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NPR Increasingly Challenged By Misinformation

Feb 10, 2017

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

Decades of conventional wisdom on issues such as impartiality and objectivity are being called into question. Officials from President Donald Trump on down are attacking the credibility of news outlets at a feverish pace, clearly hoping to undermine the press' traditional oversight function. Live interviews have increasingly become vehicles for politicians to spread misinformation, or sow at least enough confusion to further their own aims.

For consideration in today's column: How does the public radio's style of reporting, specifically that of NPR, adapt to the challenges being thrown at it? What changes might be in order?

First, to be clear: NPR's journalism is not in question here. I think NPR has continued to do very solid work in the past few weeks, and I have heard from many listeners and readers who agree. To cite just a couple of examples of coverage I deeply appreciated: The newsroom mobilized over the last weekend in January to cover the fallout from the administration's travel ban for visa holders from seven Muslim-majority countries, and the follow-up reporting on issues such as vetting has been strong. A new feature annotates the president's often-inaccurate tweets with facts and context.

I'm also putting to the side the debate over how NPR journalists should or should not participate in the civic issues of our time. It's a critical issue and NPR's newsroom is discussing it.

What I am exploring here are the mechanisms of NPR's radio journalism. (NPR's online journalism has its own challenges, including assuring accuracy, which I wrote about recently.)

The radio model has been relatively unchanged in NPR's more than four decades. The flagship newsmagazines, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition and All Things Considered, air a mix of interviews and reported pieces — about 18 to 20 pieces each show per day (half that for the hour-long Weekend All Things Considered). The pieces tend not to be grouped thematically: Political interviews are often interspersed with arts, health and science pieces, and are spaced out across the two hours. (What has changed in recent years is the length of stories — those of Morning Edition are slightly shorter than in the past. In addition, in an effort to make Morning Edition more timely, more interviews for that show have been done live in the past couple of years.)

Listeners of all political stripes have been writing to my office in the past two weeks with concerns that, in essence, can be traced back to how NPR presents its reports. I've broken them into a few broad categories (all of which perhaps deserve their own columns in the future).

How to deal with the steady stream of misinformation that interviewees are slipping into live interviews (deliberately or not).

On Morning Edition on Jan. 30, Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) said, "the wife of the terrorist in San Bernardino came in under a refugee visa program." (In fact, it was K-1 "fiancée" visa, not a refugee visa, which is much more difficult to obtain; this statement subsequently was edited out of the interview; see below.) A week later, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright argued that the Trump administration "made up their facts because the countries that were singled out, there's nobody that from those countries has been involved in an attack in the United States." (A listener pointed out that Somali-born Abdul Razak Ali Artan, who came to the U.S. as part of a refugee resettlement program, was responsible for a November 2016 attack at the Ohio State University, claimed by ISIS, which is still under investigation.) Each statement went unchallenged by the host doing the interview.

Both facts are relevant to the debate over the Trump administration policy on travel visas for residents of seven Muslim-majority countries. So, as NPR provides information for listeners to come to their own opinions on that issue, it's important to get the facts right.

The issue of errors made by guests has been challenging NPR for well over a year. There were a number of factual errors introduced by guests — and not challenged by hosts — during the Congressional battle over the nomination of a successor to the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, to cite just one spate of such examples.

In most cases I do not blame the hosts, who are excellent journalists but cannot possibly be up-to-the-minute experts on every single topic. Many errors are caught, as in Audie Cornish's exemplary All Things Considered interview with Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio. Other times, the statements are so broad (Newt Gingrich recently said without pushback that President Obama "kept lying," provoking a slew of complaints from listeners) that to stop and argue with a guest would derail an interview entirely. That issue is worthy of another column.

What I'm most interested in here is how NPR handles very specific errors when they do get in — and how to prevent them from getting on the air altogether.

Sometimes NPR lets errors slide, particularly when they border on opinion (I've heard numerous interviewees call the Affordable Care Act an abject failure or a roaring success; facts can be marshaled to argue for both sides). Other times, as with the Rep. Johnson interview, the misstatement is edited out of the interview when it is rebroadcast in subsequent hours and out of the transcript that is posted online.

But editing them out does nothing to help the perhaps millions of people who may have heard the interview as originally broadcast. Are on-air corrections the answer? NPR rarely does on-air corrections after the fact, preferring to correct mistakes in the online transcript and in a hard-to-find "corrections page" on the website. As for real-time corrections: Unless a host or producer or editor realizes the problem immediately after an interview ends and makes the correction then, there's no guarantee that the original listeners will hear any eventual correction. And should the online transcript reflect that the inaccurate material was edited out, or would that just repeat the error?

However it is handled, I do think the errors need to be acknowledged — and corrected — somewhere, preferably in an obvious place where NPR's audience is likely to see them.

An alternative is to simply cut back on live interviews altogether and tape them with enough advance time to make sure any misinformation does not get through. That would not be a popular step in the newsroom, given the professed desire to make the shows more timely. But I think it's an option that should be given serious consideration whenever possible.

