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The rules of journalism

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

American journalism has no universal set of rules. Every newsroom sets its own standards. This is sometimes perplexing for news consumers and even for journalists. As a journalism ethicist, I'm told by people all the time that they thought journalists weren't supposed to:

  • Show dead bodies
  • Report on a suicide
  • Name a rape survivor
  • Label someone as mentally ill
  • Name children accused of crimes
  • Publish hacked information
  • Name a mass shooter (which is the topic we are about to address)
  • But newsrooms only have guidelines. When the founders of this country wrote the First Amendment, "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of the press," they created a system where the only regulating forces on professional journalism are self-regulation, civil courts and public pressure.

    The only standards that can be enforced are those imposed from within, by the news organization itself. Although there are universal values that journalists agree upon, like truth and independence, across the thousands of newsrooms in America, there are thousands of applications of those values.

    An NPR audience member wrote in to discourage journalists from using the name and image of school shooters beyond initial reports.

    The audience member's reasons are solid: Researchers believe media coverage of mass shootings contributes to a contagion effect. With several recent mass shootings getting a lot of coverage, it's important for newsrooms to note their role in influencing this contagion.

    In principle, an internal ban on naming mass shooters could potentially undermine NPR's core promise to inform the public. And on a practical level, newsrooms are competitive and might never agree to unified behavior. One newsroom withholding a name would have no impact on whether the public actually knew the name.

    Does this lead to the lowest common denominator when it comes to standards? It has the potential to, unless news organizations can foster an environment where journalists understand the many values that underpin their decisions, the way those values compete with each other, and how to make thoughtful choices with clear journalistic intentions every time a question arises.

    Read on to see our analysis of NPR's approach to naming mass shooters.

    We also spotlight two recent stories that exemplify the best of NPR's journalism. The first is an analysis of the New Zealand prime minister's decision to resign, despite her international approval. The story examines the possible lessons for U.S. politicians, who rarely step down when they are on top.

    The second story documents an unreasonable practice in at least a dozen states where children are kept away from their biological parents because the parents did not reimburse the government for the cost of foster care — even though the parents say they were never told they owed money.

    FROM THE INBOX

    Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

    Naming mass shooters

    Melissa Janoski wrote on Oct. 21, 2022: My message is an important question of ethics, not a factual error and it goes beyond NPR. Using the name and image of [a] school shooter beyond initial reports can encourage copycats who seek fame. In the case of the Parkland verdict, the defendant could just be called the "shooter" and fewer images could be used. In the gun violence prevention movement the slogan is "No Notoriety." I can direct you to research that backs up this approach and the contagion of school shootings.

    Journalists have noted both public sentiment that frowns on giving attention to mass shooters, as well as the science examining how media coverage influences copycats.

    Many newsrooms have adopted guidelines encouraging journalists to minimize information that glorifies the shooter's desire for notoriety or otherwise contributes to contagion. In 2019, I wrote about this for Poynter, a media and professional training institute where I serve as senior vice president and chair of the ethics center.

    The key word here is guidelines. Across the industry, some recommendations are worded more strongly than others. But almost all of this guidance places the discretion for when to name or picture a mass shooter on the reporters, producers and editors working on specific stories.

    This practice of encouraging discretion is true of NPR as well. Through memos issued by the previous standards editor, Mark Memmott, NPR journalists are encouraged to use the names sparingly, to not glorify shooters and to avoid elevating their written notes to the status of a manifesto. (The current standards editor issued similar advice last year in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Buffalo.)

    When I last wrote about this issue in 2021, I encouraged NPR to condense all their recommendations into a single location and strengthen the guidance. The current standards editor Tony Cavin told me that he hasn't issued updated guidance because he believes each story brings with it a unique set of circumstances and that a "one-size-fits-all" approach would be unhelpful.

    "I have discussed this topic with reporters and producers and always tell them to keep in mind that the focus of our coverage should be on the victims," he wrote in an email. "We use the [shooter's] name as little as possible, often only once in a story and we avoid putting it in headlines or teases."

    When details are relevant, Cavin said, they should be included in the story. "Descriptions of what the shooter did, how he (it's almost always a he) disguised himself, the weapon he used and what he wrote online all could be useful to someone planning a similar attack, more useful in fact than a mention of the shooter's name. But they are also part of the story and we can't ignore them."

    When journalists covered the criminal sentencing last October and November of the man who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, they had to balance several journalistic priorities.

    Documenting criminal trials is a key role for a free press in a democracy, because it prevents the state from conducting trials and sentencing people in secret. It's important for the public to know how the criminal justice system is working.

    While it was possible to cover the story of the jury's recommendation and the judge's sentence without naming the shooter, the stories would have sacrificed an amount of clarity in doing so. Clarity is another journalistic imperative.

    Cavin said he would resist any suggestion that a shooter's name be avoided completely. "We are covering a news story and NPR's policy is to name the shooter because their name is part of the story," he said.

    Because of the need to balance all of these priorities, I would discourage any newsroom policy that suggests a complete ban on naming a mass shooter. Instead, I believe that all newsrooms, including NPR, need to write clear guidelines that encourage naming shooters only rarely and with intention.

    NPR's approach to the story when the Parkland shooter was sentenced balanced these many priorities. The name was not used in the headline or in the first paragraph. The photo had a medium crop and the shooter was wearing a medical mask. Additionally, the voices and a picture of the victims' families were prominently featured in the story.

    Weeks earlier when the jury recommended life in prison over the death sentence, NPR's coverage focused on the shooter in small ways that seemed unwarranted. The name of the shooter appeared in the headline and a tightly cropped photo from the courtroom accompanied the online story. The voices of the victims' families are lower in the story. The differences are subtle, but the story about the actual sentencing seemed more in line with NPR's guidance.

    Comparing these two stories demonstrates how a few editing choices can minimize the shooter, while still documenting the court proceedings. A hard rule forbidding the use of the shooter's name would discourage this type of nuance. — Kelly McBride

    SPOTLIGHT ON

    The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

    Lessons from New Zealand prime minister's resignation

    NPR's Jaclyn Diaz reported a digital storyabout some lessons global leaders might learn from New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who recently announced her resignation. Ardern said she no longer has enough left "in the tank to" do the job justice. NPR spoke to political experts who shared that her resignation and legacy in the role could spark conversations about mental health in politics, gender dynamics and public service. One expert said that her departure could possibly make more leaders who have endured the trying times of the pandemic and its economic implications consider resignation. This is an example of political journalism that centers the big-picture elements of leadership. — Emily Barske

    How an unpaid bill can lead to termination of parental rights

    An NPR surveyfound that in at least 12 states, parents' failure to pay back the government for their child's foster care is an accepted reason for courts to terminate their parental rights. NPR investigations correspondent Joseph Shapiro spoke to one couple who, after landing in jail on drug charges, worked to get their children back. But they regained only three of their four children, because they had not paid back some of the foster care cost. They said they were never told they owed money. Shapiro's in-depth reporting shows how this controversial debt can hurt families, and elevates the voices of people affected by it. — Amaris Castillo

    The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske, and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

    Kelly McBride
    NPR Public Editor
    Chair,
    Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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