White supremacist interview latest toughie for NPR’s public editor

August 15, 2018
Category: Newsletters

Representing the audience, united on a desire for better journalism

Elizabeth Jensen says she does a lot of "defensive listening" these days. It could be a word, a phrase, or the topic or tone on an NPR news report.

“At this point," NPR's ombudsman/public editor says by phone, "I can tell when listeners are going to react.”

On Friday morning, Jensen was almost beside herself when she heard white nationalist Jason Kessler talking on "Morning Edition" in what would become a hotly debated nearly seven-minute segment. “The interview was painful to hear; it had me yelling at the radio, as I know many others did,” she wrote Monday in an analysis of the coverage.

That comment, however, came in the penultimate paragraph of her restrained, balanced 2,400-word examination. Her analysis focused on specific process improvements on news gathering and presentation. It acknowledged the difficulties and divided opinions on covering racist views. It questioned NPR's degree of reliance on one-on-one interviews, but noted that was not her call. She concluded that if NPR keeps broadcasting these kinds of interviews, "it needs to strengthen its practices for a more responsible execution."

The last full-time public editor of a major U.S. news outlet, Jensen's spirit of inquiry and thoroughness have been praised at a time when readers and listeners are seeking more transparency. Count The Washington Post's Margaret Sullivan, a public editor for four years at The New York Times (when the paper still had the position), among those who respect her work.

"She manages to be both direct and diplomatic in a very tough job in which you’re not going to make anyone happy — at least not on a consistent basis," Sullivan says by email. "She gives everyone a say, with the listeners at the top of the list, and is not afraid to draw conclusions."

Last Friday, Jensen and editorial researcher Annie Johnson encountered hundreds of emails on the Kessler interview. They also read of one reader's concern over a replay of a David Sedaris episode of "This American Life," and another reader's criticism over a news segment on the return of iceberg lettuce (the reader didn't think NPR should push food of such paltry nutritional quality). Jensen and Johnson, dedicated to representing NPR's listeners and readers, answer most of the original emails they get a month and keep an eye on social media.

"It's a crazy melange," says Jensen, who has spent most of the past three decades reporting on media for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times.

Friday's Kessler interview was a toughie to analyze, but Jensen has faced thornier issues since taking the job in January 2015. When NPR was accused of slanting its coverage of the Iran nuclear talks because it took a grant from a disarmament group, Jensen and Johnson rushed to review 254 of the network's related stories in a week.

Jensen concluded that the coverage was balanced and the firewall between business and the newsroom had not been breached, but the newsroom, which did not disclose the grant on several stories, "left itself open to that perception.” After her analysis, the business side became more transparent in disclosing grants and the newsroom created a system to ensure disclosure of sensitive grants on related news stories. 

Elizabeth Jensen
Elizabeth Jensen (Photo: John Dickson/KUNC) Used by permission

Jensen and Johnson also have kept tabs on the diversity of the newsroom and of the sources used in news reports. They also have sought to show NPR's increasing challenge from misinformation.

Jensen faces conflict on two sides: from angry readers ("for the most part, it’s not personal”) and from some NPR journalists who may resent her criticism. At the same time, she gets many of her best column ideas from the newsroom, from people who share her passion for excellence and focus on best practices.

“We’re all dedicated to quality journalism," Jensen says, "and I would hope my work contributes to that.”

Quick hits

SUPPORTING A FREE PRESS: The ranks are growing of newspapers that will print editorials on Thursday to support the First Amendment and to decry what The Boston Globe characterizes as the president’s “dirty war” against the free press. The Radio Television Digital News Association advised its members to consider the same type of editorial, given recent threats to the Constitution and the rule of law. At least 230 newspapers have committed so far. Editorial editors, we'd like to publish snippets of some of your editorials in Thursday's newsletter; please email me today at dbeard@poynter.org with the final version of your editorials.

AUSTIN TICE: Six years after the freelance journalist disappeared in war-torn Syria, the State Department says it believes he is alive and that his case has “attention at the highest level” of the Trump administration. By McClatchy’s Franco Ordoñez and Stuart Leavenworth. (h/t Kristen Hare)

‘OUR BEAT IS INFORMATION’: That’s the mantra of the NYT’s “mini-detective agency” — the little-known librarians and editorial researchers who are behind some of the newspaper’s biggest stories. In a rare look at the NYT’s research department, news researcher Susan Beachy, who has a master’s in library sciences, said: “I feel like Nancy Drew all day long, playing detective and trying to make sense of things that are going on in the news.” (h/t Margot Williams)

DEFENDING REPORTERS: Thirty news organizations and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press joined in a court brief urging the dismissal of contempt charges against the Sun Sentinel and two of its journalists reporting on the Parkland high school massacre. The paper reported on a school board documented that the board said should have been redacted, but was available fully to the public. (h/t Amelia Nitz)

LOCALIZE THIS: With schools opening around America, teachers have spent some of their own money on school supplies for the kids they teach. Poynter’s Al Tompkins recommends this report from teachers in their own words. Some have bought backpacks and shoes. It may be worth asking teachers in your community.

HIRED: Financial columnist Felix Salmon and CNBC alumna Courtenay Brown are headed to Axios. They will produce a Sunday newsletter entitled Axios Edge, Joe Pompeo reports. 

SALE?: The publisher of New York magazine and related digital offerings including Vulture and The Cut, is exploring a potential sale, The WSJ’s Ben Mullin reports.

TWEET OF THE DAY: From NYU professor Jay Rosen, a cartoon by Politico's Matt Wuerker:


What we’re reading

THE TRAP: U.S. immigration agencies reached out to immigrants married to citizens, encouraged them, urged them to come in to discuss legalization. Then it called ICE, which arrested the immigrants, the ACLU alleges. By Maria Cramer of The Boston Globe.

PRIESTS SEX ABUSE: In the most comprehensive study of its kind, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court detailed a “systematic” coverup of sex abuse in the Catholic church over 70 years. More than 300 accused clergy and at least 1,000 child victims from the state were identified in the report, writes The Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein.

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Have a great Wednesday.