A corollary to this problem is the onslaught of inaccurate information coming from official sources.

I'm not talking about NPR's policy on whether to label something a lie (in brief, NPR is not using that word and there are pros and cons to that decision).

This issue is related to NPR's policy — with which I agree — to hear officials in their own words. The predicament is how to deal with misstatements of fact. This problem creeps in during newscasts, which are limited in time, but also in reported stories.

A listener wrote last month about a story "on Trump's immigration order. Trump asserts that Muslims were given priority over Christians for admission into the US as refugees. This is not true. According to a Pew study, nearly equal numbers of both were admitted last year." The Trump soundbite was somewhat tangential to the story, which was really about refugee law, but it did illuminate the president's thinking.

Back in December, another listener emailed: "In this morning's lead in to the interview on Trump's trade policies, there was a direct statement by the VP-elect Pence that was a flat out lie. He stated that the decision by Carrier was the result of a phone call by Trump, ignoring the role he played as Governor in providing tax breaks. While the tax breaks were mentioned later in the piece, it is inappropriate for NPR to provide a vehicle for broadcasting a direct lie by an official."

The listener continued: "Broadcasting the statement in the official's voice gives the lie weight, however it is subsequently qualified later in the piece. If you are going to broadcast a lie, it should be preceded, not just followed, by a statement that the statement is not true."

Is that the answer? Or should NPR rethink its policy of using sound bites from official sources if they contain significant misstatements of fact?

Listening patterns lead to missed perspectives.

The number of bias complaints coming into the office is soaring. That's clearly a reflection of our highly politicized time. But some of this is also because listeners are really not hearing their own perspectives, in large part because very few listeners hear every minute of every program. (Also, social science research has demonstrated that people tend to hear what they want to hear, a phenomenon known as confirmation bias, which Weekend All Things Considered host Michel Martin explored recently.)

That might explain the strong outrage in recent emails. Comments range from "you have turned into a bash Trump all day, every day network" to "Please stop normalizing American white nationalist fascism."

Or consider these emails that came in back to back Thursday morning:

"I listen to Public Radio in the morning and early evenings, have done so on and off for years, even decades. I must say the national news shows [All Things Considered, Morning Edition] always have a critical and skeptical view of conservatives and Republicans, and an accepting and cordial view of liberals and Democrats. Sometimes it is subtle, other times overt, but it is always there."

And: "Over the past decade NPR has become soft, seeking to keep your funding, I know, but so right-leaning that you no longer can be trusted to bring us the depth" of other news outlets. "Your decay as a reliable and trustworthy news outlet goes back more than a decade now, but in the times we live in since the early morning of November 9th, your lack of spine is more than demoralizing for those of us who recognize that our fragile democracy faces a radical and dangerous assault."

I dealt with this issue of listeners who don't hear all perspectives before, as did my predecessor. But just acknowledging the problem is not an answer in this day and age, when people across the political spectrum have become deeply suspicious of the news media and its motives.

Is there a way to address this on air? Should the show hosts precede and follow every single political interview and reported piece with a reference to the other elements on the show, either that day or previously, that reflect another viewpoint? Listeners might still not hear those different viewpoints, either, but they would know to look them up online, or at least realize that NPR is trying to present multiple viewpoints.

Or should the shows cut back on whole interviews and interweave the interviews they do into reported pieces that reflect the multiple perspectives on an issue? Should a show run interviews with opposing viewpoints back to back? Could an hour of a show be dedicated to a single topic instead of the current model of mixing news and features? (It's already possible for listeners who stream individual stories digitally to, in essence, curate their own audio in this way.)

The vox pops contain errors and slurs.

Just as it's solid journalism to hear what officials have to say, in their own words, NPR is committed to hearing from non-officials, in what journalists call "person on the street" interviews, or vox pops. Those interviewees don't always have the correct facts either, and their thoughts are sometimes offensive, as in the ethnic slur used in this recent interview that was sprung on listeners with no warning.

NPR's head of news Michael Oreskes has already responded to listeners who were concerned about that piece, noting, "We have a system for alerting listeners and readers that a story contains offensive or unacceptable language. We should have done that with this piece but failed to."

His note, however, did not address the errors of fact expressed by one of the interviewees. This is an issue where I've been critical of NPR before, and I continue to be: There needs to be a better way for NPR to correct the misinformation that creeps into the vox pops, if not by interrupting the interview, then at the end of an interview. Good journalism demands that NPR not contribute to the wash of misinformation that seems close to overwhelming civic debate in this country.

Summing up

I don't have all or any of the answers here. Some of my proposals would no doubt make for clunky-sounding radio (I'm anticipating one argument from the newsroom here). Others are unlikely to be adopted, since they would mean a radical rethinking of the entire model of public radio as it stands. But I'm hoping that the newsroom is actively and seriously working to address these issues; our times demand it.

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