NPR finds it’s not skeptical enough

By · Thursday, May 12th, 2011

One of the cautions we give editors is to not “fall in love” with a cool-sounding story — so much so that their natural skepticism is suspended. That seems to be what happened with NPR on one of its recent weekend editions of “All Things Considered.” At least that is NPR’s own conclusion.

According to NPR’s ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, the show ran a story about grizzly bears at Yellowstone Park, taking off on a Men’s Journal piece that said climate change had so damaged the bears’ food source that they were attacking people for sustenance. That, indeed, is a pretty “wow” conclusion.

You can read Shepard’s detailed report here for the nitty-gritty. The bottom line: NPR over-simplified a complex story, and leaped to some overstated consequences. This experience is well worth close examination for any editor. Shepard does not say the “fall in love” words exactly, but that problem is pretty much in evidence when you read her take on what happened.

The concept of the dangers of “falling in love” with a story may originally have come from Reid MacCluggage, one of the good thinkers on this issue. He says you can train yourself to be a skeptical editor, and he offers this list in Strategy 18 of our book (“Skeptical Editing: Ask Key Questions, Graph by Graph”). His list of advice and cautions for editors:

Or think of the words of a USA TODAY colleague, as I often do. When a particularly interesting story popped up, he would muse: “Interesting … if true.” That long pause was a caution and a reminder that we had better dial back our enthusiasm on this one.

Some of these questions could have “saved” NPR, or you and your news organization sometime down the road.

Steve Davis


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