Balancing Candidates’ Beliefs On Air: NPR Public Publisher: NPR


Hillary Clinton attends church with her daughter Chelsea Clinton at the Great Mount Carmel Baptist Missionary Church in St. Louis, Missouri, while campaigning for an election in 2008.

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Hillary Clinton attends church with her daughter Chelsea Clinton at the Great Mount Carmel Baptist Missionary Church in St. Louis, Missouri, while campaigning for an election in 2008.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

With the Republican and Democratic Party conventions behind us, my office is back following up on NPR campaign coverage. We will release the latest figures later this week. But, first, a look at a pair of good pieces by Tom Gjelten (it’s not just me saying it) on the religious origins of the Republican and Democratic presidential and vice-presidential candidates, and why some listeners came to see prejudices that did not exist.

Morning edition On August 3, listeners heard Gjelten’s report on the religious backgrounds of Hillary Clinton and her running mate, Tim Kaine. Later on the show, they overheard an interview Steve Inskeep did with Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Center for Ethics and Public Policy, about Donald Trump’s ties to Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. All things Considered listeners heard Gjelten’s equivalent report on Trump and Mike Pence the same day.

It was not clear to some morning listeners that they could tune into the afternoon program to hear Gjelten’s second track. Meanwhile, some afternoon listeners, after being directed to the website to hear his track Clinton / Kaine, took umbrage. “Why is a one-sided story being broadcast to all listeners and [other] web-only side? ”asked Mark Skertic of Munster, Ind. Karl and Sharon Sipe of Alexander, Ark., felt this was further proof that“ you went too far with the free coverage that you gave Trump unmatched time for Hillary. No one complained to my office about hearing two articles about Trump’s religious background on the same day, morning and evening, but it raised questions for me.

The questions all around highlight the challenge the newsroom faces (and the knots it sometimes ties into) as it attempts to treat both parties fairly, an issue it has grappled with for years. And fairness is what everyone involved was looking for, in this case.

When Gjelten decided to do his two tracks (as with all similar NPR stories), the options were pretty basic: broadcast both tracks on the same day, back to back, or at least on the same show. Air them on the same show the following days. Or do like the editorial staff: distribute one article in the morning and one in the evening.

Jason DeRose, NPR’s Western Bureau Chief, edited the plays. He said it was decided early on to donate an article to every news magazine, “in part because we’re trying to increase audiences from show to show,” and the overlap audience between shows is quite low. (He also noted, in response to Skertic’s concern, that directing listeners to the Clinton / Kaine play website was the only option, since the first play had already aired that morning.)

Sarah Gilbert, executive producer of Morning edition, however, wanted his show itself to be balanced, precisely because the show and All things Considered have “very different audiences”. So after committing to airing the Clinton / Kaine portion of the package, she said she commissioned Inskeep’s interview on Trump’s religious background. He ended up inadvertently duplicating, in part, Gjelten’s play later that same day (which is a separate internal issue).

What is the good answer ? It is not so simple. There is little overlap between the two shows. But not all listeners, many of them in cars, hear the two hours of the show they listen to. So showing both plays on the same day, the same show is not a perfect solution.

Playing Gjelten’s plays back to back would have been the fairest choice. But they were long, over six minutes each. It would have been arguably the least interesting radio experience, especially for listeners who don’t care about the topic.

At a minimum, said Edith Chapin, editor-in-chief of NPR, NPR should have been much clearer in how it informed listeners about other plays.

After hearing all the arguments, I sided with the broadcast of the tracks on the following days, in exactly the same niche within the same show (again for the benefit of those who listen on a schedule). This option, of course, assumes that no breaking news disrupts the carefully crafted plans.

(I should note, in order not to get too complicated, that the other option in this case was to split Gjelten’s pieces differently, treating the presidential candidates from both parties as one piece followed by the vice-presidential candidates.)

DeRose pointed out that these kinds of issues do not exist for those who access stories online; on the web pages, the links to both pieces are prominent. “We did our best with terrestrial radio that we could do,” he said.

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