NPR’s balancing act

balancing-act-001National Public Radio’s ombudsman reports on a controversy over its March 5 package on same-sex marriage. On that day (the day that the California Supreme Court heard arguments about rescinding the Prop. 8 vote) Morning Edition ran a 4.5-minute interview with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, one of the more prominent civic leaders in support of same-sex marriage. They balanced that story out with a piece on the targeting of Prop. 8 supporters.

What’s the problem?

Well, in the editorial mind of NPR, the two stories balanced each other out. In the mind of Stranger sex columnist Dan Savage and some other Morning Edition listeners, the second part of the package was unfair. Here the ombudsman explains:

NPR was attempting to present both sides, but problems with the package hurt its effectiveness — especially in the web version on NPR.org.

On air, the segment paired two stories back-to-back and used language making it clear they were a package.

But the web presentation was much less clear. The two stories were not visually connected. There is a link at the bottom of Bates’ backlash piece to the Newsom interview, but not vice versa. There needed to be more to visibly tie them together. To make it worse, the Morning Edition page on NPR.org that day highlighted only the Newsom interview. (These problems still aren’t corrected.)

Once postings attacking the backlash story began pinging around the blogosphere, many went to NPR.org to hear it. Quite a few who called me after visiting the website did not know about the accompanying Newsom interview.

So in other words, NPR erred by hiding the piece about Prop. 8 supporters from online surfers, both those who visit the site’s front page and those who happened across the Newsom interview. The piece about Prop. 8 supporters was never highlighted like the opposing piece was. Online readers of the Newsom piece weren’t steered to the opposing piece.

And yet there was still this listener/reader response? That’s very interesting. Ombudsman Alicia Shepherd said that she felt the package itself had some problems:

In the Newsom interview, host Inskeep did what a good journalist should do: challenging the mayor by asking questions from the opposing perspective. A listener got both Newsom’s reasons for overturning the ban and a feel for the opponent’s position. The interview also was relaxed, with banter and laughter between Newsom and Inskeep.

Bates’ story took a different approach. Her assignment, she said, was to find people against same-sex marriage who felt they’d been penalized for their beliefs. She did a reported piece with interviews and sound bites; the piece conveyed emotion, and thus, I think, had more power than a two-way conversation between a host and a politician.

I’m very sympathetic to the criticism here. I’ve written ad nauseum about how much the mainstream media has portrayed the two sides of this story in harshly different ways. This is probably the first example I’ve come across where proponents of traditional marriage have the “emotion” advantage and proponents of same-sex marriage get the dry interview — but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a legitimate criticism. It is also a good reminder that reporters probably shouldn’t find it so difficult to convey emotion when covering people who oppose same-sex marriage.

Shepard also discusses the fact that the second story didn’t include a single comment from anyone who supports the targeting of donors who supported Prop. 8. From the perspective of the editors, the two stories were meant to balance each other. On its own, however, the second lacks any internal balance, according to critics. I completely agree. And not just about defenders of the boycotts — it might have been nice to include comments from Prop. 8 opponents who nevertheless disagree with the boycotting and bullying of Prop. 8 donors, too.

Above, Shepard says that the Newsom interview had no problems with internal balance. I’m not sure that’s true. I have no beef with the interviewer or the final product, but if Shepard thinks that he took the role of a Newsom opponent, that’s surprising.

Just to note one small but telling point, Newsom says he thinks same-sex marriage proponents lost because they were out-campaigned:

“We ran a lousy campaign,” he said. “I’ll be candid about that. I don’t think we communicated effectively. The other side was united, focused, spent huge amounts of money. . . .”

An opponent of Newsom’s probably would have been able to point out that the No on Prop. 8 forces out-raised and outspent the Yes on Prop. 8 forces. I’m not saying I think it’s some fatal error that the interviewer didn’t point that out but only to note that both stories had problems with internal balance when taken alone.

Having said all this, I’m glad that NPR is looking at problems with balance and online presentation. As more and more NPR consumers are getting their news online, it’s worthwhile to think about whether that information is presented fully and fairly.

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  • Martha

    Speaking of reactions to the Prop. 8 campaign, I did notice this trend towards “We lost because the other side spent tons of money and organised against us!”

    O rlly?

