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Designing the news

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

"Form follows function" is a common refrain among designers and architects. And it's also true in delivering the news. Every piece of information comes to news consumers in a vessel created to serve the needs of a specific type of consumer. Think of a radio show like Morning Edition, which was created to deliver a broad and thoughtful view into the news of the day. And compare that to a podcast like Up First, which gives key insights on three big stories.

Or, compare the mobile app NPR One to the NPR website. They contain similar material, but they deliver it differently.

The container that delivers the news to the audience is just as vital as the facts that make up the stories themselves. News organizations like NPR employ experts who spend their days improving upon these containers and dreaming up new ones.

Today we address two audience members who perceive small breakdowns in the devices NPR uses to direct the audience to information.

The first note is critical of a common headline device, "what you need to know." Rather than hearing a friendly promise of edited brevity, this NPR reader hears something else.

Our second letter comes from a news consumer and former NPR website editor who was annoyed when he couldn't easily find a link to NPR's current leadership team by searching on NPR's homepage.

Read on to see what we learned as we pursued answers to these questions on behalf of NPR's audience.

Finally, since it's Super Bowl time, we spotlight an NPR story on a third-string NFL quarterback who surprised many fans with his solid performance this season.

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.

A need to know?

Tom Karsay wrote on Jan. 8: Don't know about you but I get heartburn every time a website tells me what I "need to know." It's a despicable phrase, a despicable idea that you are in charge of my brain. Please place this phrase and this entire paternalistic attitude under the ban. ...

News and digital media outlets often use the "what you need to know" headline when promising key information on a complicated or lengthy topic. It's designed to encourage the audience to click and find out more. But rather than coming across like a helpful friend, to some people it sounds like a scolding critic.A quick search on the website reveals that NPR leans on this phrase a lot. Below are a few examples:

  • What you need to know about gas stoves and health risks
  • France takes on Argentina in the World Cup. Here's what you need to know.
  • The U.S. could hit its debt ceiling within days. Here's what you need to know.
  • Avie Schneider, an online editor for NPR who edited the debt ceiling story, said in an email that he thought the headline worked well.

    "The phrase is a way to engage our readers in a complex subject like the debt ceiling — yes we know it's a dry subject, but here's why you should care and here's what you need to know about it," he said.

    Jim Brady is the CEO of Spirited Media, a consulting firm that developed local news sites. He has managed daily newspapers and online sites, and consulted on headline writing. He agrees there are probably better word choices than "what you need to know" for readers, although he said he wouldn't call the phrase "despicable."

    "I don't think in general when you're at an organization that gets a lot of its funding from the consumers that you want to make it seem like there's a power imbalance here," Brady said. "You are providing really good journalism for them to read, but telling them they have to read it could rub some of them the wrong way as it obviously did this one person."

    The framing is sometimes effective. For example, this headline from NPR's Life Kit: What you need to know about preparing financially for a baby. "I think the format of delivery that way makes a lot of sense," Brady said.

    Brady suggested that instead of using a headline proclaiming "what you need to know," journalists could write "what we know" as an alternative.

    "That kind of framing, I think, works because it makes it sound like you're working with the reader," he said. "You're working for the reader, you're trying to get them information that is important to know, but you're not telling them that's something they need to know."

    Is the phrase "what you need to know" overused by NPR? Perhaps. Behind the headline is an assumption that the information in the story is crucial to the news consumer. Yet, every headline and story that features this phrase won't be helpful to or appreciated by every audience member. The phrase works best when it's used for truly complicated topics that NPR is trying to boil to the essence. — Amaris Castillo

    Finding out who runs NPR

    Dick Meyer wrote on Jan. 5: As an early editor of npr.org, I was shocked to discover just now that there is virtually no "masthead" or directory of senior editorial personnel on the site — unless I've lost my marbles and eyesight. Who is on the Board? Who is CEO? Who is the Foreign Editor? Etc. etc. etc.

    This strikes me as a ... violation of NPR's stated "transparency" values.

    The masthead is a newspaper term for the list of people who run the newsroom. Creating a clear and easy pathway to see the names of the people in charge is a standard practice for most news organizations.

    While one can Google search "NPR leadership" and get to the list of leaders who run NPR, it is not easily findable if you start at NPR's homepage. To get there from the homepage, a person must scroll down to the page's footer and click on the "Diversity" link under the "About NPR" heading, which leads to a description of the organization's commitment to diversity. There, one needs to click on "Our Staff" in the navigation bar at the top. At the bottom of that page, which is a report on staff diversity, links lead the reader to lists of NPR's senior leadership, board of directors and foundation board of trustees.

    It's a lot of clicks and it's not intuitive.

    I contacted Justin Lucas, the director of communications and audience relations, who leads the team responsible for NPR's About pages.

    Lucas told me that several years ago, his team proposed creating an About section dedicated to NPR's diversity initiative and moving the information about NPR's senior leadership into that section.

    "Our goal was to increase transparency and accountability around NPR's staff and sourcing diversity, as well as NPR's broader diversity, equity and inclusion goals and initiatives," he wrote in an email.

    Lately his team has questioned whether that placement is intuitive to users. They are currently in the middle of a full review of the About pages and expect to implement changes later this year.

    "Please let the audience member know that we're grateful for their feedback," he said. "We'll take it into consideration as part of our broader periodic effort to review About page content and navigation."

    It's unfortunate that the path between NPR's homepage and the list of NPR's senior leadership team is so circuitous.

    Because it's so easy to find the same information using an external search engine, the consequences of the current state are minimal and the need to fix it is not urgent. But also, because the remedy is simple, the fix shouldn't be put off forever. — 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.

    A rookie's journey

    In full disclosure, I'm an Iowa State University alum. So there are multiple reasons I loved reporter Becky Sullivan's storyabout Brock Purdy, former quarterback for the Iowa State Cyclones and current quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. The headline of the story, published ahead of the NFC Championship game between the 49ers and Eagles, tells audience members why Purdy's story is newsworthy: "He was picked last in the 2022 draft. Now he's key to the 49ers' Super Bowl hopes." Purdy, the 49ers' rookie third-string quarterback, was playing because of injuries to the starting and backup quarterbacks. Ultimately, Purdy and his team didn't make it to the Super Bowl — the Eagles beat the 49ers last Sunday. Purdy suffered an elbow injury during the game. But his journey was still remarkable. NPR's sports coverage often speaks to the human experience. Purdy's success exemplifies that. Sullivan does a great job of capturing the context of the young quarterback's underdog story. — Emily Barske

    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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