by any fact? If it isn't, we'll say "unsupported by the facts."
RW: I think of the claim the president has made of the number of those in the country illegally who voted in the last election. NPR has been pretty careful to point out that that's not substantiated.
MM: Right, careful to point out that state attorneys general across the country have said, we don't have any evidence of that happening. So, yes, we try to give people facts and we also think that if you start throwing the word “lie” in there too often, you're going to lose part of the audience who automatically will think you've made a judgment, you've cast an opinion. And we want to try to get as many as people as we can to hear and read our stories.
RW: What about the tenth time someone makes the assertion that is incorrect? If you can't, you can't get into their head, but do all appearances point to that being a lie?
MM: We may get to that point. We will make a judgment. There may come a time where the intent is clear from the number of times or from the context or from the setting. That will be a pretty, for us at least, monumental day.
RW: Should that be a monumental day, Elizabeth Jensen?
EJ: I think so. I'm with Mark and the rest of the NPR management on this issue. I think that if the word is going to be used, it needs to be used very, very sparingly, and the goal, as Mark said, is to report news that everyone can hear without immediately jumping to judgments and that's a very loaded word.
RW: Let's talk now about how to deal with news sources. We've seen a blitz of investigative stories in recent weeks, many around the Trump administration's connections to Russia, which have relied heavily on unnamed sources. There are also cases where sources may need protection for other reasons. Kelley, you dealt with a recent case at CPR that had to do with masking a source's identity. Will you tell us about that?
KG: You know, it's not what we want to do, because we want to be as transparent about who we've talked to and it helps hold that source accountable and anybody else in the story.
RW: If they use their first and last name, it's harder to escape from that statement.
KG: Right. And, certainly if you ever see a good journalism outlet using "sources said," there's been a big vetting process, that their editors know who are the sources. They can rely on a source. And so we had a story that we were working on. We're doing stories about how people are affected by Trump policies for better or worse. We want to just know how people think he will affect their lives. And so we were talking to a young man who's sixteen in Grand Junction and he's the son of parents who are not here legally. He was born here and he got the DREAMer status, DACA, and he, he wanted to give his name in the story. He wanted to talk about the life he had built in Grand Junction, but we've seen these instances where, a few of them in the country, where people who have come out have been picked up by immigration services. So one of the things that we are doing in our role is to say the source may not even quite understand the impact of being in a news story, so we sometimes have to weigh that for them, and we didn't want to give away details. So it came down to we didn't want to be giving his name when it could put him at risk and his family, and the story was important to tell. So, you know, we asked listeners to trust us, that we know his story is accurate, and we had lots of sources in his community verifying. His teachers, his principal, people who knew him and we thought it was a legitimate way to tell the story. But it's never a decision we make lightly.
RW: Isn't it possible that there are some in the audience who would see identifying that source and the potential repercussion of having that young person's family arrested because they were here illegally as a journalism win? In other words, CPR News did its job by helping expose those in the country illegally? What would you say to that?
KG: I, that wasn't our job that day. I was, you know, it was like telling the story of someone. We're trying to explain the community to the community, and how many more people in difficult circumstances would talk to a journalist if we appeared to be swooping in and bringing the authorities right behind us? I mean, we have to protect relationships or you guys won't hear the stories that people have to tell, and if we breach the trust, we won't get you those stories.
RW: Adrian Florido, are you often asked, sure, I'd love to talk to you, but don't use my name?
AF: Oh, yeah, all the time.
RW: Mm-hmm, and what's your, what's your response on the ground?
AF: It depends on the situation, you know? And I'll, usually my first response is to call Mark and say, hey, there's this source who wants to tell me his or her story, but doesn't want to use a name. And then Mark's question will be, well, why doesn't this person want to use, want their name used? And sometimes it's because they feel that they are in danger of, for example, being deported. Sometimes it's because they want to say things that are just kind of, I don't know, unseemly or that are kind of controversial that they don't really want to be associated with. In that case, we don't ever allow people to not use their names, right? Because if they're not willing to stand by a statement, then why would we put it out there?
