NPR's balancing act

balancing-act-001National Public Radio's ombudsman reports on a controversy over its March 5 package on same-sex marriage. On that day (the day that the California Supreme Court heard arguments about rescinding the Prop. 8 vote) Morning Edition ran a 4.5-minute interview with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, one of the more prominent civic leaders in support of same-sex marriage. They balanced that story out with a piece on the targeting of Prop. 8 supporters. What's the problem?

Well, in the editorial mind of NPR, the two stories balanced each other out. In the mind of Stranger sex columnist Dan Savage and some other Morning Edition listeners, the second part of the package was unfair. Here the ombudsman explains:

NPR was attempting to present both sides, but problems with the package hurt its effectiveness -- especially in the web version on NPR.org.

On air, the segment paired two stories back-to-back and used language making it clear they were a package.

But the web presentation was much less clear. The two stories were not visually connected. There is a link at the bottom of Bates' backlash piece to the Newsom interview, but not vice versa. There needed to be more to visibly tie them together. To make it worse, the Morning Edition page on NPR.org that day highlighted only the Newsom interview. (These problems still aren't corrected.)

Once postings attacking the backlash story began pinging around the blogosphere, many went to NPR.org to hear it. Quite a few who called me after visiting the website did not know about the accompanying Newsom interview.

So in other words, NPR erred by hiding the piece about Prop. 8 supporters from online surfers, both those who visit the site's front page and those who happened across the Newsom interview. The piece about Prop. 8 supporters was never highlighted like the opposing piece was. Online readers of the Newsom piece weren't steered to the opposing piece.

And yet there was still this listener/reader response? That's very interesting. Ombudsman Alicia Shepherd said that she felt the package itself had some problems:

In the Newsom interview, host Inskeep did what a good journalist should do: challenging the mayor by asking questions from the opposing perspective. A listener got both Newsom's reasons for overturning the ban and a feel for the opponent's position. The interview also was relaxed, with banter and laughter between Newsom and Inskeep.

Bates' story took a different approach. Her assignment, she said, was to find people against same-sex marriage who felt they'd been penalized for their beliefs. She did a reported piece with interviews and sound bites; the piece conveyed emotion, and thus, I think, had more power than a two-way conversation between a host and a politician.

I'm very sympathetic to the criticism here. I've written ad nauseum about how much the mainstream media has portrayed the two sides of this story in harshly different ways. This is probably the first example I've come across where proponents of traditional marriage have the "emotion" advantage and proponents of same-sex marriage get the dry interview -- but that doesn't change the fact that it's a legitimate criticism. It is also a good reminder that reporters probably shouldn't find it so difficult to convey emotion when covering people who oppose same-sex marriage.

Shepard also discusses the fact that the second story didn't include a single comment from anyone who supports the targeting of donors who supported Prop. 8. From the perspective of the editors, the two stories were meant to balance each other. On its own, however, the second lacks any internal balance, according to critics. I completely agree. And not just about defenders of the boycotts -- it might have been nice to include comments from Prop. 8 opponents who nevertheless disagree with the boycotting and bullying of Prop. 8 donors, too.

Above, Shepard says that the Newsom interview had no problems with internal balance. I'm not sure that's true. I have no beef with the interviewer or the final product, but if Shepard thinks that he took the role of a Newsom opponent, that's surprising.

Just to note one small but telling point, Newsom says he thinks same-sex marriage proponents lost because they were out-campaigned:

"We ran a lousy campaign," he said. "I'll be candid about that. I don't think we communicated effectively. The other side was united, focused, spent huge amounts of money. . . ."

An opponent of Newsom's probably would have been able to point out that the No on Prop. 8 forces out-raised and outspent the Yes on Prop. 8 forces. I'm not saying I think it's some fatal error that the interviewer didn't point that out but only to note that both stories had problems with internal balance when taken alone.

Having said all this, I'm glad that NPR is looking at problems with balance and online presentation. As more and more NPR consumers are getting their news online, it's worthwhile to think about whether that information is presented fully and fairly.

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