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Balancing out bad and good news

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

The folks at NPR are keenly aware that people sometimes feel the news. In fact, NPR storytelling is designed to elicit an emotional response, to take audience members on a journey, to connect them to the stories of the people affected by news events.

NPR leaders are intentional about trying to balance the news menu, to insulate listeners and readers against the kind of news fatigue that might make a person turn away. If you look at all that NPR offers, you'll find breaking news and investigative reporting, as well as deep dives into history, an array of music journalism and regular features about pop culture and living a healthy life.

No matter what methods you use — the daily radio shows, the NPR One app, NPR's homepage or following NPR on social media — you'll find a diversity of stories and emotional experiences.

Yet, on a given day, an individual audience member may not get a balanced set of stories. Depending on what portion of a radio show a listener hears or what posts the social media algorithm serves a reader, the news lineup may be particularly bleak or, on rare occasions, a bit fluffy.

There's some individual responsibility in all this. Personal news consumption habits are the big controls. Some people may have to adjust the dials, turning off a show and seeking levity.

Today we address a listener who was a bit annoyed by a particular Weekend Edition show that seemed too dark and depressing. We talked to the executive producer about that show, as well as some broader strategies.

We also spotlight two pieces of NPR work: the first explains how a federal prison unit is closing after an NPR-Marshall Project investigation revealed horrific conditions, and the second explores different perspectives on the government's aid for Ukraine.

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.

No good news?

Michael Fried wrote on Jan. 28: Today is Saturday, January 28, 2023. This morning I awoke to an uninterrupted litany of terrible news from my bedside radio, courtesy of NPR. Tyre Nichols' death video was described, then Holocaust Remembrance Day, then the attack on Nancy Pelosi's husband (also graphic), then a piece on the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia disasters (including contemporaneous sound bites), and finally description of a dystopian novel about a second US civil war. It made for a disturbing morning. I know these stories are attention-worthy but could you please, please mix in a little good news? There is no shortage of scientific discovery, sports heroism, cultural achievement, and just plain happiness going on. Must your listeners be assaulted by endless tales of evil and tragedy? Please consider the effects your reports have on public morale and balance tales of woe with tales of beauty.

Journalists carry a responsibility to cover difficult stories, and the result can leave their audiences with news fatigue. A 2020 Pew Research Center surveyfound that about two-thirds of Americans felt worn out by the amount of news there is. Amanda Ripley, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, wrote an opinion piece last year in which she described avoiding the news for several years. "The news started to get under my skin," Ripley wrote. "After my morning reading, I felt so drained that I couldn't write — or do anything creative. I'd listen to Morning Edition and feel lethargic, unmotivated, and the day had barely begun."

Yet, NPR journalists would be doing a disservice to listeners if they didn't cover those news stories. Had they avoided many of the stories listed in this email, we would expect to see emails drop into our inbox asking, "Why didn't NPR cover this?" Still, we understand that people need balance and levity, a respite from what sometimes feels like an endless stream of bad and sad news. And when newsrooms fail to provide that, consumers turn away, which can undermine the entire mission of the news organization. So, mixing up the stories is vitally important.

We contacted Sarah Oliver, executive producer of Weekend Edition, who told us in an email that what the listener described was not the actual Weekend Edition lineup for Jan. 28 as it was broadcast by NPR. "We did not program the elements in that order or in that proximity," she said.

Oliver said the lineup for the second hour of Weekend Edition that day included a story about the success of a Ukrainian restaurant in Dubai and an interview with NPR's sports correspondent about the Australian Open and the NFL playoffs.

Most weeks on Weekend Edition Saturday and Weekend Edition Sunday, "there is a cascade of bad news that we need to get on the air," Oliver said. "But rest assured we have the listener in mind when we arrange the elements. We are cognizant of the effect of difficult news on the audience and make sure that we provide a break where we can."

We've found that NPR routinely carves out space for triumph and wonder, both on air and on NPR.org. The news on that January day did seem dark. However, a full look at the show's lineup reveals a variety of stories. — Amaris Castillo

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 noteworthy update to an NPR investigation

Last week, NPR reportedthat the Federal Bureau of Prisons is closing one of the country's deadliest prison units: the Special Management Unit at Thomson penitentiary in Thomson, Illinois. The story was a follow-up to a May 2022 investigationby NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro and Christie Thompson of The Marshall Project. It told the story of Bobby Everson, an inmate who was serving time for drug and weapon charges and was later found dead in his cell. Through interviews, prison records, federal court filings and letters from inmates, Shapiro and Thompson detailed inhumane and abusive conditions some of the prisoners were forced to endure. The Department of Justice's Inspector General launched an investigation into the penitentiary after NPR and The Marshall Project's important reporting was published last year. — Amaris Castillo

Examining U.S. aid for Ukraine

White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez talked to Morning Edition about a growing number of Americans who feel the United States may be spending too much money aiding war efforts in Ukraine with little oversight. Ordoñez and host Leila Fadel dug into why some people's perspectives are changing and why some are calling for more scrutiny of how the money is doled out. The story shared viewpoints from the critics, offered comparisons to Afghanistan aid, and included the perspectives of the Biden administration and Ukrainians affected by the aid. The audio piece and its digital counterpart provided a look at the political ramifications of disagreements on aid that could be ahead. — 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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