RW: It's that accountability factor Kelley was talking about. To the question now of whom news organizations should cover. I think it's fair to say that most outlets were surprised when President Trump won, and one of the explanations that many people gave was that the media had somehow failed to hear the voices of people who were really disaffected, people particularly in rural areas, who'd lost manufacturing jobs. A lot of those folks voted for Trump. NPR seemed to respond to that recently by assigning a reporter to cover the urban-rural divide. He's a former Coloradan. He was at KUNC public radio, Kirk Siegler. Mark, is that the network's attempt to reach out to people in those Trump strongholds, even perhaps a bit of a mea culpa from NPR?
MM: Not exactly. The beat was established before the election, during the campaign, when we and other media probably realized that there was something happening. We may not have caught it all. I mean, we may have been surprised by the ultimate outcome, but we realized something was happening, and that we, and when I say “we” I'm saying the media, needed to stop covering some parts of the country in this sort of anthropological way of going in and finding out what are these people thinking? Why not go in and find out and listen to them, and really dig into the issues? So that's what that beat is really about and actually we regret a little bit calling it with the word “divide” because we don't necessarily think there's an urban-rural divide. We're really looking at the issues that are driving people in urban and rural areas. Yes, there may be some divisions there, but there's also some just really interesting stories and different ways of looking at things.
RW: Elizabeth, did the media just miss the story of the election?
EJ: We went back and we looked at all of NPR's reporting. We tracked it all. If you want to, if you want to see where all the reporting was, you can see the statistics that are still on the ombudsman's page, on the NPR website.
RW: Yeah, what did it reveal?
EJ: All the stories were there. I think it was a question of emphasis of the story. So one of the concerns I had was really digging in to some of these issues. You know, healthcare, what are the policy, where are the candidates really standing and what are these, what is the granular look at all of these policies? Those stories were there but they were one-offs. Right? They tended to sometimes get lost in the coverage, the day in, day out horse race. There wasn't a lot of polling coverage, but there was a fair amount of horse race coverage.
RW: That is the reporting that follows the candidate and goes to the next campaign rally and the next and the next and the next, and in that churning, in that cycle, it's really hard to take a step back, isn't it?
EJ: Right, and you have to sort of, if someone says something outrageous or if there's a scandal, you of course have to cover it, but I think it's a question of how much emphasis you give. So these stories are all there, but the question is getting them to surface at a time to draw attention to them, to really come back to them, to not say, okay, we've done that story and walk away, but to really come back and really examine it if it, if it proves to be a, an ongoing issue.
RW: Kelley Griffin at CPR News, how is CPR addressing this question? Because Colorado is a state of such contrasts between urban and rural and the conservative and liberal and unaffiliated. What has changed, if anything, since the election, do you think?
KG: Well, I'd like to go back just for a sec on why I think, you were, you were asking did the press miss this. I do think there was excessive reliance on polls, and I do think it happened at NPR, as well. It always came down to, you know, who's ahead now, that horse race sense, that very early I remember hearing reporters saying if the election were today or, and it was so far in advance of the election and I [crosstalk]—
RW: And what is the meaning of “if the election were today”? That's [crosstalk]—
KG: Right, because it turns out it's not going to be today, you know? And I, I don't really let us use those. I don't think that polls, they're, I won't say never, it's not a good policy. But I think a poll has to do a lot to be of value in our reporting, because what's important, I think, for us to dig up is what, who these candidates are and what they would do and what they have done. And so, I feel really strongly that we should help people be the kind of well-informed civic people, you know, that you know enough about what's going on and we need to make it compelling and we need to get the clutter away so that what we give you is incisive to make your decisions. We did a very extensive work on our website with profiles of candidates and the ballot measures and we had, I think, more than half a million people use that page as they were understanding the election this year. So, I'd like to see more of that, but as far as—
RW: More of that issue-based reporting, as opposed to the horse race reporting.