    The Curt Jester blog linked to this piece which is hilarious in its paranoia; it just about stops short of “The Vatican is tunnelling under the Atlantic!”. If anyone is familiar with the criticism directed towards Archbishop Niederauer of San Francisco from the more conservative side of American Catholicism, they’ll also be laughing at the notion of the secret Mormon alliance against gay rights. And at the notion that the Knights of Columbus are the political arm of the Romish church since “nearly nearly all Catholic bishops and priests are members”. Read for yourself:

    http://www.ebar.com/news/article.php?sec=news&article=3805

  • Dave

    it might have been nice to include comments from Prop. 8 opponents who nevertheless disagree with the boycotting and bullying of Prop. 8 donors, too.

    Speaking as one such, I wholly agree.

  • dalea

    it might have been nice to include comments from Prop. 8 opponents who nevertheless disagree with the boycotting and bullying of Prop. 8 donors, too.

    What boycotting and bullying? Editorializing about the ordinary give and take of politics is not helpfull. And as a Libertarian, perhaps you could explain how people who agress against others, ie take away their rights, have any rights at all.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    That may be the archtypal dalea comment. Awesome. Perfect. Terrifying.

  • Dave

    Dalea:

    You are arguing here that the people on one side of a political dispute surrender their civil rights. That’s an extremist posture in a nutshell. I’ve heard it, over the years, from communists and fascists. These actions against the Prop 8 supporters are entirely too redolent of the McCarthy purges and the Hollywood blacklists of the 1950s.

    For a fuller treatment of this you might search this site for “blacklist” and read Mollie’s earlier treatment of the same matter.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    People, back away from the edge.

    Back to discussions of the NPR piece and the journalistic challenges NPR faced in this case, including the expectations of its audience.

  • dalea

    tmatt and Dave,

    On several occasions, Mollie has stated she takes a Libertarian position on marriage: the government should simply issue civil unions and get out of the marriage business. I agree with that. And I ask if she goes further and takes the standard Libertarian position that those who agress against others, who take something of value (like a marriage license) have positioned themselves outside the social compact. This is standard libertarianism.

    Those of us who were against Prop8 have been asked by leaders of our communities to refrain from boycotts etc until the SC rules. AFAIK there are no organized boycotts going on. If the SC rules against us, then the boycotts will begin. What is going on now are just spontaneous local events.

    On the funding, the Noon8 campaign received much of its donations in the last week of the election. Up until then, we were consistently outspent by the Pro8 forces. There is also the issue of whether or not in-kind contributions by both the Mormon and RCC have been fully accounted for.

  • Dave

    Dalea, my social theory is rusty but my understanding of libertarianism is that it barely recognizes the social contract, or at least has little use for what others would enforce as part of the social contract.

    My understanding of the social contract per se is a little firmer though by no means as recent. A person who violates the social contract does not place him- or herself outside of it. The social contract provides how to deal with the situation.

    I repeat my statement in that earlier thread I recommended: The BGLT rights movement has an enormous reservoir of good will with the general population precisely because its expression of demands upon society have heretofore been decent political discourse, without the excesses we associate with either Joe McCarthy or Karl Rove. An untoward response to this untimely defeat could burn through that good will in a few weeks. That good will might not seem like a solid asset but it is the foundation underlying the continual campaign will one day result in the reality of marriage equity if there is no shooting of one’s own foot.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Take the political discussion elsewhere. This post and comments are intended for the discussion of the ombudsman’s report on the March 5 package.

    If your comments aren’t focused on that, then don’t post them.

  • Jerry

    The NPR report itself and the positive, self-reflective mechanism of the ombudsman shows that value of a media outlet without a profit motive. Given how fast the for-profit media is deteriorating, in about 10 years or so the last remaining source for decently reported, balanced news could be NPR and PBS.

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  • MJBubba

    I am conservative both theologically and politically, and I like NPR. They embrace the GetReligion view of presenting more than just point-counterpoint, and letting people speak in their own words. Since they get more time on a story than any other broadcast news, they generally cover both news and features pretty well. I appreciate their diligent attempts at fairness. However, you can easily tell which side they are on. They work hard at voice control, but, when they are emotionally invested in one side, it comes through loud and clear. They are still way better than their counterparts at public television, who are even more liberal and not as good at hiding it.

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