KGOU

Elizabeth Jensen

Colorado Public Radio recently brought together a panel of news professionals in Denver to talk about journalism ethics. While a number of topics were touched upon, the allotted 90 minutes was hardly enough time to explore the many questions about how NPR and CPR journalists approach their work.

Last week, when former FBI Director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, he said at one point: "I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter."

That memo was a nonclassified set of notes he wrote detailing a meeting he had with President Trump.

NPR, like most other major news organizations, referred to what Comey did — asking a friend to share the memo with a reporter — as "leaking."

"Undocumented." "Obamacare." "Pro-life."

According to NPR's style guide, these words are to be avoided — or used sparingly — by NPR reporters and hosts when discussing the issues in which they are likely to come up (immigration, health care, abortion rights). But sharp listeners and readers note that all have been used in recent weeks, either on-air or online (by staff, not just by people being interviewed).

An April 27 Morning Edition report by Geoff Brumfiel, an NPR science editor, ran just a scant 2 ½ minutes, but it prompted an outsized outpouring of emails.

Editor's Note: Last week, Elizabeth was honored to give the 2017 George Chaplin Fellowship in Distinguished Journalism address at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. Her prepared remarks are below and may differ slightly from delivery. Mahalo to the East-West Center and event co-sponsor Hawaii Public Radio for hosting.

Thank you to the East-West Center, for this warm welcome.

The Ombudsman's Office awoke last week to this email from a Baltimore listener: "Good morning. Please forgive the stark phrasing. I love NPR but am becoming desperate at the lack of context and institutional knowledge in the morning rush for 'experts.'"

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.

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