Take a political year that lurched exhaustingly from major story to major story. Combine that with the newsroom year-end tradition of ranking the biggest stories of the year. What you got last week in NPR's case was a game of political brackets, a take-off on the March Madness college basketball tournament matchups pitting 64 teams against each other in a knockout competition, with people at home playing along by choosing who they think will win.
In the view of some who wrote my office and the many more who weighed in on Twitter, NPR — and more broadly, trustworthy journalism — were the overall losers in this game, however.
NPR's brackets game unspooled over the last week of 2017, ending with readers choosing the Robert Mueller Russia probe as the top political story of the year, narrowly besting the fallout from allegations of sexual harassment leveled against some in Congress (and other fields). The definition of "political story" was broad, including a few overseas events that had an impact on national politics, as well as purely domestic stories. More than 4,700 people voted via Twitter on the final matchup, and there were about 150,000 votes cast overall.
Those who criticized the game — and, to be fair, there were many who enjoyed it, as well — called it "wildly inappropriate," "tasteless," "cruel" and more.
Ruthanne Bell of Sarasota, Fla., tweeted: "By making a 'fun game' of this, you are trivializing and profiting from the pain and suffering of many." A woman from Lansing, Mich., wrote my office: "News is supposed to be news, not entertainment. If I lost my house in a natural disaster and then someone voted for sport on how much they liked reading stories about it? No. Just no."
She and others who expressed similar sentiments were referring to matchups that used such shorthand as "Year of Gun Violence" v. "Alternative Facts." Another emailer, Catherine R., of Cambridge, Mass., wrote: "To see consequential and tragic events reduced to a few words in a GAME ('Niger ambush,' 'NYC truck attack,' and 'gun violence,' for example) is stunning and disappointing."
The game was the brainchild of Domenico Montanaro, NPR's lead political editor. Like many editors in newsrooms across the country, he was engaged in the annual late-December exercise of choosing the top stories of the year — those gimmicky, audience-popular staples that fill airtime and magazine and newspaper pages in a normally slow news week.
As he compiled the list of the year's top stories, he told me, "It just got longer and longer," ultimately ending with 78 stories. When he tried a Twitter poll to select the top four stories, some 2,000 people weighed in, and he began to see a wider exercise as a "an interesting way of looking at news judgment." He was referring to the kinds of decisions journalists make every day, when deciding what stories lead a program or appear on the home page of a website or the front page of a newspaper.
A college basketball fan, Montanaro said he then thought of making the choices into a 64-story playoff. He received nearly 300 brackets, some handwritten, and had to rope in colleagues to score them. "It sort of took off," he said.
From Montanaro's vantage point, the exercise led to some "really smart reasoned arguments" on the news value of the various stories, as participants voted along the way. But to the critics — and many were exceedingly harsh — he was trivializing those very serious choices and the thought that newsrooms put into them. "I was taken aback by the vitriol, to be honest, when my intent wasn't to offend anyone," he told me.
"Obviously, you don't want to be glib," he said, but he defended the game as having "just a little bit of fun," in the context of NPR's much more sober political coverage throughout the year.
Mark Memmott, who oversees NPR's standards and practices, said that while he understood some of the criticisms that NPR wasn't treating the news seriously enough, he supported the exercise, with the outcome proving its value. "The crowd understood what Domenico was doing and made some pretty well-informed choices to work down the list," he told me by email, and the match ups "got people thinking."
I understand the desire to approach the standard year-end story in a new way, and the urge to find a creative approach to bringing the NPR audience into the conversation about news judgment. I (and many others) believe transparency about how journalists make these decisions is key to building trust with the audience at a fraught time. In the last year, my office has been helping convene conversations at member stations about how newsroom decisions get made.
This effort fell far short, in my opinion. The initial stories did more or less lay out what the exercise was meant to accomplish, and the importance of various stories. But by the time the battles were whittled down to a top 16 stories, all that was lost — the tone was pure game. The outcome did show that players were taking the choices seriously — it's hard to argue that the fallout from sexual harassment charges and the Mueller probe weren't at least among the year's top stories in the United States — but getting there meant such absurd and offensive "matchups" as the 10-day reign of Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director versus the violence (and a death) that accompanied a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
Some critics already believe journalists focus too much on the horse race aspect of politics and not enough on the actual details of public policies that affect people's everyday lives. This exercise only played into that often-justified criticism. At a time when media organizations are under daily attack — and more important, when the country faces major decisions in an exceedingly polarized environment — there's little justification for giving critics any more fodder. We need more trust in serious newsrooms such as NPR's, not less.