Nazis, a toy monkey and secrets emerge from NPR reporter’s family story

November 15, 2018

NPR experiments with personal stories; newsrooms challenge White House ban; investigation finds police routinely shelve rape cases 

Uri Berliner had the big microphone out and the headphones on. The NPR journalist was going to ask this 94-year-old man before him what it was like, bound for freedom, saying goodbye nearly eight decades ago to his parents in Berlin, parents he would never see again. Berliner planned to ask the man to read a letter he got from his parents — before they were killed by the Nazis.

A tough assignment for any reporter, even tougher when the “source” was Berliner’s dad.

“The hardest part was asking my dad all these questions, because we’ve never talked about this,” Berliner told me Wednesday, the same day his story was broadcast on All Things Considered. “Once it got started, it just kept coming out.”

In four hours of conversations, Berliner learned about a stuffed monkey his father had taken from Germany, a treasured keepsake that Gert Berliner had donated to the Jewish Museum Berlin.

That gesture had led to another discovery: the Berliners had family members in Sweden who also had escaped the Nazis.

They’d never talked about such things in such detail, and even Gert Berliner was surprised to know about his Swedish kin.

His son had many surprises from his conversations with his dad. “I didn’t know about my dad’s toy monkey. Clearly, I didn’t know about my Swedish relatives.”

Uri Berliner had been driven to capture his father’s story while he still could. In April, Michael May of NPR’s Story Lab asked reporters to pitch personal stories. Berliner responded, but said he’d needed to go to Germany and Sweden to track down the people who helped save his father’s life — and tried to save his grandparents from the Holocaust.

The request was approved.

May said Wednesday that Berliner’s personal story had two winning characteristics: A particular experience worth sharing where the journalist was the best subject, and a situation (in this case, loss of family, a flight to safety) that anyone could experience and learn from.

“I was extremely conscious of the fact that I wanted to the stories to be engaging and dramatic and couldn’t hold back just to protect the reporter’s feelings,” May said of the editing process. “In Uri’s case, it was difficult to ask him to make significant changes to a story that involved, for instance, the murder of his grandparents. But to Uri’s credit, he took the edits in stride and was very responsive — and of course he pushed back when he felt like I was suggesting something that wasn’t entirely accurate.”

On stories that aren’t hot-button issues, May would encourage editors considering letting journalists bring their personal lives into their reporting.

“If it’s done well,” May said, “the audience will appreciate getting to know the people who are reporting the news, and hopefully find their reporting richer and more significant.”

Berliner said his father was pleased that his story was told. Berliner, normally a business editor, said he was fielding an uncharacteristic rush of emails and social media notes after the story ran. NPR, capitalizing on the popularity of the story, even created a call-out asking listeners and readers if they had a treasured keepsake they had carried from a time of trauma.

“Usually I cover things like tariffs and trade,” Berliner said. “It couldn’t be more different than this story.”

Quick hits

‘KINDNESS IS NOT A SYNONYM FOR WEAK’: Poynter’s Kristen Hare on how Nikki Delamotte, the slain Cleveland reporter, had inspired a colleague to become better. For a project the two had planned, Delamotte had suggested: Why not include everything that we’re nervous to write about?

ALL ABOARD: Fox News is supporting the CNN lawsuit against the Trump White House. So are ABC News, NBC News, The New York Times, The Associated Press, Bloomberg, First Look Media, Politico, E.W. Scripps, USA Today and The Washington Post.

HIDING JUSTICE: Police departments across the United States mask the truth about how effective they are at getting justice for rape victims, according to a yearlong investigation from ProPublica, Reveal and Newsy. The investigation looked at more than 70,000 reported rapes. As Reveal’s Al Letson puts it: Why are they masking the truth? And who is being hurt because of it? Here’s the trailer.

CAPITAL GAZETTE UNION DRIVE: Journalists at Baltimore Sun community newspapers, including the Capital Gazette, announced a drive to establish a union to protect local journalism. “We want respect for the work we do and a living wage to go along with it,” said the organizing committee, which is asking owner Tribune Publishing to recognize the union. A gunman killed five employees of the Capital Gazette in their Annapolis newsroom on June 28. (h/t Kristen Hare)

DON’T JUST QUOTE MEN: The Financial Times has moved from admonitions to a tool that warns reporters if they are quoting too many men, the Guardian reported. “Desks that use quotes from a high proportion of women also feature more women in their pictures, and their articles are well read by women,” the deputy editor, Roula Khalaf, told staff in an internal email.

AND THE AWARD GOES … TO THE PANDA STORY: Your morning columnist doesn’t usually go for headlines like that, but you might be interested in who won the 2018 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards. Winners included Maggie Koerth-Baker (for her FiveThirtyEight story about Pan Pan the panda), Emily Anthes (on the search for a male contraceptive) and Mike Hixenbaugh (on gunshot brain injury victims mistakenly diagnosed as in a vegetative state).

CLEVER BIRTHDAY: turned 5, and celebrated its birthday with a clever donation ask, with suggestions ranging from $5, for the number of candles on its birthday cake, to $49, for the age of its founder, Carlos Watson (“who will kill us when he reads this”) to, WTH, $1 million (“If you don’t ask, you don’t get”). Another option: Just read the stories, and share them if you want. 

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