NPR’s new standards editor brings breaking-news DNA to the job

NPR appointed Mark Memmott as its new standards and practices editor Thursday. Memmott co-authored NPR’s 2012 ethics handbook, which charges the person in that job “with cultivating an ethical culture throughout our news operation.” He replaces Stu Seidel, who decided last fall to take a buyout.

Memmott helped launch NPR’s breaking-news blog “The Two Way” and said in a phone call he hopes to bring some breaking-news DNA to the position. “One thing we want to work on is the steps and procedures in a breaking-news event: who needs to talk to whom, how many confirmations do we need,” he said. Referring to the shooting Wednesday at Fort Hood as an example, he said, “At what point can you feel comfortable enough to report Spc. Lopez’s name?”

Those sorts of discussions need to be ongoing, Memmott said, and occur “before news happens.” But what about when breaking news throws the newsroom a curveball? I asked. “We’re not going to be perfect,” Memmott said. “We’re going to make mistakes.” He’ll keep his desk in the newsroom and says he’ll be “very easy to find.”

Other editors at NPR have “as much or more” experience making tricky calls, Memmott said, citing Deputy Managing Editors Chuck Holmes and Gerry Holmes in particular.

When Pvt. Chelsea Manning announced last August she identifies as a woman, for example, NPR and other outlets (including this one) found they lacked clear stylebook rules about how to refer to transgender people. (The time of year slowed down attempts to clarify matters — almost every standards editor I contacted that day was on vacation.)

“That was an interesting moment,” Memmott said. “It underscored why we have this position and why we have a fairly flexible handbook because that brought up an issue that we really hadn’t talked through.” NPR “got to the right place fairly quickly,” he said. (Here’s the note Seidel sent staffers the following evening.)

Memmott declined to name any style rules he was itching to change and said he was most excited that NPR had remained committed to the position. “When Stu decided to take the buyout and leave, there were several of us who were concerned this position might be perceived as something we can do without,” he said. “I’m very happy the organization is committed to having something like this.”

NPR’s ethics handbook draws a line between the standards and practices editor and its ombudsman. While the latter position is public-facing, the S&P editor “is deeply woven into the functioning of our news operation, on-hand to discuss any ethical matter, no matter how big or small it may be,” it reads. The role is “not a dictator, not a person to lay down a lot of rigid do’s and don’ts,” Memmott said.

Writing or reporting regularly on newsroom standards is “not on my radar right now,” Memmott said. Successful applications of standards may occasion a memo to staff. He plans to “keep the critical thoughts I had to small groups.” But: “If we mess up I’m sure you and others may be calling me,” Memmott said. “We’ll be available.”

Related: NPR introduces new Ethics Handbook, appoints standards and practices editor

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