RW: And, as far as the changes since the election—
KG: Right. So we are doing something that we just, we're calling right now Trump Tracking: The Trump Effect to see these stories of people who are kind of in the line of change, either because they're a business-owner who's eager to have the ACA off their back is how they view it, or they're the undocumented or the immigrant who doesn't know the status as a DREAMer under the DACA. We want to find these people now and keep in touch so that we can start to tell the stories of how change in Washington is affecting Colorado. So—
RW: And we erected a dining table in our lobby for something called Breaking Bread. Do you want to talk a bit about that?
KG: Yes. That is a project where we want to get people who are willing to talk across the divide. We've been asking on the air and going into groups to try to get folks in from very different backgrounds. We have three Trump supporters, two Clinton supporters, and a Bernie supporter, and they're talking to each other and trying to really say, okay, we have very different views, that's established, but how do we talk to each other? And we're going to work with them over the course of the coming months and I can't wait for the Thanksgiving episode when we'll look at how well, if they're all going to be talking to their families again. But, it's been, it's been really interesting and we're hearing from a lot of our audience saying they love hearing this. Because I feel like that's part of what we're all missing right now is that part of our democratic process where we do get things figured out.
RW: Adrian Florido, I'd like to wrap up with you. What I've heard so far is about getting reporters out into different communities and having that be a reflection of the diversity, but what about the diversity in the newsroom, the diversity ethnically, racially, but of, perhaps, a viewpoint, of economic background, involved in shaping the story pitches from their earliest stages? How important is it, not just to go out and hear the diversity, but to sort of bring that into the newsroom, do you think?
AF: Oh, I mean, it's immensely important. It's one of the things that I sort of do on the side at NPR, other than be a reporter, is try to push the organization to get better about that, because, Elizabeth, you have the latest numbers, but I think something like 75% of the NPR newsroom is still white, which is remarkable, isn't it? I mean, that's, that's remarkable. And it affects the way that we do reporting. I mean, one of the things that's been so interesting for me in the aftermath of the election has been to hear just the way that the sort of narrative has formed around why Trump won and who we weren't paying attention to, right? The people we weren't paying attention to, I think that, and I'm happy to be challenged on this, but, or according to the sort of dominant media narrative that has emerged sort of white working-class people who felt left behind in the Rust Belt and stuff like that. That demographic came out in larger numbers than they had in the past and voted for Trump, but large numbers of people, white, middle-class, college-educated Americans also voted for Trump. That is not a story about feeling left behind economically necessarily, right? And yet, that's sort of the dominant media narrative and, again, I'm happy to be challenged on this, that I feel sort of emerged after the election. When was the last time that that sort of amount of concerted attention by the sort of larger media and sort of environment was paid to any community of color?
RW: You're contrasting the taking stock of the disaffected white voter and saying, has that kind of review ever happened with a community of color?
AF: In other, for other communities, right? I don't think it has. I don't think it has. Again, please challenge me on it, but I work on a team that reports on race and identity and culture and most of the people I speak with, for my reporting, are people of color. And their perspective on this election's completely different from what I think what is the predominant perspective. Newsrooms are not monoliths, but with the perspective that you hear within newsrooms a lot of the time, which is like, let's go talk to these white working-class voters, right? It's like, hey, let's go talk to these white middle-class voters. Like, hey, let's go to talk Latinos and African Americans about how they feel about this stuff. Like, why do they think this happened, right? And one of the things that I really hope is that newsrooms, including NPR and across the country, is really take that seriously, because, yes, we missed part of the story with white working-class voters in America, but we miss the story of African Americans and Latinos and Asians every single day. I think that that is as important to sort of the future of journalism and building trust among an America that is changing as anything else we've talked about tonight.