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The art of the introduction

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

One standard NPR story form is the interview with an expert on a topic that is trending in the news. Producers who work for magazine shows like Morning Edition and All Things Considered are constantly on the lookout for insightful perspectives from people who can shed light on an issue or help the audience better understand the broader context.

The short introductions to these interviews do a lot of work. They grab the audience's attention, summarize the facts, and establish the expert's relevance.

A Morning Edition listener critiqued the introduction of an expert who was brought on the show to discuss the string of recent shootings involving victims who had mistakenly approached the wrong place.

The introduction described the victims in three different, unrelated shootings. For two of the incidents, the victims were described by their age and gender. For the third shooting, the victims were described with different details.

The listener wondered why and whether those details were the best choice. We talked to the host who conducted the interview to find out.

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.

Inconsistent description

Julie Rutter wrote on April 20: ... I was listening to Morning Edition(I think) while driving to work, and there was a story about the recent spate of shootings of people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The reporter led with a description of several victims, as follows: "A 20-year-old woman in New York, a 16-year-old boy in Missouri, and two high school cheerleaders in Texas. ..." Why on EARTH are those two young people being identified as "cheerleaders" instead of human beings? Why is that the single most defining characteristic that NPR has chosen to use to describe them? I find it so troubling ... and in my view it also perpetuates the assumption that we somehow have to "prove" these people didn't "deserve" to be shot by sharing some non-threatening achievement/activity/characteristic about them. ...

This story was meant to introduce Morning Edition listeners to an expert on gun violence who could offer some analysis to the three unrelated shootings, which all involved people making innocent mistakes.

To help listeners understand the expert's analysis, host A Martínez started with details about the victims who were shot.

Here's how it sounded on air: "In upstate New York, a 20-year-old woman was shot and killed after the car she was in pulled into the wrong driveway. In Missouri, a 16-year-old boy was shot when he rang the wrong doorbell. And in Texas, two high school cheerleaders were shot after one of them accidentally got into the wrong car."

The parallel construction of the sentences exacerbates the unevenness. Everyone is identified by their state. Two people are identified by their age and gender. But the last two are identified by their status as both students and cheerleaders.

Martínez told me he made one small edit to the introduction, changing the copy from "And in Texas, two cheerleaders — in high school — were shot..." to what was read on the air, "And in Texas, two high school cheerleaders were shot ..."

He said he specifically wanted to keep the detail about cheerleading in the story. "I remember thinking how knowing that detail about those two made the story worse for me because I thought of a picture on my phone of my daughter in her cheerleading gear," he wrote in an email. "Going off my experience with my daughter, she was proud of being a cheerleader."

Indeed, newsrooms everywhere did the same thing, identifying the people shot in a supermarket parking lot as "cheerleaders."

But while many of the other news stories eventually named the victims and elaborated on their identities, this NPR particular story was a four-minute broadcast interview and did not.

When covering stories about people who were shot because someone perceived them to be a threat, journalists often want to convey just how nonthreatening the victim was. Although it's a common technique, when journalists do that, they reinforce an unspoken narrative about who is threatening and who is not. I wrote about this in 2020, when the phrase "unarmed Black man" was frequently used to telegraph a similar message to the audience.

If the goal is to humanize a victim and convey their innocence, it often requires more than a few descriptive words. That fact is made more apparent by the uneven treatment in this litany of victims: a woman in New York, a boy in Missouri and two cheerleaders in Texas. The more specific detail around the third incident makes it more memorable and elicits more sympathy than the other two. — Kelly McBride

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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