Elizabeth Jensen

Note to readers: this post uses profanity that may offend some.

Take a political year that lurched exhaustingly from major story to major story. Combine that with the newsroom year-end tradition of ranking the biggest stories of the year. What you got last week in NPR's case was a game of political brackets, a take-off on the March Madness college basketball tournament matchups pitting 64 teams against each other in a knockout competition, with people at home playing along by choosing who they think will win.

As mass shootings have proliferated in this country, so has the debate over how much focus news organizations should put on the shooters versus the victims.

Reporting is a process. One story often leads to another. On the rare occasion, more reporting calls an earlier story into question.

Thanksgiving cooking pieces roll out on the radio as reliably as the turkey centerpiece itself. Producers need holiday-themed content, and listener-cooks (like me) need new ideas. Cliché? Maybe, but it can be a win-win when done right. But that's the caveat: just as with the Thanksgiving bird, success is all in the execution.

Sexual "misconduct," "abuse," "assault," and "harassment." NPR has used all — sometimes multiple descriptors in the same story — to characterize the allegations that have been leveled against former Alabama judge and current Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore.

For some listeners, calling the allegations "misconduct" minimizes them.

Last week was extraordinarily difficult at NPR, as the top newsroom executive, Michael Oreskes, was forced to resign in the wake of profoundly unsettling allegations that he had engaged in multiple incidents of sexual harassment over the span of two decades, including while at NPR.

Oreskes had been at NPR since April 2015; his departure is yet another dramatic high-level staff change at an organization that had seen — until the last three years or so — a virtual revolving door of chief executives and heads of the news department.

In this week's Mailbag: praise for the way Morning Edition has been bundling fact-checking with its live interviews and questions about an All Things Considered interview with a CIA psychologist.

A New Way To Fact Check

Making a mistake is a pit-in-the-stomach fear of most good reporters. But how a news organization approaches corrections is one of the defining factors separating trustworthy journalism from the media pack. No news organization is going to be error-free, particularly as news cycles get ever faster, so trustworthy news organizations correct mistakes quickly and they don't try to hide them. To the contrary, they make any needed corrections prominently, giving audiences confidence that, overall, the news outlet's reporting is solid.

A Thursday Morning Edition interview with a Red Cross official and its companion online story (posted late Wednesday night) have prompted an outpouring of complaints to my office and NPR and on social media.

NPR listeners are a compassionate bunch. All week they have been emailing to say they are anxious to know what happened to 19-year-old Jada Wilson in northeast Houston, who on Sunday told Michel Martin of being trapped with her family in her grandmother's home in waist-deep water, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey flooding. As Martin noted, listeners could hear the water, seemingly lapping around her, in the background.

A year ago, NPR announced its decision to end commenting at the end of stories on NPR.org, terminating a form of audience engagement that had been a fixture of NPR's digital site since 2008. At the time, NPR executives told me they were investigating newer moderation systems that could eventually make it feasible to reintroduce the comments feature. (One reason behind the decision to end comments was a lack of staff resources to keep the comments from tipping into incivility.)

On June 18, NPR published an online-only review of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America, a newly published nonfiction book by Duke University historian Nancy MacLean. NPR's reviewer praised the book for revealing a "clear and present danger" to the future of the country (the review is prominently excerpted on the book's Amazon page); reviewers at other publications did, as well.

The Ombudsman's mailbox last week included complaints about NPR's decision to use some foul language, and the choice of a particular interview subject. Here are some newsroom responses.

Why Some Foul Words, But Not Others?

On Here and Now Wednesday, sharp listeners caught NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik flatly stating that Donald Trump Jr. "knowingly lied" in July 2016 when asked about contact between his father's presidential campaign and Russian figures.

If the number of media mentions is an indicator, the National Dairy Council and affiliated organization the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy seemed to hit the equivalent of a marketing home run with a recent survey purporting to show that 7 percent of Americans believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows.

Good for them. I just don't think NPR should have played along.

"Undocumented." "Obamacare." "Pro-life."

According to NPR's style guide, these words are to be avoided — or used sparingly — by NPR reporters and hosts when discussing the issues in which they are likely to come up (immigration, health care, abortion rights). But sharp listeners and readers note that all have been used in recent weeks, either on-air or online (by staff, not just by people being interviewed).

An April 27 Morning Edition report by Geoff Brumfiel, an NPR science editor, ran just a scant 2 ½ minutes, but it prompted an outsized outpouring of emails.

Editor's Note: Last week, Elizabeth was honored to give the 2017 George Chaplin Fellowship in Distinguished Journalism address at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. Her prepared remarks are below and may differ slightly from delivery. Mahalo to the East-West Center and event co-sponsor Hawaii Public Radio for hosting.

Thank you to the East-West Center, for this warm welcome.

The Ombudsman's Office awoke last week to this email from a Baltimore listener: "Good morning. Please forgive the stark phrasing. I love NPR but am becoming desperate at the lack of context and institutional knowledge in the morning rush for 'experts.'"

Increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of NPR's newsroom staff is a publicly acknowledged priority from top management on down. But in 2016, NPR made virtually no progress in changing the makeup of its staff.

"Bias" was the label most applied to emails that came in to the Ombudsman Office in March (we try to label the vast majority of emails by concern).

Starting today, NPR is changing the always-sensitive ways in which its newsroom learns about and deals with current and potential funders: the foundations, individuals and companies whose grants, major donations and sponsorships provide much of the money to make NPR's work possible. The changes are intended to bring more transparency about funders to the public and avoid the kinds of slipups that raised serious concerns last May about NPR's coverage of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal.

The Ombudsman's office heard this week and last from listeners with varying concerns around how NPR covers major appearances by President Donald Trump. We took them to the newsroom for reaction.

Journalism that covers political and civic affairs is in the midst of an extraordinary period of challenge.

I was taken aback to wake up Wednesday to a Morning Edition report about why NPR is not using the word "lie" to "characterize the statements of President Trump when they are at odds with evidence to the contrary," as a separate post on NPR's Two-Way blog put it.

In June 2016, David Gilkey, an NPR photojournalist, and Zabihullah Tamanna, NPR's Afghan interpreter and also a journalist, were killed while on assignment for NPR in Afghanistan. Their deaths in the field — when their armored Humvee, driven by a Afghan National Army soldier, was hit by heavy weapons fire — marked a sad first for NPR in its more than 45 years on the air.

Once again, NPR finds itself in the uncomfortable position of reporting on unverified information, just as it did last year when WikiLeaks dumped troves of what it said were hacked emails taken from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, and from top officials of the Democratic National Committee.

It's rare that my office gets a complaint about the Friday StoryCorps segments on Morning Edition. The excerpts of interviews conducted between friends and loved ones (no NPR host or reporter involved) are most often poignant windows into other people's realities, as they discuss their life struggles, loves and journeys.

How would you describe, in brief, the conversation Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump had in 2005 with then-Access Hollywood co-host Billy Bush, a recording of which was leaked to the Washington Post last Friday?

Pages