KGOU

Elizabeth Jensen

Increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of NPR's newsroom staff is a publicly acknowledged priority from top management on down. But in 2016, NPR made virtually no progress in changing the makeup of its staff.

"Bias" was the label most applied to emails that came in to the Ombudsman Office in March (we try to label the vast majority of emails by concern).

The critical emails came in after Sebastian Gorka's first interview on NPR, and then after his second interview and after his third.

Starting today, NPR is changing the always-sensitive ways in which its newsroom learns about and deals with current and potential funders: the foundations, individuals and companies whose grants, major donations and sponsorships provide much of the money to make NPR's work possible. The changes are intended to bring more transparency about funders to the public and avoid the kinds of slipups that raised serious concerns last May about NPR's coverage of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal.

The Ombudsman's office heard this week and last from listeners with varying concerns around how NPR covers major appearances by President Donald Trump. We took them to the newsroom for reaction.

Journalism that covers political and civic affairs is in the midst of an extraordinary period of challenge.

I was taken aback to wake up Wednesday to a Morning Edition report about why NPR is not using the word "lie" to "characterize the statements of President Trump when they are at odds with evidence to the contrary," as a separate post on NPR's Two-Way blog put it.

In June 2016, David Gilkey, an NPR photojournalist, and Zabihullah Tamanna, NPR's Afghan interpreter and also a journalist, were killed while on assignment for NPR in Afghanistan. Their deaths in the field — when their armored Humvee, driven by a Afghan National Army soldier, was hit by heavy weapons fire — marked a sad first for NPR in its more than 45 years on the air.

In mid-December, NPR's website ran a story about the CIA's conclusion "that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election to help Donald Trump win." The story had this headline: "The Russian Hacking Kerfuffle: What We Do and Don't Know." The story was fine. But it was most definitely not about a simple "kerfuffle," which Merriam-Webster defines as a "disturbance, fuss." "Kerfuffle" was later replaced in the headline with the better word "controversy."

Once again, NPR finds itself in the uncomfortable position of reporting on unverified information, just as it did last year when WikiLeaks dumped troves of what it said were hacked emails taken from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, and from top officials of the Democratic National Committee.

It's rare that my office gets a complaint about the Friday StoryCorps segments on Morning Edition. The excerpts of interviews conducted between friends and loved ones (no NPR host or reporter involved) are most often poignant windows into other people's realities, as they discuss their life struggles, loves and journeys.

By any measure, the story that has been unfolding in North Dakota along the proposed route of the Dakota Access Pipeline since April is extraordinary. Thousands of people led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have gathered for months in largely peaceful protest against the $3.8 billion oil pipeline's route, arguing that it infringes on tribal lands and could put at risk their water supply, and that the tribe was not properly consulted in the planning process.

The news Sunday afternoon that Steve Bannon had been named chief strategist in President-elect Donald Trump's White House sparked renewed interest in a topic NPR covered this summer, the rise of the white nationalist movement, also referred to euphemistically as the "alt-right."

A week after the election, the Ombudsman inbox is still fielding a heavy influx of emails with audience opinions about NPR's presidential campaign journalism. Many of the emails have been vitriolic, a reflection of hard-felt voter emotions, no doubt.

During the second presidential candidate debate, on Oct. 9, Republican candidate Donald Trump singled out one of his guests, a woman named Kathy Shelton.

Here's Trump: "One of the women, who is a wonderful woman, at 12 years old, was raped — at 12. Her client she represented, got him off. And she's seen laughing on two separate occasions — laughing at the girl who was raped. Kathy Shelton, that young woman, is here with us tonight."

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, then Hillary Rodham, was the lawyer he referred to as laughing at the victim.

Four years ago, my predecessor, Edward Schumacher-Matos, wrote about listener unhappiness concerning NPR's conversations with ordinary voters, or what is known in journalism as "person on the street" interviews or vox pops. Similar criticisms have been rolling in to the Ombudsman mailbox in recent weeks.

My office has spent many recent hours responding to readers and listeners who believe NPR has not covered, or covered enough, the ongoing release of hacked emails allegedly taken from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta. In fact, NPR has covered the content of the emails fairly extensively (and that coverage has brought its own complaints from listeners and readers who believe the email revelations are relatively unimportant compared to other issues bubbling up in the presidential race, or policy discussions).

How would you describe, in brief, the conversation Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump had in 2005 with then-Access Hollywood co-host Billy Bush, a recording of which was leaked to the Washington Post last Friday?

Reporting, analysis and commentary — those are the three predominant types of content NPR's newsroom offers listeners and readers. Reporting and analysis make up most of what the newsroom puts out. However, it is the very small category of commentary (and political commentary, specifically, since that makes up the majority of NPR commentary at the moment) that is driving an outsized number of complaints to the Ombudsman office this election season.

Scientific American reported last week on the disturbing practice known as a "close-hold embargo," where reporters are given advance access to an upcoming news-making announcement on the condition that they not seek outside perspective until the embargo is lifted.

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